Do we need more police, more expressions of the nation-state, to maintain security in neighbourhoods and cities? Does guaranteeing the safety of our citizens necessarily mean more control? What can we learn from experiences that have succeeded in building peace in regions where the most violent wars take place?
This interview was originally conducted in French, and translated into English by Commonspolis. You can read here the original French version.
Séverine Autesserre is a Political Science professor and researcher at Barnard College, Columbia University. She is the author of “The Frontlines of Peace”, a book that brings together in-depth field research from 12 conflict zones. In it, she presents examples of successful grassroots peacebuilding efforts, both in countries at war and at peace.
In an article written for Commonspolis, Arnaud Blin, a political history researcher, summarized Séverine Autesserre’s research in presenting the fascinating case of the island of Idjwi in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which has been able to maintain peace in a region plagued by civil war. We wished to speak at greater length with Séverine Autesserre in order to explore new avenues of reflection on security, inspired by her numerous case studies around the world.
From Congo, via Jerusalem or Colombia, can we draw inspiration from other contexts, other cultures, and other histories to rethink urban and rural security policies?
What is your personal and professional background, and how did you come to work on the particular case of Idjwi?
Séverine Autesserre:I have been working on war and peace for 20 years. I want to understand how communities, individuals, or countries manage to build peace during and after episodes of mass violence, such as, civil and international wars, as well as genocides. I have written several books and about 30 articles on the subject. So far, most of my work has been about what is not working, trying to answer questions such as: “What are the problems? Why does the violence continue?” During the last five years, I have completely changed my approach. I’ve told myself that since I now had a clear idea of what doesn’t work, I wanted to know what does work to build peace in war zones, because doing so is incredibly difficult. What is most interesting to me is understanding why there are communities, towns, villages, and other places where it has been possible to achieve a certain level of peace.
My latest book, The Frontlines of Peace, looks at what worked. I extract lessons that can be learned from successful experiences to promote peace and security around the world, whether we are talking about war zones–such as Congo, Colombia, Somalia, and Afghanistan–or communities that are not considered to be at war–such as Barcelona, Marseille, Chicago, or New York, the city where I live.
It was in the context of this research that I became interested in Idjwi, because I am more or less a specialist on Congo. I have been working on the conflict in that country for 20 years.
What does the island of Idjwi have to teach us in terms of peace management?
Séverine Autesserre: The conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo is very important. It has been one of the deadliest conflicts since World War Two. Even though we do not have reliable statistics, according to most estimates, the conflict is believed to have caused between 5 and 6 million deaths. The most recent wave of violence in Congo started in the early 1990s, around the same time as the end of the dictatorship of President Mobutu, who–without going into details–manipulated ethnic, economic, and security interests, leading to war. I date the beginning of widespread violence to 1993, although most people date the start of the recent wars in Congo to 1996. So it really is a persistent and extremely deadly conflict that has destabilised the whole of Central Africa.
“[…] peacebuilding takes years, and above all it is done on a day-to-day basis, all the time.”
And in the midst of this conflict, I’ve found an island named Idjwi, located on Lake Kivu (one of the largest lakes in Central Africa), on the border between Congo and Rwanda. This island is part of the Kivu provinces, which are the epicentre of the conflict in Congo–there has been a lot of mass violence and massacres in the Kivus in the recent past, and violence continues to this day.
What is so fascinating about Idjwi is that there hasn’t been any mass violence there for 20 years, even though Idjwi is located in an extremely violent area. On the island, the inhabitants have managed to maintain peace and security. For me this is absolutely fascinating! And ever since I realized this a few years ago, I have gone back there several times to see what we can learn from Idjwi.
In his article summarising your work, Arnaud Blin explained that the consultation and dialogue committees played an important role. Is dialogue the central factor in maintaining peace? Are there other elements that have made it possible to maintain an island of peace in the midst of the deadly conflicts in the Kivus?
