Some 550 former combatants surrendered their arms on Sunday and Monday in the northeastern district of Ituri, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), in a disarmament effort targeting 4,000 militiamen, the largest number so far.
"The growing number of militia members giving in their weapons and joining the reintegration process indicates that the recent political and military efforts in the district are starting to bear fruit," the UN Mission in the DRC, known as MONUC, said on Monday.
Among those who surrendered their arms on Sunday to MONUC were members of the Forces armées du peuple Congolais (FAPC), one of six armed groups in Ituri. Once in MONUC's hands, the former combatants are due to undergo a demobilisation and reintegration programme.
"We have passed through a long process," Col Emanuel Ndungutse, a former FAPC chief, told IRIN on Friday in Aru. "The Congolese government showed us goodwill and our leader [Jerome Kakwavu] is well received in Kinshasa. There is no more reason to fight."
Ndungutse, clad in civilian clothes, was referring to Kakwavu's recent promotion to general in the new Congolese national army, into which many former rebel elements have been integrated.
Ndungutse said some FAPC men had disappeared or deserted, one reason as to why the exact number of men handing in their weapons is still unclear.
|Former combatants await disarmament in Aru, Ituri District.|
"They were told to follow the leader and give up their weapons as well," Ndungutse said.
He added that many of those who had already left to rejoin their families were minors.
MONUC said 400 FAPC fighters handed in their guns at the Aru transit camp on Sunday and that 310 individual weapons and 20 group-operated weapons were collected. An additional 100 combatants were disarmed on Monday, MONUC said, and the estimated number of FAPC combatants willing to take part in DDR process in Aru was about 2,000.
MONUC also reported that on Monday, UN peacekeepers disarmed 50 militiamen belonging to the Front des nationalistes et integrationniste (FNI) in the village of Kodikoka, 15 km northwest of the town of Mahagi.
The disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) programme in Aru is the biggest so far in Ituri and more than doubles the number of militiamen who have surrendered their weapons in the district.
By 18 March, 1,754 militias in the district, including 33 women, had surrendered their guns. Some 1,861 boys and 454 girls were also registered with MONUC's demobilisation team, Col Subi Subramaniam, a UN military observer in Bunia, said.
"We consider them as associated to an armed group, but not all of them are necessarily militias and had guns," he said. "Some may have been sexual slaves, others forced to work for the rebels."
Also in Aru, not far from Camp Khari Chaur - the headquarters of a 200-strong Nepalese MONUC contingent guarding a nearby transit centre - 450 young fighters of the ragtag FAPC, most of them in civilian clothes and some barefoot, erected a camp of grass huts and waited for their transfer to the transit centre for processing.
Groups of women, some of them with children on their backs, washed clothes and cooked food in the open. They are the war wives of the FAPC soldiers, some of them very young, like many militiamen who, until Monday, still carried their guns - frightening and terrorising the civilian population. The UN Development Programme (UNDP) estimated that every disarming combatant brings along about four dependents.
When a man in Congolese police uniform passed by the FAPC encampment in Aru, the militias shouted, pointing guns at him, a sign that it may not be easy to reintegrate the former rebels into society or turn them into disciplined soldiers for the national Congolese army, as is the plan.
In Ariwa, a village near Bunia - the main town in Ituri - angry villagers clashed with militias only a few days before the disarmament began.
Many of the FAPC fighters to be disarmed are still scattered in a 30-90 km radius throughout Aru Territory. Most of them are now moving to a temporary disarmament centre in Mont-Awa, 25 km east of Aru town, and are due to proceed to the disarmament transit centre, also in the town, for final processing.
The majority of the FAPC men belong to the Lugbara, Kakwa, Ndor and Kalika ethnic groups, and are veterans of the late President Mobutu Sese Seko's former army.
Under the DDR programme, the first step for the FAPC ex-combatants is to surrender their heavy weapons. Capt Saidou Sanou from MONUC showed IRIN a tent filled with military hardware and ammunition.
"We collected 240 boxes of ammunition, two canons, two mine launchers, a grenade launcher and 16 rocket-propelled grenades," he read aloud from a long list, which is growing daily.
Once the rebels enter the transit centre, they have to surrender their light weapons as well, he added.
"The transit centre has a capacity of 400 men and is processing 100 men daily," Laurant Banal, a technical consultant with the National Commission for Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reinsertion (CONADER), the lead agency for disarmament, said. "They stay for four days, during which they are oriented about their options to either enter civilian life or be integrated into the new Congolese armed forces."
He said: "Most important is that they can make a free decision on whether they want to become civilians or integrate into the Congolese army.
"We keep them in groups of a maximum of 25 and constantly monitor them, so that no one can exert pressure on them regarding their decision."
Subramaniam said of the almost 1,800 militiamen who had laid down their arms by 18 March, just 235 volunteered to join the Congolese army. The vast majority opted for the civil version of the reintegration programme.
"This is not a real disarmament where the weapons will be destroyed here," Banal told IRIN. "We collect them and deliver them to the new legal authority, the integrated Congolese army, and we move them from an illegal to a legal group."
MONUC and several UN agencies and NGOs in Aru support CONADER. These include the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), the German Development Agency, known as GTZ, and UNDP, which financed the infrastructure and manages the coordination of the transit centre and programmes for entering civil life. Financing comes via the World Bank through the Multi-Country Disarmament Regional Programme.
Once the militias are disarmed they are identified, registered and given a certificate.
"The ex-militias also have their eyes scanned so that they cannot go through the process twice and benefit several times of the support packages handed to them," Peter Situma, of UNDP's disarmament unit, told IRIN. "We give them an entry kit with a blanket, a mat to sleep on, two trousers and T-shirts, washing and cooking utensils, and shoes."
Those who want to join the Congolese army are turned over to it immediately for further screening. The others are given US $50 for the trip home and food rations for one month for a family of five.
For Aru residents, it comes as a relief that the threat of militia violence and war is waning, but they are still wary. Agamille Georges spoke for a group of students watching the site.
"Since MONUC's arrival here, it has became much quieter and there is less danger that civilians will be harassed. The Congolese army never cared about us," he said.
He added, "But even if they are disarmed, we still would not trust the militias."