"It would be cowardly to flee", says Gege Katana from SOFAD. Photo: Kvinna till Kvinna/Anna Lithander
"It would be cowardly to flee", says Gege Katana from SOFAD. Photo: Kvinna till Kvinna/Anna Lithander

Peace activists targeted in recent wave of violence in DR Congo

2012-11-19

Once again the level of violence is escalating in eastern DR Congo. Many women’s rights and peace activists have been subjected to death threats and harassment.
– I have been threatened several times through the years, but now the situation is getting worse. The threats are no longer directed just at me, but also against my family, says Eric Lwa Mwenge from Kvinna till Kvinna's partner organization FADI in Uvira.

During the last month there have been many reports from eastern DR Congo of increased levels of violence and of death threats against people who are working for peace in the conflict-affected region.

The city of Uvira, in the South Kivu province, has been especially targeted and has become a dangerous place to live and work in. Since two weeks there are restrictions on travelling in and out of the city in the evenings, in an attemt to curb the development.

FADI (Femmes en Action pur le Developpement Intégré) works with conflict resolution at the local level, between people from different ethnic groups in the villages outside of Uvira. Eric Lwa Mwenge often gets questioned about his motives.
– “Why are you talking to them? Whose side are you on anyway?” The suspicion is great, even though all I try to do is to contribute to a better climate between people, he says.

Rachel Mitima (Kvinna till Kvinna), Louise Esango Burume and Eric Lwa Mwenge (FADI). Photo: Kvinna till Kvinna/Anna LithanderRachel Mitima (Kvinna till Kvinna), Louise Esango Burume and Eric Lwa Mwenge (FADI). Photo: Kvinna till Kvinna/Anna Lithander

He has sought support from the local authorities, but they say that they are not able to protect either Eric Lwa Mwenge or his family. But fleeing is not for him.
– If we who believe in a change leaves the country, how will the situation ever get better? How will there be peace then? I have to stay!

Gege Katana, who works at Kvinna till Kvinna's partner organization SOFAD (Solidarité des Femmes Activistes Pour la Défense des Droits Huimains) in Uvira, agrees with him.
– It would be cowardly to flee, you just can’t do that, she says.

According to Gege Katana, peace actors in the region are trying to continue their activities, at the same time as they are talking precautions for their safety.
– For example some of us are crossing the border into Burundi in the evening to sleep there, just to not have to worry during the night. Then we can go back and work at home in Uvira in the daytime.

It is unclear who is behind the escalating violence. Most likely there are several different actors. There is a lot of tension between different rebel groups and criminal elements also follow in the wake of the conflict. Only a few nights ago three families in Uvira were seriously injured in an attack by a group of men armed with machetes.

There are speculation about there being political motives behind several of the recent attacks, including the one on the chief surgeon at Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, Denis Mukwege, two weeks ago.

In Goma, north of Bukavu, a peace activist was recently kidnapped by a group of men. She was released the next day. According to her organization the kidnapping occured because of the organization’s criticism of the government’s unwillingness to address the conflict in eastern Congo, a criticism which they share with Dr. Mukwege.
– When there is turbulence among those in power it spreads down to the civilian population as well. We have no links to the top but what we can, and must, do is to continue working for peace in the region. Work with the people here so they not get stained by images of the evil enemy and drawn into the conflict, but instead focus on a peaceful future, says Eric Lwa Mwenge.

Anna Lithander