Séverine Autesserre: Peacebuilding in Idjwi does not rely solely on dialogue or consultation committees.
To start, it’s important to keep in mind that we find in Idjwi the same preconditions that have led to violence in the rest of Congo. There is Idjwi’s geostrategic position, since the island is located between two countries that have been at war regularly for the past 20 years. There are also a lot of ethnic tensions, as well as disputes over access to natural resources, and many local conflicts over land and traditional power. The state is absent, and poverty is endemic. In addition, we’re talking about a place where there is very little external intervention–whether by the UN peacekeeping mission or by the international NGOs that are trying to restore peace in other parts of Congo.
What I saw in Idjwi is that peace is mainly kept thanks to the daily actions of all its inhabitants–and I stress “all of its inhabitants,” because this includes not only the local elites but also the poorest residents and those who have no power. This is what I find fascinating in Idjwi. It is not the army, the state, the police, or international actors who manage to control tensions, but rather the community members themselves who are involved on a day-to-day basis to ensure that tensions do not evolve into collective violence.
It is true that there are many local human rights associations in Idjwi, along with neighbourhood associations, as well as priests who are very influential and who, through parish commissions, play an important role in finding peaceful solutions to conflicts [Author’s Note: Congo is indeed a very religious Catholic country]. In general, they avoid resorting to repressive strategies, such as going to the police.
But security is not only due to the existence of these kinds of peace committees; there are two additional elements that are very important. The first is what the people of Idjwi call a “culture of peace.” When I spoke with the inhabitants, they all said that this culture is part of their identity and they are very proud of it. They told me: “We are a peaceful people. We don’t want violence. We have a culture of peace, and it is our culture. We must not shed blood.” And that’s how they distinguish themselves from their Congolese or Rwandan neighbours. They instil these values in their children by teaching them to maintain peace on a daily basis. The residents also pass on the norms around their “culture of peace” to the refugees and displaced persons who flee the surrounding conflict and arrive on the island.
“What I saw in Idjwi is that peace is mainly kept thanks to the daily actions of all its inhabitants–and I stress “all of its inhabitants,” because this includes not only the local elites but also the poorest residents and those who have no power. This is what I find fascinating in Idjwi. It is not the army, the state, the police, or international actors who manage to control tensions, but rather the community members themselves who are involved on a day-to-day basis to ensure that tensions do not evolve into collective violence.”
The second fascinating element is that the inhabitants rely on very strong local beliefs that help discourage violence from both inside and outside the island–for example, through the use of blood pacts. A blood pact is when two people from different families pour a few drops of their blood into a glass and drink it. This gesture will bind their two families by a pact. If one family breaks this pact, by killing or harming a member of the other family, for instance, it knows that misfortune may befall it. Given that almost all of the families on the island are bound by blood pacts, in the event of violence or conflict there will always be someone who will react by refusing to use violence against a family member with whom a blood pact has been sealed.
The inhabitants also use beliefs stemming from magic and witchcraft. In the 19th century, the island of Idjwi was “the island of the damned” and “the island of the outcasts.” That was where, for example, girls who became pregnant out of wedlock were sent. Since then, the island has developed a reputation of being the home of the most powerful sorcerers. As the popular belief goes, sorcerers can protect you, but they may sometimes take revenge. This fear of retaliation, and the fear of attracting the wrath of sorcerers, still exists today. Idjwi’s inhabitants take advantage of these beliefs to protect their island. I don’t know how strategic they are, or if they do so because they truly believe in it, but the fact is that these beliefs around magic and sorcery help protect the island, because outsiders have told me that they think twice before even considering any kind of aggression toward the island.
“In the examples of successful peace that I have found, it is the people themselves who have built peace from below, and they have maintained it for several decades thanks to grassroots strategies based on ordinary citizens.”
