Peacebuilder Joseph Tsongo is dedicated to supporting former soldiers through an unlikely path: theatre. He is CEO of the Amani-Institute, a non-profit association based in eastern DR Congo. A youth-led movement, its aim is to support survivors of war to restore peace and reduce violence in their communities through education, art and creative activities. This work gives young men like Gakuru* a chance to rebuild their futures.
*name changed for protection
This is his story
Gakuru is a young boy in his early twenties. When I met him, he held his cheek in his hand, sighed a little, and went back in time to tell his story. He spent almost five years of his life roaming in the bush, because he was part of an armed group known as Mai-Mai operating on the edge of the Virunga Park in eastern DR Congo. This story was translated from French and edited for clarity.
"I was living with my mother at home here in Kanyabayonga. Like any other day I was supposed to join her in the field after class...When I arrived, I was horrified by what I saw. My poor mother lay lifeless on the path beside our field. I saw her scarf covered in blood, and from that day on I wished I could unsee what I had witnessed," he explains, anxious and distressed.
At the time, Gakuru was only 13 years old and even at such a young age, life was already difficult for him: "I couldn't go home and tell the others what had happened. I didn't even know what had happened to me...I went off on my own in the dark and into the bush for the first time.” He told me about how he spent that very long and awful night at the foot of a huge tree.
Having let hatred build against those he calls the "Banyarwanda", believing that they were the ones who killed his mother, poor Gakuru decided to join the Mai-Mai armed group to seek revenge: "the militia was operating not far from our village and I met some of my friends from the village... They welcomed me and offered me diazepam tablets to let off steam,” he confides.
The young boy had, a little later, been initiated into ritual practices that were meant to make the members of the militia invulnerable to enemy bullets. After learning to handle firearms, he was chosen to be the colonel's escort leader. And in three months, he had already killed around 16 people: "Oblivious and naive, I had become a killing machine," recalls Gakuru, who by the end of his time in the bush held the rank of Major: "I already controlled around a hundred soldiers in the village of Masinga in the Walikale area."
Freed from his past
After nearly five years, the young boy voluntarily withdrew from the group: "I was tired of killing and I felt I had gained nothing," he says, recalling nevertheless that his reintegration was not easy because he was visibly excluded from his community, who considered him a young barbarian. Like in many places, stigmatisation and fear of former fighters is common in DR Congo, who are believed to be violent and volatile. They often are rejected from their families and communities, causing many to return to take up arms once more.
"In 2018 I received a visit from the local association Amani-Institute inviting me to join its movement of young people engaged in artistic activities," continues Gakuru. He says that he has been transformed by our forum theatre workshops in particular, which have freed him from the weight of the past: "I no longer have a scowl on my face like I used to, these forum theatre workshops allow me to let off steam, by talking, laughing or crying when I need to... I no longer get irritated suddenly, I can express myself without violence and I am proud to be considered or treated like everyone else today," he says, rejoicing.
Gakuru is one of the young people we are mentoring as part of the participatory forum theatre programme for dialogue and reconciliation in eastern DR Congo with the support of Peace Direct. Working with former fighters to put down their weapons isn’t easy, but we believe that with these small reconciliation activities we will succeed in gradually putting an end to violence and armed conflict.
The road to recovery
The psycho-social reintegration of this young man was not easy because he had held a command post in the armed movement. He was always so arrogant and unpredictable.
Fortunately, we were able to work with him and help him keep his temper under control thanks to our activities. As well as helping create and perform plays, massage, games, talking groups and individual counselling, helped Gakuru recover day by day.
And today, he dreams of one thing: "to do something small that could generate income for me, such as animal rearing, car mechanics or hairdressing. To provide for myself and make sure I am not tempted to go back into the bush!”
With everyone's help, the Amani-Institute will continue supporting child soldiers to reintegrate fully into their former lives – socially, economically, and psychologically. After all, our work is all about building peace that lasts.