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Woman peacemaker: ‘I was prepared to lose my own life’

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MCC
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By Emily Jones and Linda Espenshade

Summary: How a group of Congolese women peacebuilders deescalated a dangerous village conflict and prevented a repeat of a past massacre.

Anna Johari Etabo arrived with a group of women peacemakers outside the police station in the Congolese village of I’amba, where an angry mob was threatening to burn the police station and then the rest of the village.

Etabo, who last year recounted this experience which happened in September 2019, said the women were no strangers to violent conflict in South Kivu Province in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DR Congo). But in this situation, she says, “Even we were afraid.”

The women knew that this region already had a tragic history of conflict. It was the site of the 1999 Makobola massacre, in which rebel soldiers killed at least 700 civilians within two days, and likely hundreds more, during the Second Congo War.

“Knowing the history of that village where many people lost their lives, I knew if I didn’t do it (get involved), many lives would be lost,” Etabo says. “Instead of losing many lives, I was prepared to lose my own life.”

A women’s peace movement

Etabo and her colleagues are members of Women’s Situation Rooms, groups of local women trained to deescalate and resolve community conflicts.

Mulanda Jimmy Juma, representative for Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) in DR Congo, introduced the concept of Women’s Situation Rooms during a peace training he organized for the Church of Christ in Congo (ECC) in 2017.

Among those attending were Etabo and other members of Oasis de la Culture (Oasis of Culture), a women’s peacebuilding organization and MCC partner.

“Out of that, I learned that women must actually be empowered and take their position in leadership to play a role in peacebuilding in the country,” she says.

Since then, Oasis has established 22 Women’s Situation Rooms that have 994 members throughout DR Congo’s war-torn zones of Fizi and Uvira in South Kivu Province.

Juma is heartened by the strong growth and participation in grassroots peacebuilding in the area where he grew up. Local conflicts feed into ongoing national conflicts, he said. “Hence, dealing with community conflict is critical to national peacebuilding in Congo.”

DR Congo has experienced decades of warfare that have warped people’s attitudes toward conflict, says Etabo, who is coordinator for all the Women’s Situation Rooms.

“Since independence (1960), dealing with conflict through violent means has become a way of life,” says Etabo. “People want to show who is more powerful. And to show who is more powerful, you have to use violence. People who use peaceful means are regarded as weak.”

But Etabo believes women have a special role to play as peacebuilders in Congo. While much of the violent conflict in Congo is carried out by men, many women have a strong desire to create peace and are willing to do the hard work to make it happen.

The fisherman’s side of the story

When the women peacemakers arrived at the scene in I’amba, they only knew the basics of the conflict. It had started between the village chief and the head of a local fishermen's collective but had spiralled out of control.

Lukula Sadiki, chief of I’amba, Bangwe and Makobola villages, had ordered the head fisherman thrown in jail, and his fellow fishermen were threatening to burn the village.

Etabo, who had been trained by Juma to listen attentively to people on both sides of the issue, gained permission from the police station commander to talk to the prisoner, Nene Ramazani. The head fisherman told them his side of the story.

The fishermen’s collective had always given some fish to the chief as a “fish tax.” However, Ramazani said, in recent months, the chief had sent not one, but five men to collect the fish.

This became too great a financial burden on the fishermen.

“I also need fish. My family also needs fish,” Ramazani remembers telling the men. “The fishermen also need fish and their families too.”

He told the fish tax collectors to tell the chief to send only person instead of five.

Except that’s not the message that was relayed to the chief. Instead, the tax collectors told him that the head of the fishermen would give him no more fish ever. The chief flew into a rage at the fisherman’s belligerence and had the man thrown in jail, where he was beaten and fined.

‘Peace will only come when God and the devil reconcile.’

The women, who had been consulting with Juma throughout this intervention, then went to hear the village chief’s side of the story. There they uncovered the root of the conflict: the chief thought the fisherman needed to be taken down a peg.

Chief Sadiki admitted sending the five tax collectors because he thought Ramazani was impolite and disrespectful. After the word arrived that he would get no more fish, the chief said, “I had to show him who I am.”

Etabo quickly understood that the tax collectors had lied to the chief, deepening the rift between them. The two parties needed to talk, she said, but first she needed to help the chief see the need for peace.

But it wouldn’t be easy.

When Etabo began to talk about the need to live in peace, she said the chief exploded. “Nobody can bring peace. Peace will only come when God and the devil reconcile!” he shouted.

It was a terrifying moment for Etabo. “I thought he would beat me,” she said. But she stood her ground.

She spoke to Sadiki about his responsibility, as the head of the village, to build peace and to speak to Ramazani. The problems of one person affect the whole village, she told him

Without peace, people will run away from his village or there could be a second massacre.

But, when people live in peace, no one goes hungry because people share food and do not fear each other, she told him.

Even when Sadiki criticized her audacity for thinking that she, as a woman, had any role in helping bring peace to the village, she spoke to him about the work of the Women’s Situation Rooms and the need for peace.

She advised him to forgive Ramazani, who had been in prison without food and whose family was hungry, if he really believed the fisherman had wronged him. The chief went home for a while, and when he returned, he was willing to heed Etabo’s advice.

“As you have come to preach to me, it touches me in my heart now,” Sadiki told her. He

called the commander of the police station and ordered the fisherman’s release.

The next day, the two men met with Etabo and reconciled. They agreed that the chief would send just one tax collector in the future.

“If women can work for peace, we can have peace in our country.”

For Etabo, the story of I’amba Village demonstrates how mass conflict and war can start with just two people. But, she reasons, peace can start with just two people as well.

“What we’re trying to do is build peace step by step, because we can’t have peace all at once. It has to go in stages,” she says.

She believes Congolese women will be the champions of that cause. She points to the African proverb, “If you educate a man, you educate an individual. But if you educate a woman, you educate a nation.”

The Women’s Situation Rooms are already proving this true. After all, says Etabo, situations like the conflict in I’amba Village show that women can lead as peacebuilders.

She said, “We believe that if women can be involved in working for peace, we can have peace in our country.”

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Emily Jones is a freelance writer from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and Linda Espenshade is MCC U.S. news coordinator.

Contact LindaEspenshade@mcc.org