We are proud to bring you an intimate insight into Henri’s work with details from Mohamed, our Head of International Programmes, of the field trip to Eastern Congo this summer.
My first few days in Eastern Congo are spent at the CRC headquarters in Beni. This is the centre point of operations with all activity planned from just one room. When I first visited Henri in 2005, the CRC office had just opened. People in the community weren’t sure whether to trust him and the centre was very isolated, this time it’s a complete contrast. The first thing I see when I arrive is people queuing outside the door; I am told that this is a regular occurrence with people beginning to gather from the early hours. CRC has established such a strong reputation locally, people now know this is the place to come to resolve their disputes, problems with neighbours, and land issues. People come and request an intervention and also to warn of bigger conflicts brewing – even the police refer cases to the CRC. Henri now employs twelve staff but the centre is also full of volunteers who come to prepare food or clean the offices. The community are deeply invested and fiercely proud of what the CRC represents, with many people seeking to do what they can to support it.
Some of Henri’s most inspiring and innovative work is in demobilising militia and reintegrating them back into the community. Here you can see four former militants that Henri has successfully brought home. Each one had harrowing stories to tell, of crimes committed and violence witnessed. Henri and the CRC team support them every step of their complex journey, from laying down their weapons and leaving their jungle hideouts, to acquiring life skills to obtain employment. The man pictured second from right is now working as an apprentice preparing wood for construction. The CRC team also works hard with the community to make integration possible. Deeply hostile, the militants are demonized and unwanted. CRC works to break down these hostilities and find the common ground. The militia, often forcibly recruited as child soldiers, have also been victims of this harrowing conflict. Both they and the community now share a common desire for peace which can only be achieved through compromise and compassion, the conflict will not end until the perpetuators lay down their weapons and work in unity with the community.
This is a special group of women all living with HIV. They originally met through a counselling programme but soon realised they wanted to do something more meaningful with their diagnosis. They came to Henri requesting training and he has helped them to define their goals, manage group dynamics, and understand how to deliver and promote their messages of peace. Using poetry, song and dance, the women now travel around communities, visiting people in their homes and spreading their message of hope and non-violence. Hugely inspirational, the energy of the group was infectious though their underlying message profoundly sad. They told me that they wanted to use their condition to inspire change in others, saying:
Henri took me to visit one of the peace committees in action. At a communal meeting space set up by the committee to revive the old tradition of information sharing, the room is thick with smoke, and I’m told there is always tea on the stove. It’s the only place in the community where you will find elders, women, and Internally Displaced People (IDPs) all gathered together. The meeting place is a safe space for people to come and air grievances, share rumours, resolve disputes and share information about potential conflict flashpoints.
Henri works with communities to prioritise their needs. One of the big problems for returning IDPs is they arrive back home to find their houses destroyed. So when one community told Henri that what they need most was homes, he helped them to form groups of 30 who now work in rotation to build each other’s houses.
Every Peace Direct project is evaluated using the ‘Critical Friend’ model. The Critical Friend is someone local to the project, who therefore understands the context, knows who to talk to in order to get an independent assessment of the project’s impact, and can support the project in an annual cycle of reflection. The CRC project is evaluated by a university professor and respected local leader. They act as an impartial advisor overseeing the development of the project and assessing its impact.
Spending time with Henri is always humbling. For me this photo sums up his passion and dedication. Here you can see him acting as a moving billboard for peace as the slogan on his t-shirt roughly translates as:
Kills your humanity.
We should not accept impunity.
Everyone who performs rape should be punished now!”
Henri has devoted his whole life to peacebuilding at great personal risk. Being with him in the field, you begin to understand the dangers involved with building peace in one the world’s most traumatic and complex conflict areas. Through his courage and commitment he is transforming individual lives and whole communities.
The breadth of Henri’s work would not be possible without your support. Thank you for being an integral part of this important work and for changing lives in the DR Congo.