A bishop prepares volatile Congo for peace

Results from last month's disputed runoff presidential vote are due by Sunday.

After decades of civil war, Congo may have found its own peacemaker in the mold of Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Like the Nobel prize-winning South African archbishop, Bishop Jean-Luc Kuye-Ndondo wa Mulemera has been selected to head a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, aimed at uncovering crimes against humanity, and encouraging forgiveness between powerful gunmen and their victims.

But, with final results from last month's disputed presidential runoff due in days and armed factions still roaming the country, Bishop Kuye-Ndondo says his work of reconciliation is still as distant a dream as peace itself.

"Peace in Congo is still far away," says Kuye-Ndondo, a sturdy man in a grey suit, sitting in the musty office of a small Pentecostal church in Congo's capital, Kinshasa. "At this stage, the power of the people is more powerful than the power of the gun," he says with a wry grin. "But at the present moment we are playing between the two."

Peace in Congo was never going to be easy. After a brutal 1998-2003 civil war in which an astonishing 4 million died, Congo has maintained a tenuous peace under a transitional government made up of the armed factions who had been enemies. Now that parliamentary and presidential elections have been held – and the final results of the presidential elections are expected to be released by Sunday – Congo is holding its collective breath to see if its many armed losers will accept the results quietly, or fight.

Violent clashes grip the capital

In the past week, tensions have risen as tentative results show President Joseph Kabila well ahead of his opponent, Vice President Jean-Pierre Bemba. The country's electoral commission issued provisional results Monday from 156 out of 169 constituencies, giving Mr. Kabila 59.6 percent and 40.4 percent for Mr. Bemba.

But Bemba's supporters have cried foul. "According to our calculations, Kabila has 51 percent and we are at 48 percent, but if you take 12 percent in fraud cases, then you can see this changes the vote a lot," says Fidele Babala, the deputy head of Bemba's campaign. "If [election commissioner Apollinaire Malu Malu] doesn't fix these abnormalities, then we will reject the result...."

More ominously, trucks distributed leaflets last week throughout the capital, calling the vote a European "imposition" on Congo, and calling on Bemba supporters to reject the vote, with violence if necessary.

With street fighting this weekend between police and youths supporting Bemba, Kuye-Ndondo admits that the future is uncertain at best. But while he calls for international peacekeepers to remain in Congo to keep the peace process going, he says that Congolese themselves also bear responsibility for their future.

"We ourselves have to work with the political leaders to make the way for elections to take place, and prepare a solid arena where we can talk about peace," says Kuye-Ndondo. "But until there is security, we cannot talk about truth, the truth of what happened. There are some villagers who were victims of crimes, and there are some among the authorities who committed crimes against humanity. There are even belligerents in the office of the TRC itself. That is why we need the international community for some time."

Coming from the Swahili-speaking eastern part of Congo, in the region of South Kivu, Kuye-Ndondo has witnessed perhaps more war than many city-dwellers of Kinshasa. "There are many mass graves in the east," says Kuye-Ndondo. "Many cases are brought to us, but we can do nothing without security. We ask them to wait till the times when they can make their case openly, and justice can be rendered."

Kuye-Ndondo admits that peace in Congo will take something of a miracle. With rival political factions still armed, with international peacekeepers itching to leave, and with many victims of war crimes uncertain of their future, Congo is teetering between peace and war.

Preparing the path to peace

"In the past few years, we have been busy mostly on the pacification of communities, to allow for this election to take place," he says. But while the TRC has focused on getting communities to support the peace process, and asking victims' families to set aside their demands for justice, Kuye-Ndondo is preparing for the second and larger part of his mandate, to bring justice to the families of war victims.

Kuye-Ndondo has sent out teams to prepare to receive cases, and negotiate deals between victims and perpetrators. But this process cannot even begin, he says, unless foreign peacekeepers extend their missions to provide security, and unless there is a stable government to maintain peace among political factions.

Yet, despite the threat of renewed violence, the EU announced Monday that its troops would leave Congo beginning at the end of this month as planned.

In this frustrating interim period, between war and peace, Kuye-Ndondo urges his congregants to pray. And the bishop himself knows that even political situations as difficult as the South African transition from white- to majority-rule have succeeded when people of faith, like Archbishop Tutu, step up to take responsibility and action.

Referring to the parable of Jesus, that even faith as small as a mustard seed is powerful, Kuye-Ndondo says he believes in miracles. "It is because of my faith in God that I accepted this job, to lead the commission, and I think that God who helped start this peace process from stage one will be with us to the end," says Kuye-Ndondo. "That is the faith that I have."

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