For nearly 20 years eastern DR Congo has bore witness to terrible violence. Local people live their lives on a knife-edge, knowing that at any moment conflict can erupt and throw their lives into turmoil. Last month George Dubatso, a peacebuilder working Centre Resolution Conflits (CRC), our partners in DR Congo, became the latest to have his life turned upside down.
When his wife and 10-month-old daughter became trapped in the middle of a battle between the army and rebels, George had to act. With all access to his family blocked by government soldiers, George set about rescuing them the only way he knew how – by building peace.
His story began last month, when he took his wife and 10-month-old daughter to visit relatives in the small village of Aveba outside of Bunia town. With the conflict in the area appearing stable, George decided to return to Bunia for work. But no sooner had he left the village than talks between the government and local militia broke down and fighting erupted. This blocked all the roads back separating George from his family – he had to do something to rescue them. The only solution he found was to make direct contact with the General of the government forces in an attempt to rescue his family. But this would not be easy.
Back in Aveba, the militia were advancing on the village, capturing and killing many of the government soldiers. The UN moved the villagers to the outside of a nearby UN camp for safety. But the government and militia were now close and fighting broke out trapping the civilians – including George’s parents, sister, wife and baby – in the midst of gunfire.
For 30 minutes his wife lay on the ground shielding her crying child from the gunfire overhead, unsure whether at any moment the fighting would reach them. With five villagers dead and four injured, George’s family moved back to their village home, in fear for their lives but convinced it offered more protection than the outskirts of the UN camp. They could do nothing but wait the outcome of the fighting.
Meanwhile in Bunia, George met with the General. He explained he was a local peacebuilder, with no hidden agenda, and that he simply wanted his family back. The General understood and agreed to let him try and gain access to Aveba. “But how are you going to get past the militia?” the General asked. This was the next challenge.
George managed to gain contact with the militia, sending the leader a message explaining who he was and why he needed to come to the village. Perhaps because of his status as a peacebuilder, permission was given.
George set off on his journey to rescue his family. He got past the government soldiers, and was finally on the approach to the village. “Then I saw the militia in the bush,” he recalls, “coming with guns ready to shoot. I was afraid.” He was stopped and held at gunpoint by the militia. “Who are you?” they asked, “what are you doing?” “I am going to rescue my family,” he started, “the militia leader knows I am coming. Please let me through,” finally the gun was put down, allowing him to pass.
Standing among the rebels, George saw an opportunity. Rather than simply finding his family, he opted to see if there was a way to resolve the current conflict. He met with the deputy leader of the militia, Mbadhu. He spoke to him about their conditions and the issues that needed addressing. “You need to have dialogue and negotiate for what you want from the government,” he explained. “I will help.” The deputy leader replied, “I have three conditions for the government. We want the government to stop fighting and enter into dialogue. We want the army to allow humanitarian assistance in to help the displaced people here, and we want the authorities to restart school.” George agreed to take this message to the government. Now it was time to rescue his family.
Arriving at his family filled with relief and happiness, George realised just how much had been at risk. His family, overwhelmed with emotion, greeted him in tears. After two weeks of anxiety, George was finally reunited with his young daughter. He took them out of the village and back to their home in Bunia.
With his family safe, George knew he had to act on what he had been told. He went again to speak to the General of the government forces, but the General said he did not want to negotiate, he wanted to continue fighting until the end. George knew that this was not the way to peace.
Through CRC, he started to act on what he had seen and what the militia had told him. George met with international organisations, he told them his story. Because of George several organisations responded to the need for assistance. Mobile clinics were set up, medicine for health centres and food were delivered, and water reservoirs were built. Furthermore George got CRC, with the support of a number of other NGOs, to lobby the government to call a ceasefire and start negotiations with the militia. This lobbying in now underway.
All George had wanted was to rescue his family. But as a peacebuilder and humanitarian, he saw an opportunity to help end a conflict. With great bravery and determination, he took it upon himself to put the needs of others first in order to build peace.
From Peace Direct and CRC, thank you for your continued support for the work of our peacebuilders in the Congo.
Image credit: Julien Harneis