The actors circle and glare in mock anger, surrounded by villagers who have come to witness a performance played out on the sandy earth in the shade of mango trees in the north of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DR Congo).
In a flurry, the performers clash, miming fighting, killing, mourning — and eventually forgiveness.
For the spectators, this narrative is not fiction, but reality, after the people of Monzaya and Enyele in the DR Congo’s northern Equateur Province began a dispute over fishing rights in 2009 that killed scores and triggered a refugee crisis.
The two villages, deep in the DR Congo’s equatorial forest, are now being urged to reconcile their differences by taking part in such performances — something seen as key to shoring up stability in the region.
The DR Congo, a vast, impoverished, but resource-rich central African state, is already struggling to stamp out rebel activity in its eastern provinces left over from a 1998 to 2003 war that killed more than 5 million people.
The violence between the two communities in Equateur spread like wildfire to other ethnic groups in the region, forcing up to 200,000 people to flee across the border into the neighboring Republic of the Congo, the UN said.
No official death toll exists, but one local civil society activist estimated that thousands were killed.
With partial peace restored by the DR Congo army, the UN, working with the international non-governmental organization Search For Common Ground, is now trying to build bridges between the two communities through ceremonies and workshops.
The latest of these meetings took place in the tumbledown church in Monzaya, with 20 members from each community taking part and ending with speeches and participative theater to spread the message of peace.
The process has identified key causes of the conflict and aims to give those involved ways to resolve them, said Rigobert Luhinzo, from Search For Common Ground, who has been leading sessions between the two communities.
“Before, people from Enyele couldn’t set foot on Monzaya land, and it was the same for people in Monzaya. This is the first time in five years that people from Enyele have come to Monzaya,” he said, adding that the two villages had signed a non-aggression pact earlier this year.
Land disputes and access to fish-rich ponds that lie in the dense, damp forest between the two communities have been at the heart of the dispute, said Merault Ahouangansi, from the UN peacekeeping mission in the country, known as MONUSCO.
Ahouangansi says the biggest challenge remains managing access to these ponds, which can only be reached via flooded paths of knee-deep mud that weave through the thick foliage.
He said progress is being made, but underlying issues such as a lack of work or alternative food sources must be solved.
“The situation needs to be managed well or it will explode again,” he said, adding that a presidential election expected later this year could further raise tensions.
The central government sent troops to the region after fighters from Enyele launched a short-lived insurrection in late 2009 that threatened to destabilize the province.
Local administrator Desire Manyale said reconciliation was vital to encourage the refugees to return, many of whom have links with Enyele and fear retribution if they come home.