The Common Good
February 2014

When the Fighting Stops

by Marie Dennis | February 2014

What does it take to reintegrate combatants into society?

MARIE-LOUISE IS a 34-year-old single mother of three living in Bujumbura, the capital of the southeast African nation of Burundi. When she was 15 years old, she joined a rebel movement during the civil war in her country. “Following my demobilization,” she said, “my family welcomed me back warmly, but my neighbors did not think much of me. I still go around with a firearm ... Even my old friends find it hard to trust me. I have been branded because I am a female ex-combatant.”

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Around the world, several armed conflicts are showing signs of winding down, at long last—there is renewed hope that the M23 rebel group in the Democratic Republic of Congo will stop fighting; the government and the FARC rebels in Colombia are making progress in negotiations toward peace after 65 years of civil war; the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front have agreed on a pact to end the fighting.

These events bring into focus the tremendous challenge of reintegrating former combatants into society. The process is especially difficult when they have been forced to commit atrocities against their own people. Think of Guatemala, Sierra Leone, and Cambodia, to name just a few.

The unique characteristics of each conflict make generalizations difficult, but in the stabilization and peace-building process, attention must be given to a complex of transitional justice issues, such as truth-telling and accountability for human rights violations. Other important factors include disarmament, the reintegration and rehabilitation of former combatants, security sector reform, economic justice and jobs, gender equality, the impact of the armed conflict on children (including child soldiers), and the political context.

Previous experience with formal Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) programs in DR Congo, the Philippines, and Colombia make the difficulties clear. Despite the fact that the multi-country program from 2002 to 2009 in the DR Congo region was one of Africa’s most ambitious and complex, it failed to stem the violence; numerous armed groups are still mobilized, and the fighting continues. In the Philippines, DDR was so closely associated with the government’s counter-insurgency techniques that it has become an almost-useless tool. And in Colombia, despite a highly developed program, many of the roots of the conflict have remained and the conflict has endured.

Marie-Louise, the single mother in Burundi, participated in a program sponsored by Pax Christi for the reintegration of ex-combatants in Africa’s Great Lakes region. There, local Pax Christi groups created “listening communities” as small discussion and support groups where ex-combatants could tell their stories to find the resources necessary for social reintegration into their local community, and “welcoming communities” of prominent members of society to ease the strained relationship between ex-combatants and local populations.

Based on the experience of this program, Pax Christi believes it is crucial that civil society and community-based organizations are included in the design of any demobilization and reintegration process and made the following recommendations:

1. Strengthen the psycho-social dimension of the disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration process.

2. Fully support social and economic reintegration and foster the sustainable development of entire communities.

3. Acquire in-depth knowledge and act with respect for the social and cultural context.

4. Integrate permanent civic education in the process to foster a population of well-informed, educated, and active citizens.

5. Act in strict cooperation with civil society and community leaders.

6. Inform the public about such programs in order to transform the perspectives and attitudes of those who must welcome ex-combatants and live with them.

7. Support reform of the security sector, including the army, police, and justice personnel, with an emphasis on respect for human rights and meeting the needs of the population.

8. End the illicit trafficking of small arms between countries and within countries.

This “whole community” approach to the reintegration of ex-combatants can enable Marie-Louise and others like her to break the cycle of violence and begin to rebuild their lives in increasingly welcoming communities.

Marie Dennis is co-president of Pax Christi International. The Pax Christi report can be found at www.paxchristi.net. 

Image: surrender, deepblue-photographer / Shutterstock.com

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