More Upstander Stories

Through a series of interviews conducted by Fidel Bafilemba, Frontline Upstanders tell their life stories. All of them are risking their lives to defend human rights, press for peace, resist dictatorship, provide education, and prepare a better future for their fellow Congolese.

Amani Matabaro

Interviewed By Fidel Bafilemba

My name is Amani Matabaro. I was born in 1977 in a village called Mumosho, which is located at 22 kilometers south of Bukavu in the South Kivu province here in the eastern Congo. It was not easy growing up here.

This part of the country has been at war the last past 20 years, so I will say half of my life I have seen nothing but conflict since the Rwandan genocide in 1994. I know what it means to see people being killed. Mumosho is right on the border between Congo and Rwanda. From Mumosho you could see.  One of the people working now with me in my office, her father was slaughtered, mutilated, by the Rwandan militia who are now the FLDR in Congo today.  At the time, we were thinking that the Rwandan genocide was just a Rwandan matter, but as you know masses of the Rwandan Hutu soldiers and militia, along with civilians, innocent and not innocent, crossed our borders and that was the beginning of the chaos. Two years after, in 1996, the first Congo war started, and I was unlucky to lose many relatives, and I lost my father, so I will say that my childhood was not an easy time in my life, but it inspired me and exposed me on what challenges and hardships and difficulties look like. I felt it.

After I lost my mother in 1998, I was in a position where I could not continue with my education. But I was lucky to have a brother who helped me continue my education. I grew up feeling that one day I would have to give back, and it was a dream during my childhood to become someone one day who could make a positive difference. After graduating college, I felt that my first priority was to be in a position to make that difference, where I could denounce human rights violations, where I am not standing by idly doing nothing. In our everyday lives, every human being has a choice to make. Some people choose to be part of the problem, and other people choose to be part of the solution.  So I decided to co-found an organization called Action Kivu.

I felt that being part of a civil rights movement was one way to stand up and fight for the solutions to what I’ve experienced since my childhood. Action Kivu is sending children to school, to give them an opportunity to get an education because we believe in the power of education. Education is light. Education is the only weapon, the most powerful weapon, we can use to change the world. So we are sending children to school. In 2017 we are sending more than 500 children to school. We are also working with women, supporting their empowerment, giving hope to women and girls who have gone through challenges. We have vocational training programs where we give these women an opportunity to learn a skill, and these skills are helping them to become economically independent. We talk about civil rights, we talk about human rights, we talk about democracy, but as long as our communities in Congo are not economically empowered, politicians will continue using them. But if people are economically empowered, they have a choice, they can say yes, they can say no. They can make their own choices.  We also recently started a program with ex-combatants to give them an opportunity to learn a skill. These are young boys who have spent a big part of their lives in armed groups.  Once they are done, they are thrown away with almost nothing, which increases the risk of them taking back their AK-47. For those former child soldiers, we have a project that combines farming with raising pigs and creating a fish pond.  We put them in a situation where they have to work for themselves, learn new skills, become able to generate income, and stop dreaming of going back and taking the AK-47, and in that way we are contributing to preventing mass atrocities.

I’ll tell you one story about someone I’m calling my heroine. Her name is Brigitte Bagander. She joined our program when she was only 13 years old. And when she came, she had the idea of becoming a seamstress; she wanted to learn sewing skills. Brigitte was subjected to a rape when she was only 13 years old and unfortunately she became pregnant.  When she joined our program, she was really feeling worthless. She was even developing suicidal thoughts, and she wanted to end her life. But being part of our program gave her an opportunity to meet other people who expressed compassion and emotional support to her, and Brigitte started learning sewing skills. But I always tell our program participants that no matter what happened to you, no matter what you went through, no matter where you came from, no matter who you are, and no matter what you are, you still can change the story of your life.

And Brigitte is a successful example of the girls and young women who understood that we always have a decision to make for ourselves. After six months, Brigitte felt very empowered, and she decided to go back to school. She wanted to go to law school and become a female lawyer and start standing up for the rights of women and children who are voiceless and be their voice. We gave her a chance. In September 2017, Brigitte is going to start law school. She went from being a survivor of sexual violence to becoming a lawyer. So, this is just one example among many we have of children changing their lives because they have joined our programs.

The biggest challenge we face is this continued political insecurity.   I am hoping that one day the situation will change. And it’s going to change very soon. No matter what is happening, we’re not losing hope. Hope is the only thing that is driving my life today. I’m hoping that the situation changes in the Congo. We should have an election where Congolese can stand up and vote for someone who is going to represent them and make sure everyone in the country can enjoy the wealth and the riches this country had.

I’m also dreaming of a project I am working on called the Congo Peace School project.  We want to raise a new generation and teach them the skills and knowledge of nonviolence, because we believe our children today are the leaders of tomorrow. So we need leaders who understand that we cannot respond to violence with violence, but we can respond to violence with nonviolence. We cannot respond to hatred with hatred, but rather with love. Through our Congo Peace School project we want to raise a new generation prepared to lead this country peacefully and who are conscious that the country is not just something they can do whatever they want with. Congo is for the 80 million Congolese and everyone has to be part of it. We want the situation to change so that Congolese are part of the management of our country. That’s what we will be teaching the children at the Congo Peace School:  to not give up.

Non-Congolese have to be able to tell the true story of Congo. They should not change the history of Congo, because the truth is powerful. And they have to understand that Congo is part of the international community and that there is no way to isolate Congo from the entire world. Congo is a strategic country, with all the wealth the country has, the world should be careful about how they tell the stories of Congo. And they don’t have to just look at Congo negatively. No matter what is happening, the Congolese people can still stand up and continue moving, and everyone is busy doing what they can to make sure they can prepare a better tomorrow. So non-Congolese people should listen to the Congolese and tell their story and the history of Congo as it is, based on true facts, not imagined, and then start telling the stories of the Congo.  We need their solidarity in terms of rebuilding Congo, and making Congo a better place to live on the planet.

Congo should be represented by focusing on what is positive and how Congo can help the world. Congo has been helping the world, but the world is not sincere. The world is not honest. Let’s go back in history. The uranium which was used to manufacture the atomic bomb to end World War II was mined in Congo.  Congo helped in the transportation revolution a few hundred years ago. And today we are talking about key minerals in electronics, in the revolution of technology today.  We talk about tin, tungsten, and tantalum coming from Congo. So how do you want Congo to be represented outside? Congo should be looked at as a key country.

Our history has been simplified and the people who are simplifying it should know they are stealing the hope of the Congolese people. They are stealing the hope of future generations of Congolese, and that has to stop. The history, the stories of Congo have to be told respecting facts and the truth, and nobody can change the truth. Nobody can stand up against the truth.

Congo is a key country on this planet, looking at what it has in terms of wealth, looking at how the Universe has blessed Congo. We have the largest rain forest in the world after the Amazon. We have strategic minerals. We have our people. So the world should know that as long as the Congo is not at peace, the entire African Great Lakes region will not be at peace.