DR Congo

Forgotten People: In the Ituri District of the DR Congo

UN officials, humanitarian workers, NGOs, diplomats, and regional analysts are of an almost unanimous opinion that Ituri is on the brink of another round of extreme violence and an ever more severe humanitarian crisis.
Special Report on the Ituri District, IRIN, December 18, 2002 http://www.irinnews.org/webspecials/Ituri/

Why are the people of Ituri forgotten?

Amidst the humanitarian tragedy that continues to unfold in the Great Lakes region of Africa, the Ituri conflict, a bloody war-within-a-war, has hardly been noted by the international media. The humanitarian crisis in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and surrounding countries is so vast and complex that its victims are lumped together in one amorphous mass.

While leaders and warlords benefit from conflict, ordinary people flee for their lives. More than 10,000 refugees from Ituri have crossed the border into Uganda; 100,000 people are said to have taken refuge in the district capital of Bunia; and 1,000 people were reportedly massacred in September 2002 in Nyankunde, near Bunia. Until recently, the nearby town of Mambasa had a population of 30,000 people; but now, according to relief workers, nearly all have fled or were killed and buried in mass graves. In early January 2003, 35,000 people reportedly fled Ituri for the city of Beni in neighboring North Kivu province. Many of the people arriving in Beni told of family members being killed and young girls being raped during their flight. To add to the horror, recent reports allege that rebel forces are practicing cannibalism on members of pygmy groups and that rebels are forcing pygmies to feed on the cooked remains of their colleagues. Although the MLC has denied the allegations, a UN team has been sent to investigate the reports.

International resources for humanitarian aid, economic aid, and peacekeeping continually fall short of needed amounts, and must be shared across the vast territory of the Congo. In addition, poor security prevents humanitarian and relief agencies from operating in Ituri. Actors in the conflict in Ituri killed six staff of the International Committee of the Red Cross in April 2001. Continued insecurity stymies aid deliveries for those relief agencies that do continue to work in Ituri, and constantly shifting alliances make negotiating access problematic. These factors leave the people of Ituri without international programs or international witnesses, and at the mercy of shadowy warlords and the Ugandan army. Uganda has been condemned by human rights organizations and UN human rights reports for fuelling the conflict in Ituri by arming and training almost all the militia and rebel factions.

The worsening humanitarian situation in Ituri coincides with the signing of the "Pretoria Accord" on December 17, 2002, which calls for a ceasefire in the Congo and a power-sharing arrangement among major Congolese factions. However, the conflict in Ituri has continued unabated since the signing of the Pretoria Accord - and the faction in control of the district capital of Bunia is not a party to it. On December 30, fighting factions signed a peace agreement called the "Gbadolite Accord," which was subsequently violated the following day. It, too, did not include the faction in control of Bunia. The unknown conflict in Ituri continues to be a major impediment to achieving peace in the Congo.

The People and the Land

Ituri district is mostly in the fertile highlands of the western Rift valley. The Ituri rainforest borders the district on the west. Uganda is on the east. Ituri district has an area of about 20,000 square miles - twice the size of Maryland - and a population of one to two million. Bunia is the largest city, now swelled to an estimated population of 300,000 by influxes of displaced people. The humanitarian crisis in Ituri district extends well beyond its borders, impacting people in Orientale Province and North Kivu Province, and into neighboring Uganda.

Many ethnic groups live in Ituri, but the two currently fighting are the Lendu and the Hema. The Lendu are farmers who speak a Sudanic language. The Hema are Bantu-speaking pastoralists. The Hema, with about 150,000 people, control more land and wealth than the Lendu who number about 700,000. A Human Rights Watch report says that the Lendu identify themselves with the Hutu in nearby Rwanda and Burundi, while the Hema identify with the Rwandan Tutsis. Other ethnic groups include the Alur and Nande, and in the Ituri forest to the west, four groups of pygmies, who are perhaps the best-known inhabitants of this region.

Anatomy of the Crisis

Although the ethnic rivalries and political maneuvering for control of Ituri began long ago, the present war began in June 1999, apparently stimulated by long-standing land disputes between Hema and Lendu ethnic groups. The conflict quickly became complicated by the control of much of the region by Uganda and the struggle between Ugandan forces, who form ever-shifting alliances with different Congolese armed factions, and ethnic militias. (For a list of warring factions, see http://www.irinnews.org/webspecials/Ituri/whoswho.asp.)

Ituri is rich in natural resources, as is much of the eastern Congo. Proceeds from the sale and export of products such as timber, gold, diamonds, and the mineral coltan (Columbo-Tantalite ore) finance arms purchases and imports of luxury goods. Ugandan army officers, in particular, are accused of pocketing the income from the sale of Ituri products. Foreign businessmen have contributed to the conflict by purchasing Ituri products from armed groups and, now, a lease granted to a Canadian oil exploration firm opens up the possibility of new wealth for combatants. (For more information, see: http://www.heritageoilcorp.com/ao_drc.htm)

The Response Thus Far

In terms of duration, severity and numbers of people affected, the Great Lakes region of Africa is enduring the worst humanitarian crisis on the planet - and Ituri is perhaps at present the most violent and unstable of all the regions of the Great Lakes. Difficult as the situation is, there are some hopeful signs. First, most foreign troops have now withdrawn from the Congo, as they agreed to when they signed the Lusaka Peace Accord in 1999. Second, the signing of the Pretoria Accord is a major step toward peace. Third, an Ituri Pacification Commission has been proposed. Fourth, the UN has deployed the Observation Mission in the Congo, MONUC. However, it seems unlikely that the Congolese government and rebel factions in the country will be able to progress toward peace without a much greater commitment of foreign interest and resources.

A key to improving the situation in Ituri is an expanded MONUC force with a more robust mandate, or a neutral force to keep Uganda from re-entering Congolese territory. Presently, only a handful of MONUC observers are in the district, but the observers have reportedly been useful in limiting overt human rights violations. Other roles suggested for MONUC in Ituri include revitalizing the Ituri Pacification Commission, investigating human rights abuses, expanding Radio Okapi, a radio service, to counter ethnic propaganda and hate messages now being broadcast on local radio stations, and training of local authorities, especially police.

RI recommendations

The UN Security Council strengthen the MONUC mandate and increase the strength of MONUC to enable it to accomplish the new mandate, including deployment to Ituri. (For more information on the challenges to the MONUC mandate, see http://www.refugeesinternational.org/cgi-bin/ri/bulletin?bc=00467 )

MONUC personnel position the Ituri transmitter for Radio Okapi so people can receive the same coverage enjoyed throughout the rest of the Congo.

The US and other donor countries make the achievement of peace in the Congo a top priority and maintain high-level diplomatic pressure on all parties to the conflict.

Foreign donors increase their contributions for humanitarian aid to the Congo. In 2002, the UN Consolidated Appeal Process requested $202 million in humanitarian donations to the Congo. The total humanitarian aid provided by donors came to only $106 million, barely more than one-half of the initial request.

The international community "follow the money" that fuels the regional wars in the Congo. Targeted economic sanctions against the countries and organizations named by the UN panel of experts on the exploitation of resources in the Congo should commence. [See: http://www.reliefweb.int/w/rwb.nsf/vID/706B89B947E5993DC1256C590052B353?OpenDocument ]

For more RI advocacy on the Congo: link to RI's Congo page at http://www.refugeesinternational.org/cgi-bin/ri/country?cc=00003

This report was prepared by Larry Thompson, Director of Advocacy, and Advocate Anne Edgerton.