September 13, 2005

HAVE A COKE AND A PEACE:

Africa's peace seekers: Petronille Vaweka (Abraham McLaughlin, 9/14/05, The Christian Science Monitor)

[O]n the steamy morning of July 17, [Petronille Vaweka, a top official in eastern Congo] and her group drove off into the bush. Twenty miles outside Bunia, Ituri's capital, they were met by a half-dozen armed militia members. Vaweka made sure to shake hands with each, looking into their faces with her dark, penetrating eyes.

They were led to a ramshackle tin-roofed church. Everyone left their guns at the door. But more soldiers were outside, weapons ready. The FRPI, it seems, had called a kind of town meeting, with about 600 local villagers present. Vaweka and the militia leaders sat on a raised wooden platform. Villagers sat in pews.

Given the delicacy of the situation, others might have started gently. But Vaweka was soon scolding the audience for tolerating the soldiers. "You've been taken hostage by this militia," she told them. "But you should be free, because the militias are children, and there is no bigger force than you, the people."

To the militia she said frankly, "The administrators are your servants. If you take them hostage, who will serve you? And who will serve the people?"

Those who know Vaweka say one source of her strength is her insistent truth-telling - to diplomats, militia leaders, anyone. "She's always respectful - but always frank," says Anneke Van Woudenberg of Human Rights Watch in London, who has worked in Ituri for years.

On the platform, militia leaders at first defended themselves, complaining they'd been left out of the recent integration of ex-militia into Congo's national Army, the FARDC. As Congo's 1998-2003 war wound down, Vaweka and others encouraged Ituri's militias to enter a UN-run disarmament program. Some 15,000 have done so since Sept. 2004, the UN says. Many have joined FARDC ranks. But there are still roughly 1,000 hard-core combatants in Ituri, including the FRPI.

To the militia, Vaweka lectured: "If you're not in communication with administrators" - and instead take them hostage - "how can they help you" join the Army?

Soon, the FRPI leaders sat with heads bowed in shame, Vaweka says. Finally, they offered her a hen and some Coke. It was a sign of peace. She reciprocated with some juice she'd brought as a kind of host gift. The mood lightened. A few days later, the hostages were released unharmed.

Slowly by slowly, as some Africans say, peace is coming to this part of Congo. Negotiation by negotiation, Vaweka chips away at the assumption that force is the path to power. Starting five years ago as a lowly civil-society worker - and now as the province's top official - her determination to stand up for order, and for villagers, in a region where militias have run roughshod for years, is helping to roll back the rule of the gun.

"If anyone in Congo deserves a Nobel Prize, it's Petronille," says a diplomat in Kinshasa.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 13, 2005 6:44 PM
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