The northeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) region of Ituri is bracing itself for a new round of conflict, "ethnic cleansing" and civilian desperation, even as peace talks have concluded between the government and warring rebel factions, and most foreign troops have withdrawn from the war-ravaged country.
Ituri, bordering Uganda, is one of eastern DRC's least stable and most conflict-affected areas. A population of several million is largely cut off from international humanitarian assistance due to a dangerous patchwork of military occupation and control. The faction in control of the regional capital, Bunia, Union des patriotes congolais (UPC), is not a signatory to the 17 December Pretoria accord between the present government, five armed groups, the political opposition and civil society.
The UN reports that 50,000 people may have been killed in the region since the war-within-a-war began in 1999. Hundreds of thousands are displaced, food security is poor, and outbreaks of diseases such as cholera and measles commonplace. The few local and international humanitarian agencies which do attempt to operate in the region face very limited access outside, Bunia, and a highly unpredictable relationship with local authorities and factional leaders.
The UN peacekeeping force in the DRC, MONUC, has posted up to eight military observers at any time to Bunia, the conduct of some of whom has been praised, but whose influence is largely symbolic.
The tensions in Ituri result from several factors, including historical land ownership and tensions between the Hema and Lendu communities, and have been fanned by military, commercial and political forces.
The chorus of warnings from UN agencies and NGOs, human rights groups, political commentators and diplomatic sources has reached a crescendo in recent weeks, while fighting continues on the ground. New humanitarian supplies due to arrive by air have not yet been delivered due to protracted negotiations with local leaders.
CURRENT SITUATION - Summary
UN officials, humanitarian workers, NGOs, diplomats and regional analysts contacted by IRIN 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. This report draws on published reports, interviews and internal documents from humanitarian and political sources and aims to provide an overview of the situation in Ituri. The precarious security of colleagues on the ground and a highly charged political climate have led most organisations and individuals contacted by IRIN for this report to request anonymity.
Aid agencies are torn between wanting to draw attention to the crisis while protecting their staff. A donor official, when IRIN requested information on Ituri, wrote that "this will sound familiar, but with things the way they are - extremely bad - we are very, very wary about information/communication on Ituri. Only information of a purely humanitarian nature should be rendered public - anything of a more sensitive nature will automatically rebound on [humanitarian actors] on the ground in Bunia, whose lives we consider to be seriously at risk." On the other hand, some aid agencies remain, despite a frustrating lack of access to people in extreme need, out of a feeling of duty - "to be the eyes and ears of the international community", one agency manager said. Aid agencies can act as a restraining influence - "a lot more horrible things would have happened if we were not there", the manager told IRIN.
Documents and comments from sources who requested anonymity use phrases such as "a precipice of extreme violence", "the conditions are in place for a major humanitarian disaster in Ituri", "another killing-spree in the making", "strong likelihood of another round of massacres and retribution". Other reports state: "we could be facing a major explosion of inter-communal violence" and "...every possibility of a bloodbath". These remarks show the alarm with which informed observers view the Ituri region.
Faced with these warnings, regional and international efforts are being made to contain the situation in Ituri. However, progress in delivering humanitarian aid and addressing the underlying conflict has been minimal since the bloody takeover of Bunia in August by a relatively new armed faction in the DRC, the Union des patriotes congolais (UPC), led by a Hema, Thomas Lubanga. Ugandan People's Defence Forces (UPDF) troops remain in Bunia, but have ostensibly pulled out from elsewhere in the DRC.
Four political and military processes are at a turning point in the DRC, all of which will impact on the way events unfold in Ituri in the coming weeks and months: The Inter-Congolese Dialogue (ICD) and follow-up talks brokered by the UN and South Africa have concluded, and MONUC is entering a newly-enlarged phase and a change of emphasis in its mandate. Thirdly, the Ituri Pacification Committee (IPC) had been expected to start work soon, while Uganda had publicly committed to withdrawing the last of its troops based in the DRC before the end of the year.
On the ground, however, the Lubanga-led faction controlling Bunia and a few other locations, the UPC, is surrounded by two other armed movements hostile to it and is already fraught with internal division. A hardline Hema chief and military commander, Kahwa Mandro, is reported to be challenging Lubanga. In August 2002, a minister in the DRC government alleged that Rwanda (despite its public pull-out from the DRC) was supporting the UPC with advisers and supplies, an allegation that a Rwandan spokesman calls "rubbish". Freelance militia, including remnants of the 1994 Rwandan Hutu army and the Interahamwe, are also reported in the region.
This dangerous situation has reportedly been fuelled by Uganda, which, according to Human Rights Watch, "has played the role of both arsonist and fireman with disastrous consequences for the local population. In their involvement in continuing political feuds among Congolese party leaders, in local ethnic conflicts, and in extracting wealth, Ugandan actors have furthered their own interests at the expense of Congolese whose territory they are occupying" [www.hrw.org]. Added to that is a steady diet of ethnic rhetoric, which has led to increasingly bitter and polarised communities. Meanwhile, the humanitarian situation is amongst the worst in the world, and each outbreak of violence increases vulnerability among civilians.
(pdf* format - 54 KB)