Ned Meerdink (DR Congo)

Ned Meerdink (Sos Femmes en Danger – SOSFED): Ned earned his Bachelors degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he studied humanitarian work in Central and Eastern Africa. After graduation, NED worked for human rights NGOs in the US and Congo. They included Mutuelle Jeunesse Active (MJA) in Sud Kivu. AP deployed Ned to Uvira, in South Kivu, in September 2008 to work with civil society organizations including Tunza Mazingira, Arche d’Alliance, and SOS Femmes en Danger. Ned launched the partnership between SOSFED and AP in 2009.

What is a ‘Noyaux de Paix’: Makobola Field Visit with Arche d’Alliance

22 Jun

This last Wednesday, I was fortunate to visit one of Arche d’Alliance’s ongoing programs in Makobola, which is a village forming the border between Uvira Territory and Fizi Territory in South Kivu. The program is called ‘Le Noyaux de Paix’ and the goal is assembling villagers into small committees in areas lacking security, so that these committees can discuss collective actions to better their security while at the same time providing Arche d’Alliance with accurate information concerning security and human rights violations in hostile regions of South Kivu. The Makobola group, having about 30 members, is merely one ‘nut’ (noyaux=nut) working in a network which now spans 7 remote villages. Importantly, the groups work to maintain a steady gender balance, as male-dominated committees tend to leave out some of the most egregious violations occurring daily in South Kivu, such as violent rape and women’s abduction into sex slavery by rebel groups living in the villages. Because of the Makobola group’s permanent residence in Makobola, they were able to provide significant information concerning soldier movements in the area and their accompanying violations, as well and hope-inspiring details about their collective work to change the security in Makobola.

Me waiting to begin the Makobola conference (vice-president of the committee is the man to the left)

Me waiting to begin the Makobola conference (vice-president of the committee is the man to the left)

The Wednesday meeting began by the committee’s general security report, where the group was asked to report on the various human rights abuses they had witnessed or heard about from other credible sources in Makobola. Makobola remains caught in the center of hostilities between FARDC (Congolese government soldiers) and the Mai-Mai militia, which is technically a non-state armed group but enjoys large chunks of financing coming from Kinshasa. Does this sound strange to anyone else? Two Kinshasa funded armed groups (wearing, in fact, the same uniforms) turning their arms against each other and often the civilians the government in Kinshasa is technically paying them to protect does seem like a stretch, but working in Congo for two years has taught me some valuable lessons. Notably, ‘When considering the actions Congolese armed state and non-state armed forces, an appropriate suspension of disbelief is more than helpful.’ Want to get even more confused? Consider this: It is well-known that elements of the FDLR (Rwandan ex-Interhawme) are also occupying places in Mai-Mai and FARDC brigades. Since last December, the Mai-Mai and FARDC have been charged with ELIMINATING the FDLR threat in their regions, which seems unlikely given that both groups often fight and pillage alongside these FDLR rebels who began arriving in Congo after the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Again, suspension of disbelief…

The Makobola group summarized these security problems and others. I was not overly surprised to hear of the difficulties with the FARDC and Mai-Mai, as most of the fighting outside my home in Kavimvira since December has been between the same armies. One major issue mentioned by the Makobola committee was that when not occupied fighting each other or an additional armed group in Makobola called the FDD (Burundian rebels), all armed groups regularly pillage the market place and agricultural fields in the area. The response the committee has taken in this respect has been two-fold. First, they have begun, as of this next growing season’s beginning in August, to relocate their fields to areas with better security and less soldiers. They still fear the arrival of the armed groups come harvest time, but are hoping thins might be under better control come August. Secondly, in order to avoid sexual violence and abductions committed by soldiers in villagers’ agricultural fields, the committee has begun sensitizing the community to both the idea of arriving to work their fields in pairs (with a male if possible) and the insistence women sleep in their fields when the work load is abnormally high, which is a constant source of women’s vulnerability to rape in South Kivu.

The Makobola Noyaux de Paix committee was pleased to share these developments with us, only asking that contacts be made to curtail negative situations. This is where Arche d’Alliance comes in. Violations reported in a specific manner are run through Arche d’Alliance’s legal assistance system, whereby gross violations of human rights and the perpetrators can be punished. I am obligated to report that the vast number of violations go unreported or uninvestigated, as Arche d’Alliance has limited resources and villagers often have shame to report crimes committed against them. This combination creates an ever-growing list of violations, but efforts are being made by NGO’s like Arche d’Alliance to chip away at this list.

As noted earlier, there are a total of 7 groups in villages with similar security problems as Makobola. As staffers and aid workers are always limited relative to the problems in eastern Congo, the groups maximize on the know how and experiences of villagers across South Kivu. As the committees formed by Arche d’Alliance continue to grow, so does the power of villagers to have a hand in their security on a very real level. If villages waited for larger NGOs to arrive to begin working through these problems with them, they’d likely be kept waiting much longer. But, if communities are empowered through systems like Le Noyaux de Paix work can be done to change the tide of violence with no more than a dedicated group of locals willing to declare their human rights and demand the end of atrocities committed against civilians in eastern Congo.

This month's conference in Makobola concerned the role of women in Congolese democracy

This month's conference in Makobola concerned the role of women in Congolese democracy

Adding to the potency of the groups is the educational aspect of each meeting. After the briefing is delivered by the particular committee, there is an educational seminar held which is open to the general public. This month’s Makobola seminar revolved around the role women will play in both the local and national elections. Both men and women were invited to speak on their feeling about women’s role in democratic societies, and in particular the importance of women voting in the coming elections. As women are overwhelmingly targeted and oppressed in Congolese society, and traditionally have been one of the most victimized populations during hostilities, Arche d’Alliance field worker Masumbuko Songolo tried to stress the point that women need participate in great numbers to have their voices heard. Also discussed were parts of Congolese society that keep women from voting or presenting their candidature for offices in the government. Mentioned were the disproportionate workload at home women cope with, the traditional practice to deny education to young girls in families needing additional labor, and the intimidation of women hoping to initiate change within society.

Arche d'Alliance field worker Masumbuko Songolo speaking at the Makobola conference

Arche d'Alliance field worker Masumbuko Songolo speaking at the Makobola conference

After a 2 hour presentation, those present had come to important conclusions on how they could work to allow women the opportunity of more accurate representation in governmental and local politics. There were more than a few exasperated whines from men once the suggestion was made that they begin to prepare meals alongside their wives to free them up to participate in civic life, but the overwhelming majority was in full support. One of the realities in Congo benefiting the spread of information after such a conference is the fact that Congolese are a deeply social people, and tend to share their ideas and experiences with others. Thus, those not even at the meeting and seminar last Wednesday have probably already heard about the meeting’s contents. With this, a group of 30 or 40 offered some new perspectives quickly becomes an entire village. That is a reason to look toward the future in Makobola with a sense of hope, as the people I spoke with clearly had the determination and open-minded approach to allow for improvements in security, civic participation, and women’s empowerment—and share what they’ve heard with their neighbors.

Ned Meerdink

Posted By Ned Meerdink (DR Congo)

Posted Jun 22nd, 2009

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