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Congo prepares to face up to the truth

Civil war has forced millions of Congolese to find refuge in camps like this

(Keystone Archive)

Switzerland is helping to set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where three million people have died in almost five years of civil war.

swissinfo spoke to Jean-Nicolas Bitter, a foreign ministry official working on the project, to find out how effective this process could be.

According to Bitter, the aim of the commission will be to provide redress for the victims of the violence that has wracked the central African state.

The signing of a peace deal in April this year between Joseph Kabila's government and rebel leaders was hailed as a chance to end the bloodshed.

But shortly afterwards hundreds died in fighting between rival militias in the north-eastern town of Bunia, prompting the United Nations to send in troops.

The death and destruction has been compounded by the number of people forced to flee their homes. Around 2.7 million Congolese are either refugees or internally displaced persons (IDPs).

The Swiss authorities announced this week that they were increasing financial support for the victims of the conflict, providing SFr1.2 million ($1.6 million) for non-governmental aid organisations in Bunia.

swissinfo: Why has Switzerland become involved in this process?

Jean-Nicolas Bitter: Probably what qualifies us is that we have no particular interest in the country - no geopolitical interests, no colonial past.

We were looking at how we could support the peace process in an intelligent way, knowing that we would have an acceptable status to all the parties involved.

Our contribution in the future would be to put an expert in reconciliation at the commission's disposal to help pursue its development. We would also continue to contribute financially.

swissinfo: What form will the commission take? Will it have parallels to the South African commission's work?

J-N. B.: Each commission is different and one should look at the individual case of each country. It won't resemble South Africa's, because for that you need to have a stable situation with a strong government and civil society.

According to the Congolese, the main aim of this reconciliation commission should be to address the needs of victims and to give them a place to express themselves.

swissinfo: How close are we to seeing a commission instituted and carrying out its work?

J-N. B.: One could say the people who have been gathered for this TRC are already working. They have been working as part the Commission for Peace and Reconciliation.

The conditions are that parliament has to adopt the law that has been prepared [to institute the TRC]. The transitional government should also be in place for the commission to work properly.

swissinfo: How effective would it be?

J-N. B.: It is difficult to know how effective it could be. It depends for the time being on the transitional government. It would be an independent institution, but it would need the government's support to function.

However, it has not been ruled out that such an initiative could have a role to play even if the transitional government didn't move as fast as we wish.

swissinfo: What sort of problems does the country have with internally displaced people (IDPs)?

J-N. B.: There are a huge number of IDPs in the country. This situation has torn apart the social fabric of the country.

It will be very important in terms of reconciliation to address this issue. These people have to be allowed to go home for lasting peace to become reality.

swissinfo: Will it in any way hinder the work of the commission as these people aren't where they belong?

J-N. B.: It would probably make things difficult, but the commission has a national role. It will have a central authority, but it will also have organs in other regions.

One can assume that wherever these IDPs are within the country, they could get in touch with the TRC.

swissinfo: The country is still going through difficult times. Why is Switzerland still supporting the reconciliation/peace process?

J-N. B.: The situation nowadays is fragile, but the peace process was fragile from the beginning of the Inter-Congolese Dialogue. We think that despite this, it is still probably the best and only solution for the Congo.

swissinfo-interview: Jonathan Summerton

Key facts

The war in the DRC is estimated to have killed over three million people, mostly civilians, in less than five years.
The latest UN estimates are that 2.7 million Congolese are displaced from their homes, including 300,000 who have sought refuge in neighbouring countries.
With a host of rebel groups, mineral-rich eastern DRC has become a battlefield, jeopardising efforts to set up democratic institutions.

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