The community is the most important tool in conflict management, which is why the barazas, community-run ‘Clubs of Peace’ in the South Kivu province of DR Congo, play such a vital role in preventing local conflict.
For Madame Christine, a 62 year-old woman accused of witchcraft, the barazas were a life line. In the village of Kikongo a mob gathered in the street to burn down the house of the suspected witch. Madame Christine went to the local police accusing ex-soldier Joseph of perpetrating the crusade against her. The police arrested him without trial. This enraged his fellow ex-soldiers so they marched to the local prison to destroy it and free their friend.
These actions are an example of the lawlessness of Eastern DR Congo, an area torn apart by decades of war. The threat of violence constantly lingers as ex-militia members like Joseph, and refugees return to their communities. They are a constant cause of friction amongst inhabitants that could result in brutal fighting, shattering villages and towns.
This is why local peacebuilder Flory Kazingufu from Fondation Chirezi has instigated barazas. They are local courts run by volunteers of the community, for the community and operate independently of the Government. They are a locally led peacebuilding initiative that aim to offer sustainable solutions to violent disputes. The barazas are essential for lasting peace and were crucial in solving the conflict between Madame Christine and Joseph before it spiralled out of control.
The impending destruction of the Kikongo prison was a crisis with likely disastrous consequences. The magnitude of the issue compelled the leader of the local baraza to take action. He met with the outraged ex-soldiers, persuading them to refrain from violence and use the community court’s authority instead. He called in a Chirezi lawyer who was affiliated with the court and then appealed to the local police. He was successful in assigning the case peacefully to the baraza court.
The Chirezi lawyer presented the case himself. He negotiated with Madame Christine and the angry ex-soldiers to agree to a peaceful settlement of the conflict. Over time the court discovered that the mob who had burned down Madame Christine’s house where in fact not from Kikongo but from the village where she had previously lived. Joseph was released from prison and Madame Christine from custody, where she was being held on witchcraft allegations. No proof for witchcraft had been found so the real culprits were sentenced to building a new house for Madame Christine. The intervention of the Kikongo baraza meant that a conflict which could easily have escalated into full-blown fighting was resolved peacefully.
The fact that the ex-soldiers accepted the baraza’s involvement is a strong indication of the trust the community has placed in the courts. Joseph’s release from prison, as decided by the baraza, also demonstrates the high regard held for the court by the official judicial institutions. Most importantly, the resolved case of Madame Christine and Joseph shows the baraza’s power to handle conflicts through peaceful means.
There are currently 7 barazas in South Kivu province enabling thousands of people a chance for justice that would otherwise be impossible. Such is the reputation of the peace courts that communities are requesting to have them in their own villages. The expansion of these courts is fundamental to ensure that thousands more people in Eastern DR Congo receive the peaceful lawfulness they are entitled to.