This article discusses the social mobility of combatants and introduces the notion of circular return to explain their pendular state of movement between civilian and combatant life. This phenomenon is widely observed in eastern DRC, where Congolese youth have revolved in and out of armed groups for several decades. While the notion of circular return originates in migration and refugee studies, we show that it also serves as a useful lens to understand the navigation capacity between different social spaces of combatants and to describe and understand processes of incessant armed mobilization and demobilization.

In conceptualizing these processes as forms of circular return, we want to move beyond the remobilization discourse, which is too often connected to an assumed failure of disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration processes. We argue that this discourse tends to ignore combatants’ agency and larger processes of socialization and social rupture as part of armed mobilization.