300 Western Volunteers Are Breath of Peace for Congo

Ray of Hope in Great Lakes War

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ROME, FEB. 28, 2001 (Zenit.org).- Three hundred Western volunteers are on their way to the Democratic Republic of the Congo to witness to peace, in a country engulfed in civil war.

Most of the volunteers are Italian or French, although virtually all European countries are represented. Most are from Catholic nongovernmental organizations such as Happy Are the Peacemakers, Operation Dove, and Africa Calls.

The principal target of the trip is Butembo, in Kivu, the region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo where the war of the Great Lakes region is fiercest. After arriving in Kampala, the volunteers are traveling a long way by road, walking over the border between Uganda and the Republic of the Congo, and continuing on to Butembo, with their needs provided for by the local population. Their objective is to walk with the victims of the war.

Most of the volunteers left Europe last Saturday; they will return home next Sunday. The most numerous are the Italians, whose plane left from Milan, carrying students, office workers, doctors, and retired individuals. The youngest is an 18-year-old woman, and the eldest a 74-year-old retired man. They met the other European volunteers in Uganda.

«They succeeded! Despite the difficulties and obstructionism of the local authorities,» said Bishop Paluku Sikuli of Butembo, when he heard the group had arrived in Kampala. «They are not going to Bukavu, as originally intended, but to Butembo, further north, in the region of Kivu itself. It is the first time that the inhabitants of that area see so many white men together.»

Lisa Clark, of the Happy Are the Peacemakers, was the first to arrive in Africa, to prepare the welcome for the rest of the volunteers.

She told Vatican Radio: «There is a wonderful atmosphere of optimism and hope, which is very different from the past months. There are people who are saying: ´A small chink in favor of real peace has opened and now we must make an all-out effort, we must use all our energy so that this chink will not close again, as has happened many times before.´»

When the volunteers arrive, every religious denomination of the city of Butembo will offer its contribution to the joint prayer for peace. This initiative for peace has also drawn Christian communities that are not members of the Union of Protestant Churches, such as the Kimbanguists, who constitute a Congolese syncretist group, and also the small Muslim community.

In recent days, news from the war front has been more optimistic. The first stage of a foreign-troop withdrawal is under way, and the belligerents must present by May 15 a schedule for complete withdrawal.

Meanwhile, Uganda´s new president, Joseph Kabila, is expected to begin negotiations with the opposition. Uganda and Rwanda, two of the countries involved in the Great Lakes conflict, have announced the withdrawal of their troops from the Congo.

Yet, Father Valerio Shango, a delegate of the Congolese bishops´ conference who is in Italy, told Vatican Radio that violence has led to more deaths over the past week. The situation is explosive in Kivu South, where at least 11 people were killed by guerrillas from Burundi and the Hutu-Rwandan militias.

Despite this, the priest sees room for hope, given the announcement of the withdrawal of two countries from the conflict. «It is a gesture the international community has awaited for a long time,» Father Shango said. «It has been awaited, especially, by the Congolese themselves, who are the victims of the presence of this army in their sovereign territory.»

The Sant´Egidio Community of Rome, an ecclesial movement, has been contacted by some of the warring parties to offer its mediation.

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