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Guest blog: What’s happening in Ituri?

Over sixty people killed, thousands of houses burned down and more than 100,000 displaced people, including 42,000 refugees in neighbouring Uganda. Those are the consequences so far of the violence in the north-eastern Ituri province of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) since December 2017.

The violence marks a counterpoint to the general trend in the province––while violence has persisted and even escalated in the Kivu provinces over the past decade, Ituri had been relatively peaceful. Between 1999-2007, Ituri had been the scene of brutal violence, but since then, with the exception of attacks by the FRPI around the south-western corner of Lake Albert, the province had seen a dramatic decline in violence and displacement.

What is the cause of this recent flare up?

Overview of current events

The violence started in Djugu territory, north of the provincial capital Bunia. A confrontation between youth from the Lendu community and soldiers, assisted by youth of Hema ethnicity, escalated into tit-for-tat attacks, spreading throughout the area. Refugees in Uganda, who crossed Lake Albert on small boats, described how they – the vast majority are Hema – were attacked by a loose group of Lendu militiamen, armed with machetes, spears, arrows and axes, and in some cases guns. Most of the 25 refugees we interviewed in February in Uganda described the attackers as a mix of villagers of Lendu ethnicity and outsiders.

Since then, a Hema cultural organization has accused Lendu from Walendu Pitsi of killing 23 Hema, while a similar Lendu group has refuted these allegations and decried a “genocidal plot” by the Hema. The Catholic Church has accused Lendu militiamen of arson attacks and killings against Hema, but has also blamed the latter for counterattacks.

Walendu Pitsi is part of the former heartland of the Front of Integrationist Nationalists (FNI), a Lendu rebel group which demobilised in 2005. Some have accused former FNI members as well as members of foreign armed groups of being part of the attacks.

The refugees we spoke to were surprised by the sudden attacks on their villages, and were unable to explain why this escalation took place. They described how they had co-existed largely peacefully with their Lendu neighbours since the previous cycle of violence ended in 2007. Local conflicts over land, cattle or authority, similar to those that ignited this violence, had largely been kept under control during the last decade.

Some refugees had been alerted by Lendu neighbours about the impending attacks, while others fled when they heard about attacks in neighbouring villages. Their fear was rooted in the region’s bloody history – many remember all too well the violent conflict that ravaged Ituri between 1999 and 2003, resulting in the deaths of 55,000 people and trials by the International Criminal Court (ICC). Back then, the violence also started in Djugu.

The bigger picture

Despite the clear ethnic dimension, however, refugees, civil society and many local leaders are resisting the reductive label of ethnic conflict and note the differences between the 1999-2003 “ethnic conflict” opposing Lendu and Hema, and the current “political conflict”. The national political crisis has stirred conflicts in the Kasai and the Kivus, and while there is no direct evidence yet of such a causal links for the Djugu violence, the continuing disintegration of state authority, the increased activity of politico-military power brokers and general frustration amongst the population could undoubtedly be part of these dynamics. Several accuse Kinshasa of stoking violence, allegations that have only been fed by a statement by Corneille Nangaa, the contentious head of the electoral commission, that the Ituri violence could have a negative impact on the organization of elections, now scheduled for December.

Different levels of government have taken initiatives to address the violence, although not without controversy. At the local level, the chef de collectivité of Walendu Pitsi, Chief Longbwe, has tried to act as a mediator, but has at the same time been accused by several refugees we spoke to of organizing the Lendu militias. Provincial authorities have organized meetings with community leaders, but the governor has reportedly dismissed the conflict as purely inter-ethnic, and has said that the displacement was only a rumour. He is deeply distrusted by the Hema community, who have themselves been accused by Lendu leaders of sabotaging efforts by provincial authorities. Ituri parliamentarians have asked for the governor to be sacked. The national Minister for Interior, Ramazani Shadary, who has since been appointed as secretary-general of the presidential party PPRD, has also visited Bunia, where he dismissed allegations of government involvement in the massacres and announced additional deployments of security forces.

Such reinforcements are urgently needed. Many people we spoke to suspected political motives behind the lack of capacity – or willingness – by Congolese security services to respond to the attacks and protect civilians, an assessment echoed by a parliamentary delegation that visited the area. In most places where Lendu militias attacked, military or other security forces were either killed by the attackers or abandoned their positions. Villagers from different places said soldiers told them they were not allowed to shoot if the village came under attack. This convinced many to flee, even before actual attacks took place. However, a community leader told us that he is afraid that reinforcements might aggravate the situation, citing the example of the Kasai region, where military operations against a militia led to widespread human rights violations against the civilian population.

Lessons from the past

In addition to encouraging genuine local mediation efforts and additional deployment of disciplined security forces, the right peacekeeping and regional approach is needed to address the current violence and preventing it from deteriorating further spreading to other parts of Ituri – or beyond.

Firstly, MONUSCO must increase its presence to deter further attacks, continue to facilitate conflict resolution and intervene decisively when needed. Refugees had not seen MONUSCO in their villages before, during or after the attacks, but the UN mission has since tried to engage key interlocutors on the violence and has opened a temporary base in Djugu town, from where it is conducting patrols. But trust in the UN peacekeepers is fragile, as Ituri has known both positive and negative experiences of peacekeeping: the failure of MONUC (the UN mission’s name before 2010) to protect Bunia against rebels after Uganda’s withdrawal in 2003, an often-praised, French-led military intervention, and MONUC’s more robust operations against rebel group remnants in 2005-2007. It will have to be creative given the pressure on its resources from other conflicts in the Kivus and Kasais, but also from the political situation in Kinshasa, and in light of the risk of further budget cuts.

Secondly, it is key that outside spoilers are kept away. Historically, Uganda, and to a lesser extent, Rwanda, played a central role in the militarization and protraction of the conflict in Ituri, by supporting and arming various armed groups at different times. Whilst some of their partners from that time are no longer a real threat (two former rebel leaders, Floribert Ndjabu and Thomas Lubanga, for example, are in prison in Kinshasa), others, such as Chief Mandro Panga Kahwa and Mbusa Nyamwisi, maintain close links with Uganda, are very critical of the Kinshasa government and continue to have a significant influence over Ituri politics and armed mobilization.

Lendu notables have alleged there is a Hema training camp on Ugandan soil and another in a Congolese town at the center of previous Hema mobilization. While there is no proof of Ugandan involvement, its government is believed to still hold sway over both Hema and Lendu leaders. Moreover, it is currently conducting operations against the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) rebels just to the south of Ituri, in Beni territory. The ADF has been accused of being involved in the Djugu violence as well, and the dynamics in Ituri and Beni have proven to be deeply interconnected in past episodes of violence. Escalation in any of these two areas could spread to the other; local conflicts in the Congo are never what they seem at first sight.

Thijs Van Laer is Programme Manager Causes of Exile at International Refugee Rights Initiative (IRRI).

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