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

Ituri's Fragile Peace

Locals say international justice needs to play role in reconciliation and determining root causes of conflict.
By Lisa Clifford
Five years after the war that was compared in intensity to the Rwandan genocide, northeastern Congo’s Ituri region is on the surface a fairly peaceful place.



Hema and Lendu, bitter combatants in the 1999-2003 fighting, now shop in the same markets and worship at the same churches. “Today the Hema can go through Lendu territory, even drunk and saying inappropriate things, and nothing happens to them,” said John Tinanzabo, a representative of the Union of Congolese Patriots, UPC, in the Orientale provincial assembly. “There are still land issues and some extremists remain, but we’ve made huge progress.”



Now a political party, the UPC was once the militia group that claimed to defend the Hema community. UPC leader Thomas Lubanga is indicted by the International Criminal Court, ICC, in The Hague, and his trial on charges of recruiting child soldiers during the war will start January 26.



Germain Katanga and Mathieu Ngudjolo, Lendu militia leaders, are also in The Hague accused of war crimes in Ituri. The court issued an arrest warrant for Lubanga’s associate Bosco Ntaganda in April, but he remains at large in neighbouring North Kivu.



Historically both communities had lived together, and even intermarried, but bad feelings developed during the colonial era when the Belgian administration favoured the Hema. The Lendu complained of discrimination, and the rot set in.



Conflicts over land between the cattle herding Hema and Lendu agriculturalists flared occasionally over the years, but it was in June 1999 that the dispute worsened, fuelled by Uganda. Kampala, which wanted access to Ituri’s gold, diamonds, oil, timber and coltan, backed the Hema, while the Rwandan and Congolese armies lined up behind their rivals.



This vicious and complex conflict eventually claimed around 50,000 lives and displaced 500,000. Human Rights Watch and others have documented mass rapes, assassinations, plunder, arson, mutilations, decapitations and cannibalism.



In 2005, the International Court of Justice, ICJ, found that Uganda had violated Congo’s sovereignty by occupying Ituri and supporting the rebels. The court also ruled Uganda had looted natural resources and committed human rights abuses.



Hema and Lendu community leaders today agree that the Ituri conflict had little to do with ethnicity and everything to do with politics and money.



“The two communities fought against one another without knowing why,” said Lendu François Dhedda. “We were manipulated for economic reasons.”



That’s a view shared by Shukrani Byarufu, a leader of Bunia’s Muslim community, “In the past conflicts were short lived. It was possible to find a settlement. But this war was used by the politicians who orchestrated it.”



The conflict eventually died out after intervention by the international community and a European-Union led military mission to stabilise Ituri. That was followed by a United Nations force, MONUC, which remains on the ground today.



Iturians say local people – and the militias – were exhausted by years of war, also contributing to the demise of the conflict.



Today the militias have been largely disarmed and former rebels like Peter Karim from the Front for National Integration, FNI, and Cobra Matata from the Patriotic Force of Resistance in Ituri, FRPI, have joined the Congolese army. But distrust between the communities still lingers, as does the feeling that Ituri is ignored by the government in Kinshasa, thousands of kilometres away.



Byarufu says memories are long in Ituri, “To forgive is one thing but to forget is another. It would be wrong to say people now live together and that they have forgotten. There are still resentments and fears.”



Locals say that if the fragile peace is to hold, international justice needs to play a role both in reconciliation and in determining the root causes of the conflict.



“It was over land and since then no one has addressed that issue,” said Dieudonne Mbuna, a Hema community leader. “We need to get to the bottom of the real reason for the conflict and establish the facts. The international community needs to be involved. People don’t take things seriously unless the international community is present.”



Thierry Lokuni, a Hema from Bunia, says justice for victims is essential for a long lasting peace but that Congo’s shattered legal system – corrupt and inefficient – is incapable of holding the high-level politicians who fuelled the conflict accountable.



“For Ituri the ICC is the only solution,” he said. “The ICC carries a lot of weight. It scares people.”



But Lendu community leader Alex Losinu says international justice alone won’t solve Ituri’s problems. He says mixed chambers, with Congolese and foreign judges working together, are the best solution. “We should try to combine international and local justice,” he said.



Though Iturians have faith in the ICC, it does have an image problem. Supporters from both the Hema and Lendu communities insist it indicts only “little fish”. “People in power today are not bothered by this justice,” said Dhedda.



Tinanzabo added, “We have the impression that this court targeted the weak people, those who are not in power, while [those who are in power] are not bothered by The Hague. That is also what victims think in Ituri.”



Lokuni is critical of the ICC’s slow pace. “We feel the ICC is too slow given the highly visible massacres here,” he said. “We thought it would be quicker.”



The trial of Lubanga was delayed several times then put on indefinite hold in June after the prosecution failed to disclose key documents to his defence team. Judges ruled in November that the trial could start in the new year, and there is little doubt that when it does it will be closely watched by all in Ituri.



If judges were to find in Lubanga’s favour, opinion is mixed about whether he should return to Ituri. Tinanzabo worries he wouldn’t be safe. Dhedda is more optimistic. “He is our brother. Of course we would accept him back,” he said.



For Losinu, forgiveness is the key to reconciliation in Ituri. “Everybody’s guilty so why not forgive each other? It’s high time we make our lives together. My community is looking to the future, we’re not vindictive anymore.”



Lisa Clifford is an international justice reporter in The Hague.