From combatant to civilian during COVID-19

Jul 22, 2020

Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) helps foreign combatants “reintegrate back into a normal life” in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

Originally meant as short transitory stay, Ndahimana Jean Damascene has been waiting for four months with his wife Irankunda, their two sons Eliya and Zabayo, and three other former foreign combatants to return home to Rwanda. They arrived in the Munigi transit centre in the province of North Kivu, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), shortly after authorities in the Great Lakes region began to close borders to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. “Being in the camp so far from the rest of my family is really complicated,” says Ndahimana Jean Damascene, who looks forward to the day when their journey is completed.

Established by the UN Mission in D.R. Congo (MONUSCO) in 2014, the Munigi transit centre hosts both Congolese and foreign ex-combatants with their dependents. Ndahimana Jean Damascene, his family and his compatriots came to Munigi in March as part of the recent waves of spontaneous demobilizations occurring in eastern DRC. Normally, demobilized combatants and their families remain at the centre for an average duration of eight days. However, due to COVID-19 and its impacts on freedom of movement, some demobilized combatants have been waiting several months for their repatriation.

MONUSCO has provided food, clothes, as well as masks and sanitizers. The former foreign combatants have also been educated about hygiene practices and other preventative measures that can curb the spread of the virus. “We have received proper care. Despite movement restrictions due to the outbreak of COVID-19 that are not allowing us to go home, we are comfortable and have trust in the DDR system,” says Ndahimana Jean Damascene.

Ndahimana Jean Damascene only heard about the Coronavirus after he arrived at the transit centre. Now, he knows what the consequences would be if the virus were to further spread across his community back home. Thanks to the work MONUSCO is doing to prevent the propagation, he confidently claims that he “doesn’t fear COVID-19 while being in the camp.”

Long before the pandemic, however, he remembers fighting for the FDLR/FOCA (Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda/Forces Combattantes Abacunguzi).

“Life out there, in the bush, was difficult. You were not sure about the next day. […] Anything you needed, whether food or medicine, was a struggle. You were not sure about your personal security. You could not sleep because you never knew: another armed group could attack you at any time,” says Ndahimana Jean Damascene. Their future was sacrificed for a cause they no longer believed in.

In the Munigi transit centre, free from violence and safe from the spread of COVID-19, Ndahimana Jean Damascene, along with his compatriots Tumaini Balthasard and 18-year-old Habinshuti Sadiki, hope to leave their experiences as fighters behind. Though they previously fought in different armed groups, they now all share the same hope: going back home to their families and starting a new life, far away from guns and violence.

Once movement across borders are no longer restricted, Ndahimana Jean Damascene is looking forward to joining the Mutobo demobilization centre in Rwanda. “I expect to engage in a vocational training. I have seen that I will be able to manage and improve my life and the life of my family,” he affirms.

Ndahimana Jean Damascene encourages other ex-combatants not to fear prosecution when attending rehabilitation programmes or upon their return to Rwanda. A path towards peace and rebuilding a life back home is possible, according to him. “It is time to reintegrate back into a normal life,” he declares.

Just like MONUSCO, other missions such as MINUSCA, MINUSMA and UNAMID continue to implement their DDR mandate while adapting to new realities. Every day, their interventions assist former combatants, their dependents and the communities that receive them in their journey towards peace. More information:

From combatant to civilian during COVID-19 was originally published in We The Peoples on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.