It’s true that blood pacts may seem exotic to us, but everywhere I’ve worked, in all cultures, I’ve found these kinds of beliefs that can help build peace–and this is one of the arguments I set forth in my book. One of the things I have observed is the role that religion can play. Whether in the Bible, the Quran, or the Torah, there are elements that priests, imams, and rabbis can use to promote peace. Many organisations use religion to promote peace. When we look at Martin Luther King in the United States, he preached nonviolence by anchoring his discourse in the Bible and religious texts. We also know of examples of truces during religious holidays, as was the case in Afghanistan in 2018 between American fighters and the Taliban, or during World War One for Christmas.
In every country, I have found spiritual, religious, traditional, and popular beliefs that are used to build peace. So this is not specific to Idjwi.
What other experiences of peacekeeping and local security do you find inspiring?
Séverine Autesserre: In Israel and Palestine, and in Colombia, there are examples of villages where people have built a culture of peace from scratch.
One of the most interesting examples is that of the village of Wahat al-Salam, also known as Neve Shalom, which means “Oasis of Peace” in Arabic and Hebrew respectively. This village is located on the Green Line, the former demarcation line between Israel and Arab countries. Half of the village’s inhabitants are Israeli Arabs, the other half are Israeli Jews, and they live there in peace. When I talked to people in the rest of the territory, many of them told me that they feel they live in a situation of apartheid. They spoke of the violence that exists between their communities, and of their fear of being attacked if they simply go for a walk in Jewish or Arab neighbourhoods, depending on their community affiliation. In an area and a country that suffers from such high tensions and everyday violence, a group of citizens has created a village from scratch in order to prove that it is possible to live in peace. They have set up bicultural and bilingual schools, in which the languages and the history of both peoples are taught. They have a peace school where they bring in activists from all over the region. They have a religious centre that hosts ceremonies for people of all religions: Muslims, Jews, Catholics, Protestants, and Buddhists, among others.
We find a similar kind of situation in Colombia. In areas of armed conflict, certain inhabitants have decided to create peace zones with the motto: “We will reject war. We are going to protect our village, our community, and our family.”
“What is clear is that peacebuilding should be done both from the top-down and the bottom up. In the latter approach, each citizen asks herself how she can contribute at her own level. In Somaliland, people told me: “It is everyone’s responsibility to help keep the peace.” That didn’t mean going to the police to put people in jail, but rather: “How am I going to find solutions that are not oppressive, militarized, or violent”
There is also the case of Somaliland, which is an autonomous region in the north of Somalia and is very different from the rest of the country. In Somalia, there is a lot of violence, with terrorist networks that conduct weekly attacks, and a state that is the most corrupt and among the most “failed” in the world. In contrast, Somaliland has experienced very little violence and terrorism over the past 20 years, and it has a well-functioning state apparatus, decent public services, and even a fairly strong democracy.
When analysing these different examples, along with the other peace zones, we can observe a series of common points. They are all peacebuilding initiatives “from below” in countries that have opted for the usual peacebuilding template “from above,” i.e., under the leadership of international actors, focusing only on elites.
In the examples of successful peace that I have found, it is the people themselves who have built peace from below, and they have maintained it for several decades thanks to grassroots strategies based on ordinary citizens.
How are these peace regulation mechanisms set up? What cultural practices and codes of peace can be found in them?
Séverine Autesserre: It depends on the village, the conflict, the context, and the type of risk factors. There is no single answer.
To generalise, when there is conflict or risk, people use local codes of conduct or local traditions. For example, in San José de Apartadó, Colombia, when you enter the peace community you see a billboard nailed to a tree that describes the rules of the community: “We don’t carry weapons. We don’t give information to armed groups. We don’t cultivate illegal crops. We don’t drink alcohol.” When there is a conflict and someone doesn’t respect these rules, the community comes together and tries to make the person see reason, and if there is a repeat offence, the person is excluded.
In Idjwi, when there is a conflict, it is usually the local mediators or ordinary citizens who get involved: They go to see the different families and try to convince everyone to abandon violence.
