Africa's peace seekers: Petronille Vaweka
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.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
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.
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.