In November 2018, a soldier shot his wife during a family dispute in Dungu, a town of around 55,000 people in northeastern DRC. Following the incident, tensions quickly rose in the community.
What would have been a terrible event under normal circumstances, was made worse by the fact that the soldier was in the Congolese armed forces, the FARDC. Unfortunately, such instances – where actions by members of the armed forces lead to conflict – are not isolated. A recent fatal car accident involving a FARDC major, had previously prompted popular demonstrations and the erection of barricades to prevent military personnel accessing the area.
“When a FARDC soldier commits a crime outside of service, this immediately reflects on the army as an institution”, explains a FARDC major who is a member of the local civil-military committee, supported by Conciliation Resources and consisting of six civilian and six military representatives.
For the major, it is essential that the community distinguishes between a FARDC soldier and the institution of the FARDC. “If a soldier kills his wife, he doesn’t do this because he is a FARDC soldier,” he clarified. This is the main message that the committee is keen to emphasise in its weekly radio programmes and awareness-raising activities throughout the province.
The major and the committee face an uphill struggle. Mistrust between local populations and the FARDC is high in northeastern DRC, and this has undermined peace and security efforts. This mistrust is driven by ongoing human rights violations and a lack of guaranteed protection for the civilian population amidst persistent attacks by the Lord's Resistance Army and banditry.
By reaching out to communities and FARDC commanders based in localities such as Dungu, the civil-military committee has created space for dialogue around the issues. “In these meetings, we allow both parties to vent their frustrations” he explains. Importantly, concrete changes result from these discussions. For example, following complaints raised, the FARDC command forbade the common practice of forcibly recruiting civilians who had reported LRA activity as trackers and guides in subsequent military operations against the LRA. Such results have begun to restore faith in the response mechanisms employed by the authorities, especially when the military were able to communicate how they had used early warning information to apprehend armed actors.
Before Conciliation Resources’ work, most community groups preferred to share security information with the UN stabilisation mission MONUSCO, via nongovernmental organisations, rather than with the military – even when local FARDC were far closer. The result was a disconnect between local early warning information provided by communities, and rapid response by security forces.
Breaking down barriers and developing relationships between the population and military in this province is a long-term process. But we are already seen some encouraging signs of improvement. When a FARDC commander recently ordered his soldiers to leave Dungu and re-join the military camp on the outskirts of the town, local women lobbied for the soldiers to remain in the city centre. This is a clear signal that the population is beginning to see the military as a source of protection rather than a threat.