Holding the Tension: Peace in a Conflict Zone
“How is the safety of the road to Lubarika?” We asked the MONUSCO head of security at the UN base in Uvira, Democratic Republic of the Congo.
“It is practical, but be prudent.” our host responded. “You can go, but be wary. There are bandits on the road that will stop vehicles and sometimes kidnap or kill people.” Our usually cheery host spoke straight-faced.
Our group chuckled nervously, perplexed. Would we really take a risk to go to Lubarika? After what we already went through?
I thought to myself, we’ve done this before, surely we can trust our hosts who say we can go, no problem. Heck, at this point we’ve already made it out of an attempted coup d’état in a region being attacked on four fronts; we watched reinforcement Congolese and UN soldiers disembark their planes on the grass landing strip while we waited to board our helicopter on the way out. We watched them load C4 onto their truck. “We have a surprise for them today,” the local UN commander remarked.
Perhaps the bandits felt more threatening, because we knew about them beforehand.
Before I left for Congo, my dad told me, “This will be a trip you’ll remember for the rest of your life.” I smiled, agreeing, also knowing how the four or five trips I’d already taken to the continent have been such lifelong memories.
I wonder what will happen this time.
After some debate and high nerves, we learned more accurately that the road is generally unsafe at night. “Ça va pendant la journée,” David told me, not wanting to concede much more than that. We must go between the hours of 9 and 2. A short window for such work to do with a 1.5 hour drive both ways.
Not too early, not too late.
After a few minutes on the Congo’s Highway 5, we approached a truckload of armed Congolese soldiers. Soldiers carry a reputation that isn’t too much disconnected from seeing members of a militia. Everyone’s fighting for something, and it often can involve their own interests and exploitation.
I’ve heard this region deemed as the “rape capital of the world.” As we drove behind this truck, I stared at my Congolese friend David, wondering what was going through his mind. The windows of our van sported faded paper signs with a red slash circle around an AK indicating, no guns allowed.
We kept our distance from behind the soldiers’ truck.
While trying to stay hydrated by consuming ample amounts of water, and by the time we’d left Burundi, crossed the border, stared at the immigration officer, been received by our Congolese hosts and hit the road to Lubarika, the potholes weren’t taking it easy on my bladder. Knowing I couldn’t ask for toilets (as this is how you typically ask for the restroom in French), I was embarrassed to say in French, “I need to make the pee pee.” We subsequently stopped on the side of the road, where my friend Christina and I relieved ourselves behind a dilapidated brick structure in the bush.
Three children stared at me from 100 yards away as I squatted.
Back on the road, I turned to David and told him about our trip to Minembwe, a mountainous region southwest of Uvira, where we spent a short 36 hours just the day before hoping to explore new opportunities for impact in the region. David smiled, laughed with raised eye brows, and said in Congolese French,
“You went to Baghdad?! That is where we fly with MONUSCO to recruit children out of militias.”
We arrived in Lubarika and were greeted with the most joyful songs that turned into crowd-surfing our host and Lubarika local, Thierry. It had been 3.5 years since I stepped foot in this village and Thierry was a former child soldier turned hero.
In 2015 Thierry and David sent me a “cold-call” email out of the blue asking if ForgottenSong wanted to invest in their mission to recruit child soldiers out of militias in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. At the time, I had already felt compelled that I wanted to work in the country whose beautiful eastern mountains could romance any do-gooder. By 2016 ForgottenSong had launched a sustainable, income-generating initiative via animal husbandry.
This time, I was eager to discover whether or not this endeavor had actually worked.
The walls of Thierry & David’s nonprofit headquarters in Lubarika don signs with bold print,
“Plus Jamais de Kadogo, Le Recruitment des Enfants est Une Crime,”
No More Child Soldiers, the Recruitment of Children is a Crime.
Nearly 10 years after studying French and living in France, I am continually thankful I have just enough of the language to get by. I got to play translator from French to English as our team recorded stories. From Lingala to French to English, we interviewed 5 recipients of ForgottenSong’s project that has supplied goats to ex-militia youth who want to rebuild their lives.
The old adage proved true.
Sometimes those tiny mustard seeds actually become trees.
Or in this case, two small goats can turn into a lifetime of wealth.
These teenagers and mothers and sons are making money and have an expected source of income into the future.
Many are able to pay for school, vocational training, and to raise their children.
One says he can pay for school, clothes, and hospital bills.
Two say, they were so poor before the goats, it has inevitably changed their lives. One has been able to go from primary school to 7th grade in 2 years.
Two are planning to buy a sewing machine to continue in their work as seamstresses.
We only had time to talk to five of them.
There are 44.
Our final question to all interviewees was, “Is there more peace now than three years ago?”
The answer was a unanimous yes.
As planned, we made a quick turnaround and hit the road with fingers crossed for safety. Humid wind persisted through the windows. Bright red clay and its boulder companions mocked our passing on wheels. Youth bathed naked in the creek and giggled as we passed. Our driver joked at Thierry saying, “I bet that was you as a kid.”
We made it to paved-ish highway, and what felt commonplace and striking at the same time passed in five short seconds.
At 50 km per hour we approached that same truckload of soldiers we followed on the way to Lubarika.
This time they were standing in the middle of that practical, but prudent Highway number 5.
Three of them hunched over a person (or people?) on a motorcycle. A few more stood by, and I was afraid they held weapons. My stomach dropped.
Bandits or soldiers, sometimes there’s not much difference, the literature and locals warn.
Evidence of a pervasive rape culture far too overt stared at me blandly in the middle of the highway.
Gut tight, I kept my eyes on David, watching for his reaction.
We hustled past the scene like it was a mile marker.
Nothing to see, but we could trace our steps across the Ruzizi plain.