BENI — On a recent Friday, soldiers of the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (FARDC) were spending the morning helping civilians clean the road that leads to the new cemetery of this northeastern Congolese city.

Here, AK-47s have been replaced by hoes, spades and rakes. Colonel Tito Bizuri, who is in charge of this commando unit, explains that his soldiers are citizens, just like the civilians, and that they must take part in the development of their country.

Muhindo Maneno, the chief of Beni's Mukulya neighborhood, agrees that the benefits go beyond just public maintenance — for both soldiers and residents. "Getting to know each other reinforces the trust between them,” Maneno says. 

Captain John Mazambi explains that these works, nonetheless, are also another way for the army to fulfill its central mission of ensuring national security. In this zone, where the army has faced off against various armed rebel groups, farmers rarely approach soldiers. In the past, the army has been accused of a wide array of crimes that have tarnished its reputation among locals, including reports of raping and looting. The defection of certain regular army officers in favor of armed groups has only increased mistrust among those who were already suspicious towards defense and security forces.

The ball is round

“Back in the day, when we passed law enforcement officers late at night, we felt safe,” recalled on elderly woman. “But with the current generation, it’s the opposite.” She lives opposite the Ozacaf military camp in Beni, which was attacked last June by the Mai-Mai militia group.

Near the border with Uganda, just below the Rwenzori Mountains, Beni has to cope with various local and foreign rebel groups. The police headquarters, the FARDC and even the central prison have been targeted several times. “With every attack, there are civilian victims,” says Christophe Kambale, a local activist.

The initiative of the cooperation between soldiers and civilians became more marked with a campaign organized in early 2013 by the ONG Search for Common Ground, which included a roundtable with locals and the heads of FARDC units. Since then, community work, soccer matches and other activities have increasingly brought soldiers and civilians together. “When we play together, it more than proves that we are partners and share common aspects of life,” says Mathe Wasukunde, a civilian, who has taken part in the soccer matches.

Beni’s mayor and head of the urban security council Bwanakawa Masumboko Nyonyi claims that security is everybody’s responsibility and the population must be aware that police officers and soldiers work for them.

“I keep telling my people to trust their army and the police,” he says. For Tembo Kalimuli, a teacher, the FARDC must become like other armies in the world that specialize in more advanced fields such as civil engineering, rather than just menial public works.

Still, the efforts carried out by civilians and soldiers have already paid off. Lately, barely a single week goes by in the city without a criminal being arrested after he was denounced by civilians. At the end of June, in Beni’s Kanzuli Nzuli neighborhood, soldiers and police officers locked down the house of an alleged Mai Mai chief who was illegally recruiting young volunteers to take up the fight against the government.