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Couple Holding Hands - DRC

By Nadia Shabani and Alexa Hassink
Originally posted on Insight on Conflict

The relationship between civilians and the military in eastern Congo is a vital one, but soldiers have been accused of impunity for past crimes. One soldier’s story shows how things might be changing, say Nadia Shabani and Alexa Hassink.

“When thinking about it, I regret my actions very much,” said First Sergeant Tchabu Kaseke, in Democratic Republic of the Congo (DR Congo). He continues, during a broadcast on Hope Channel TV in Goma: “Regarding my home, my wife was very afraid of me and called me ‘a small man with a hard heart’ […] because when I got angry I used to beat her. She and the kids ran away from home.”

It wasn’t just his wife who Tchabu felt he wronged, but his whole community. In DR Congo, relations between the military – the Congolese Armed Forces (FARDC) – and civilians have frequently been described as tense and often characterised by violence, in part due to legacies of conflict in the country.

“I was an aggressor,” he says. “I would wear the military uniform and gun at night and situate myself in a corner to wait for people passing by, and I used force to take their money and phones. In short, I was a bandit. I considered myself the strongest of humans…”

For many years, human rights abuses by the military have been reported, but, in general, been met with a relative impunity by the justice system. The FARDC has been described as not well-controlled or led by the Congolese authority, which, along with attempts to consolidate various armed groups and the military over time, has impacted its effectiveness and professionalism. The destabilised and weakened force finds itself with divided loyalties and leadership, often threatened by nearly 70 armed groups in the country and at odds with its civilian population.

But now, Tchabu considers all of this behaviour to be part of his past. The European Union has recommended strengthening transparency and accountability between the military and civil society – which are essential steps to move beyond legacies of violence. For Tchabu himself, the change came when he joined Living Peace groups in 2015.

The Living Peace groups, led by Equimundo’s DR Congo office, the Living Peace Institute, were designed in 2012 in part to alleviate the tension between the military and civilians, with the knowledge that trust must be restored for sustainable peace. They provide psychosocial support and group education for men and their partners, which, alongside community campaigns and outreach, aim to help couples and families rebuild their relationships and to encourage broader social change.

Tchabu wasn’t sure what to make of the groups at first: “For me, when I came to the group, I found other military members; some were higher ranked than I: captains, sergeants, whom I did not know,” but as they progressed through the weeks, he noted that “Trust has grown among us, and we have become friends through the Living Peace groups.”

Of the topics these groups discussed over nearly four months of meetings, which cover everything from gender and power, to building healthy relationships, Kaseke identified the most with conversations on the topic of violence – particularly sexual violence. He explains, “I was having sex with my wife without her consent – I thought it was my right. When I learned this in Living Peace is when I realised that I was violating her.”

He further adds, “I started to realise that the military uniform and the weapon I carry are to protect the civilian population. I realised that in attacking civilians, I was not a model soldier […] What differentiates me from a civilian is my uniform and weapon. But before I was a member of the military, I was a civilian. Change is a process, and today through the advice from Living Peace, I see a civilian as a brother.”

Through awareness-raising campaigns by Living Peace, Tchabu now acts as an ambassador of peace. “Having peace in my home helped me develop, with the help of my wife,” he says, “I’ve learned to save, and we built a house in the camp. In the military camp everyone pointed fingers at me as I passed and said that I was an alcoholic, a gangster, and that I beat my wife. They said a lot about me, and what they said was true. Through advice I have received from Living Peace, I am a changed man and I am respected by my neighbours who encourage me and congratulate me on the progress that they notice.”

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