In 2003, Henri Ladyi turned his back on the endless fighting in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) when he started working at a small peace group called Centre Résolution Conflits. Twelve years later he has been called “Africa’s Schindler” for his efforts towards peacebuilding in the eastern DRC.
The vast Democratic Republic of Congo has seen many decades of suffering before and after independence from Belgium in 1960. The colony was originally a private fiefdom of Belgium’s King Leopold II. But Belgium had to take it over in 1908 from the king’s International Association of the Congo (IAC) after a public outcry. This private company had, not unlike the militias that plague the east of Congo today, achieved Leopold’s quotas on exports like rubber through a regime of forced labour, mass executions, torture and mutilation.
Belgium administered the region as a colony, but did little to develop it or create a type of civic national identity of the sort which has kept the peace in multi-ethnic countries like the United States or Great Britain. When independence came the Congo’s new politicians unsurprisingly failed to build a functional central government or control the new ‘Armée Nationale Congolaise’ (ANC). General Joseph Mobutu, who had risen through the ranks of the ANC, eventually seized power. His regime became a Western-backed kleptocracy for the duration of the Cold War. Its three decade rule, and the manner of the Mobutu’s final fall in 1997, were almost as ruinous for the DRC as Leopold II.
When conflict reached his area in 1997, Henri Bora Ladyi was a young man in the Ituri area of the DRC’s north-eastern Orientale province. The invasion had started the year before, as Mobutu’s meddling in neighboring Rwanda finally caught up with him. A full-scale rebellion against his dictatorship had begun during 1996 in the eastern border provinces of North and South Kivu. In concert with the armies of neighboring Rwanda and Uganda, rebel units swept westwards as Mobutu’s renamed Forces Armées Zairoises (FAZ) and his regime more or less dissolved.
For years the DRC’s state apparatus had been gradually ceasing to function in more and more parts of the country as the regime’s mixture of waste, incompetence and corruption undermined the formal economy. But the fall of the central government completed the country’s ruin. It set off a scramble by neighboring governments and their local allies to seize control of the DRC’s vast mineral wealth in an orgy of looting.
In the first 1996-1997 war Ituri was on the invasion path of the Ugandan army and its allies. But it also suffered from the same type of ethnic hatreds that had caused so much inter-Congolese violence, and left the fractured country prey to its neighbors. Under Mobutu, the north-eastern region had seen major outbreaks of violence between Ituri’s Lendu and Hema ethnic groups in 1972, 1985 and 1996. These earlier struggles revolved around the historically unequal land distribution between the two communities dating back to pre-Belgian times and favoring the Hema.
A politicized Mobutu-era land law passed in 1973 was also a recurring source of conflict. Under its provisions, people could purchase already-inhabited property, and then present title to the land in court two years later, by which time it became incontestable. The Lendu alleged the Hema elite used it to drive Lendus off valuable land, with the help of complicit Hema officials and forged documents. Certainly many Hema leaders thrived economically in the DRC’s chaotic economic conditions, and in the late 1990s some used their greater wealth and clout to further marginalize and exploit the Lendu.
Thus in 1998, when a second regional war began on the heels of the first, the Ituri area was still occupied by the Ugandan People’s Defense Force (UPDF). The UPDF wished to exploit Ituri’s resources of gold, diamonds, coltan, timber, and coffee. Human Rights Watch has chronicled how it used its control of the region to illegally export resources, especially gold, to international buyers. The money gained was then used to support local Hema warlords who helped in the Ugandan operation.
Elite Hema landowners, in their efforts to drive the Lendu off land they considered theirs, also called upon members of the Ugandan army to help them. Those Lendu not run off were often forced to work in the majority Ugandan-controlled mines under threat of violence. This state of affairs inevitably produced a negative reaction in response to the actions of Hema and Ugandan forces. The Lendu quickly formed their own militant groups to fight back and violence rose sharply by 1999.
Henri described the pressure put on him at the time to choose sides in vivid terms. When the Ugandans arrived in Ituri he was running a telecoms bureau in the provincial capital of Bunia, telling the BBC in Kinshasa what was happening in this eastern part of the Congo. Members of the local community would often come and use his satellite phone or other office equipment and he had a talent for making useful connections.
But the bureau itself also made him a target for Hema militants, who suspected him of passing on information about their operations to his Lendu compatriots. Henri was tortured several times by the militiamen, once having metal batons interwoven between his fingers and having his hands crushed. Even when he managed to talk his way out, his own people treated him as a potential traitor, shooting up his office and ransacking his home as warnings.
