Micro-level violent conflict is complex, and the triggers of violence are unpredictable. Building on long-seated unresolved grievances coupled with the presence of foreign armed groups in Eastern Congo, the South-Kivu province is facing a barely noticed humanitarian crisis whose understanding can even puzzle a native researcher. In such a context, can a ‘native researcher’ with lenses affected with ‘urban bias’ understand complex contours of micro-level violent conflict?
This blog post tries to raise awareness on complexity of micro-level layers of recurring violent conflict. It builds on Kalyvas’s (2006) understanding of ‘urban bias’. He states that urban bias refers to lack of information on countryside violence but also the tendency to paint gunmen involved in violence as primitive and criminals. Though Kalyvas stresses on reporting and accounting on civil-war violence, this blog post considers that ‘urban bias’ is widely embedded in understanding the local context while little attention is paid to those painted as ‘criminals’.
In March 2019, I visited Minembwe in the South-Kivu province, the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). It was amid tense violent confrontation between opposing local armed groups largely affiliated to ethnic communities in the region. The MaiMai groups are affiliated to Babembe, Banyindu and Bafuliro communities against Gumino, while Twirwaneho are linked to Banyamulenge community. However, local armed groups are currently being supported by foreign groups from Rwanda and Burundi, the two DRC’s neighboring countries. The reasons for my visit to this region were twofold. One, I had to use this opportunity to teach two courses at undergraduate level within Eben-Ezer University of Minembwe. Two, this is a region I had to visit as part of my fieldwork. Although I am a native of this region, however, this time, I came back as a researcher in conflict economics studies.
The background of Eastern Congo violent conflict is complex with different layers. The region I visited has been under regular clashes between communities – due to mutual contestation, confrontation around ‘autochthony’ versus ‘immigrants’, misunderstanding between farmers and cattle herders as well as other dynamic motives. Community clashes have been going on for decades. Recently, Burundian and Rwandan rebels have been involved in clashes that are supported by local groups. Burundian and Rwandan groups are respectively supported by Kigali and Bujumbura with aims of overthrowing regimes in their countries. They are meddling into local problems with an intent of creating an unoccupied space for further military plans.
Subsequent to recent clashes, roughly 150 villages (including my parents’ village) were burnt down between 2018-2019. It has led to approximately 200,000 internally displaced people. Most of these have been concentrated in Minembwe facing high risks of hunger and diseases. Hundreds are estimated to have died during this period. Existing schools and health facilities have been destroyed. Moreover, due to limited access to transport infrastructures and media, the tragedy happening in this region remains unnoticed to a large extent.
Despite efforts deployed by the local opinion leaders, the neighborhood of my village named Kidasi, part of Minembwe region, was attacked on 13th June 2019 due to a shooting of one person; and a revenge that killed tens. Local population have fled towards Minembwe due to an incident that could have been prevented, if there have been a presence of committed security services. Such incidents build on collective sense of victimization and popular prejudice. Nevertheless, a ‘mundane incident’ can spread widely to hundreds of kilometers. Guns are used to settle family issues as was done in my village’s neighborhood wherein driven by hatred and jealousy, one sibling killed another.
However, when visiting my own village during the fieldwork, I appreciated regular dialogue between ethnic communities. For example, the local opinion leaders managed to save the life of a local chief who was arrested by a group of gunmen. The local chief was released following their interventions. During this visit, I managed to learn also from some members of a committee in charge of reconciliation and dialogue. It was impressive to hear testimonies and efforts of ethnic communities regarding their cohabitation. One could hope that this would be a local model of trust among communities.
My impression was that these local initiatives aiming to sustain peace needed some support. I thought my intervention could be oriented in exchanging ideas with primary and secondary school teachers. We discussed possibilities of re-constructing my primary school made up of woods and straws. Due to poverty and inaccessibility in terms of transport infrastructure, the local population cannot afford costs of a decent building. Moreover, parents are also burdened by remunerating schools’ teachers. Children from these schools drop out due to their inability to pay school fees. My discussion with teachers focused mainly on these features of having a school reconstructed and possibilities to support vulnerable parents.
We had a fruitful exchange and looked forward to support the education of the vulnerable. Together, we introduced a request within a local NGO to see their possibility to help building a school. We shared information about channels through which we can involve state authorities. Beyond that, we discussed negative effects of violent confrontation. We had many old and recent references about how violence can hardly spare any of these ethnic communities. Their role as members of the ‘literate’ class was touched.
Though these were likely minor efforts on my side, I was more oriented on normative ideas to find urgent solutions to the challenges presented in these schools. I seem to have concentrated on ‘literate’ class alone and missed to talk to someone who could just shoot (un) intentionally in the air; and will kill all efforts. As a matter of fact, the shooting by unknown assailants of a member of Babembe ethnic community, has drawn wide retaliation by (counter) attacking and ‘revenge’ on Banyamulenge ethnic community. After leaving my village, I was told that I should have met Mutamba. Why? Was the view I had of the local context be interpreted as an ‘urban bias’?
Regardless of Mutamba’s literacy level, his influence relies on manipulating young people to express themselves by ‘shooting bullets in the air’. I am not yet sure if meeting Mutamba (whom I called later on phone) could have prevented my neighborhood to fall into clashes. However, I argue that in such volatile context coupled with collective victimization guns have more power than anything else. As I question Kalyvas (2006), I felt that, meeting teachers was sufficient. However, I certainly had no clue and clear information on Mutamba. I wish that I could have met many of such people if this would have spared this region.
 This is a given name of the guy whom I was indicated he could, by shooting in the air or target someone for his own interests, pull the neighborhood into intractable clashes.
 See Kalyvas, Stathis N. (2006:38-48) in “The Logic of Violence in Civil War”. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
About the author:
Delphin Ntanyoma is a PhD candidate at the ISS. His research falls within Conflict Economics and is part of the Economics of Development & Emerging Markets (EDEM) Program. With a background of Economics and Masters’ of Art in Economics of Development from ISS, the researcher runs an online blog that shares personal views on socio-economic and political landscape of the Democratic Republic of Congo but also that of the African Great Lakes Region. The Eastern Congo Tribune Blog can be found on the following link: www.easterncongotribune.com.