WALIKALE — They swapped their firearms for spades, machettes and hoes.
Until very recently, the young people here used to be members of armed groups in Congo's North Kivu that boasted names such as Kifua Fua (Stuck-out Chest) or Raia Mutomboki (Revolutionary People). But on this Saturday in early November, they are repairing a road that leads to the administrative center of the Walikale territory. Some are building bridges over small rivers, others are cutting down the shrubs that grew in the middle of the roads.
"It's a hell of a job," says Blaise Sheke, president of Walikale’s civil society. "The road hadn't been repaired in 20 years!"
How did this turnaround happen, and why? Central to this turn of events is Father Arsène Masumbuko, a priest in the Goma diocese and local director of Caritas Développement, an organization that helps people in need. Noticing that "the conflicts were starting to affect even innocent people," Father Arsène wanted to do something to stem the violence.
In July, several civilians were killed in fights in Itebero, Congo, and 100 homes were torched. At least 10 armed groups were active in the area, Sheke says. These fighters soon understood Father Arsène's invitation and grievances. Not only was he born here, but he has also been leading countless charity programs. The loving "development agent," as Father Arsène is sometimes known, is very popular.
Many of the fighters from the two armed groups were invited to the so-called Social, Security and Peace Days that the priest organized in August, and they have since laid down their weapons. "Two of them who are young enough to go to school have resumed their studies in Kinshasa and are being taken care of by the Congolese government," Father Arsène says with pride.
Since then, some of these young people have been openly repentant. "We're no longer erecting barriers," one says. "We're no longer plundering other people's wealth. All that matters to us now is peace and the development of Walikale."
Does Father Arsène really have that much influence? Many cite his impartiality as the key, nothing that the priest was chosen by Tcheka, a rebel leader of the Nduma Defense of Congo movement, to oversee the liberation of an Indian co-pilot and three Congolose mechanics.
And, explains Fiston Misona, president of the local youths, "He is also behind the construction of a primary school and of a general hospital that are the pride of Walikale."
Even struggling students ask Father Arsène for help. "There's something else about him," says Akilimali Descartes, former president of the local students. "He doesn't choose. He serves everybody, even those from a different tribe than his. His kindness has influenced almost all the sons of Walikale. That's how he managed to disarm these groups.”
Regular meetings in Itebero often lead to important recommendations. In October, for example, locals started driving freely on the major road between Hombo and Ntoto. "Before, motorbikes were plundered and car passengers stripped of all their belongings," explains Amisi Kalonda, a motorcyclist.
During his last visit to Goma, Congolese Interior Minister Charles Nawege Mangez Mans singled out the priest's achievements. "That's why the Social, Security and Peace Days were financed by the government," he said. "And we have invited Father Arsène to the national consultation, to talk about local issues."