In DR Congo a lingering guerrilla war threatens the rule of law and efforts at peace. Bands of armed militiamen live deep in the rainforest, preying on villages and worsening tribal rivalries. To knit these fragmented communities back together, peacebuilders from Chirezi have set up the Barazas – village law courts run by local volunteers on traditional lines. These offer fast and affordable access to justice to settle local disputes before they escalate into bloody confrontations. Here’s one day in the life of a young Baraza volunteer, Gustave Mushagalusa, told in his own words. Gustave is 28 years old.
8 am: I am in the marketplace of my town, Sange, when I see four young men carrying megaphones. They are from my tribe the Bafuliiru. They tell everyone that we do not want to see people from the other local tribes – Banyamulenge and Barundi – in our market anymore. It is a very bad moment – because there is blood between our tribes.
I live on the Ruzizi Plain, rich farmland that has been torn by fighting between tribal groups for years now. This spring, when the Barundi chief of the Plain was shot dead, everyone thought the killers must be Bafuliiru. The young men of the Barundi took revenge on the Bafuliiru by attacking them with stones and machetes and threatening to burn their houses.
To stop that fighting, the elders of the tribes gathered in the town of Uvira to negotiate a peace. But in Uvira they found that the local chief of the Bafuliiru had died mysteriously. Some thought it was by poison, others by sorcery. Whatever it was, the Bafuliiru accused the Barundi of killing him.
So today both tribes think their own chief has been killed by the other tribe. And these young men are marching around Sange marketplace making threats. In the past there has been violence with machetes. It can spread very fast over the whole Plain and many people can die. Straightaway I know that more violence will happen now.
9 am: In the marketplace many Barundi have fled, the lucky ones on taxi motorbikes. Traders and shoppers have rushed back to their mud-brick houses for safety.
10 am: The chief of Sange decides to hold an emergency meeting. Daniel Ruhanika is a Bafuliiru himself, but he can see the dangers ahead. I attend the meeting in his office. We all decide that we do not want the words and acts of only a few people to take over the town. We always have so much violent fighting here and it is very tiring and we want it to end.
11 am: When this is decided, Daniel Ruhanika walks into the market with a megaphone. He tells everyone that they are free to be there, and to move about easily, because we are all Congolese – the Banyamulenge and Barundi just as much as the Bafuliiru. After hearing this, everyone is very happy that Ruhanika has spoken out in support of the town.
1 pm: I decide to go and talk to the Baraza about the situation, because I still feel worried. When I get to the Baraza house, they tell me that Daniel is in danger. An armed militia group from his tribe, called the Mai Mai Safari, have come down out of the mountains into the town and kidnapped him. Even though he is from their tribe, they do not like him forgiving the Barundi. They are holding him hostage somewhere in the bush.
This is now a risky situation. The militia have become involved. And here in the Plain of Ruzizi, when someone is kidnapped there is always violence between the different sides, sometimes beating and fighting with machetes and sometimes killings with guns.
2 pm: I go with the Secretary of the Baraza to Daniel’s house. It is empty. We find a telephone number for the head of the Mai Mai Safari. We call him and try to talk to him peacefully, to tell him that the situation is not good in the city and to release Daniel. But he refuses. He says Daniel needs beating some more because of what he said in the market.
We look for the phone number of the main chief of all the Mai Mai militia groups. His name is Bede Rusagara and he controls the whole of Ruzizi Plain. Rusagara is from the Bafuliiri. We call and ask him to do everything he can to release Daniel, because the situation is going to get very bad and violent and maybe lead to war. We ask him if he wants more trouble between people? We remind him that he has the most power, and that he will be even stronger if the people can see that he is using his head and uniting people, and that most of them will support that.
5.30 pm: The Mai Mai Safari release Daniel on the command of Rusagara. We are all very relieved. The tensions in the town start to go down and people come out of their houses and move about freely again.
7 pm: Daniel returns to his home, though he is still guarded by police and some army soldiers. When we see that he is in his home again, I go to the Baraza and we start to plan some public meetings between the young people of the Barundi, Banyamulenge and Bafuliiru. We think these situations are happening too often. It is because there are so many militia groups and rebels here, ready to use their weapons. We want to sensitise the different groups, so that they don’t always turn to violence, and so they understand that we are all Congolese living together – and it is better for us all if there is peace between us.
Image credit: Fairphone