During a recent conversation with one of Ituri’s many local leaders, he said something that I keep thinking about. He was telling me about his role in the community. In his words, he was a man of the peace, working always towards la pacification. Here is a rough translation of his words:
I’m a man of peace, always working for the pacification of Ituri, even during the war! People know this about me, so they come to me with questions and for information. And I tell them things. Sometimes they’re true and sometimes they’re not true. But they’re always for peace!
I’ve been thinking a lot about this man (full disclosure: he’s not the guy in the photo, which I took…but I think this photo kind of speaks to the issue). He clearly was on the side of peace. Even during the war he would leave the capital, Bunia, to get messages of peace to the villages in his native territory (if what he told me was true of course…). On one trip he was attacked with a machete (that’s true–he showed me the scar). So his response alarmed me. He said it with a large grin, almost as further proof that he really was a man of the peace: willing to lie in the name of peace!
But then again, it didn’t really surprise me. We can say after some of our fieldwork here that “le mensonge” (the lie) has a central place in the general discourse. EVERYONE thinks that EVERYONE ELSE has lied, is lying and will lie. I think my favorite conversation on this point was when one group of local leaders outside Bunia said, “you have to start with all the communities apart because that group will lie, and that other group will lie too…” and then they paused, “and we’ll lie too!” At this point they all burst out laughing. It was like the fact that everyone does and will lie was so universally know that it was pointless to try and keep up a veneer of sincerity for the researchers from out of town.
This makes the work of researchers and investigators particularly difficult, not only for their actual work, but also for their local reputations. We’ve already mentioned the ubiquity of the “fake victims” in the discourse around the ICC’s investigations here. This is old news to most followers of ICL, but it’s not an old problem, as Human Rights Watch was reminded last month when it was accused of having ‘zero credibility’.
Another interesting aspect is that while pretty much everyone here in Ituri thinks that everyone lies, people also see something positive in that, depending on how you ask. We’ve asked, for instance, whether the different communities here have their own version of the war’s history, and if so, what’s good and what’s bad about that. Most have agreed unanimously that yes, each community has its own version of the history of the war. Most have also recognized the hurdles that this proliferation poses for reconciliation. But the community leaders we pose this question to have also generally agreed that it has a positive side: most have said that it’s good for a community to have its own history of the war because this can help its members come to know their identity.
This is particularly important in the Ituri context. Probably like most other societies ripped apart by mass violence, Ituri’s social fabric was dramatically altered by the war, and its customary relationships (hierarchies, sources of identity, etc.) have never returned and probably will never return to where they were before 1999. Most challenging is the presence of thousands of young, demobilized former soldiers who are mostly uneducated, who live on the edge of poverty and who are easily whipped into a fury, but who don’t necessarily respect the word of their community’s traditional leaders.
So while the proliferation of different truths poses significant risks to any process of truth and reconciliation (in a later post we’ll turn to how all these different truths fuel interethnic anger, mistrust and violence), it may in some ways ironically help to soothe some of the other scars left by war. Could a community’s own version of history be used to bring it together without confronting those of the other communities against which it fought? Maybe. It would certainly need to be well managed–and in the absence of the state, that job would fall to the NGOs.