Sustaining Peace: Reintegrating Former Combatants into Society

Conversation Details

Dates of conversation: 
Monday, September 25, 2017 to Friday, September 29, 2017
Conversation type: 

In many conflicts, the line between sufferer and perpetrator is often blurred. In the aftermath of violence, the time comes for survivors, soldiers and innocents alike, to return home and heal collectively. This process gives rise to many problems—ex-combatants face stigmas and mental health problems, a lack of employable skills or education, and an absence of community ties. Meanwhile, non-combatants deal with their own traumas, the realities of living in a war torn society, and anger towards military groups. The reintroduction of former soldiers into society at large is crucial to building lasting peace and stability because without it many ex-combatants, devoid of ties to community or resources for self-sufficiency, would return to their guerrilla groups or armies. However, Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) programs must overcome many barriers to succeed. In this conversation, experts discuss the challenges and tactics of achieving effective reintegration of ex-combatants into society.

Thank you to our featured resource practitioners who led this conversation:

  • Veronica Laveta (CVT)
  • Rugumire Makuza Emmanuel (Rwanda Evaluation)
  • Dr DB Subedi (University of New England)
  • Prof Alp Ozerdem (Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations, Coventry University)
  • Susan Brown (Peacebuilding Centre)

Preparing Former Combatants and Communities for Successful Reintegration:

When considering how to prepare former combatants and the communities that they will be joining for peaceful and long-term success, it is important to consider the challenges that these groups face. As Dr DB Subedi pointed out, the path to reintegration is shaped by the specific nature of the conflict and the socio-economic situation of the area. For example, Rugumire Makuza cited lack of infrastructure as a problem that affected the success of some DDR programs, a problem that varies depending on the location of the conflict. However, there are some problems that commenters maintained happened in most DDR programs; these problems should be fully examined to truly understand how communities and ex-combatants are prepared for their transition to peace.

Many contributors cited structural programs with reintegration programs. Susan Brown wrote that DDR programs are often facilitated by the military branches of donor countries rather than the country’s development departments. This is problematic because expertise in civil society lies in the development branches, not the military. Makuza also had issues with the aid system—he noted that allocation of aid is often tied to negotiations for peace and therefore often fails to encompass everyone who needs assistance. Furthermore, the nature of this process incentivizes combatants to swell their ranks before the onset of negotiations to increase their bargaining power. This governmental aid system is far from perfect, but Brown notes that the actions of good-intentioned non-state actors do not always improve the situation—she discusses the problems that come from these external actors administering aid without best practice trainings.

Other contributors wrote about the problems ex-combatants faced as individuals as they are prepared for reintegration. Many participants remarked on the stigma that surrounds participation in conflict, the difficulties ex-combatants experience with reconnecting to their families, and the economic problems that returning soldiers face. All of these factors must be considered as part of the process for reintegration into society.  Another consideration when attempting to prepare soldiers for this transition is their mental health, which is oftentimes another common source of stigma. Many participants remarked on the trauma that is prevalent in ex-combatants; Makuza added that there is rarely a viable framework for dealing with this trauma, using the example of Rwanda in 2006, at which time there were only two certified mental health professionals in the entire country. The consensus among participants was that DDR programs focus solely on economic stability and provide little to no mental health care. Brown commented that mental health treatment is best when it uses traditional cultural practices as opposed to Western ones. She cited the use of traditional healing circles and healing courts in Angola and the practice of child soldiers being treated to outside of their home village for a time in Sierra Leone. Of course, as multiple contributors pointed out, mental health treatment must be provided not only to ex-combatants but also affected communities.

Assessing and Advocating for At-Risk Groups in the Reintegration Process

The challenges that come along with reintegration, including mental health issues, impact some groups more than others. According to Makuza, women, children, and disabled ex-combatants are the most difficult former soldiers to transition into society. He goes on to say that even though these groups are often eligible for special benefits, these packages often do not equal the challenges that they face, and that the individual needs of these groups are largely ignored and reduced to “cookie cutter” solutions that do little to address the individual needs specific to each person’s situation. Veronica Laventa elaborates on Makuza’s point about the vulnerability of children, pointing out that they are in the unique position of being both the victims and perpetrators of violence. She says that this situation makes the creation of help for these children difficult because of the challenges of treating trauma, shame, and guilt without contributing to the stigma that already surrounds them.

Engaging Communities

Of course, conflict does not only affect its participants, and likewise the reintegration of former combatants into communities does not only affect these individuals. For this reason, many contributors emphasized the fact that reintegration programs must be tied to wider recovery in the community. However, despite the fact that many of these experts agreed on the importance of involving the larger municipal area in DDR programs, all commenters agreed that there are fundamental problems with how DDR programs currently engage community. According to Makuza, DDR programs are often short term and largely concerned with disarming combatants and offering reintegration incentives. He added that “quick impact projects” are often used, but that these projects are often poorly executed and insensitive to the needs of the community. Subedi agreed, and commented that community engagements are all too often a “top-down” process without room for community consultation. He and Makuza both illustrated how these factors create programs that tend to benefit former combatants more than other parties that were affected by conflict, creating the impression that DDR programs are rewards for participating in conflict rather than the foundation for long-term peace building. Subedi mentioned a situation in Nepal in which tensions arose between former combatants and conflict victims when the ex-soldiers received a cash package while conflict victims did not receive the support that they were promised. Many other contributors remarked on the common nature of this problem.

These contributors discussed ways to improve community engagement in DDR programs. All contributors emphasized the importance of involving communities in planning and implementing reintegration programs. Not only that, but commenters agreed that these programs must be tied to the recovery of the wider community to have a chance of success. In particular, Makuza noted that DDR efforts that focused on the creation of community projects within larger development projects were particularly effective in engaging communities and facilitating the reintegration process.



Conversation Leaders

Veronica Laveta's picture
Veronica Laveta
Makuza's picture
Rugumire Makuza Emmanuel
Rwanda Evaluation Society
dbsubedi's picture
Dr DB Subedi
University of New England
Alp Ozerdem's picture
Prof Alp Ozerdem
Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations, Coventry University
Susan Brown's picture
Susan Brown
Peacebuilding Centre