As events deteriorated his Lendu community demanded protection from its young men. Henri remembers members of his family joined Lendu militia groups and several of his relatives were killed in the violence. Political shifts meant Bunia changed hands several times, and at one point during the struggle Henri found himself press ganged into joining the ranks of the temporarily victorious Lendu militants in order to prove his loyalties.
He talked his way into job as a technician which kept him away from the frontlines, but by the spring of 2003 the tides of war had changed again. This time it was Hema fighters who were advancing on the city and they were looking for revenge. Even Henri could not talk his way out of this kind of trouble. Instead when Hema soldiers came searching to kill him, he had to flee into the bush with his young family.
Henri fled with 5,000 other refugees through the jungle towards the safety of Beni in neighboring North Kivu province. It was a week-long two hundred kilometers trek on foot and he was in an angry mood, with plans to buy weapons in the city and run them back to his brothers in Ituri to continue the struggle. But along the way an incident happened which was to change the course of Henri’s life.
At a village called Gety, militiamen held up the refugees, paranoid about traitors hidden inside their ranks. A massacre loomed over the mass of displaced people trapped there as the militants debated their fate amongst themselves. A natural leader, Henri asked to speak to their leader, despite being threatened with a machete to keep quiet. He knew already he was persuasive; unasked he took a dangerous gamble and negotiated with the militia commander for the refugees’ lives and freedom.
“As the eldest child there is no one do things for you.” Henri says with a laugh. “You learn to be the responsible one when you are very young.”
After a night of bargaining Henri got his way; the commander agreed to let the displaced civilians go. It was the start of a new direction in his life. When he arrived in Beni, instead of continuing with his plans to become a gun-runner, Henri got to hear of a church based peace group that was working with displaced people. The Centre Résolution Conflits (CRC) organization had also had to relocate twice because of the war, but was continuing to hold peace rallies and invite its congregations out to learn how they could promote peace in the region. Henri joined it, and by 2004 he had become risen to become the CRC’s director. Eleven years later and he has never looked back.
CRC’s work has lead Henri into all sorts of situations as it has developed down the years. The group retain a reputation as effective mediators, a mixed blessing in a dangerous part of a country filled with guns. In one case they were asked to negotiate between the UN and a rebel militant group holding a village hostage. The UN was threatening to storm the settlement, while the militants believed themselves possessed by spirits that made them immune to physical harm. Eventually the CRC were able to resolve the situation by negotiating safe passage for the fighters out of the village.
In another instance Henri was contacted by militia commanders with too many mouths to feed. Wishing to barter for supplies they offered to demobilize some of the child soldiers in their ranks in return for goats. A bizarre exchange rate of goats for children had to be worked out; undeterred Henri went into the bush to negotiate and a ratio of ten animals for 40 children was agreed. With the help of UK charity Peace Direct, one of CRC’s international partners, enough goats to free 100 child soldiers were sent.
As the CRC has persuaded fighters to demobilize, or let children and teenagers leave the bush to return home, its operations have had to change to cope. The CRC has faced the task of reintegrating these fighters into communities filled with their former victims and often it is no longer a just a case of overcoming interethnic hatreds. Over time many militia groups degenerated into fronts for banditry or just formed to terrorize their own areas into handing over food and other supplies.
Many ex-fighters, adults, children and youths, are psychologically scarred by the terrible things they have seen and done, and afraid of communal rejection as well as revenge attacks. Faced by a lack of support and economic alternatives in one of the world’s poorest countries, they can easily be seduced back into armed groups.
Still based in North Kivu, Henri and the CRC have piloted a number of projects designed to mitigate these problems as much as they can. As well as disarming ex-combatants and returning them home, they try to give each a skill that can make them employable. Special efforts are made to prepare communities for the return of ex-fighters, so they are not rejected out of hand. Child soldiers are returned to their families or placed with special trained foster parents and then returned to school or given a livelihood.
Similarly for women who have suffered rape or sexual assault at the hands of the various combatants, they provide trauma counseling and micro-finance to set up small businesses. The organization also run community radio stations in more than 70 places, supporting interactive clubs which broadcast discussions by the community members about local issues, including the dangers of joining militia groups.
It has been twelve years since the end of the formal end of the war that set Henri on this path and he recently celebrated another anniversary with CRC. Although his work may never quite end, the legacy as a peace-builder he leaves behind him will be a proud one.
This article first appeared in H Edition magazine and is re-published here with kind permission.