DR Congo

Congo's Ituri region sinks deeper into disaster

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By Arthur Asiimwe
BUNIA, Congo, Mar 3 (Reuters) - Marie Inga's seven-year-old daughter scans the soil with hungry eyes. Spotting something in the dust, she reaches down and grasps a seed dropped by accident when the aid workers handed out food.

For Inga, the image of her daughter scavenging for scraps is a familiar sight -- and one shared by tens of thousands of Congolese trapped in a humanitarian disaster unfolding across the northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

"At times we wonder what wrong Congolese people did to God," says Inga, a mother of three who does not know her own age. "Look at the whole of Congo from north to south, west to east, people are suffering."

Inga is next in line to suffer. She arrived too late to collect relief supplies being handed out by aid workers in the town of Bunia, one of the few lifelines for a population who seem to spend more time fleeing than farming.

"We can't go home empty handed, the family won't believe it," Inga said, explaining how tribal clashes forced her family to flee from her home village of Nizi, 27 km (17 miles) north of Bunia.

Ravaged by an array of rebel factions and warring tribal militias, and largely beyond the reach of aid agencies, Ituri province can claim to be one of the areas worst affected by Congo's civil war.

Aid workers say an already appalling humanitarian situation is getting worse, compounded by escalating clashes. Rape, murder and looting are commonplace.

Despite the huge scale of the disaster, they say it has gone largely unnoticed by the outside world.

Humanitarian agencies say 600,000 people have been forced to flee in Ituri province alone in the past three years and that an estimated 50,000 people have been killed.

But they also warn that in Congo's messy war, it is often hard to assess the scale of the destruction.

A COMPLEX WEB OF CONFLICTS

Peace deals signed by various participants have provided cold comfort for Ituri, doing little to untangle the web of alliances and rivalries ensnaring the province.

Tribal militias and numerous rebel factions are locked in a battle for turf and the region's resources -- from gold around Bunia to rich timber reserves.

The area's rebel movements read like an alphabet soup of titles: UPC, RCD-N, RCD-ML, MLC, APC to name just some of the combatants.

Alliances shift constantly, clashes break out routinely. The local population is trapped in the middle.

"Political feuds among Congolese rebel leaders and continuous local ethnic clashes have had disastrous consequences on the local population," said a U.N. official in Bunia.

Bunia, strategically situated near the Ugandan border, lies at the epicentre of the conflicts. The Union des Patriotes Congolais (UPC) controls parts of the town, which is also partially occupied by the Ugandan army, which invaded alongside Rwanda in 1998.

To the southwest lies the RCD-N (Congolese Rally for Democracy-National), while areas further south are dominated by the RCD-ML (Congolese Rally for Democracy-Liberation Movement).

To further complicate matters, tensions in Ituri have often taken on an ethnic hue. Fighting between Hema and Lendu tribes has killed thousands of people in clashes often conducted using little more than spears and clubs.

"This part of Congo is the worst affected. There are so many bandit groups -- it is every one against every one and the humanitarian crisis is a catastrophe," says Marcus Sack, Project Manager for German Agro Action.

The violence keeps thousands of families constantly on the run. Deprived of a chance to plant, people have no crops, and many are reliant on hand-outs from aid workers or friends.

Aid workers estimate that at least two million Congolese have died since the latest war in the former Zaire broke out in 1998 -- mainly through hunger and health disaster fuelled by the fighting.

WAR RUINS ROADS, SCHOOLS, HOSPITALS

To make matters worse, war has not spared the infrastructure around Bunia, doing damage that will take years to repair should peace return.

Schools, churches and hospitals are frequently demolished during rebel clashes, equipment smashed and drugs looted.

Roads are prone to ambush, forcing the United Nations to bring in aid by air to Bunia using Russian-built Antonov transport planes -- an expensive business.

Thousands of people are cut off from access to relief supplies, too afraid of rebel attack to leave their villages.

"There's no infrastructure to talk of here, 90 percent of it has been completely destroyed. No roads, schools and religious structures," said a U.N. monitor in Bunia.

To many in Bunia -- Marie Inga among them -- life is simply one long struggle to survive, with little in the way of hope for comfort.

"We cannot wait to see peace return to our country," said Inga, her voice weak with exhaustion. "We are tired of war."

Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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