“In France and the United States, responses are based on an “all-repressive” approach. When a problem arises, we turn to the elites in power, the mayors, the institutions, whereas neighbourhood associations and ordinary citizens also have a role to play in maintaining security. ”
Take, for example, the story of my friend and research assistant in Idjwi, Kaer. When Kaer was in his twenties, he became concerned about increasingly frequent incidents of violence, including sexual violence, by young people in his village. His response, and his way of helping solve this problem, was to work with his friends to set up a soccer club that would offer the village kids and teenagers a fun after-school activity. Instead of leaving the young people to their own devices, Kaer and his friends supervised them after school and tried to set a good example for them. And eventually, progressively, that is how violence in his village decreased.
What is clear is that peacebuilding should be done both from the top-down and the bottom up. In the latter approach, each citizen asks herself how she can contribute at her own level. In Somaliland, people told me: “It is everyone’s responsibility to help keep the peace.” That didn’t mean going to the police to put people in jail, but rather: “How am I going to find solutions that are not oppressive, militarized, or violent”
What elements from these experiences do you think can be learned by other communities? What advice or proposals do you think would be useful for maintaining security in towns or villages?
Séverine Autesserre: Among the many lessons I’ve learned, I will emphasize eight main ideas:
- As a first entry point, pay attention to things that work in order to learn from those experiences, rather than focusing on problems.
- Address problems from the bottom as well as the top. In France and the United States, responses are based on an “all-repressive” approach. When a problem arises, we turn to the elites in power, the mayors, the institutions, whereas neighbourhood associations and ordinary citizens also have a role to play in maintaining security.
- Rely on people inside the community who know the situation, the context, and the residents. The reflex of relying on outsiders to regulate conflicts often leads to failure. For example, in New York, people from privileged neighbourhoods are sent to solve problems in the Bronx. Whereas in fact, the people who are part of the community, including the victims and perpetrators of violence, are those who have the legitimacy, networks, and knowledge to build peace in their own communities. Solutions brought in from the outside rarely work.
- Take into account the specificity of each case. There are no standard models for peacebuilding and peace intervention.
- Plan for the long term. Many attempts to resolve security problems are very short-term. They are projects thought out over six months, one year, or two years. In fact, peacebuilding takes years, and above all it is done on a day-to-day basis, all the time. In Somaliland, people say: “We have built peace at the end of the 1990s, but since then we have been working on it every day because we know that peace is fragile. If we stop, we know that the violence could start again.”
- Act because dialogue is not enough. All the successful experiences I have seen, in the United States, France, and Congo, show that in addition to dialogue there were concrete endeavours. For example, associations working on gang violence in the United States and the United Kingdom (such as Gangsline and Cure Violence) are carrying out very concrete projects in addition to dialogue. They provide former gang members with job training, or they help them get rid of their tattoos. Or, in the context of land conflicts between farmers and herders in the war zones such as in Congo, farmers and herders have arranged and co-constructed seasonal migration paths.
- Know how to combine flexibility and adaptability. Keep in mind that your initial plan to maintain security is unlikely to work, and you will need to be flexible and respond to needs as they arise–you’ll need to adapt your plans regularly.
- Involve the residents in defining and arbitrating the values and rights that govern their own society. People often think that “all good things go together,” so we will promote peace, democracy, and justice all at the same time. But in reality, there are tensions between them. These notions clash, and these various principles can be detrimental to one another. Freedom of expression, for example, is a strong value in American society, yet it can be used to promote hatred. I believe that it is the people who will have to live with the consequences of a decision who should make these choices. They shouldn’t be imposed by outsiders, decision-makers, or experts.
This interview was originally conducted in French,by Averill Roy and translated into English by Matthew Lehrer. You can read here the original French version.
The Frontlines of Peace is available in English (and will soon hopefully be published in French and Spanish).
Find several articles presenting the work of Séverine Autesserre :
- Séverine Autesserre: Why the way we make peace needs to change
- Here’s what Congo can teach the world about peace