30-year-old Blaise, is a former combatant who now works for our partner Centre Résolution Conflits (CRC) rescuing and reintegrating soldiers from the bush.
Blaise sits opposite me in the CRC office in Beni on a small make-shift sofa. The generator has been turned off for the afternoon so the simple cement-walled room is dark and warm. He is friendly, polite and loves to makes jokes.
When we talk about his past he is willing to answer but takes long pauses before he responds, as if remembering is difficult. Blaise’s words are careful and measured – telling his story is very important to him.
“My past is the reason I came to work with CRC. During my childhood, my uncle was a commander in the Mai Mai militia and when I was 13 he initiated me into militia life. My parents were not happy about my involvement but they couldn’t do anything given that we lived so close to the militia group and my uncle had such a high position.”
“I led a battalion of 800 men and children. I led my battalion to do whatever my uncle and the other commanders asked: taking livestock, stealing, fighting other militias.”
Blaise is silent for a moment before he shakes his shoulders slightly, looks me straight in the eye and confidently continues his story.
“I was 15 when I left. My militia fought another and 30 of my men were killed. I realised then just how dangerous it was and that fighting is not the way to have a peaceful community. I was young and I knew my future was not in the militia. I put myself in the shoes of the people I had hurt or stolen from and knew it was not right.”
“Once I left I had a calling inside me to help other ex-combatants out of the bush. I worked on programmes for the government and local NGOs. When I was 23, I joined CRC. For many years my family would not contact me. They were happy I had left the bush but worried they would be targeted because of my work helping other ex-militia members. But since 2010 they have come around and are now encouraging of my work.”
“My role is to deal with the militia leaders. First, I meet them in the bush and build trust with them. Most of them know who I am and my former position in the militia means we can get to areas that international agencies and the government can’t. I develop trust with these leaders so I can negotiate for the release of child and adult soldiers.”
“When I worked with the government I negotiated the rescue of 3,000 people from the bush. With CRC I have rescued 5,700 soldiers, 1,500 were children.”
“Once I was caught by a rebel group because of my influence with the militia leaders. They put me in a small house and kept me there for a day saying they would burn it down. They had already prepared the fuel but just before they started the army came to rescue me as I had called to tell them what happened.”
Finally I ask Blaise if he is ever afraid of going into the bush and negotiating with these powerful and dangerous men. He looks at me with pride, an authoritative hint of a smile on his face. Duty, passion and strength radiate through his voice.
“I am not scared because I have a good relationship with the leaders. I am passionate about fighting for peace. Just as a good combatant dies fighting in war, I would die fighting for peace.”
£15 pays for our local partners to trek into the bush and meet with rebel groups to rescue child soldiers.