Independent Appeal: Africa's Schindler

In one of the continent's bloodiest battlegrounds, one man has saved thousands from the clutches of lethal militias. Claire Soares launches this year's Christmas Appeal from Butembo, Congo

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, blessed with an abundance of precious minerals but blighted by years of war, hope can sometimes seem the scarcest commodity. But if that is the case, no one told Henri Bura Ladyi.

He has single-handedly rescued 5,000 people from the clutches of militiamen as they deliberated whether to keep the group as a human shield or simply massacre them in an immediate show of strength. He has freed scores of kidnapped child soldiers by persuading Mai Mai rebels to exchange them for goats.

A modern-day African version of Oskar Schindler, the unlikely saviour of hundreds of Jews during the Holocaust, he uses every contact and resource at his disposal to save lives. A quick flick through his mobile phone's speed dial reveals everyone from UN officials to militia commanders accused of unspeakable crimes. Sometimes the phone rings with an emergency call from a colleague forced into hiding by a rebel ambush in a remote village. Sometimes, it beeps to signal an incoming text message, which turns out to be a threat to slit Henri's throat.

Against unforgiving odds and in circumstances that would overwhelm many, the 36-year-old is trying to lay the foundations for a better future in this corner of Congo, backed by Peace Direct, one of the three charities being supported by The Independent's Christmas Appeal this year.

Peace Direct puts particular emphasis on building peace at the local level, challenging the conventional wisdom that the solutions necessarily lie with outside powers such as the UN or western aid agencies. And perhaps nowhere is that strategy more appropriate than Congo, which, for many foreigners still conjures up the Heart of Darkness clichés bequeathed by Joseph Conrad's 1902 novella.

Today, Congo is still reeling from the fallout of the world's worst conflict since the second World War. Although the Congo combat officially ended in 2002, an estimated 1,500 people are still dying every day. Malaria, cholera and malnutrition combined to wipe out the equivalent of the population of Manchester this year. Hundreds more are being killed in clashes in the troublesome east. Then there are the 900,000 people estimated to have been displaced since January as the Congolese army battles remnants of the FDLR, a Rwandan Hutu militia group; and the 1,000 women and girls being raped each month as cornered rebels take their revenge and rogue army officers run riot.

Despite those horrors, the morality of the situation is not clear. Shifting loyalties prevent any definitive casting of good guys and bad guys. And this is the basis on which Henri and his Centre for the Resolution of Conflict (CRC) operate.

As dusk falls in Butembo, the town's task force gathers. Perched on wobbly plastic chairs, they make a motley peace crew: a university professor, a policeman, a journalist, a vet, a pair of aid workers and three senior officers from various Mai Mai rebel factions.

The jaunty red baseball cap and earnest note-taking cannot quite mask the steely military core of Colonel Roger Muhindo. He is still in contact with his former general although he maintains he severed his membership of the Pareco faction when he left his camp in August 2008, and brought 11,000 men out of the jungle with him. There is some doubt about whether he and the other colonels have actually disarmed, but that, Henri says, is beside the point. "The point is that they all used to be totally untouchable, extremely difficult people who didn't engage with the community," he says. "To have them here as part of our team is a major step."

Later that night, another task force member, journalist Edouard Pacifique, confesses that he was actually taken hostage for four days by Colonel Roger's troops, rolling back his sleeves to show burn marks and scars left by knife slashes. So how can he sit at the same table as his former adversary? "That's the essence of reconciliation," he says.

It is an approach that has already produced results. One of the other rebel colonels at the table, Joel Vahinghene, worked with Henri months ago year to secure the release of 100 child soldiers, some as young as six, by trading their freedom for goats.

Over the past decade, Colonel Joel fought on the front line, first against the Rwandan troops and the FDLR militia, then against the CNDP forces of renegade general Laurent Nkunda, as well as rival Mai Mai factions. "I don't really know how many people I personally killed over the years," the 27-year-old says, in a soft voice that belies his violent past. "There were at least 10 in face-to-face combat, but others were struck down from a distance."

In February this year, he "suddenly felt the weight of all those lost years" and turned in his weapon, although he is evasive about producing his official disarmament card. Now he tries to persuade other rebel commanders still out in the bush to implement the deal their leaders in town signed. But the rebels are reluctant to lose their share of the looting that accompanies their military operations, their sole source of income. That is where the goat swap came in.

This unusual ransom idea originated with the rebel chiefs. They were acutely aware that the ranks of child soldiers, who once afforded a battlefield advantage, had become a burden, extra mouths to feed. So they contacted Henri.

There was just one snag. Although some parents already owned an animal they could sacrifice, the £30 needed to buy one was a prohibitive cost for others. Undeterred, Henri went to negotiate, settling on the rate of 10 goats for 40 children. And so 100 children won their freedom between February and April this year, helped by funds supplied by Peace Direct.

