From the smallest village to the biggest town in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), people are yearning for peace. Church leaders are encouraging the rebel fighters to disarm.
For several years, the people here have been caught in the midst of a complex conflict, widely seen to revolve around the extraction of mineral resources. Nearly five million people have been killed according to the Congolese church officials.
"We need peace. Our country has gone through hardships. We need your support," the Rev Muhasanya Lubunga, moderator of the Church of Christ in Congo (ECC), South Kivu told a Living Letters delegation from the World Council of Churches (WCC).
The delegation travelled to Bukavu in South Kivu and Goma in North Kivu provinces from 9 to 11 July 2009. In their meeting with church leaders, government officials and community members, the delegation heard how the churches had promoted peace and reconciliation and mobilized relief against the rebels’ terror.
"We know if different groups cannot live in peace with each other, the war will remain," said Rev. Kakule Molo, president of the Baptist Community in Central Africa, at a meeting in Goma.
The brutal force directed by the rebels against civilians in the region is one of the key concerns of the church leaders. Reports speak of killings and mass rapes, abductions and burned-down villages.
At the same time, the church is taking steps to help rebels put down their weapons. Recently several hundred agreed to disarm.
On the day the Living Letters delegation visited Bukavu, Rozette Ndakumbusoga, a farmer from the Mwenga area, was uncertain she would be able to feed her two children. About two months ago, she fled to Bukavu after fighting broke out in Mwenga.
"We did not take anything. We took off as soon as we heard the guns. There were many of us," said Ndakumbusoga. "We have come to settle here with nothing."
"All we want is for the fighting to stop, so that we can return home to our farms," she said. "We also want to take our children back to school."
Like Ndakumbusoga, Mukobelwa Ndabegelwa, a school teacher, is among the 600,000 people from the region and many more from other parts of eastern DRC who have fled to safety in Bukavu. A few years ago, the city had a population of 200,000, but now the church officials say it has nearly 1.2 million.
"I pray the war ends so that we can go back to our families and our work. But we cannot because we fear the fighting," Ndabegelwa said.
Living in a crowded, makeshift structure south of the town, the teacher says their life was one of misery, a situation he blames on attacks by the so-called Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR).
"Many of us are sick, our children are sick too. They need medicine, shelter and clothing," said Ndabegelwa. "We sleep on mats. We are many of us. It is very difficult for us."
Six years ago, the government signed a peace agreement with some rebel groups but others did not sign. This resulted in relative peace. However, the church leaders observe that anytime the national army carries out military operations against the rebels, the rebels increase their attacks.
"People are flowing into the town of Bukavu to look for peace," said Bishop Jean-Luc Kuye Ndondo, South Kivu's ECC president. "There are fewer people who produce food, so there is not enough to eat. When the operations are carried out, there is more suffering."
Persuading rebels to disarm
A widely held view among local leaders is that the FDLR, which traces its origin to the 1994 Rwanda genocide, is the main cause of misery in eastern DRC. They also agree that if the FDLR was engaged in peaceful talks and disarmed, it would be a key step towards peace in the region.
With this belief, the church leaders have been reaching out to FDLR combatants and other local militias known as Mai Mai, urging them to disarm. Their efforts, according to Bishop Josué Bulambo Lembelembe, the ECC vice-president in South Kivu, have achieved major progress.
"We have prepared seven youth[s] for this purpose. These activists go to churches and speak to people," said Bulambo. "They go to the rebels and speak to them about how their fighting is hurting the people. They urge them to leave the forest and go to live in peace with the people."
The process has succeeded in persuading some combatants to leave the forest, according to Bulambo. A few months ago, he said 293 of the rebel fighters disarmed in the presence of international community, church and civil society leaders.
"The only problem is that when an advance team [of rebels sent to Rwanda to explore whether they would be allowed to return there] went out, the national army and the Rwandan army started chasing after them," said Bulambo. "We were very disheartened."
In recent weeks, church leaders report a resurgence of attacks on civilians by the rebels. It follows the news that the national armies of the DRC and Rwanda would soon launch a military campaign against the FDLR.
In May 2009, the FDLR agreed with the church leaders that they would disarm at least 1000 fighters, Ndondo explained.
"The fighters agreed. When we talked to their leaders, they said no!" said Kuye. "We urge you to talk to the leaders who live abroad." The FDLR leaders are said to be living in Germany and France.
"This is the biggest part of the problem. We are sure that without external factors, the Congolese people can agree with one another, said Molo. "For now one cannot say it is the only problem because there are problems within the communities. But this can be solved if there are no problems coming from outside".
(c) Fredrick Nzwili is a freelance journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya. He is a correspondent for Ecumenical News International (ENI).