afrol News, 25 November - The trade unions of Congo Kinshasa (DRC) and Rwanda met secretly in Belgium while the two countries were still at war, they now reveal. They became the forerunners of peace and are now the forerunners of reconciliation between the peoples of the Congo and Rwanda, finding that the "ordinary working people have nothing to do with this war."
Anne-Marie Mambombe, assistant Secretary-General of the National Union of Congolese Workers (UNTC), in an interview told this to Anne Renaut of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU). As the Congolese and Rwandan unions now have managed to make their peace, they now plan to set up a Great Lakes inter-union group with their counterparts from Burundi, in an effort to contribute to peace in the region.
Ms Mambombe confesses that it had been difficult to refrain from war agitation and hatred as Rwandan troops were occupying great part of Congo Kinshasa and Congolese patriotism became the general sentiment in the country. However, Congolese trade unions had "tried to hold general meetings to raise awareness among the general public," she says.
- The trade unions did not want arms, as we see dialogue as being essential, explains Ms Mambombe. "I remember we placed a banner in front of our building asking those in power to resolve the problem through dialogue. It was not easy to convey this type of message as the authorities were absolutely determined to use arms, given that Rwanda, a small country, had invaded and defeated the Congo. It was an affront, and using arms was their way of avenging that affront."
Asked whether Congolese unions were able to talk with the unions in the neighbouring countries, Ms Mambombe recalls two meetings with their Rwandan counterparts during the war. But it had been far from easy, as the hatred towards the Rwandans also was common within the UNTC.
The Congolese government had "managed to convince everyone that the Rwandans were bad, that they had invaded our country and humiliated us," the UNTC leader recalls. "It won over the entire population, even the children. We in the unions were also taken in by this picture of things."
Nevertheless, a first meeting between Congolese and Rwandan trade unions was arranged in Belgium in May 2002. "The day we met them was a shock," says Ms Mambombe. "We entered the hotel lobby and found the Rwandans there. Everyone reacted. Some said that we should not greet them. But others said it would not be right, because as trade unionists we could not refuse to shake hands with the other party. So the days went by like that, full of hypocrisy."
- Then we had a meeting with the Belgian Minister of Foreign Affairs, which was an opportunity to talk, Ms Mambombe says. "But the only thing that came out that day was poison. It was by no means easy."
Only a second meeting, organised by the Belgian government in February 2003, produced results. "The discussions were very hard," recalls Ms Mambombe. "Then things began to evolve when we realised that the Rwandans did not know why they were at war on our territory. We realised that we had grown to hate the Rwandans even though the ordinary people had nothing to do with this war."
- As soon as we had understood the other party, we started to moderate our position, she says. "We felt the need to work together to reconcile our peoples." The ice was broken and Congolese and Rwandan trade unions "became the ambassadors of peace," in Ms Mambombe's words.
In Congo Kinshasa, the UNTC started to explain to people "why we should not hate the Rwandans, because Rwanda's ordinary working people have nothing to do with this war." And on the other side of the border, the same message was given by their colleagues, the Confederation of Trade Unions of Rwanda (CESTRAR).
While UNTC and CESTRAR keep working on the massive effort to reconcile the peoples of the Congo and Rwanda, the two unions however already have embarked on a new peace initiative.
As soon as reconciliation was celebrated in February 2003, the two unions came up with the idea of establishing an interregional structure, a Great Lakes inter-union group to "discuss peace in our sub-region." The group is to encompass trade unions of the Congo, Rwanda and Burundi, ICFTU reports.
- Sharing experiences could be a great help in pursuing our initiative, says Ms Mambombe, "because the hate for Rwandans has affected children, and if we do not carry out activities at the level of the general population, we run the risk of finding ourselves in the same situation as Israel and Palestine," she concludes.
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