Out of the mist of a rural African morning, a great lion springs into the path of a young woman walking to work in the fields.
Tail twitching, the beast stares at her, ready to pounce.
But she knows better than to flinch. Moving slowly, she bends her knees and places her iron hoe gently in the dirt.
Staring straight back, she begins talking to the lion. "I'm not your enemy," she says. "I'm only going to the field, and I won't hurt you."
The lion watches. The woman stands silently. Moments pass. With a swish of his tail, the lion leaps away.
Petronille Vaweka, a top official ineastern Congo, grew up hearing this story about her grandmother's courage. She tells it today as a defining tale in her own life - a life devoted to using the power of words to disarm the gun-toting militias that stalk the villages in this lawless corner of Africa.
"If you are facing someone who is violent, you must never use force," Ms. Vaweka recalls her grandmother saying. "The first thing is to put down all your instruments. Then look at them, right into the eye."
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The militia leader's conditions were clear: No large contingent of bodyguards could come with her; no United Nations peacekeepers. Vaweka, on a mission to free two kidnapped government workers, would be allowed to negotiate for their freedom accompanied only by her husband and a few aides.
She agreed, despite the militia's menacing reputation. The Patriotic Resistance Front of Ituri (FRPI in French, the main language) is one of the groups implicated in the brutal killing of nine Bangladeshi UN peacekeepers in a Feb. 25 ambush. FRPI leader Germain Katanga is now in prison awaiting trial.
Vaweka knew this was her task, and hers alone. She's the top official in the fledgling government of Ituri, a province the size of West Virginia in a country as big as Alaska and Texas combined. Ituri is one of Congo's richest regions - and one of its most violent. It's chockablock with gold, diamonds, oil, and coltan (a rare ore used in cellphones and laptops). But the UN estimates that 60,000 people have died here since 1999. Greedy outsiders - including leaders in neighboring Uganda and Rwanda - have stoked ethnic tensions and supplied the region's many militias with weapons to fight for control of the riches.
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by Abraham McLaughlin, staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor, September 14, 2005.
- - -BRINGING ORDER:
Photo: Petronille Vaweka (center) talks with an Army chief. (Jiro OSE/Special to the CS Monitor)
- - -TIMELINE:Click here
to see at a glance the march to peace in Congo, Africa's heartland.
- - -A SHADOW OF THEIR PAST PRESENCE:
Photo: Many of the militias, like this one on the streets of Fizi, in eastern Congo, are now part of the new national army forged under a peace deal signed in 2003.
FINBARR O'REILLY/REUTERS/CS Monitor
- - -PEACEKEEPERS:
Members of the UN mission in Congo, known as MONUC, patrol Bunia. There are more than 16,000 UN troops and police in the country.
JAMES PALMER/WPN/CS Monitor
- - -A COLLECTOR'S ITEM:
Photo: An AK-47 rifle is given to a United Nations peacekeeper as part of the disarmament process in Bunia, Congo.
GUY CALAF/WORLD PICTURE NEWS/CS Monitor
Tags: Africa Congo