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.

Janvier Murairi

Interviewed By Fidel Bafilemba

My name is Janvier Murairi. I’m 43 and I was born in Bukavu on the 2nd of January 1974, and that’s why I’m named Janvier [January in French]. When I was six months old, my family moved to Goma where I stayed until I was five.

And then the family decided that I move to the village to start elementary school, so I moved to Bwito village in Rutshuru territory.   The nearest school was twelve kilometers from the village, so I walked 24 kilometers a day to and from school. It was not easy because we hardly had shoes or clothes, and we did not have desks in our classrooms. We cut tree trunks and fixed them upright in the soil to sit down on them.

When I was a student, sometimes I had no fuel to light the lamp by which to study. I often had to wake up early in the morning and go find a house where there was light to lean against its window and study my lessons. I remember one day I was preparing for a school exam the next day but hadn’t eaten all day long. Regardless, I went to school to take the exam on an empty stomach the next day. And once done with the exam, I started walking home, but on the way back I blacked out.  A woman rushed and reached out to me took me to her home and gave me milk. I drank and was back up on my feet. The woman told me that I’ll always be welcome if I have further problems getting food in the future.

The war starting in 1996 happened while I was in Goma. Many people from all sides killed each other for no reason due to people who were pulling the strings from Goma, Kinshasa and elsewhere. I always wondered, where did the devil come from to put barriers between people? I also saw the genocide in Rwanda with thousands of refugees flocking into Congo, including lost children and others dying because they were unattended.

I started getting active first in an organization called SOPROP (Solidarity for Social Advancement and Peace) in 1999. I worked there for five years monitoring human rights. I was one of the monitors who went to villagers and detention cells to document human rights violations.

Once when I was doing monitoring we got arrested by the rebels.  Given that we were still neophytes in monitoring, we had with us all of our monitoring documentation. We were taken into their office for interrogation, and they pretended to let us go. We went the hotel, and later that evening the same rebels came to grab us. We were taken to a different location where we met the rebels’ commander who named himself “Dangereux” [French for dangerous]. He was a Ugandan military commander.

They told us to drink alcohol that they offered us because it was going to be our last drink. They forced us to drink, and once drunk, the commander asked two of his soldiers to take us to the shooting spot alongside the Semliki River, far away from their base. We walked a very long distance, and once we were a little over half the way, they signaled to the people who were supposed to shoot us, but they spared our lives.

Because of my experiences, I founded ASSODIP (the Association for the Development of Peasants’ Initiatives). We decided to monitor the rebels’ underground intelligence cells and advocate for their closure.  In almost every military camp there was an underground cell, and many people were detained in them regardless of the charges.  The underground cell system had become a lucrative business for the military, and we as a human rights group decided to fight that system as our goal.

We also carried out studies trying to understand the causes of the protracted conflict in the Congo. We understood that despite the many causes of the conflict, the exploitation of natural resources was one of the most prominent causes and the source of revenue for all of the warlords. In 2007-2008 we worked with IPIS (the International Peace Information Service, a research organization based in Belgium) to conduct a mapping of the conflicts in Congo, and we established that armed groups in North Kivu were mainly feeding off of natural resources.

We also found that children were being badly exploited in the context of mining natural resources. Children are vulnerable and they are prone to abuses. Drawing on my difficult childhood, my colleagues and I decided to help remove these children from the mines and focus our work on child protection in the exploitation of natural resources.

I went to some of the biggest mines in eastern Congo and found children in huge numbers working in very harsh conditions. We documented what we observed and followed it up with advocacy work.

The phenomenon of child labor in very harsh working conditions in the mines had become common to the extent that parents would take their children as young as six years old and go work with them in the mines. We have documented these cases. Armed groups were taking children away and forcing them to work in the mines. The use of child labor in the mines was also common for regular armed forces and even companies in eastern Congo.

These days, however, our first success story has been increasing awareness of the issue. There are many authors of that success at the local, regional, and international levels. We did, however, speak out early on this and demanded that the place of children is not in the mine but at home with their families or at school or in the playground.  There is now awareness about that to the extent that if you come to a mine with children working there, you see that people are afraid and try to either hide them or lie about their actual age. But that was not the case before.

Another success story is that ASSODIP has been able to pull out of the mines over 100 children whose childhood would have been destroyed if we didn’t attend to them psycho-socially and train them in craft skills. Some of them have grown up and are independent now.

There is a major cash flow in the exploitation of natural resources. And as you know, there are many local, regional and international initiatives trying to improve the trade of natural resources. And one of the gravest offenses which can get a mineral labeled as a blood mineral is child labor. Many legal instruments at the national and international level forbid child labor.

When working on child labor, we’re not making friends among those who benefit from the work of children. The challenges we face in our work are mostly security ones. I have already been attacked four times. The first attack was in 2014, and one of the attackers was apprehended, but the Congolese justice system being what it is, the case has never proceeded. And in this year alone, I have been attacked three times at home in May 2017.  During the third attack, there were gunfire exchanges between the attackers and soldiers who live next to my house. It’s work full of difficulties but we cannot give up.

I’m optimistic by nature, not a pessimist. I almost had nothing, but today I’m an adult leading a human rights group. I dream of a Congo that is free of all conflict. I dream of seeing Congo’s natural resources being exploited in compliance with human rights and the rights of local communities. I don’t dream of minerals that continue fueling wars against the Congolese people.

I’m still one of those who believe that natural resources are a curse for the Congolese people so far. I dream of a Congo where its natural resources are exploited in ways that will benefit current and future generations. That’s the goal towards which we’re working. And I’m confident we can make it because we have a lot of supporters on our side.

I’m dreaming of a Congo that is well governed because the issue is not only that of natural resources. I believe Congo will be well governed tomorrow, democracy will settle, and we will become what Franz Fanon alluded to when he said that “Africa is shaped like a gun and Congo is the trigger.” I believe strongly that Congo will, one day, be that trigger of the African continent’s development. I’m amongst those who believe it. I think it’s not even a dream because I’m certain it will materialize.

I’d welcome anybody who realizes that Congo is in trouble to come and stay with us.

I deplore the lack of trust by donors towards local organizations under the pretext that they don’t have the human and material capacities to manage big funds. Donors forget that international organizations are not permanent like local groups, which are grassroots-based and know better the reality on the ground.  Those wishing to help Congo should trust local groups. There are some serious people in Congo, and I’m not one of those who generalize that all Congolese are corrupted. There are ethical people in Congo who resist corruption, and we can do better than international organizations.

I believe that Congolese are the experts of their own problems. And I think that if Congo is to be represented, it should be by the Congolese. In my opinion, no one can be more of an expert on the Congo than a Congolese person.

Let me surprise you though. I was in a Western country and when I introduced myself as a Congolese, many people came to me asking where Congo is located. And then a friend whispered in my ear that if I wanted people to remember Congo, I should say that it’s the African country which hosted the George Foreman/Muhammad Ali boxing match.