Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

My Struggle for Land

A personal story of how feuding over land rights can tear families apart.
By IWPR trainee

Land is the most important asset that anyone in the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC, can own.

With land, we have a way of living, a permanent way of earning money. We can build houses on land or extend old ones. By charging people rent to live on the land, we can survive. With land, we can also grow food for our own sustenance, or to sell in the market.

As peace has come to Goma, land prices have started to rise. A plot of land in a good location can easily sell for 4,000 US dollars per square metre.

This is why land is able to wield such destructive power. It can tear whole families apart. It can lead family members to kill one another.

Land here is indeed very valuable. And, without land, survival in this country becomes very hard.

I suppose that this is why I was prepared to put up with so much pressure, with threats and even assaults to protect my share of our family land from the claims of my half-brothers.

But, eventually, I felt enough was enough – and the intimidation became too much to bear any longer.

My father is polygamous. He has several wives living with him on the same plot of land, and this has given him a large family, with each member of the family feeling that they have some entitlement to the land.

Even though my father is still alive, jostling for the inheritance has been going on for years.

My half-brothers felt that they had a claim to the land, once my father divorced their mother 26 years ago. They insisted that the land should form part of the divorce settlement, an assertion that was disputed by my father.

I have never been particularly close to my half-brothers.

In 1996, when I was just 15, I was kidnapped and forced to fight as a child soldier in the Rwandan armed forces.

My half-brothers have used this personal history against me, in order to squeeze me out of any claim to the land.

They have accused me of deserting from the army and claimed that I had weapons in my house. There was no substance to these allegations, but nonetheless they put my life in danger and made things difficult for me.

As a result, I was regularly detained by the military police, which would come to my house at night, often at one or two in the morning. Sometimes, they even spent the entire night outside my front door.

It was very frightening. I had heard rumours that it was the military police which were responsible for the disappearance or kidnapping of opposition figures, such as human rights activists.

Then my half-brothers lodged a case with a local Goma court, laying claim to my father’s land. This got nowhere so they decided to take the case to the appeals court. The latter rejected their claim too. At which point they went to a district court, where judges ruled that my half-brothers were entitled to the land. They then proceeded to sell it.

It was no surprise to me when I learned later that the judge who heard the case at the district court was subsequently dismissed as part of President Joseph Kabila’s anti-corruption purge of the judiciary.

A lawyer advised me to file a complaint against my half-brothers with the military prosecutor’s office in Goma, in order to claim undue harassment. But the complaint ultimately amounted to nothing.

This was when my courage failed me altogether. While I had been fighting the sale of my father’s land, the midnight visits of the military police steadily increased.

Eventually, things became too much and I decided to go into hiding until the problem could be resolved or at least defused.

This gave my half-brothers the victory they needed to complete the sale of the land.

After the sale, there was very little left for me to do. The land probably went for well over 100,000 dollars. My half-brothers now had the money and I had nothing to pay for legal proceedings.

Even so, my half-brothers were taking no chances. To warn me against taking my opposition any further, my house was destroyed and all my belongings inside were set on fire.

All this has made me wonder if justice really exists at all in the country, or whether it only exists to serve those that have money.

I think that we need to clear out all the dead wood in the judiciary, those corrupt magistrates that served during the era of Mobutu Sese Seko, the former DRC president. We need to replace them with new magistrates, who have just come out of training and are therefore not so susceptible to corruption.

This is why I welcome the initiative undertaken by President Kabila to reform the country’s judicial system, by sacking corrupt judges and replacing them with new ones.

But I would go even further. I think that it is time to establish an association of lawyers, which would be able to legally represent those people who, like me, are denied justice because they lack the means to seek it.