After a day of dialogue about women and peace at the opening of the Nobel Women's Initiative conference I am left thinking of my experiences trying to understand the other side of the issue: perpetrators and war. I am a public health researcher at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative and over the past two years, I have been interviewing members of the Mai Mai militia in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a country known for the extremely brutal and pervasive sexual violence that has characterized the decades-long conflict there. Through over fifty interviews with current and recently demobilized rebel soldiers, we are trying to understand how these men think about their lives, about war, about violence and about their future.
Many stories emerged from the project, but some lessons were overarching. One of the clearest was this: violence has enormous power to feed on itself. As one soldier walked out of his interview, he told me that when he witnessed his family being killed, he made a choice to become a monster. He joined the Mai Mai and used his anger to take revenge for his loss.
So many armed men began their lives as victims of loss and grief. So many have gone on to become the source of bereavement for others. Trying to understand how soldiers make this transformation is crucial to understanding how violence is perpetrated in conflict. Is aggression taught ? Driven into soldiers through training? Does it take a quieter and more insidious route by feeding on feelings of anger, disempowerment and dehumanisation?
As it turns out, violence takes many paths.
The soldiers we interviewed described undergoing training to instil a sense of impunity and of entitlement to take what they want. Some described being beaten and 'remoulded' during their initiation. One man explained how this ritual made him leave 'civilian thoughts behind' as he turned into a different, militarised person.
Beyond this obvious transformation, soldiers describe other subtle changes that happen as a result of their desperate and dehumanising situation. Unexpectedly, interviewees talked about the fact that they didn't have access to soap again and again. They talked about the shame of not even having the basic ability to wash themselves. Part of me wonders if there is a deeper significance in their need for cleansing. But then, I think there is no need to look deeper. The ability to bathe is so basically and deeply human. It confers dignity and a sense of self worth. This self-respect is something soldiers describe as totally absent in their lives. Their dehumanisation leads to dehumanisation of others.
Because of the desperately poor conditions in the militia, soldiers often try to leave and start new lives. I was surprise to learn how that many of the soldiers we interviewed had tried to demobilize, some had even tried multiple times. But in a war that has lasted a lifetime for many, the only thing they know is combat. Men said they were unable to adapt to civilian life and couldn't find ways to make a living without a gun. And so they found themselves re-enrolling in the militia, turning once again to violence as a way of life.
I think of these different pathways that perpetuate perpetration and wonder which interventions can break this cycle. A simple point of hope is the soldier's own desire to seek options other than war. These combatants need to be given the means, both economic and psychological, to build a new life. But no good intervention is one-sided. The best programmes for demobilization will work with soldiers and the communities they join, to provide services, opportunities for healing, and reconciliation and income-generation to both civilians and combatants.
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