Ituri: The Congo's own Rwanda
by Francis Mwepu
Friday, July 28, 2006
A savage regional conflict in northeastern Democratic Republic of
Congo has claimed more than 60,000 lives and displaced hundreds of
thousands of people.
As conflict continues throughout much of the Democratic Republic of
the Congo in advance of the first elections in 46 years, the Ituri
region in the northeast remains this vast country's bloodiest corner.
The scale of the inter-ethnic slaughter in the remote, mineral-rich
region of the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC, has been compared in
intensity, if not in scale with that in nearby Rwanda in 1994.
Lendu agriculturalists in Ituri tend to regard themselves as kin to
the Rwanda's Hutus, while the cattle-herding Hema identify with the
Tutsis. Just as the Hutus and the Tutsis fell into murderous conflict,
so the Lendu and Hema have followed their example.
This regional civil conflict of massive savagery went almost totally
ignored by the world and by Africa-based foreign correspondents
until March this year, when an Ituri warlord was brought to The Hague
to face charges brought by the fledgling International Criminal Court,
Suddenly Ituri was on the international map.
Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, leader of a Hema militia named the Union of
Congolese Patriots, UPC, was arrested and placed in custody by the DRC
authorities following the killing and mutilation in February 2005 of
nine Bangladesh soldiers who were serving in United Nations
peacekeeping force in Ituri.
ICC, which had been asked by the government to investigate the
situation in eastern Congo, issued an arrest warrant for Lubanga in
February 2006, and he was transferred to ICC custody and sent to The
Hague the following month.
Lubanga is now incarcerated in the prison complex set up to house war
crimes suspects tried by the United Nations International Criminal
Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.
ICC prosecutors are preparing charges of crimes against humanity and
war crimes against the 45-year-old DRC rebel commander. These will
include the accusation that his forces conscripted children under the
age of 15 to fight in combat. The ICC's Argentinean chief prosecutor,
Luis Moreno-Ocampo, alleges that Lubanga has trained children as young
as seven to become guerrilla soldiers.
Lubanga's arrest and indictment by the ICC will need to be followed by
others if justice is to be fully served, because many massacres have
occurred in Ituri, some in areas so remote that they may never be
reported. There have been mass rapes, assassinations, plunder, arson,
mutilations, decapitations and cannibalism. Summary executions, even
of hospital patients in their beds, and torture have been commonplace,
according to the leading watchdog Human Rights Watch.
The Ituri region contains a bewilderingly complex web of conflict that
developed from 1998 onwards between the Hema and Lendu. The fighting
was exacerbated by the Ugandan army, which virtually annexed the area
in 1999 and is alleged to have plundered its rich gold seams.
As well as gold, the province is rich in deposits of diamonds, timber,
newly-discovered oil and coltan (short for columbite-tantalite), a
rare ore that is an essential component in cell phones, laptop
computers and other hi-tech devices.
A Canadian company, Heritage Oil, is drilling for oil in the Semliki
Valley which straddles the Uganda-Ituri border. Canada's Barrick Gold
claims exploration rights to the world's biggest gold field, Kilo Moto.
Human Rights Watch estimates that Ugandan soldiers stole more than
nine million US dollars worth of Ituri gold between 1999 and 2003.
"Uganda is the number one gold-exporting country in this area without
having a single gold mine. Tell me how that happens?" said one
military intelligence official from the United Nations, who added that
Ituri's militias continue to feed the illegal trade.
Human Rights Watch said, "During its four years occupying the
north-eastern DRC, the Ugandan army claimed to be a peacemaker in a
region torn by ethnic strife. In reality, the Ugandan army provoked
political confusion and created insecurity in areas under its control.
From its initial involvement in a land dispute between the Hema and
Lendu, the Ugandan army more often aggravated than calmed ethnic and
Human Rights Watch accuses Uganda of playing the role of "both
arsonist and fireman", and of meddling in political feuding among
local Ituri leaders.
As the Ugandans looted the region, the Rwandan and DRC armies also got
in on the act, each backing various militias. Lubanga's UPC was
initially trained by the Ugandans, but, in a typical shift of
loyalties, realigned itself from 2002 onwards with the Rwandan army,
through a proxy Rwanda-backed militia in the nearby province of North
The Ugandan army withdrew in 2003, to be replaced by Bangladeshi,
Pakistani, Indian and Nepalese contingents from the 17,600-strong
United Nations military peacekeeping force in the Congo called MONUC
(UN Observer Mission in DRC).
"The [Ituri] players change all the time," said one international aid
official. "It's incredibly complicated and dangerous."
