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War and Peace in Congo

Multiple conflicts have plagued the Democratic Republic of Congo for nearly three decades, killing millions of people and displacing even more. Despite their impact on so many people, these conflicts rarely make front-page news, at least outside central Africa. Compared with the war in Ukraine, the Syrian civil war, the Iraq war, Afghanistan and even Yemen, Congo’s long history of conflict is often overlooked.

As Camille Maubert and Sifa Bahati report, the situation in Congo is worsening:

‘Nearly 20 years on from a conflict that killed 5 million people and upended the lives of millions more, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is once again sliding into chaos. Since 1996, multiple wars have been triggered by a proliferation of armed groups, weak state institutions, a dysfunctional army and local struggles over power and resources. Peace deals, elections, the deployment of a UN peacekeeping mission and the efforts of hundreds of humanitarian organisations have failed to transform these dynamics. Today, violence persists in the eastern provinces of the country, leaving behind a trail of suffering that affects mostly women and children. In a recent incident in the town of Kishishe, the Rwanda-backed M23 rebels reportedly massacred 171 civilians and raped at least 66 women.

Bahati, S., Maubert, C. & Kinsella Cunningham, H. (2023) ‘Actors of Change: female activists fight for peace in the DRC’,

There have been multiple peace-building interventions over the years, and the UN’s peacekeeping mission in DRC – MONUSCO – is one of the largest of its kind. As discussed in this blog, however, rather than bringing an end to conflict some UN peacekeepers have themselves been perpetrators of violence, increasing the threats and insecurity faced by civilians, particularly women. In 2023, Pope Francis led an ecumenical ‘peace pilgrimage’ to Congo and South Sudan, to promote reconciliation and encourage Christian leaders to renew their commitment to peace. As Hugh Kinsella Cunningham and Nicholas Niarchos reported, ‘Francis’s visit sought to address violence and corruption in the Central African state. The violent and the corrupt lined up for an audience… Francis’s trip to Congo—and to the neighboring state of South Sudan, which has suffered civil wars since its independence in 2011—often seemed contradictory, as many in the crowd greeting him were responsible for the very atrocities and corruption he was decrying.’

As renewed conflict with the M23 rebels, massacres and regional militarisation catch the world’s attention, external peace-building interventions such as the Pope’s peace pilgrimage make global headlines – if only briefly. But what of the slow work of peace-building being done on the ground by local people, year after year? In particular, the vital contribution of women to peace-building in Congo remains invisible. Despite escalating violence, some women are working to create dialogue between armed actors and communities. They track human rights violations, warn of impending violence, and plead with rebel leaders to stop attacks. In doing so, they take immense risks. It is this grassroots peace-building work which Hugh Kinsella Cunningham’s photography project aims to shine a light on.

‘This photographic project focuses on people undertaking acts of bravery for the good of their community.’

Hugh Kinsella Cunningham

Working with Camille Maubert and Sifa Bahati, he shares the stories of peace activists such as Wivine Bayengo, Faila Kataliko, Justine Masika Bihamba, Liberata Buratwa, Rose Kahambu Tuombeane and Lydie Kake, documenting the issues they focus on, the challenges they face, and the positive changes that they are slowly bringing about. This kind of storytelling, that combines personal testimony from the women themselves with photographs showing both their vulnerability and strength, can profoundly alter how we visualise both peace and conflict, and what kinds of peace-building we might champion in future. Peace-building as dialogue, across frontlines and between soldiers and civilians; peace-building as information-sharing, to learn and advise about current and impending offensives; peace-building as small-dispute-resolution, to quell local tensions and prevent further escalation; peace-building as crime-monitoring, more accountability, an end to impunity. These forms of peace-building, developed by women in the Democratic Republic of Congo over several decades, can be effective at both local and national levels; and they have much to teach the wider international community not just about how ordinary people survive ongoing conflict but how they can become positive agents of change within their communities.

To read some of their stories and learn more about Hugh Kinsella Cunningham’s approach to peace and conflict reporting, please explore our ‘Photography Exhibition’ section.

This photography project was originally published with National Geographic: Bahati, S., Maubert, C. & Kinsella Cunningham, H. (2022) ‘These women are bringing some peace to war-stricken Congo’, Hugh and his colleagues have also reported on the women’s peace movement in Congo for The Guardian: Bahati, S., Maubert, C. & Kinsella Cunningham, H. (2023) ‘Actors of Change: female activists fight for peace in the DRC’,