For years, instability, poor job prospects and consistent high levels of inter-community conflicts in Itombwe, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), have seen many young people turn to armed groups to defend themselves, their families and communities.
Vijana Tunaweza (Youth we can) is a pioneer project by International Alert (Alert), funded by the European Union, which is trying to address this. The project engages young people from across different ethnic and socio-economic divides, in the territories of Mwenga and Fizi, Itombwe, to strengthen their leadership and analysis skills.
The aim of reducing the social and political marginalisation of young men and women, is to provide them with opportunity to take a lead in building peace and advocating for change in their communities, to reduce risk of recruitment by rebel groups and create strong alliances with others across different geographic, socio-economic and ethnic divides.
"Our analysis shows that large groups of young men and women in Itombwe are vulnerable to political and economic manipulation by their leaders. In most cases, leaders have been reluctant to involve young people in dialogue and leadership initiatives mainly because they (young people) wouldn’t be susceptible to manipulation otherwise," says Christine Buesser, Country Manager, International Alert DRC.
According to Christine, alongside local partners, Alert’s role has been "to find ways to engage this hard to reach group through dialogue to explore what better governance for communities in this region could look like and how everyone could benefit from a stable Itombwe. The good news is that it is working."
Alert also provides leadership training to groups of young men and women on things such as: qualities of a good leader, communication, working as a team and the importance of involving women in decision-making. Alert also trains them in conflict analysis, advocacy, gender sensitivity and responsible social activism.
Since job opportunities are difficult to come by in Itombwe, the project has been encouraging the youth to get involved in community activities. Participating in these activities provides the youth with an opportunity to earn a living, but perhaps more crucially, it ensures they are not manipulated into join rebel ranks. Some of the youth involved in the community projects said they enjoyed taking part, whether it was building bridges and teaching in schools, or participating in various activities by the church and Non-Governmental Organisations.
Rubagara, a youth member from Lwelera, who worked on restoring a local bridge told us: "With the cash I earned from working on the bridge, I hope to start an income generating activity."
Since the start of the project in 2017, just under 300 young people were trained as mediators, of these, ten of the young men were recently involved in an inter-community mediation meeting in Basimwenda. Working alongside local authorities, they provided input on solutions to a conflict over grazing and farming land in their community. Five out of the 50 who were trained as mentors, were recently elected as members of the local peace structures by their communities. The local peace structures sensitise and mobilise members of the public around positive conflict transformation, which allows for more engaging and constructive ways of dealing with conflict such as dialogue and mediation.
Radio spots broadcast as part of the project, on the importance of peaceful coexistence, have supported appeasement efforts between the different communities has resulted in reducing the risk of inter-ethnic conflicts in Bijombo.
As Elly, a youth leader from Nabindi in Basimwenda, put it there is evidence that the various trainings by International Alert have changed people’s views and perceptions and helped foster more tolerance.
"I can say without a doubt that I benefited from the training provided by International Alert. I took courses on citizenship, conflict sensitivity, gender, and leadership. These trainings have transformed me. Before I was very proud, suspicious and harboured a lot of prejudice towards other tribes particularly the Banyamulenge."
Today, I am more and more tolerant, collaborating and spending the night in the Banyamulenge areas without fear.