When an Armed Guide is Imposed on You: Navigating Research in a Conflict Zone
Eric Batumike Banyanga
In a research setting in which various sorts of conflicts prevail and the power dynamics between numerous actors are tense, the data collector must be extremely careful. The simple act of being present or asking questions on a certain topic can create a new conflict and/or revive an existing one. Often, even if one tries to follow ethical guidelines to the letter, the complexities of the terrain make it difficult to predict the direct and indirect consequences of one’s presence in the field. It’s therefore imperative that researchers understand the dynamics of their research settings in order to anticipate potential difficulties and better respond to complexities when they arise. They must therefore always know how to negotiate their access to, and exit from the field.
In 2018, when I was doing a study in Mukungwe in South Kivu, the parties to a local conflict each wanted me to show them what the other had said about them. I personally considered this impossible, as it would have exposed the people who had provided me with information. But then my refusal to disclose my sources and the contents of our earlier conversations led to a situation in which I was entrusted to an armed guide the following day. The semi-official line from the non-state authority (the influential leader of a family of mine operators) who assigned me my escort was that I would need a guide who could orient me in the local setting while also ensuring my security so that nothing bad would happen to me. However, on his first day with me, my guide wouldn’t leave me alone to speak with the artisanal miners I was interviewing – which meant that my interlocutors didn’t want to comment on certain questions. This reticence was due to a fear of reprisals, which could ensue after my departure. It was therefore necessary to change my mode of operation. I approached my guide and asked if he could leave me alone to talk with the miners so that they could speak to me objectively. He agreed to this after a long negotiation. Actually, he agreed after being promised a monetary incentive. During subsequent interviews he agreed to withdraw at the start of each conversation. Only then did my respondents start revealing important information to me.
In this situation, I was lucky enough to be able to negotiate an “elegant” solution. I was able to respect the local authority’s wish to control some of my movements in the area by respecting the presence of my “spy-guide”. And at times his presence was even useful in directing me to the right places. At the same time, I was able to negotiate his withdrawal during the actual interviews. There’s no doubt that the fact that I was accompanied affected the way the miners spoke to me; at the same time, though, the contents of our conversations nevertheless allowed me to conclude that they still felt relatively free to express themselves. And, of course, the situation could have turned out much worse. I could have gotten a categorical refusal from my “guide” and been obliged to terminate my research activities; or I could have continued my research in his presence but failed to collect any useful data.
Doing research in conflict zones presents many challenges and ethical dilemmas. And as a researcher, one must regularly face these completely alone. Often we confront these challenges without any framework in which to seek advice from our peers. Nevertheless, the researcher’s responsibilities are complex. It’s therefore imperative that they find a forum in which to tackle such vital issues for their research. Through an open exchange, one could first of all seek out support for one’s own problems and dilemmas, and furthermore exchange ideas with others about the challenges they face. But above all we should try to create a network through which researchers can find moral support in the event of difficult situations.
Eric Batumike Banyanga is a researcher at the Groupe d’Etudes sur les Conflits et la Sécurité Humaine (GEC-SH), Bukavu