Carter School leads by listening, as Congolese partners construct their own peace.

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It’s been a year since George Mason University’s Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution touched base in the war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo. Their goal? Accompany locals in creating their own sustainable peace—something the country has not experienced in more than 30 years.

In December 2021, a unique peace accord was signed in the province of South Kivu, with representatives from armed groups, the Congolese government, military, police, intelligence services, religious leaders, civil society groups, and peace advocates, including several female peacemakers.

Carter School Dean Alpaslan Özerdem, and Charles Davidson, PhD ’19, Carter School research faculty and alumnus, visited the Congo in October 2022 to check in on the “Peacemaking + Initiative,” funded by Milt Lauenstein, and assess the direction for its next phase.

Özerdem and Davidson spoke over Zoom with updates from the trip:

What have been the major successes of the initiative so far?

: The most important success is that the peace process is still there. Considering such processes tend to be so fragile in their first few years, it was wonderful to see that not only was it still sustaining, but also the way that the local actors and all the stakeholders owned the process.

Also, the reduction of violence that we’ve seen over the last six months, particularly in inter-community violence, but also in terms of the number of combatants from the bush start to go back to their communities.

Six former armed group members stand and sit at a table, strategizing next steps in the peace process.
Former armed group members strategizing next steps in the peace process. Photo provided by the Carter School.

What does “the bush” refer to?

CD: There are local defense forces, which remain in their villages and take up arms when they’re threatened. Then there are mobile armed groups that live in the wilderness and fight as a mobilized armed group of tribal and ethnic interest. To go back to the bush means to go back fighting full-time, although there are groups who remain in the bush who are not fighting. They’re just waiting to demobilize and reintegrate when the time comes.

How many people have demobilized?

CD: We have 300 registered demobilizations thus far, and 1,000 people have expressed their willingness to demobilize [and are going through a certification process with the government to make it official].

Why do you think this has been so successful?

CD: I’ve been working in the Congo for almost eight years and have seen a lot of processes not really hit the mark, because you’d see NGOs and other peace prospects go to individual armed group members and try to achieve peace through the individuals.  

We asked, “How do we achieve this from the community level, so that not only do the armed group members have the ability to go home to a more sustainable environment, but that environment can nurture that process and therefore reduce recidivism and new recruitment?”

The community level considers the perspectives of all the people who are experiencing this conflict and looking for solutions from this dynamic panorama.

“The peace process was innovative in the sense that many actors were involved: Combatants themselves, women leaders and wives of the combatants, youth [active actors in conflicts], representatives of communities and tribes, involvement of the politicians and government officials at different levels, demobilization programs, religious and civil society organizations, [the] media, [among others]. The peace process was largely inclusive and nobody was left behind without being listened to.”

Sudi Yahudi Longuet, peace facilitator and independent consultant expert in peace and conflict transformation

Two women wearing traditional Congolese clothes stand and write on a large piece of poster paper as they analyze and vote on next steps in the peace program.
Women from local communities analyzing and voting on next steps in the peace program. Photo provided.

How has the community-based approach made an impact?

CD: By engaging from the community level and even the tribal level, we’re getting large groups of people who were fighting each other on the regular saying, “We’re going to stop fighting, and we’re going to officially declare forgiveness of the groups that have been fighting.” That’s so not only the groups can experience forgiveness toward one another, but the individuals who were fighting feel forgiveness as people when they return to their home community.

Forgiveness sounds easier said than done. How does that process work?

CD: We’re investing in a literal ceremony of forgiveness where public crowds come together to watch their tribal leaders pronounce forgiveness with each other. They will do so over the radio so everybody in the province hears, and so all the individuals under their leaders’ authority can join the group and say, “We’re done fighting and we forgive you.”

What’s the importance of publicly declaring forgiveness?

AÖ: When an ex-combatant is registered by the government, that registration legally is important because whatever crimes they may have committed during the war, it gives them amnesty. The support of the Congolese government has been so important.

What also matters is whether or not you are forgiven by your receiving communities—that’s the social-cultural aspect. 

Dean Alplaslan Ozerdem stands on the left, meeting with three members of AJDC at their offices on the right.
Özerdem (left) meets with members of AJDC in their offices in South Kivu. Photo provided by the Carter School.

What is Mason’s role in the peace process?

CD: The Carter School is championing a truly effective model of peacemaking accompaniment.

We didn’t go in and dominate the process, lead everything and make demands. Instead, we’re leading by listening. We’re promoting local leadership and making it to where the locals feel that it is their peace process because it is their peace process.

AJDC is the local peacemaking organization that’s led by a former child soldier. They’re the ones who are in the grind, but we’re sticking to what we’re good at, and that’s peacemaking scholarship at the intersection of peacemaking practice, and lending our skills and expertise in a way that nurtures, grows, and accompanies the process rather than dominating.

“The fact that AJDC was created by former child soldiers allowed us to have a mastery and deep understanding of the armed groups’ logic, desires, needs, and requirements, and allowed us to have no fear in finding them in their stronghold [their post of command in the bush]. Becoming an ambassador for peace is building positively our history which will [distinguish] us across generations. We would like to see our community inclusive, stable, nonviolent, peaceful and developed.” —AJDC

What’s next?

Six people, comprised of former armed group members and community members, working on a wooden ship in Mboko, South Kivu.
A community reintegration fishing project in Mboko, South Kivu employing former armed group members and community members.

CD: Number one, we’re going to focus on the four armed groups that continue to fight for reasons other than intercommunity violence, mostly based on economic interest. We’re going to bring those groups to the table to look for a solution to bring a total peace to the armed group situation in South Kivu.

Number two is the official ceremonies of forgiveness.

Third, we’re continuing to set the example of community reintegration investments. Throughout South Kivu, 21 villages are being given investments toward creating community-level industry. These are not only creating jobs for the armed group members who are coming home, but for the people in the community who never left. These investments will grow economic sustainability and stability for those communities, which lie at the nexus of ethnicities that have traditionally been hostile to one another.

What are you most proud of with this initiative?

: Making claims is one thing, but making them happen and showing the world that as an academic institution, we can facilitate a peace process with our local partners is another. On its first-year anniversary, peace is being owned by local actors, and now we are entering the next stage, strengthening what we achieved over the last year. It’s a very proud moment.