Armed militia are everywhere you look in eastern Congo – living in fragile banana leaf huts along main roads, ferried in huge trucks across the region; in villages, in towns, mingling with the population in the provincial capital, Goma.
There has been much coverage of the human rights abuses carried out by all armed groups against the local people here. Time and again the humanitarian community calls all sides to protect the vulnerable civilian population.
And yet, on a Friday in a mundane meeting room, made interesting only by its cartoon elephant curtains, sat 20 government army officers debating the disconnect between the principles of humanitarian law and the reality, and the challenges of their operations on the ground.
“Our job as FARDC soldiers is to denounce violations against civilians and make public international humanitarian law,” said a huge officer with enormous authority.
It was the final day of a three-day training for military actors in international and local law run by World Vision’s Humanitarian Protection team.
Groups of senior officers pored over a newspaper article about the forced marriage of a young girl. They were discussing the legal and moral violations of a father selling his young daughter in exchange for cash.
“What is the minimum age for marriage in Congo?” someone asked. Sometimes, you have to start with the basics.
"A violation is when power is abused,” said another. “When a father forces his daughter to marry against her will, he is abusing his authority.”
Then followed a heated debate about the confusion in Congolese law between “traditional” and legally-recognised marriage.
A pragmatic approach
From a distance, it’s easy to get very principled about the actions of armed groups. Here on the ground, you realise you have to balance that with a good measure of pragmatism.
The communities we work with, those made incredibly vulnerable by the ongoing conflict, deserve a better-trained, more-disciplined security sector.
The officers I met this week agreed.
“I have learnt a lot,” said Lieutenant-Colonel Theophile. “I thought I knew the law, until we started getting into the detail, then I realised we didn’t know much.
“I didn’t know about the laws around sexual violence,” he said.
Some argue that humanitarian organisations risk damaging their principles of impartiality and neutrality through any contact with armed groups. But we risk neglecting the vulnerable people we work with if we fail to take practical steps to improve their protection.
"Despite all the problems our soldiers have, we have no excuses,” said Theophile.
“The law is the law. We have learnt a lot today and we shall reflect on it and put it into practice.”
Anna Ridout works for World Vision in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)