Africa, Headlines, Human Rights, Indigenous Rights

POLITICS-DRC: Cautious Calm Settles Over War-Scarred Ituri Region

Michael Deibert

BOGORO, Apr 17 2008 (IPS) - Wading through the chest-high grass outside of this hamlet in north-eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, Mathieu Nyakufa gestures to the bones – still bleaching in the sun – of those who have been lost to the country's wars.

Human bones in a field outside Bogoro, in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Credit: Michael Deibert/IPS

Human bones in a field outside Bogoro, in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Credit: Michael Deibert/IPS

"I was living just down here in the valley," the 52-year-old farmer says of one terrible morning in February 2003. "They were killing people with guns, with machetes, with spears and arrows. I escaped because I saw people running in my direction. Three of my children were killed in my own house."

An estimated 200 civilians were killed in Bogoro, located in the heart of the Ituri region, when combatants of the Forces de Résistance Patriotique d'Ituri (Patriotic Resistance Forces of Ituri, or FRPI), a militia dominated by the Ngiti and Lendu ethnic groups, attacked this scattered collection of thatched-roof huts and mud dwellings. At the time, Bogoro was a stronghold of the Union des Patriotes Congolais (Union of Congolese Patriots, UPC), an armed group loyal to the Gegere and Hema tribes.

"The UPC told me, 'Papa, run away, don't wait, because the Lendu are killing your people'," says Nyakufa.

The Bogoro massacre was one of many such slaughters that occurred in Ituri, which contains some of the world's most valuable deposits of gold and reserves of timber. A brutal extension of the civil war which engulfed this vast African nation from 1998 until 2003, the conflict in Ituri saw neighbouring Uganda and Rwanda arm militias in an ever-shifting web of alliances, as much for their own designs on Congo's natural resources as for any political solidarity with the Congolese.

The conflict initially pitted the Lendu, a tribe mainly composed of farmers who arrived from southern Sudan hundreds of years ago, against the Hema – – a Nilotic grouping that came to the area more recently. However, it soon spread to include virtually the entire population of the region, claiming at least 60,000 lives.

In the process, the UPC made its own additions to the catalogue of mass murder. These included a siege in and around the village of Kilo that resulted in the deaths of over 100 civilians in December 2002.

Often portrayed solely as an ethnic feud, the Hema-Lendu conflict was in fact more complex. In many ways, it resulted from policies which poisoned relations between two communities that had previously coexisted, albeit uneasily, for many years.

Prior to colonial rule, Lendu farmers leased out vast tracts of land to Hema herders; this changed with the arrival of the Belgians in the 1880s. In an echo of their policy in Rwanda, which elevated the Tutsi ethnic group over Hutus in the areas of administration, education and business, the Belgians in Congo favoured the pastoral Hema over the agriculturalist Lendu – leading to resentment on the part of those left outside the arrangement.

Little improved with independence.

After the Belgians departed in 1960, the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko – in power from 1965 until 1997 – launched a campaign to reduce European influence which included renaming Congo as Zaire and nationalising many foreign-owned businesses. Significantly, the assumption of control over Ituri farm land previously owned by Europeans was overseen by Mobutu's minister of agriculture, Zbo Kalogi, himself a Hema. Kalogi favoured his own ethnic group in reallocating the land, deepening feelings of marginalisation among the Lendu.

A new chapter?

Now, the guns of Ituri are largely silent.

The conflict, which erupted into full-scale combat in 1999 and continued in fits and starts until last year, has for the moment been subdued through a disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration process that saw former militia members recruited into the national army – and the involvement of warring factions in electoral politics.

"We want to restore peace in Ituri and bring a new political order through peace, equality and unity," says FNI member Jean-Claude Ndjela Konga, at the group's modest headquarters in the regional capital of Bunia.

Certain observers feel there are reasons to be hopeful.

"They are recognising that they were manipulated and used for the interests of some people, including their leaders, but they now see that everyone was a loser in that situation," says Alfred Buju, a Catholic priest, of the region's combatants.

"They are not ready to start that adventure again," he adds. Buju also serves as the head of the Commission Justice et Paix (Commission for Justice and Peace) in Bunia, a local group formed to heal the wounds of the conflict.

Olamide Adedeji, director at the Bunia office of the United Nations Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo, also sounds a note of optimism.

"We are reduced to a mere fragment of militia groups, and that is a welcome development," he says. "The stakeholders are no longer militiamen, but rather taxi drivers who once were militiamen, the civil society and student groups."

Known by its French acronym MONUC, the mission is currently the world's largest peacekeeping force, numbering around 17,000.

Some of the authors of the conflict's more appalling excesses are also being brought to book.

A former leader of the FRPI, Germain Katanga, was arrested in October 2007 and now faces trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague for the killings in Bogoro, as well as for other war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Two other prominent militia leaders – Mathieu Ngudjolo of the Lendu- oriented Front nationaliste et intégrationniste (Nationalist and Integrationist Front, FNI) and Thomas Lubanga of the UPC – also await trial before the ICC. A fourth militia leader, the FNI's Floribert Njabu, is currently in detention in the DRC's capital, Kinshasa.

The arrests, not surprisingly, have proved somewhat controversial.

"It is important that the work of justice shouldn't bring conflicts again, or even revolution, among the local people," says FNI political co-ordinator Sylvestre Sombo, citing the fact that Lubanga, unlike Katanga and Ngudjolo, was only charged with war crimes – and not with crimes against humanity as well.

"If we have peace in Ituri today, it's not because of international or local justice, but because the children of Ituri decided to create a way to peace for themselves."

Worryingly, FRPI forces continue to engage in occasional skirmishes with the national army. And speaking off the record, certain officials voice fears that elements in Uganda's political and business establishment are still arming factions in Ituri so as to continue exploiting the region's natural resources.

However, emerging from nearly a decade of bloodshed, the people in this battered corner of the conflict-riven country seem concerned, above all, that a return to full-scale armed conflict be avoided.

"Sometimes I feel so bad about what happened to my children," says Mathieu Nyakufa in Bogoro, lighting a cigarette as he looks over fields holding what is left of the departed. "But now that we are reconciled, what can I do?"

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