BUNIA, 28 May 2007 (IRIN) - The integration of militias into the Democratic Republic of Congo's (DRC) national army may be proceeding slowly but to local civilians in the volatile region, it is a pointer to more peaceful days ahead.
"I have seen these militia members terrorising [civilians]," Bienvenue Issaya said in Bubba village, 120km north of Bunia town, where former militias of Peter Karim's Front des Nationalistes et Intégrationnistes (FNI) group are erecting roadblocks to secure the area.
"It is a source of hope for the population to see them being integrated into the FARDC [Forces armées de la République Démocratique du Congo]," he added.
A local trader in Kpandroma, a previously FNI-controlled village 135km from Bunia, agreed, saying it was good that the militias were being disbanded.
"We are relieved - both sides were attacking us when they were fighting," he said, requesting anonymity. "Karim forced us to finance his troops and the FARDC were accusing us of supporting the militias." The trader was among three people arrested by the national army in January for allegedly supporting the militia.
At a centre in Kisangani, 741 ex-militias from Ituri were going through the integration paces at the same time as a dozen officers were being moved to the Kinshasa Superior Military Centre so they could be allocated appropriate army ranks.
"This constitutes a major advance in the disarmament process and in the pacification of Ituri," officials of the United Nations Mission in DRC (MONUC), said.
According to some aid workers, access has improved because of the ongoing integration and disarmament. "We crossed an area under the control of Peter Karim on the night of 16 May without a problem," said Pastor Koli Lopa, a lawyer working for the international NGO, Caritas, in Bunia.
Three months ago, these areas witnessed violent clashes between the FARDC and the FNI, leaving hundreds dead on both sides. The clashes died down after the 28-year-old Karim was made a colonel in the national army.
Karim's integration was facilitated by MONUC, which arranged talks between the two parties, provided security and ensured logistics and transport.
Since December, according to MONUC, 1,217 militia members have been disarmed in Ituri, of whom 783 were from the FNI.
Challenges to disarmament
Other groups, however, remain reluctant to either disarm or be integrated into the army. According to sources, the Mouvement Revolutionnaire Congolais (MRC) and the Front de Résistance Patriotique de l'Ituri (FRPI) have so far only allowed 288 and 146 men, respectively, to leave their ranks.
"It raises doubts regarding their real willingness to integrate," an official source in Ituri said. "Cobra Matata [FRPI leader] has refused to continue the disarmament of his people. According to him, the government has not stuck to [previous] agreements."
The agreements were signed in November between the government and armed groups in Ituri, outlining plans to disarm about 5,000 militia members with MONUC assistance. In exchange, the government proposed an amnesty for the signatories and agreed to recognise officers from the groups.
But even with the FNI, say officials, the process has not been easy. "Karim militia members are scattered and hard to find," said Capt Olivier Mputu, FARDC spokesman in Ituri. "Other leaders of other militias have overestimated their numbers. That is the case with Col Ngujolo of the MRC [Mouvement révolutionnaires Congolais] who talked of 600-700 men while they were 100 or so."
According to the spokesman, reluctance could lead to forced disarmament. "We will carry on with sensitisation of these groups for them to disarm. We don't have the intention to attack. However, any option remains open: disarming peacefully or militarily," explained Mputu.
Once disarmed, the former fighters spend three days in the transit site for re-education before choosing to return to civil life or integration into the regular army.
Those integrated into the army are taken through various preliminary procedures in the Rwampara centre, before going to an integration centre for a six- to nine-month military programme.
Benefits so far
According to aid workers, disarmament of militia fighters in the region would enable an estimated 200,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) to return home.
"The exact numbers of militia members and of arms are not known," said the head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), in Ituri, Jean Charles Dupin, noting that this uncertainty had forced many IDPs to put off returning to their villages.
"They fear [that] military action could provoke displacements. The locality of Maskini, for example, approximately 100km north of Bunia, in Djugu territory, remains empty," said Dupin.
However, about 50,000 IDPs have returned to Djugu territory, where Karim had been fighting the FARDC, once he joined the army.
According to aid workers, once the militias are integrated and peace returns, the humanitarian needs of the population would include rebuilding destroyed infrastructures (hospitals, schools, water fountains, etc) and farming inputs.
"It is important that the state authorities be there in the field, in order to facilitate their comeback," said Dupin.
So far, more than 22,000 men from various armed groups in Ituri have benefited from disarmament. MONUC and FARDC have collected more than 11,000 arms (Kalashnikovs and others), 1,500 bombs, 1,000 mines, 4,300 magazines, 715,000 munitions and a significant quantity of military material.
But according to other sources, former Rwandan soldiers among those disarmed and demobilised, including children, have been recruited back into militia ranks.
"Rwandan military men demobilised by MONUC said they have been recruited and trained in Masisi hills [bordering Rwanda] and been forced into military activities," MONUC's spokeswoman in Goma, Sylvie van Wildenberg, said.
The conflict in Ituri between government troops and various militias started in 1999.