Carrying the pleas and hopes of people in the churches of the Democratic Republic of the Congo in their hearts, members of a Congolese delegation met with government officials in Canada and the U.S. and officers in the United Nations in April to ask for assistance to address ongoing violence in eastern Congo.
Sponsored by Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), the delegation repeatedly advocated for safe repatriation of Rwandan combatants, the end of sexual violence perpetrated by armed groups, honest elections and fair mining of minerals.
They also called upon Christians in Canada and the U.S. to advocate for the same issues with their governments and to act individually on behalf of the people of Congo.
“We cannot stay indifferent, when our people continue to suffer,” said the Rev. Milenge Mwenelwata, second vice president of the Church of Christ of Congo (ECC) and a delegation member along with three others from ECC.
MCC has partnered with ECC, an organization of Congolese protestant groups, including Mennonites, for more than 50 years.
According to Mwenelwata, the ongoing violence today has its roots in the Rwandan genocide that began in 1994. Rwandan refugees, including many soldiers from the defeated Rwandan army and members of militia groups responsible for the genocide, fled to neighboring eastern Congo and took up residence in refugee camps. Congolese and Rwandan armies began to attack the camps and forcibly return refugees to Rwanda.
Some of the soldiers formed a rebel group, now known as FDLR, and fought back, entrenching themselves further in the jungle and taking revenge by killing civilians and raping women and girls.
The violence has forced many people from their homes and villages, multiple times, leaving them without a way to grow food until they can return to their ravaged homes. Through ECC, MCC has provided food, relief kits, seeds and farming tools to some of these displaced people.
In 2010, a top United Nations humanitarian official called the rape and sexual violence in eastern Congo the worst in the world.
“The FDLR and other militia groups know that women are a source of the family; they want to destroy them so that they destroy the community,” said Sabine Muhima Bintu, past director of ECC’s Women’s Department.
One way to decrease the violence against women, Mwenelwata said, is to make a way for FDLR members to return to their home country peacefully. The ECC, through its work with its own repatriation program, has seen members of FDLR go home, only to return to Congo when they do not receive any resettlement support in Rwanda, where they also fear prosecution.
“When FDLR members put down weapons, they want a guarantee in Rwanda,” the Rev. Josué Bulambo Lembelembe, coordinator of ECC’s National Program of Advocacy, told a legislative assistant for the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The delegation urged officials in both countries to put pressure on Congolese and Rwandan governments to support a neutral UN special envoy who would facilitate dialogue about repatriation between the two countries.
Another way to minimize violence is to enforce or make laws to stop the illegal mining of minerals, such as coltan, a mineral used in electronic devices. Armed groups mine illegally to buy weapons, and mercenaries from other countries sell minerals on the black market.
Delegation members were hosted primarily by MCC offices in Ottawa, Ont., and Washington D.C., as well as the MCC United Nations Office. Though they advocated with government officials, they also called upon churches in Canada and the U.S. to hold their governments accountable.
To the church, specifically, the delegation asked for professors to work at the Christian University of Kinshasa and volunteers to come to Congo to monitor local elections and for a creation of a center for peace in eastern Congo – one that would teach and use the highest level of conflict resolution and international relations.
Upon visiting the Peace and Conflict Studies department at Conrad Grebel University College, Waterloo, Ont., delegation member Joshua Bulambo Lembelembe told MCC Ontario staff member Darren Kropf: “You have peace centers in places where there is no conflict. You need to set up peace centers in our country where there is conflict.”
Mwenelwata said he felt heard by government and church officials. He was heartened by new connections the delegation made and promises they received. This trip has been the most significant way that MCC has supported ECC, he said.
Tim Schmucker of the MCC Ottawa Office; Patricia Okech Kisare; MCC U.S. Washington Office; and Kayon Watson, MCC United Nations Office, contributed to this story.