Amani Itakuya #11: Trauma, Reconciliation, and the Possibility of Peace in Eastern Congo

Trauma, Reconciliation, and the Possibility of Peace in Eastern Congo

Rachel Niehuus


We were sitting at a coffee shop in Goma. We had been discussing Swahili colloquialisms that I was planning on using in my upcoming interviews. As I was getting ready to leave, I invoked a Swahili valediction often used in eastern Congo when war is looming. ‘Mungu akipenda tutaonana,’ I said. If God wills it, we will see each other again. Instead of responding in kind, he quietly initiated a discussion on the current state of war in North Kivu. His concluding statement had been: ‘On n’a pas besoin de cinq chantiers. On ne veut qu’un seul: réconciliation. On fait semblant. On fait semblant comme on veut la paix, mais actuellement, on a mgawanyiko [profond désaccord]; on n’arrivera jamais à faire la paix avec le coeur qu’on a aujourd’hui.’

Debates about the path to peace in eastern Congo clog academic journals, opinion columns and the blogosphere. Concrete measures are proposed: land laws must undergo reform; the security sector must be reorganised; bureaucracy must be overhauled; education must be improved; socio-economic opportunities must be broadened. I believe that all of these ideas are integral to the establishment of peace in Congo. Still, I would like to momentarily return to the idea of reconciliation, which I argue demands a deeper engagement with the relationship between loss and violence.

In eastern Congo, the trauma of twenty years of violence has entered communities, homes, and bodies. There is no outside to war, no exteriority to neglect. Fear, pain, resentment, and anger coat every interaction; suspicion replaces trust in intimate relations; uncertainty and displacement are not events but daily realities. I ask: what does it mean to reconcile, ‘to render no longer opposed,’ in this context? I find John Borneman, an anthropologist who explores the role of reconciliation in healing after ethnic cleansing, to be helpful here. [1] Borneman’s idea of reconciliation begins from the assumption that intimate violence creates profound trauma. Left unaddressed, this trauma perpetuates violence. Reconciliation, then, is ‘a project of departure from violence.’ [2] For Borneman, reconciliation includes both an end – a rupture from existing relationships – and a new beginning, in which affinity is refigured through trust and care. Borneman sees institutions as one space for creating such a rupture with the past and imagining alternative beginnings. Thus, for him, the state has an integral role in the restructuring of relationships. However, the climate for reconciliation must also be generated in the home, between family members and between neighbours. For, Borneman asserts, a politics of non-repetition requires individual departures from violence, the encouraging of truth-telling as a daily practice, and perhaps most importantly, caring for the enemy. [3]

The failure of the peace talks between the government and M23 signal the acute need for reconciliation in eastern Congo. But what would reconciliation in Congo entail? I believe that the first step towards ending violence in eastern Congo is bearing witness. Borneman writes: ‘A sense of ending is made possible only by breaking hegemonic silences concerning the nature of loss and its attempted recuperation in relation to the sources of violence and its modes of reproduction.’ [4] The profound loss that has affected every body, community, and future in Congo needs to be grieved. Listening and truth-telling must be encouraged. To instill a rupture with the past, retributive justice must be practiced: victims must be vindicated and perpetrators prosecuted. For the wounds are deep, and retribution is crucial to restoring trust in the political process. As accountability is nurtured, new affinities will be fashioned. Slowly, though probably not linearly, the mgawanyiko of which my Congolese friend spoke will be replaced by care and trust, and the precarity of life, which can be so easily annulled, will be reasserted. [5]

The pundits predict that a peace agreement will be reached in Kampala soon. While such a document might provide temporarily relief to communities affected by M23, I do not believe that it will generate regional peace. Following the Congolese activist quoted at the beginning of this post, I argue that neither development activities nor political solutions alone will break the cycles of violence and loss in eastern Congo. Rather, a durable peace will emerge when Congolese individuals, institutions, and interlocutors come together and commit to healing through reconciliation. May that be soon.


Rachel Marie Niehuus is an MD-PhD student at University of California, San Francisco and Berkeley. She researches on love and violence in the Kivu region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

[1] Cf. Borneman, John (2002): Reconciliation after ethnic cleansing: Listening, retribution, affiliation, in: Public Culture Vol. 14, No. 2, pp. 281-304.

[2] Cf. Ibid.

[3] Cf. ibid.

[4] Ibid, p. 296.

[5] Cf. Butler, Judith (2004): Precarious life: The powers of mourning and violence. London: Verso Books.


One Response to “Amani Itakuya #11: Trauma, Reconciliation, and the Possibility of Peace in Eastern Congo”
  1. Anand Upadhyaya says:

    Rachel, you are exploring some very powerful and important concepts in this piece. Thank you for bringing these issues to the forefront. I completely agree that the reconciliation you speak of is central to establishing long lasting peace. I would date the trauma in DRC much further back than the last twenty years.The emotional and traumatic impact can be dated back to colonialism and Leopold’s rule. No great barrier exists between modern and more distant history. We can consider that events two centuries old in the history of the United States still impact our current culture. Similarly, the unhealed trauma of the Congo extends back further than the modern conflict. We can still frame reconciliation efforts to address the most recent events, while keeping in mind the deeper history of the region.

    I think the “caring for the enemy” bit is hugely important, especially with so many blurred lines between civilians and combatants. This aspect of healing seems to necessitate a spiritual perspective. This is probably not the most popular take in academic circles, but nonetheless merits attention. Recognizing that everyone is subject to an environment designed by larger forces than just themselves, and seeing the essential sameness in others, is a Herculean task. The weight can only be lessened by embracing a spiritual perspective as part of reconciliation efforts. This would likely not be a state initiative, but more the realm of local religious and spiritual personalities. I think this is especially true given the deeply held religious beliefs of so many Congolese.

    Peace agreements and reconciliation efforts by the state and actors like M23 leadership will likely be fashioned in terms of preserving their own self interests. Individuals and groups of civilians must push the reconciliation process forward if it is to be sincere and lasting. Again, thanks for addressing this very important aspect of peace building.

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