This article explores the experience of ex-rebels who have become humanitarians in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. It describes how rebel-cum-humanitarians navigate a turbulent political environment, integrating the knowledge they acquired through military experience into a career in the humanitarian sector. ‘Distinction’ between combatants and humanitarians remains central to the humanitarian imaginary. However, rebel and humanitarian spheres are interlinked by individuals who do not just broker relationships between the two, but also move between them. They walk a tightrope: their rebel past is seen as a threat to performing a ‘neutral’ humanitarian identity, but at the same time, it constitutes a resource in brokering access with armed groups.

Despite a focus on performing principles, humanitarian agencies in practice draw on their employees’ savoir faire which is sometimes gained through rebel experience — the very identity deemed antithetical to a humanitarian status.