Africa's peace seekers: Petronille Vaweka

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Out of the mist of a rural African morning, a great lion springs into the path of a young woman walking to work in the fields.

Tail twitching, the beast stares at her, ready to pounce.

But she knows better than to flinch. Moving slowly, she bends her knees and places her iron hoe gently in the dirt.

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Staring straight back, she begins talking to the lion. "I'm not your enemy," she says. "I'm only going to the field, and I won't hurt you."

The lion watches. The woman stands silently. Moments pass. With a swish of his tail, the lion leaps away.

Petronille Vaweka, a top official ineastern Congo, grew up hearing this story about her grandmother's courage. She tells it today as a defining tale in her own life - a life devoted to using the power of words to disarm the gun-toting militias that stalk the villages in this lawless corner of Africa.

"If you are facing someone who is violent, you must never use force," Ms. Vaweka recalls her grandmother saying. "The first thing is to put down all your instruments. Then look at them, right into the eye."

* * *

The militia leader's conditions were clear: No large contingent of bodyguards could come with her; no United Nations peacekeepers. Vaweka, on a mission to free two kidnapped government workers, would be allowed to negotiate for their freedom accompanied only by her husband and a few aides.

She agreed, despite the militia's menacing reputation. The Patriotic Resistance Front of Ituri (FRPI in French, the main language) is one of the groups implicated in the brutal killing of nine Bangladeshi UN peacekeepers in a Feb. 25 ambush. FRPI leader Germain Katanga is now in prison awaiting trial.

Vaweka knew this was her task, and hers alone. She's the top official in the fledgling government of Ituri, a province the size of West Virginia in a country as big as Alaska and Texas combined. Ituri is one of Congo's richest regions - and one of its most violent. It's chockablock with gold, diamonds, oil, and coltan (a rare ore used in cellphones and laptops). But the UN estimates that 60,000 people have died here since 1999. Greedy outsiders - including leaders in neighboring Uganda and Rwanda - have stoked ethnic tensions and supplied the region's many militias with weapons to fight for control of the riches.

In this case, the FRPI had snatched two of Vaweka's local administrators from their offices in broad daylight. It was a direct challenge to Vaweka's authority - and her government's efforts to establish control in this long-chaotic region. She couldn't afford to have her administrators locked up.

So on the steamy morning of July 17, Vaweka 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.

Just two years ago in Bunia, armed groups were besieging the UN headquarters and killing people in the streets. These days, gunshots no longer ring out, and residents can walk around town at night. New businesses, including an Internet cafe and an Indian restaurant, have opened recently.

To be sure, the UN is a major factor. It got aggressive in the wake of the nine peacekeepers' deaths. It fights hold-out militias with helicopter gunships, armored-personnel carriers, and heavy weaponry. But observers say Vaweka's role is central, too.

"The armed groups complain bitterly about her," mostly because she confronts them, says Ms. Van Woudenberg. "But everyone knows if she wasn't there, there would be massive problems."

Over the years, she's held countless negotiating sessions with militias - cajoling, lecturing, and pushing them toward peace. "I won't undertake something unless I know I'll succeed," she says.

Yet she pays a personal price. Long ago, she sent her older children away from Ituri for their safety - and keeps a close eye on her younger, adopted children, one of whom is a former child soldier. Death threats are a daily occurrence.

And complete peace in Vaweka's region and nation remains elusive. She wishes her grandmother were still around to advise and inspire. "I think about her," Vaweka says, "every day."

* * *

On a December day in 1996, Vaweka said a casual goodbye to her husband, Paul Ciongo. He'd be gone only a few days - to sell a load of dried fish in a nearby city.

But neither husband nor wife knew what lay ahead - for them or their country. A conflagration that would take millions of lives and separate so many loved ones was just over the horizon.

Rebel leader Laurent Kabila was threatening to overthrow US-backed President Mobutu Sese Seko. But Mr. Mobutu had sent elite troops east to crush the rebels. So Mr. Ciongo wasn't worried as he set off. Yet two days later, rebels overran Bunia. Ciongo and Vaweka were suddenly on opposite sides of the front. Neither knew if the other was still alive, because the rebels cut communication lines.

Kabila's rebels advanced fast, pushing Ciongo and many others 1,200 miles westward to Kinshasa in just four months. Mr. Mobutu's rotting regime crumbled. The billionaire tyrant fled for Morocco.

That was the beginning of Congo's most-turbulent period since independence from Belgium in 1960. By 1998, a full-scale war erupted, drawing troops in from seven nations intent on exploiting Congo's resources. During the five-year war, up to four million people died, mostly from hunger and disease. So many nations and militias were involved that it's called "Africa's world war."

As the conflict raged, Ciongo tried to call Vaweka month after month. Finally after about a year, they briefly spoke by phone. At least each knew the other was alive - even if they were to spend years separated by war.

* * *

It took only a few weeks for Vaweka's new bosses at Oxfam to realize she was completely overqualified for her job. In 2000, she took a low-level position as a hygiene promoter. Her husband had been gone for three years, and the income was welcome.

But the job also fit with the basic ethic she'd been taught since childhood. "I grew up in the culture of protection - of protecting others," she says.

When she was little, her father, a wealthy merchant, gave lots of money to the church, she says, and paid for several new schools to be built. "In our ethnic group, one has to live for others - a mother lives for her husband and the family, and we all live for the community."

So, for Oxfam, the British relief group, she began journeying deep into the bush, talking to women about purifying water and other health basics. It meant going into areas notorious for rape, torture, even cannibalism. But this didn't faze her. In fact, she began seeking out leaders of militias perpetrating these atrocities - to understand why they were so intent on violence.

