The Spaces in Between – Examining Community Experiences of DDR and Reintegration

Pauline Zerla is a doctoral researcher in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. Her research focuses on trauma, reintegration, and everyday legacies of war. At King’s College London, she is a member of the War Crimes Research Group, the Conflict, Security and Development Research Group, and the Visual and Embodied Methodologies Network. Pauline’s background is in peacebuilding, trauma, and security studies. Prior to joining King's, she worked for various peacebuilding organisations in DR Congo, Nigeria, and others.

Pauline Zerla

“At home, in waiting, and in tandem with parallel peacebuilding processes my research shows that reintegration happens in the spaces between and beyond formal reintegration processes.”

The Civil War Paths blog series has provided new insights into Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (DDR) programmes, their challenges, and the reintegration of ex-combatants more broadly. Work by Miranda Melcher and Alejandra Ortiz-Ayala have offered recommendations on DDR and reintegration approaches linked to security sector reform and encouraged us to look at war mentalities as a component of reintegration efforts, respectively. In this piece, I contribute to this discussion and engage with the “changing mindsets” strand of the Civil War paths blog series. I propose shifting our gaze toward the spaces in which reintegration takes place. To do this my research examines reintegration in a broader psychological and social context alongside peacebuilding, transitional justice, reconciliation, and mental health.

For my research, I travelled to the Central African Republic (CAR) in 2022 to understand legacies of war among central African communities, and challenges to reintegration more specifically. The country has faced decades of civil war and continues to be plagued by violence and impunity despite the signing of a peace agreement in 2019. Soon after I arrived, I was reminded of the multitude ways in which insecurity, protracted conflict, and the legacy of violent years shapes everyday life.

As it is often the case, interactions in the field led to shifting my thinking in many ways. Through engaging with central African communities, I learned three important lessons, some of which echo arguments in the civil wars and peacebuilding literature. I encountered the essential role communities play in reintegration, and the trauma and transitional justice components of these experiences. Based on these encounters, my research shifts our gaze towards spaces where these lessons are found and where reintegration takes place in the everyday. Below, I share initial findings from my research that illuminate reintegration spaces within the family space, the community space, and the judicial space.

Reintegration in the Family Space

For female ex-combatants in particular, reintegration processes are taking place in the home and reflect the gendered logic of reintegration in post-conflict settings. In conversation, women discussed livelihood challenges brought about by war as the central everyday experience shaping reintegration: “I am a mother of children in a home and every day what is essential is to think about food. Everyone must eat.” “Yes. What we are going to eat tomorrow and when we do not have money to meet tomorrow’s needs. It traumatises you on top of that.[1]

For them, reintegration is mostly about the survival of their families and the everyday struggle after war. On the one hand, being able to return to one’s family after war and displacement is highlighted as central to finding peace after war. On the other hand, the gendered charge of the household has brought on unique struggles shaping the everyday. These spaces of reintegration for men and women echo the gendered discussion of DDR offered by Luna K.C and the wider academic debate addressing women’s experiences of reintegration in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Nepal or Columbia.

Reintegration in the social space as waithood

Ex-combatant reintegration processes are social in nature, whether it comes to relationships with friends and families or host and home communities more widely. The relational nature of reintegration in CAR resonates with existing research on postwar youth experiences in Africa and the Middle East. For instance, in Rwanda, Marc Sommers found that some youth experience ‘a state of permanent ambiguity’ that is echoed by Siobhan McEvoy-Levy in her work with Israelis and Palestinians.

In this context, youth experience the postwar period as waiting everyday alongside each other. In CAR, this everyday experience is particularly salient among ex-combatants that communities describe as everyday idleness. It is for example illustrated by young men on the side of the road waiting for daily employment opportunities that may, or may not, manifest. Community members express that reintegration does, or doesn’t, take place while “sitting and looking for work”.[2] These concerns surrounding waithood and the social space had been raised to me years before while working with vulnerable youth in the Democratic Republic of Congo. This space is scholarly examined elsewhere, such as in Mozambique and Liberia where Nikkie Wiegink and Jaremey McMullin examine ex-combatants’ journeys beyond DDR and the experiences that form these trajectories.

Overlapping Spaces of Transitional Justice and Reintegration

The final space in which reintegration plays out is structural and, in this way, echoes wider debates on DDR. In contexts like CAR, reintegration and transitional justice are intertwined through the ways in which communities view the goals of both processes as shared. In Central Africa, violence prevention, demobilisation and reintegration programmes have been implemented to prevent further outbreaks of violence in local communities. Equally, transitional justice – whether restorative or retributive – is considered of tremendous importance for breaking cycles of violence and achieving lasting peace among central African communities. Communities often see reintegration as a step in a process where justice will follow. A youth leader in Bangui for example explained that without justice, resentment may fester, and impunity prevail, which risks undoing the gains of peacebuilding efforts. Here, justice and reintegration are framed as interconnected processes that together can interrupt cycles of violence.

Reintegration thus exists beyond DDR and intersects with conflict mitigation and judicial efforts. The space where reintegration and justice overlap remind us that recovery is long and the aftermath of war present in the everyday.

Within my research on the lasting legacies of war on conflict-affected communities in CAR and DRC, my recent field research indicates that post-war reintegration occurs across several spaces. These spaces reveal themselves when we shift our gaze to the everyday sites where reintegration is negotiated in communities. Considering reintegration through the social, relational, and structural spaces in which it is experienced encourages us to look beyond the limits of traditional DDR approaches. At home, in waiting, and in tandem with parallel peacebuilding processes my research shows that reintegration happens in the spaces between and beyond formal reintegration processes. Ultimately in – and after – civil wars, reintegration processes are implemented in contexts where the legacies of war shape everyday life and in some cases violence continues. These continuities of violence require us to shift our gaze towards these social spaces to locate where and how reintegration is, and isn’t, taking place.

[1] Focus Group Discussion, CAR, April 2022

[2] Interview, Eastern CAR, March 2022