Rebecca Feeley is a research consultant based in Goma, DR Congo. She has lived in the Great Lakes region for nearly four years, previously working for African Rights, the Clinton Foundation, Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research International, and the Enough Project.
This post is the third in a series about Burundi. Visit us again in the coming weeks for more posts from Rebecca’s trip.
“Madame, they are very dangerous. They can be extremely violent, especially if they don’t like what you say,” warned Romain Ndagabwa without looking up from the papers swallowing his desk. Ndagabwa, director of the demobilization center in Burundi’s second largest city, Gitega, was referring to the former combatants of the National Liberation Forces, or FNL, which were cycling through the center as part of the process of disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration, or DDR. Ndagabwa wanted to participate in my discussions with the combatants, but was too busy. I had a feeling he was trying to scare me away from doing so altogether. “I’m sure I’ll be fine,” I assured him. “I’ve interviewed former combatants before. Plus, I won’t be talking that much. Hopefully they’ll do all of that.” Mr. Ndagabwa didn’t press further. He shook my hand and agreed to gather a few of the ex-combatants for me to interview. Then he looked at his watch and ran out the door.
The pro-Hutu FNL was the last rebel group operating in Burundi until, in April of this year, the government of Burundi agreed to recognize the FNL as a legitimate political party. The FNL, in turn, agreed to integrate some combatants into the security services and demobilize others. For those being demobilized, the center in Gitega was the last stop before being released back into their communities. I was at the center to talk to the former rebels about their pasts and was also curious about their expectations for re-integration into civilian life.
That day the center housed roughly 700 ex-combatants who would stay there only a week. It seemed nothing more than a holding pen where most just wandered aimlessly or floated between the administrative block and the sleeping quarters. A few stepped outside the compound to buy lollipops or cigarettes. Many of them were eager to talk to me when I sat down with a group of 40 or so combatants.
Explaining the purpose of my research to them and my interest in repatriation had a rough start. Most of them wondered why I was there if I wasn’t going to donate money, while others hinted at fears of being exploited without compensation. Once one combatant mentioned his need for more funds, about 20 others raised their hands to explain how they, too, didn’t have any money to survive after they left the demobilization center. “We hear about the World Bank and the UN and all the millions they receive, but we see none of it.” “That’s not totally true, is it? Don’t you get multiple installments of money after you leave here?” I asked. “Yes, but it’s not enough,” they said in unison.
I shared my thoughts about how I believed re-integration to be the most neglected component of the process. “We westerners tend to get very excited when we hear about peace accords and armed groups agreeing to DDR, but the first two D’s tend to capture our attention and efforts more than re-integration.” I got a few smiles. I went on to explain that without strong re-integration efforts that include access to education and job skills training, former combatants can be tempted to rejoin armed groups on the promise of surviving by any means necessary. I was preaching to the choir. “We don’t want to go back and fight again, but we’ll do so if we have no other option, no other way to survive,” said one combatant as many nodded. A few offered that they wanted to go back to school, while others wanted to start a small business or just cultivate land.
In a post-conflict environment, if peace has any hope of surviving, the employment or active engagement of ex-combatants in the civilian community must yield greater returns than an armed group. It is not easy to advocate for the needs of ex-combatants in Burundi and elsewhere when there are hundreds of millions of innocent civilians who have been affected by armed conflict and who continue to suffer as well. The civilians are, rightfully, the priority of international assistance and aid. However, if our aim is to prevent the re-escalation of conflict, we must also try to ensure that those who once carried arms can become productive members of society.
As I was leaving the center, one of them grabbed the notebook from my hand. Then he held out his palm waiting for my pen. I gave it to him, curious to see what he would do. “I’m going to give you my name and my email address, so you can write me and tell me when there will be more money for us.” I told him I didn’t think I could tell him about the money. “Ok then, just write me and tell me when your post is up. So we know when more people know about us.” I smiled and said yes. This, at least, was a promise I could keep.
Posted By: Michael Graham | October 02, 2009 | Comments (0)