"We quickly recognized she came with extraordinary qualities," recalls Van Woudenberg, who then worked for Oxfam - and helped Vaweka start her own non-profit group, the Foundation for Lasting Peace.

Then, as a full-time peace seeker, Vaweka helped organize meetings between militia leaders and chiefs - and began to build momentum toward ending the fighting. "Her star was rising," Van Woudenberg says.

By April 2003, Congo was emerging from its war. When Ituri's militias struck a peace deal, they sought a president for the region's new interim government. No one else had so much street-level credibility. Vaweka was appointed to the job.

* * *

Hundreds of miles away, meanwhile, in the forests outside Kinshasa, Ciongo had taken up lumberjacking. To stave off loneliness in the forest, he bought a small radio.

One night in April 2003, the airwaves carried news of a delegation in Kinshasa. One of its members was Ituri President Petronille Vaweka.

Could it be? When he had left, she was a lowly water-project worker. Now she was president of Ituri?

Before dawn the next day, he raced to Kinshasa, guessing which hotel she was staying at.

"Is Petronille Vaweka here?" he gasped at the front-desk clerk, still out of breath.

"Yes sir, but it's 6 a.m., so you must wait."

"But this is my wife. I haven't seen her ...." He recounted their saga.

The clerk let him phone her room.

"Who is this? Who is this?" Vaweka kept saying, too groggy to understand.

Moments later, they embraced for the first time in seven years.

* * *

Abraham Lincoln. Billy Graham. Even the despot Mobutu.

In a region overflowing with guns, Vaweka is fascinated by these men - and anyone else who understands the enormous power of the spoken word. "I come from a culture where words have power," she explains.

She says she grew up seeing adults in her village cast spells. "If you wish some bad fate on someone, what you say can have an impact," she says. And for decades, Mobutu held great sway, in part because of his powerful words: "He had the force of words - and dominated this country." Just like her grandmother, who survived the lion encounter by putting down her hoe, Vaweka says, "I don't seek the force of guns, but the force of words."

And her words persuaded many local militia leaders to put down their weapons. "In many ways, she got the demobilization process off the ground as a concept," says a Western diplomat in Kinshasa.

Her pitch to militia chiefs was simple. They had three self-interested reasons to disarm: It would boost their legitimacy, help their soldiers have better lives, and improve their popularity with locals, which could help in upcoming elections. The argument largely worked. With some 15,000 militia members having started demobilization, the province is as calm as it's been in years.

Yet Vaweka is hardly a pacifist at any price. There's a great need, she says, for the national Army - as the legitimate repository for Ituri's guns. And she supports the UN in its new aggressive stance toward militias. "At some point we had to face [with force] the people who wouldn't listen - the people who think weapons are power," she says.

For now, she plays a kind of "good cop" to the UN's "bad cop." She meets with militias - including the FRPI - and encourages them to cooperate with authorities and lay down their weapons. The UN goes after those that don't.

But ultimately, she says, the UN and its guns can't solve Ituri's problems: "No outside force can help Iturians if they can't understand they must not use weapons."

* * *

The burned-out hulk of a one-story building, with its collapsed tin roof and strewn-about bricks, says everything about the central challenge Vaweka now faces.

It's the sweltering morning of Aug. 5, 2005, and Vaweka has just landed in the northern Ituri town of Aru in a giant UN helicopter. Now she's standing in front of the charred building. Until two days ago, this was the government's main office in town. Then it went up in flames. There's little doubt it was arson.

As she walks closer to the building, she passes an honor guard of ex-militia men, who've joined the new Army. With rifles slung over their shoulders, they salute Vaweka. Their commander grasps what's supposed to be a ceremonial sword - but is merely a long piece of wood, wrapped in tinfoil. What might be comical under other circumstances is an earnest attempt at normalcy here.

With fighting on the decline, the Kinshasa-based national government is trying to establish order in long-lawless Ituri - to collect taxes, administer services, and more. But the militias who have been in charge consider that a threat - and see Vaweka, the government's local leader, as the source of their troubles.

Inside the building's ash-filled file room Vaweka walks past destroyed records of militia atrocities around Aru. It will be much harder to punish or prosecute with those records gone. Also incinerated were voter records for national elections that the government, with UN help, is organizing for next year.

Even Ituri's antagonistic Hema and Lendu ethnic militias - who have fought each other viciously for years - are uniting against their new common enemy, the Kinshasa government. The remaining armed groups "are doing their best to stop her," says Joel Bisubu of the Bunia-based advocacy group Justice Plus. They accuse her of being a puppet of the Kinshasa government - and of being a politician, not a peacemaker.

Back in the UN helicopter, on the flight from Aru to Bunia, Vaweka seems unperturbed by all the challenges. Of the apparent arson she says simply, "Nobody died, so it's not so bad." She asked Aru officials to draw up plans for the building's reconstruction.

Of her role as a politician, she says, with a piercing look that might make her grandmother proud, "Some people say what I'm doing now is politics, but I say it's what I've always been doing: Trying to protect the people."

Petronille Vaweka

1948 Born in Ituri Province of then-Belgian Congo
1979 Widowed, then married Paul Ciongo, her son's guitar teacher
2000 Worked for Oxfam as hygiene promoter
2000 Started Foundation for Everlasting Peace
2003 Appointed President of Ituri interim assembly
2004 Appointed Ituri District Commissioner

A musical family

The Ciongo-Vawekas recorded a 3-song CD entitled "Mekadishkem" or "God Who Makes us Holy."

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