Inside the re-integration camp in Bweremana, Democratic Republic of Congo (DROC)
It's been six weeks since the Congolese government asked militias in the country's troubled east to lay down their weapons and integrate into the Congolese military. Currently, 2,500 combatants from roughly 20 different militias are languishing at a re-integration camp in Bweremana, two hours outside the city of Goma.
Some of these combatants will have fought on the government’s side to defeat the M23 rebellion. Some will have been trying to eradicate the violent FDLR – the Hutu paramilitary organisation that was forced out of Rwanda following the 1994 genocide of ethnic Tutsis – from the region's dense forests. Others are little more than armed bandits. Collectively, these self-styled militias are known as Mai Mai. They often originate out of a community's need for self defence, but – historically, at least – they don't remain guardians for long, instead becoming feared predators.
Now, those hanging around in Bweremana are getting impatient.
Commanders of two different Mai Mai groups agreed to talk to me offsite on condition of anonymity, due to potential repercussions from the camp authorities. The general of a Mai Mai group based in the eastern Walikale district – which was established in early 2011 with the objective of eliminating the FDLR from Congo – explained why he was there: "We accepted the government's call to disarm and re-integrate because we wanted peace."
Both commanders arrived at Bweremana in early December and, since then, have been kept in the dark. There's been no progress, no inclusion in any re-integration talks – nothing. "It is such a long time now and we have no idea what's going on," the general added. "We don't know what is happening, what is going to happen. Nothing. It is like groping in the darkness. We are treated like packages."
The colonel, a member of a different Mai Mai – a branch of rebel group APCLS – said: "We are around 20 armed groups here. All of us decided to surrender our weapons and come here because we thought [the call for peace and reintegration] was a good call. But it is such a long time now. No one tells us anything. We don't know what is happening."
The frustration and anger is exacerbated by poor conditions at the camp. Home to 2,500 combatants – as well as 3,000 of their dependents, 2,000 of whom are children – the camp has endured a cholera epidemic and suffers from a lack of food. In mid-December, residents staged a protest against the delay and the conditions. While they were talked down by the camp authorities and told to remain patient, nothing has changed. Camp residents are resorting to taking crops from local fields and cutting down trees to make firewood, inflaming relations with the local community.
On the 26th of December, the government announced their intention to send the surrendered combatants to three camps, all in distant parts of Congo.
''This makes us worry," said the colonel. "We are ready to go, but only after our conditions are fulfilled." The first and most important condition, he noted, is to be in possession of the biometric ID cards issued to members of the Military of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (FARDC).
Yet, considering negotiations haven't even started, it seems like it could be a long wait. And the longer the Mai Mai members are forced to wait, the more their patience runs thin.
"We are very, very angry," the colonel said, visibly frustrated. "We are very afraid the situation might explode."
Not all are willing to continue waiting. Some, including the high-ranking commanders of some groups, have already returned to the bush, making it becomes more and more difficult to contain the ranks.
"Just imagine – I was controlling over 550 armed men, and in the camp you start treating me like a mosquito?" the general said. "We are all well trained soldiers. Anything is possible. Any time. This place is like a powder keg."
As many as 50 armed groups, many of them Mai Mai, have wreaked havoc on eastern Congo for years. When the government issued its plea for them all to surrender last year in exchange for integration into the Congolese army, thousands flocked to the camps scattered between North Katanga and Kivus to take advantage of the offer. Combined, and including Bweremana, these camps now house between 8,000 to 9,000 combatants, along with their dependents.
If the integration efforts fail, the rebel groups and militia will return to the bush and the area will once again be consumed by violence and insecurity.
Azayi Kabunga, a 58-year-old from Langira, was displaced after atrocities inflicted on his village by the FDLR in 2009. A continued FDLR presence in subsequent years made the three-day walk home far too dangerous to undertake. However, in October of 2013, he was able to return for the first time. Now, there are no more FDLR – a change he credits to the Mai Mai groups Raia Mutomboke and the Mouvement Autonome Congolais (MAC), the latter of which is at Bweremana awaiting reintegration. But things in his home village have changed. It was tense. The local Raia Mutomboke combatants still have their guns and are twitching to use them.
Mr Kabunga returned to Goma to wait out the result of the demobilisation process. "Demobilisation is the most important factor now," he sighed wearily. "If it doesn't work, many, many people will suffer."
At a displaced persons camp in Mungunga, 49-year-old Forester agreed. "Staying here and dying is like the same thing," he said about conditions at the camp. For now, he is waiting for the re-integration to work before returning home: "If we go back before it works, anything might happen. We will become victims again."
Insecurity is already on the rise as frustrated combatants leave Bweremana and return to the bush.
Gilbert Omari, 39, arrived at Mungunga displaced persons camp on the 6th of January this year, having fled the mounting tension in his home town of Kitchanga. "Conditions are bad at Bweremana and nothing is happening, so they are returning to Kitchanga," he said. "Security is getting worse and worse. And more and more combatants keep coming back."
Solange, 30, also from Kitchanga, added that more and more people who had returned home are now going back to Mungunga for fear of being caught up in violence.
"Peace can only come if integration works," Gilbert added. "It all depends on the government."
So what are the chances of it working?
"They lied," I was told bluntly by someone who knows about the process but wished to remain anonymous, as he's not authorised to speak of the government's promise to integrate all the combatants into the FARDC. To absorb the 8,000 to 9,000 combatants who have turned up at the camps into the army is simply impossible, he told me.
Complicating the situation further is the fact that the Congolese government's own legal criteria for the DDR (Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration) process is that all combatants hand in their guns. While it's not possible to get accurate figures, the number of guns turned in is far less than the number of combatants. There is also no process by which to identify genuine combatants as they arrive at the camps. Understandably, confidence in the government resolving the integration process is waning.
"The demobilisation is the most important factor right now for peace," said Azayi Kabunga, emphatically. "But the government is not very engaged in the process. I don't have confidence in the government to solve this. If they wanted to, why after defeating M23 didn't they just push the process and finish it once and for all?"
Daniel, 15, agreed: "I don't think the government wants peace," he said. "If it did, it would have negotiated with them by now. If the government doesn't make it work, they will all go back in the bush and things will be bad again. I am afraid of that. It can destroy my life."
MONUSCO, the UN stabilisation mission in the DROC, delivered mattresses and a food load in December of 2013, but it was a mere stop-gap effort. The Congolese government is solely and exclusively responsible, with no help from outside agencies.
"We don't know if the government really needs peace," the Colonel said, his voice trailing off.
All those in eastern Congo who've had their lives and homes destroyed by militia violence can only hope he's wrong.
See more of Susan's work here.
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