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East-Congo, Field notes

3rd blogpost by Judith Verweijen

The challenges of researching armed actors in Eastern DRC # 3: dealing with the positionality of the research subject and the verification of fact

The universal problem of uncovering the “truth”, or obtaining inter-subjectively shared representations of “reality” presents itself in a particularly acute manner in zones of conflict. In this respect, Caroline Nordstrom speaks of “factx”, highlighting the “x” factor, or the indefinability, in the information that the researcher obtains: “in the context of war, something is always wrong with the facts one is given. The facts of war emerge as ‘essentially contested’ figures and representations everyone agrees are important, and no one agrees on” (Nordstrom 1997: 43). In Kivu, I found myself confronted with this phenomenon to the extreme. Various factors play a role in this, such as the glaring absence of solid written sources, and a long and well-developed tradition of what is commonly called radio trottoir, or the rumors machine, resulting in an “economy of truth-making” (Jackson 2003: 195). People manufacture meaning in order to make sense of, but also manipulate, events. In fact, in conflict areas, representations can be the paramount field of battle, turning rumors into a powerful weapon of war. The highly politicized and sensitive nature of the subject matter of my research, which focuses on military behavior, further compounds the problem of “truth”-seeking. One of the biggest challenges I faced in the initial stages of my research was the blanket of dis, mis or non-information surrounding the identity of perpetrators of crime and abuse in various research sites. In several cases, the largest share of violent acts, as they appeared in databases of human rights organizations, were ascribed to so called HUNI (Hommes en Uniforme Non-Autrement Identifiés). In the meanwhile, the narratives of research subjects in the area revealed the extent to which “blame games” were played, with people alternately accusing Mai Mai, anonymous bandits, demobilized, “local youth”, the FARDC (sometimes “dressed up as FDLR” or presented as “deserters”) or the FDLR (occasionally “in FARDC disguise”). Confronted with this puzzle of conflicting information, I started to detect patterns in (alleged) perpetrator identification, gradually discovering some of the factors that determine its workings, such as power differentials. social prejudices, economic and political agendas, patronage allegiances, and strategies of survival and coping with uncertainty. Especially geographical and ethnic background, mostly along the well-known Rwandophone/autochthon divide, turned out to play an important role in shaping perceptions of military behavior and apportioning responsibility for abuse: for example, in some research areas predominantly inhabited by Babembe (a self-styled “autochthonous” people), and where popular support for the Mai Mai is strong, all abuse was systematically ascribed to Rwandophone FARDC soldiers or FDLR, even when evidence rather pointed in the direction of Mai Mai or local bandits. Or when the FARDC could be reasonably identified as the perpetrators, numbers of victims were sometimes stunningly exaggerated. These fabrications mainly served as a political strategy of discrediting the Government (i.e.case of the alleged massacre in the Misisi gold mine in October 2009), but, when concerning rape, was perhaps also intended to attract international attention and support, funding, and free medical care (i.e case of Nakyele rapes in June 2011). Aside from identity-based discourses, I found that patronage relations and income-generation heavily count in representations of wrong-doing too: for example, in the area of Vitshumbi (Rutshuru territory), where there is an ongoing struggle between the FARDC Navy and the park-rangers of the ICCN around illegal fishing, the commissaire lacustre told me with much conviction that it was the ICCN that was fuelling this business. However, other sources alleged it was rather the Navy being involved in illegal fishing and that the commissaire heavily profited from it himself through his cozy relations with the Commander of the Naval Base. Interestingly enough, roughly half of the persons contacted emphasized the responsibility of the Navy, with the other half pointing to the ICCN, depending on the way they were related to those two institutions and their sources of income. This goes to show that contacting more sources will not always result in more reliable research results, as sometimes, among a large research population, 50% will say A with the other half saying B. In such cases, it is only through careful contextual analysis, and finding an answer to the question of why people say A or B, that we can make progress in our arduous task of reducing the “x” factor in the factx. Mapping the power (especially patronage), political, socio-economic and ethnic relations that shape research subjects’ representations of “reality” is a time-consuming process, just as the verification of information by contacting a substantial number of different sources from different backgrounds. In every site, we researchers must first have a good understanding of the local dynamics and the positionality of our research subjects, should we want to obtain valid research results. This inevitably means longer term research and repetition: visiting the same research sites and contacting the same persons several times. Having carried out my research in three phases, in which I always re-visited areas frequented earlier, I discovered the usefulness of alternating periods of data collection with writing and reflection and then going back into the field to verify certain hypotheses and representations. Each time I returned, I felt I was a bit better able to place information in context, to identify the factors influencing narratives and interpretations and to reduce the uncertainty surrounding the “factx”. Perhaps to my own surprise, after the disillusions during my first round of field work, in which the Kivu’s economy of truth-making sometimes got me at the edge of despair, I found that it is not impossible to get relatively solid information and valid interpretations in this particular conflict zone. It is just a matter of developing an elevated awareness of and sensitivity to the research context, constant reflection on the positionality of both yourself as a researcher and your research subjects, and carefully selecting and balancing your sources. A challenging and lengthy task, maybe, but not an impossible one. Judith Verweijen is a PhD Candidate at Utrecht University carrying out sociological research in Kivu for her dissertation on the Congolese military (FARDC) and the factors that shape their interaction with civilians. Additionally, she conducts research on a variety of armed groups in Uvira & Fizi territory ( South Kivu), exploring the functions such groups have in their socio-economic and political context. She is now in the 13th month of her field research, carried out in three phases since January 2010


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The Congo Research Network (CRN) is a community of researchers working on DR Congo and its diaspora across the Humanities


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