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DR Congo's veteran peace campaigner, Petronille Vaweka

By Marthe BOSUANDOLE
Congo Petronille Vaweka: 'People forgot that they were sitting on a volcano'.  By Arsne Mpiana AFP
DEC 7, 2023 LISTEN
Petronille Vaweka: 'People forgot that they were sitting on a volcano'. By Arsène Mpiana (AFP)

Petronille Vaweka, a tireless peace activist from eastern DR Congo who's now up for a prestigious award, recalls tense exchanges with militiamen, and the horrors of war in her native Ituri province.

The 75-year-old has spent decades pushing for peace in Ituri, a gold-rich province where brutal violence between the Hema and Lendu communities has raged on-and-off since 1999.

Born in 1948, in Ituri's capital Bunia, Vaweka first worked for the NGO Oxfam and then launched the organisation, Foundation for Lasting Peace, which advocated a ceasefire.

Vaweka negotiated with "militia leaders to secure access to humanitarians coming to the aid of displaced people" in this role, she told AFP in an interview, in an atmosphere of "intense hostility and suspicion".

At one point, the conflict reached Bunia itself, and militants raped women and decapitated people.

"People were walking around the city carrying heads. It was horror," Vaweka said, adding that she had hidden both Hema and Lendu people in her home during the period.

In 2003, the peace activist was elected president of Ituri's special interim assembly, an institution designed to get the militants talking to each other, instead of killing.

Vaweka's role was to "direct discussions, to calm emotions," she said.

But she was in position only three days when Ugandan troops -- who had allied themselves with local militias and occupied Ituri -- kidnapped her and threatened to kill her if she didn't step down.

"Since when should a woman have such a big responsibility?" one of the soldiers reportedly asked her.

Vaweka was released the same day after refusing to resign.

The activist is one of four finalists for the Women Building Peace Award, organised by the United States Institute of Peace, a federal institution focused on conflict resolution. The winner is due to be announced on Friday.

'Sitting on a volcano'

In April 2004, Vaweka was nominated as district commissioner for Ituri, a position equivalent to that of a provincial governor today.

"My mission was to stop the war," she said. "It's true, the armed groups are murderers, but each time they made a promise, they kept it".

After four years and the intervention of a European military force, peace and state authority was restored in the province.

"It wasn't easy, but we managed it," Vaweka said, highlighting that some warlords were brought before the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

But the conflict began to surge again in 2017 and has continued since.

"There was no proper follow-up. People forgot that they were sitting on a volcano," she said.

Militias have plagued much of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo for years, a legacy of regional wars that flared in the 1990s and 2000s.

Vaweka has lived in the capital Kinshasa since 2008, where she runs a peace organisation as well as a farm.

"I belong to civil society, and as such I retain my freedom," she said, explaining that she put little trust in politicians.

The DRC is scheduled to hold presidential and parliamentary elections on December 20. But Vaweka is unsure who she will vote for.

She continues to crisscross central Africa's Great Lakes region, meeting representatives of armed groups.

Vaweka said that if she wins the prize, it will be a "gift for the DRC" -- and all the people in the grassroots who are fighting to change the country.

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