Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Ituri: The Congo's Own Rwanda

A savage regional conflict in northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo has claimed more than 60,000 lives and displaced hundreds of thousands of people.
By Francis Mwepu
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, ICC.

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 political hostilities."

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 Kivu.

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.