Young leaders supporting the community amidst insecurity – Rutshuru26th January 2023

Alicia*, a graduate of the WYLD programme, will never forget the day that her home community was attached by members of the M23 armed group.

“When the M23 arrived in my village, the sound of bullets crackled everywhere,’ she remembers. ‘I just took my two children in my arms and told myself that we have to leave because two bombs had just fallen on the neighbour’s house. As we crossed the fields, bullets kept coming towards us. I had one child on my back and the other by the hand.’

This is the daily reality for thousands of people Rutshuru Territory, a area close to the city of Goma in the eastern region of the DR Congo. Since May 2022, M23 have waged an increasingly violent campaign in Rutshuru Territory, attacking villages and seizing control of large swaths of land. More than half a million people have been displaced by the fighting (UNICEF, 2023). Many, like Alicia, fled to neighbouring communities. Others sought safety in Goma, or in camps for people who have been forced to flee their homes as a result of the violence.

We’ve been supporting young people in Rutshuru Territory since 2017, providing leadership training to young people whose entire lives have been shaped by the decades-long conflict that has been waged in this part of DR Congo. Our aim is to inspire, support, and equip young people to become leaders and changemakers in their own communities – and in doing so, help set down the roots for lasting peace.

In spite of the ongoing escalation of violence in this territory, our commitment to young people in Rutshuru remains unchanged. The security situation is extremely challenging, but we have tried as much as possible to continue our leadership training programme. We’ve helped our young people organise celebrations for the International Day of Peace, emphasizing the need to see beyond ethnic, religious, or political differences. We continue to provide support to graduates of the WYLD programme who have bright ideas for small business that can help provide for their families and communities – people like Javan and Baltazare, who are now able to provide gainful employment to other people.

Since the escalation of fighting, many Rutshuru-based graduates of WYLD have gotten in touch to let us know what life is like for them now – and many have also voiced their hope to go home and continue building a peaceful future for their communities.

Displaced persons camp outside of Rutshuru – picture taken by The Congo Tree team, November 2023

Samuel*, a graduate of the WYLD programme, and his family fled from their home in October 2022, as M23 fighters advanced on their village.

“My role as a young person and especially as a leader is to give hope to my whole family,’ he says. ‘Today we live in a school, like people who are homeless, and there is no assistance. But my preoccupation is to return to my village and be very helpful for its development.”

In Goma, members of current WYLD cohort have been volunteering in the camps for displaced people, a simple but powerful way to let those who have been forced from their homes know that they have not been forgotten. We also organise daily distributions of meals to young people with children in the camps.

Unfortunately, the escalation of hostilities by M23 does not appear to be abating. While the group entered into a ceasefire agreement with the national government in Congo in November last year, they have since been accused of breaking the ceasefire on multiple occasions. Despite these challenges, we remain committed to supporting young people in Rutshuru – and in so doing, help them build lasting peace in the communities they call home.

*Names changed to protect our young people