Riding out through the bush on the back of a motorbike under the sweltering midday African sun, I am once again struck by the sheer determination and courage of my Congolese colleagues from Foundation Chirezi (FOCHI), who sustain their peacebuilding work in extremely challenging environments. FOCHI is a small, local, peacebuilding organisation, working across the territories of Uvira, Fizi, and Ruzizi Plain in South Kivu, eastern DR Congo.
Their primary focus is to ensure accessible, fair and non-punitive justice to those living in rural villages, communities for whom the legal system neither works effectively nor in its best interests, and in which conflicts can quickly turn violent.
In order to offer an alternative to this, FOCHI has promoted the creation of Baraza (a Swahili word meaning ‘gathering’), community-led justice courts that provide successful resolution to conflicts through participatory processes of dialogue and reconciliation. Baraza have been developed in nine villages and they have had a positive impact upon all the community where they operate. They have reduced violence and increased collaboration, trust and self-empowerment not only within the communities themselves, but also between the communities, local leaders and authorities, and the communities and local ex-rebel fighters.
As projects are wholly initiated and led by the communities, FOCHI’s role is to provide support, structure and guidance whilst Peace Direct in London promotes this work and finds the necessary donors. I am here to capture the realities of Baraza justice and document them into an evidence-based project which provides proof to the success of this process and highlights the impact of the Barazas upon the stability of the region, an argument supported by practical recommendations for increasing project scale.
It is a system trying to fight the corruption in the police, magistrates, impunity, favouritism, and law of the stronger and rich..... At the Baraza court, everybody is equal and the community eye is open to ensure the equality and fairness of judgements.
- Floribert Kazingufu, local peacebuilder and founder of FOCHI
The Barazas are made up of four different groups of people who meet on a weekly basis: a democratically elected main committee (five people), a youth group (around ten people), a women’s group (around ten people) and remaining Baraza members of the community including civilians and ex-combatants.
Traditional wisdom is relied upon initially, but once principal roles have been established, FOCHI staff provide trainings in mediation and conflict resolution skills.
The women’s groups have recently developed separate female peace courts, in which issues felt to be private, such as marital rape, can be discussed openly without a male presence. The majority of conflicts addressed here are successfully resolved, but when a resolution is not reached the case is then taken to the main Baraza peace court.
Although each process is different the cases follow a similar pattern. When a conflict arises in the village it is brought by members of the community to one of the two peace court committees (main and female-only). At the peace court each party is given time to tell his story. Following this the committee then meet in private for fact-finding investigations and deliberation, the result of which is then relayed back to the accuser(s) and defendant(s). This can include private apology, public apology, work, payment, etc. When all parties agree with the decision of the judges, the community organises a reconciliation ceremony, in which the agreed resolution between the parties is publicly declared.
If one part has disagreed, time is given to digest the decision, following which the freedom of appeal is always given. However, once the peace court committee has given its decision, it is then viewed as the community decision and one which is unbreakable. If it is not ultimately accepted, it can then proceed to the government magistrate where a FOCHI lawyer will then represent the party at the local tribunal.
In the last month alone, 17 cases have been resolved successfully, one has rebounded, one is on-going, and one has been transferred from the Baraza in Luvungi to the tribunal in Uvira, where the lawyer is being financed by FOCHI.
Sources of conflict
FOCHI has seen its biggest priority as the continued conflict over land rights, a situation arising out of the masses who fled during the war and returned to find their land and homes taken by others. With little or no recourse to justice these returning refugees can be one of the biggest threats to village stability, as some feel forced to turn to violence or coercion to reclaim their lands.
In addition to land rights, the Barazas address conflicts which arise from accusations of sorcery, robbery, rape, injury of person/property, domestic violence, public insult, intimidation and aggression, adultery, lending/borrowing money, issues of heritage, breach of trust, and the spreading of rumours.
Broken promises in Kigongo
Arriving in Kigongo we gather in the small Baraza meeting mud hut with the President of the Baraza Paya Majaribi, and the women’s group - roughly 15 people sitting on low stools around a table in a 6x8ft space. We have arrived into the midst of a conflict resolution process between an elderly carpenter, Alinoji Muzairoi, and a teenage boy, Amisi Monongo.
