Riding through the bush on the back of a motorbike under the sweltering African sun, I am struck by the determination and courage of my Congolese colleagues to sustain their peacebuilding work in challenging environments. As a small peacebuilding organisation in eastern DR Congo, Foundation Chirezi aims to reduce violence and bring stability through a range of community-led projects.
Their primary focus is to ensure accessible, fair and non-punitive justice to those living in rural villages, communities for whom the legal system neither works effectively nor in its best interests, and in which conflicts can quickly turn violent.
In order to offer an alternative to this, Barazas (traditional courts) have been created in nine villages, providing successful resolution to conflicts through participatory processes of dialogue and reconciliation. The Barazas have had a positive impact on the community by reducing violence and increasing collaboration, trust and empowerment – within the communities and also between villagers, ex-rebel fighters, local leaders and authorities.
Just before Makobola, the bike is halted at a roadblock by some armed Mai Mai fighters, and then again by military police. Finally we arrive at a Baraza, which is in session. A village woman, Nabaongyi, has been accused of taking and profiting from landing belonging to another woman, Chukiwa Yona, for the last eight months and selling its produce. Relations between the two families are splitting the village and Chukiwa Yona is so angry that she refuses to attend. Her husband Yona comes in her place.
Nabaongyi denies the duration as being eight months and that she has sold the produce for cash, insisting it was only two months and food for her family to eat. After much debate, she finally agrees to pay two months’ rent. Yona is left to take this decision back to his wife, in the hope that she will agree to it and so finish the case. Later we hear that she agrees and there will be a public reconciliation.
Issues of justice and reconciliation are vast areas for which there are different meanings for different people, not least between perpetrator and victim. Differences often lie in the extent to which restorative justice is seen as a part of reconciliation, for punishment and compensation are traditionally accepted elements for both sides.
Leaving the Baraza, we drive past a young boy carrying a large machine gun, and I am reminded of the stark difficulties of life here. We stop to eat at some foodstalls by a river. Meat is being cooked over coal under corrugated-iron shelters. My arrival causes much staring and pointing. But soon I am happily ensconced between my Chirezi colleagues Ibrahim and Jean-Claude, and various ex-rebels, and sampling some unknown barbecued meat washed down with foo-foo, fresh onions and a Fanta.