Although the Hema are pastoralists and the Lendu agriculturalists,
historically they co-existed and intermarriage was common. However,
Belgian colonial rule accentuated ethnic divisions between the two, by
favouring the Hema over the Lendu, just as the Belgians favoured the
Tutsis over the Hutus in Rwanda.
There were occasional conflicts, but at no point in the documented
history of Ituri did violence attain the levels seen since 1999, when
the occupying Ugandan army sided with the Hema. As warfare grew, other
Ituri ethnic groups were forced to take sides.
Johan Pottier, professor of African Anthroplogy at London University
and an expert on Rwanda and the eastern Congo, said that as conflict
between the Hema and Lendu spread and became more bitter, so each
group turned to propaganda and myths to justify its cause, fabricating
stories to support their grievances.
The Hema compared the Lendu to the Hutu in Rwanda, whose leadership
was responsible for the 1994 mass killings of Tutsis. Mutual
Hema-Lendu massacres with bullets, spears and machetes multiplied - 37
hacked to death here, 140 there, 150 somewhere else, 966 somewhere
else yet again, sometimes 1,200, sometimes 1,500. Women and children
were not spared. The bodies were tossed into rivers or mass graves.
Against the background of this growing extremism, Lubanga's Hema UPC
began pressing for autonomy for Ituri from the rest of the Congo.
Meanwhile, the violence continued.
In one UPC attack on Mongwabu, an important gold-mining town at the
heart of a concession held by South Africa's AngloGold Ashanti, a
witness told Human Watch Right, "They took Kasore, a Lendu man in his
thirties, from his family and attacked him with knives and hammers.
They killed him and his son with knives. They cut his son's throat and
tore open his chest. They cut the tendons on his heels, smashed his
head and took out his intestines. The father was slaughtered and burnt."
There have also been many reports of Lendu warriors cutting open the
chests of victims to pluck out their hearts. Such brutality has become
the signature of the Lendu fighters, who are also known for wearing
women's wigs and dresses during battle in the belief that such apparel
will protect them from harm.
A man in the small town of Nyakunde, where an estimated 200 Hemas were
killed over a period of ten days, told Human Rights Watch what he had
seen in the local missionary hospital, "They would cut their throats
and take the hearts or bits from the throat. Sometimes they would cut
the meat off the people's thighbones and put this into their bags.
"They asked people what group they were from, as they were looking for
Hema, Bira and Gegere. That first day, I saw them kill 16 people."
In the complex ethnic mix of at least 18 tribes in Ituri, the Gegere
and Bira have sided with the Hema. The Ngiti identify closely with the
Lendu. Other groups have tried to stand clear of the warfare but have
been sucked in in various ways and have all suffered attacks.
A witness to the killing of a Hema woman in one of thousands of such
incidents told HRW: "They arrested a woman who was accused of being a
witch. But she was Hema and that was the real reason. There were about
10 Lendu combatants with machetes and knives. They took her from her
house, stripped her and then cut her all over. They cut off her arms
and then cut her genitals. Then they killed her near the central
market place and burned her body. About 15 of us witnessed this."
Human Rights Watch has recorded many acts of cannibalism in full
grisly detail in reports such as "Ituri: Covered in Blood - Ethnically
Targeted Violence in Northeastern DR Congo". Yet the group laments
that just about the only time the international press showed an
interest in the continuous mayhem of Ituri was when reports of such
acts filtered out.
All Ituri combatants have used rape and other forms of sexual violence
as a weapon of warfare. These are among the crimes against humanity
being researched in great detail by ICC investigators in the case
against Lubanga. Mass rape of girls as young as 12 by all militias
have been reported. Girls are frequently murdered afterwards or
kidnapped as sex slaves.
Children as young as seven, including girls, have been forcibly
recruited as child soldiers - and this again is one of the charges
that Lubanga will have to answer. The 1949 Geneva conventions and the
international Convention on the Rights of the Child prohibit all
combatants in an internal armed conflict from recruiting children
under the age of 15 or allowing them to take part in hostilities.
In an Ituri population of just over four million, the United Nations
estimates that more than 60,000 people have been killed in the militia
warfare since 1999, while more than half a million have been forced to
flee their homes, encountering further violence in their flight.
As the July 30 presidential and parliamentary elections approach in
DRC, fighting continues in Ituri between the militias, government
forces and MONUC. Internal refugees continue to flee into the forest
or congregate in Bunia, the regional capital where the MONUC force in
Ituri has its headquarters.
Under such circumstances, there is little or no chance the conduct of
this landmark election will be free and fair in Ituri.
Francis Mwepu is a freelance television journalist from DRC, based in
Johannesburg and in the southern DRC city of Lubumbashi.
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