Alinoji Muzairoi had agreed to make chairs for Amisi Monongo for a total price of 24,000Fc ($26). Amisi had paid an advance of 4,000Fc ($5) but he never received the chairs, although Alinoji had in fact made them but sold them on to another buyer. Amisi demanded that his money be refunded but Alinoji refused, denying that he had ever received any money.
The tension between the two was threatening to spill into violence when the Baraza intervened, and, having been presented with both sides, in addition to verifying that Alinoji had been accused of similar things in the past, demanded that he pay back the money owing to Amisi. Although Alinoji initially refused, on account of having no money, he eventually relented and agreed to make and sell more chairs, the profits of which would go to Amisi.
Following the peace court decision both Alinoji Muzairoi and Amisi Monongo sign the mediation sheet which is then also witnessed and signed by other members of the Baraza.
Following this I watch Ibrahim introduce the importance of women being able to make decisions for themselves; and to which the women respond decisively and passionately about conflicts that have occurred which they have successfully resolved through the female peace courts.
Stolen land in Makobola
Leaving the Baraza at Kigongu I am brought back to reality when we drive past a young boy carrying a large machine gun, and I am again reminded of the stark difficulties of life here. Just before Makobola we are stopped at a roadblock by various armed Mai Mai (local defence groups) who have descended from the mountains and are now lining the tracks, and then again by military police at the Uvira/Fizi border.
When we arrive in Makobola there is a peace court session in process. A woman, Nabaongyi, has been accused of taking and profiting off another woman’s, Chukiwa Yona’s, land for the last eight months by growing and selling its produce. Relations between the two families are starting to divide the village and Chukiwa Yona is still so angry that she refuses to come to the session, but her husband Yona comes in her place.
Nabaongyi denies the accusations, insisting it was only two months and she only produced food for the family to eat. After much debate she finally agrees to pay the equivalent of two months’ rent, money which will apparently be paid for her by contacts in the military.
Yona is left to take this decision back to his wife in the hope that she will agree to it and so finish the case. If she agrees there will be a public reconciliation process in three days’ time.
Women killed for sorcery in Swima
We then move to Swima for another Baraza meeting. Mosi Kiza, the head of the woman’s group, relates a recent conflict and tragedy in a voice heavy with passion and pain.
A boy had died recently in the village, rumoured to be the result of a sorcery inflicted by the boy’s grandmother. The grandmother was soon surrounded and stoned to death, along with another woman who tried to protect her. Her daughter also threw stones. But a day later a second child fell ill and died and this time the community laid the blame with a different woman, and none accused her more vehemently than her nephew, her brother’s son.
The boy lured his father into the house and locked him in, poured petrol over the woman outside, told her that she needed baptising, lit a match and set her on fire. Agonising minutes later the woman died and he fled on a motorbike. Following their deaths all three women’s stomachs were sliced open, the intestines taken out, cut up and flung far out into the lake.
The village Chief Djuma Kishoma Swima informed both the police and military but the case was soon dropped. As Djuma Kishoma Swima is also the Baraza President, the peace court committee are currently trying to find a way forwards that will stop the cycle of violence and such outbursts of popular justice, a possibility that, as Mosi Kiza tells us, is of grave concern to the majority of the community.
A new way forward: reconciliation without punishment
It goes without saying that issues of justice and reconciliation are vast areas for which there are many different meanings for different people, not least between perpetrator and victim. Nonetheless, the increase in Truth and Reconciliation tribunals following atrocities attests to the accepted importance of a process involving truth telling, confession, remorse, and the asking of forgiveness. Differences, however, lie in the extent to which restorative justice is perceived as an important part of this reconciliation process, for punishment and compensation are traditionally-accepted integral elements for both perpetrator and victim.
Due in part to the complexity of this area, the emphasis in the Baraza peace courts is to address conflicts before they become violent, not only in the direct prevention of violence but also so that non-punitive measures are more widely accepted in the reconciliation process. In the cases where violence has already been inflicted and truth telling, confession, remorse and the asking of forgiveness have been expressed, it is compensation which will most likely be demanded, possibly in the form of public apology, money or work.
In all possible resolutions, punishment is never envisioned, as it is seen to only enhance a never-ending cycle of violence far removed from Baraza goals of peace in the region.