But it is not always a case of happily ever after. When 17-year-old Kahindo Mwanamolo returned home after a year with the militiamen, she barely spoke. Henri's team stepped in to ease the transition. Kahindo's version of her time in the bush might at first seem like a love story, as she describes how much she loved her rebel husband, Noiré.

But her voice is barely audible, she fiddles constantly with the pink and green beads on a wrist, and her eyes are wells of emptiness. A psychologist believes she is suffering profound trauma after being used as the gang's sex slave. Henri's team have tried to create a sustainable livelihood for Kahindo to ensure she is not tempted back into the rebels' arms. They have taught her to rear chickens and started her off with two birds. It is the smallest of starts, but one that could prove life-saving.

Over on the other side of town, Kasereka Makwena is explaining how for just £7 a term, his young nephew would be able to go school. Kakule was just 11 when Mai Mai rebels snatched him as he walked home from the family fields. Too small to wield a Kalashnikov, he was armed with rocks, and sent into battle. "I saw so many bodies, some missing limbs, others missing heads," Kakule, now 13, sayss. "And now these images are stuck inside my head."

He was released into the care of his uncle in April. But he has become difficult to control. Kakule has run away from home for days at a time, rendering his uncle almost frantic. "I fear the worst, because there are times when he talks about going back to the militia." There is no doubt that this slight child with the sticky-out ears and cheeky smile remains vulnerable, his future on a knife-edge. And if anyone knows how a random experience can tip the balance, it is Henri.

It could have been all been so different for Henri, who has three children, and now spends almost every waking hour trying to foster peace. He almost became a gunrunner back in 2003, when his Lendu tribe faced the Hema in Ituri province during one of the myriad conflicts spawned by the wider Congo war.

Henri had every reason to feel aggrieved and want revenge. The Hema tortured him several times, accusing him of relaying their secrets via the communications post he ran. On one occasion, two men were executed before his eyes to terrorise him into confessing; on another, metal batons were interwoven between his fingers and his hands crushed.

What saved him both times was his talent for talking people round, as well as the bank of connections he had made on all sides. But once freed, his own people accused him of treachery, spraying his office with bullets and ransacking his house in warning.

As the political tides shifted and the Lendu rose to power, he found himself press-ganged into joining their ranks to prove his loyalty, although he managed to engineer a position as a technician, well away from the atrocities of the front line.

But, by April 2003, the Hema were advancing on the provincial capital, Bunia, to take their revenge and Henri felt his life was in danger. He fled through the jungle for the safety of Beni in neighbouring North Kivu province, a 200km trek that took more than a week on foot.

Had he not made the decision to leave when he did, who knows what might have happened to the 5,000 people who found themselves trapped one night in Gety, one of the villages en route. Rumours were swirling of traitors amid the fleeing masses, and the militiamen, in paranoid mood, forced the refugees to halt in the undergrowth while they decided their fate.

Despite being threatened to keep quiet by a tap on the head with a machete, Henri asked to see the leader. "I couldn't leave us waiting in the pouring rain like sitting ducks." The pair negotiated through the night; Henri's powers of persuasion won through and the 5,000 were allowed to go. "That journey through the jungle was the turning-point," Henri says. In Beni, he abandoned his plan to run guns back to his brothers in Bunia, and went to work for CRC.

His boundless optimism, infectious enthusiasm and talent for bringing all sides to the table won him promotion to director in just a year. The successes Henri has scored since, thanks to backing from Peace Direct, are admittedly tiny in a country that stretches lengthways from Scotland to Sicily, and across from Ireland to Russia.

But, he says, they all add up, and he is determined to keep going. "Building peace in Congo is a bit like washing a pig," he says with a laugh. "Just when you think, you've got him clean, he's wriggled free and is squelching in the mud again. But that doesn't mean you give up."

All around the world, remarkable and resilient people are living in hardship it is difficult for most of us to comprehend. In our Christmas Appeal this year, we have chosen three charities which work to enable those people to change the grim situations in which they find themselves.

The charities: Who they are, what they do

ActionAid works in more than 40 countries, and is dedicated to ending poverty and injustice. It specialises in community development. Its projects include one aiming to help poor women in Ethiopia to buy their own shopping mall, working with farmers to fight climate change in eastern Africa's Rift Valley, helping sex workers in the world's biggest brothel in Bangladesh, and supporting a school in Afghanistan for child soldiers rescued from the Taliban.

ComputerAid International collects old computers in the UK and refurbishes them to send out free to schools and charities in the developing world. Its 150,000 computers are helping African meteorological offices to advise farmers, and allowing rural health workers to send X-rays over the internet for diagnosis from specialists.

Peace Direct sets up initiatives among local people to lessen tension in conflict zones, mindful that many conflicts fester and often reignite after peace deals. Peace Direct brings Muslims, Sinhala Buddhists and Tamils together in Sri Lanka. It funds Afghanistan peace councils. It eases tensions in Northern Ireland. And it works on relations between oil companies and locals in Sudan.

The charities all have extraordinary stories to tell. We hope you will give generously.

Donate now

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