Once a peaceful lakeside town, Bweremana in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has become a dumping ground for rebels and soldiers. Frightened local residents have suffered violent attacks, people are hungry and tensions have been high.
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From town to transit camp
Following the surprise defeat of the notorious M23 militia in November 2013, the DRC government have attempted for the third time to dissolve 54 armed groups guilty of displacing more than 2 million people in the east of the country since 1998.
In the early stages of their attempt however, Bweremana quickly became a transit camp for approximately 2,400 of the fighters involved in the region’s conflicts.
The rebels, many still armed and most hungry and destitute, were literally dumped in the tiny town with the vague promise of basic pay, national army reintegration, clothing, and food - most of which never materialised.
The government provided very little practical support to the new arrivals in terms of food and accommodation – meaning the DRC’s long-standing UN force, MONUSCO, had to step in to provide emergency food aid and temporary shelters.
Abusing the vulnerable
In addition to the thousands of ex-combatants descending on Bweremana with no warning or financial backing, there has also been a significant national army (FARDC) presence in the town since November 2012 when the M23 briefly conquered the eastern regional capital of Goma.
Reports claim that in the first week of the army’s occupation, 135 rape cases were recorded, including one seven-year-old child. This is disgusting and unacceptable.
The youngest of two sisters (left) is 15-years-old. She holds her son, a product of rape.
Few cases have been brought to justice so far, although a mass trial of 39 soldiers ended with two men formally convicted of rape this May.
Thankfully, most of the ex-combatants who arrived in Bweremana at the beginning of the year have been transferred to an official military base in the south-east.
However, at least 3,000 of their wives and children have been left behind in shabby makeshift camps.
Fighting for food
The growing tension over food supplies between them, local residents and the few remaining heavily-armed FARDC soldiers, is palpable.
We began a project in Bweremana in 2011 designed to help several hundred residents to diversify their crops in response to a crisis that hit their staple banana crops caused by an incurable plant disease called banana wilt – locally named ‘the HIV of bananas.’
When harvest time came around last year, the community reported that mainly FARDC soldiers and ex-militia were benefiting from the fruits of their labour, using violence and guns to loot most of the fields and smallholdings.
Grass roots action
Lacking support from the government, the chief and residents of Bweremana took matters into their own hands and, with our support, sent an open letter to UN, military and government authorities detailing 145 cases of crop looting and attacks in their fields.
Their grass roots lobbying efforts proved a success and the ex-rebels were transferred from Bweremana to official military bases along the Atlantic Ocean. The FARDC presence has also been reduced.
The next steps
On a recent visit to the community to discuss the next steps for our project, Donat Malemo from our partner CBCA said that they are now looking for ways in which the government can help them to rebuild their lives, as well as provide further training on successful activism and civilian rights.
Donat said: ‘Advocacy at community, national and international levels is one of the most important forms of support that we can receive from foreign governments and humanitarian and development organisations - that, along with education and income-generating skills which can’t easily be looted by militias and rebels.’
What you can do
Please help us to empower communities like the residents of Bweremana by donating to us today.