Analysis: Fragile peace holding in Ituri

Photo: Zahra Moloo/IRIN
Photo: Zahra Moloo/IRIN

IRIN News, July 2011

BUNIA/MAHAGI, 6 July 2011 (IRIN) – Almost eight years after an estimated 50,000 people perished in a four-year conflict that also displaced 500,000 from their homes in northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a tenuous calm prevails in the area.

The 1999-2003 Ituri conflict was between the Lendu and Hema ethnic groups. In Nioka, Mahagi territory, about 90km northeast of the district capital, Bunia, the violence sucked in the Alur ethnic community, with the Lendu accusing them of supporting the Hema.

About 90 percent of Nioka’s population fled the area, many finding their way to Ngote, 22km away. Estella Beriu was one of them. “My mother and sister died when the Lendu militia came,” she told IRIN. “They were killed with machetes for having welcomed the Hema enemy.”

Beriu returned to Nioka in 2008 to rebuild her home. Like her, many Nioka residents returned after a pacification campaign – supported by the national army, FARDC – brought stability to the area.

Many residents, said Mandek Warom, chief of Nioka, returned during the harvest season when there was plenty to eat. Others came after the revision of the electoral roll that allowed them to register as Congolese citizens.

“There were about 11 or 15 coming back each month since 2007, but many [others] have not yet returned,” Warom said.

Community justice

While communities in Mahagi live alongside each other in relative calm, the scars of conflict have not completely healed. Some residents say it is a thing of the past, but others disagree.

“We live together, but restorative justice has not been carried out,” Alex Losinu, a Lendu community representative in Bunia, told IRIN.

Several organizations working to reconcile the communities. One is Reseau Haki na Amani, which organizes community meetings to resolve longstanding grievances and land disputes.

Losinu criticized their efforts. “I had 500 cows before the war and then I lost everything. If the international community doesn’t give me those cows and instead you construct schools and say that reconciliation is collective, I still always remember the 500 cows. We are different culturally. A Lendu and Hema cannot live in symbiosis.”

The Ituri conflict was related to disputes over land and a Belgian colonial policy that favoured the Hema over the Lendu. That policy continued under the regime of Mobutu Sese Seko.

Pilo Kamaragi, a sociologist who claims to speak for the Hema community, argues that the history of the Ituri conflict was “engineered”.

“They say that the colonialists favoured the Hema; it’s not true,” he said. “The Hema and Lendu have the same schools, the same village structures… The manipulation was to destroy the Hema.”

Both communities feel marginalized. While some Hema are reluctant to admit to crimes committed during the war, Lendu blame them for their historic marginalization.

A 2008 report by the International Crisis Group (ICG) said tensions had remained “widespread, fed by unresolved land disputes and… a lack of in-depth work on the traumas and injustices experienced by individuals and communities during the war”.

Photo: Zahra Moloo/IRIN Much of the infrastructure in Ituri was destroyed during the 1999-2003 conflict
Photo: Zahra Moloo/IRIN
Much of the infrastructure in Ituri was destroyed during the 1999-2003 conflict

International justice

Three of the major players in Ituri’s conflict are on trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC), including the founder of the Hema-backed militia, the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC), Thomas Lubanga; the leader of the Lendu-backed militia, National Integrationist Front (FNI), Mathieu Ngudjolo Chui; and the commander of its allied group, the Front for Patriotic Resistance in Ituri (FRPI), Germain Katanga.

Both the FNI and UPC are now registered political parties with offices in Bunia. But neither is willing to accept responsibility for massacres against civilians.

FNI president Joseph Chura Bilo said his party aims for reconciliation. When asked about a 2005 Human Rights Watch report that documented FNI-orchestrated massacres in the mining area of Mongbwalu in which 500 civilians were killed, Bilo said: “We killed 500 people? I have never heard of that. The HRW report is incorrect.

“Concerning Katanga and Ngudjolo and the 2003 massacre in Bogoro, 90 percent of those providing evidence are lying.”

Bogoro, a village 40km southwest of Bunia, was the site of a massacre allegedly by FNI and FRPI militias in which 200 died. Three witnesses were transferred to the Netherlands on 27 March 2011 to testify about the Bogoro attacks.

UPC’s national interim president, John Tinanzabo Zeremani, refuted claims by HRW that his party was responsible for the deaths of 800 out of 2,000 civilians killed in or near Mongbwalu from late 2002 to early 2003.

“UPC never organized massacres of people,” he told IRIN. “In Mongwalu…it has nothing to do with UPC. When there was inter-ethnic killing, from the Lendu side, they [associated] it with UPC because they say UPC is an organization of Hema created to massacre the Lendu. But this was never the case.”

The arrest of a few leaders by the ICC, he added, was unlikely to resolve Ituri’s bloody past.

“Those [taken] to The Hague are not the main people responsible,” Zeremani said. “Lubanga is being accused of recruiting child soldiers [and] he has defended himself quite admirably. If you ask Iturians, they don’t even consider that a problem.”

Another obstacle to justice is the fact that many fighters have joined FARDC and are unlikely to face legal proceedings.

Land factor

Among returning communities in Mahagi, most day-to-day disputes concern land.

“Some of the Lendu are preventing the Alur from coming back to the same fields they occupied before the war,” said Upenycan-Yali, the administrative secretary of Nioka.

The UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, and other organizations are helping communities to rebuild houses and infrastructure, but are unsure how to address new land disputes.

“The different communities are at peace, they go to market together, to school, but when it comes to land, it is a problem,” Masi Mango Chimanuka, UNHCR field associate in Bunia, told IRIN.

“Mahagi and Njugu [an area close by] are very densely populated… and the land is inequitably divided,” he added. “At the moment, conflict is exacerbated by people coming back. They find their parcel has been occupied and the person living there tells them ‘No, this land now belongs to the Lendu… You must go where your people are’.”

Sindani Kabanba N’Kul, president of Ituri’s Land Commission, called for agrarian reforms that recognize the rights of both communities to access land, and sensitize them about land laws and how to live in harmony.

“Most of the communities here came from the north,” N’Kul said. “They are Nilotic. Whenever we have meetings to regulate land conflicts, people ask, who was here first? The response is, ‘You all came from the north. Even your ancestors are buried there, so why don’t you go and take back your land from there?’

“Then they remain quiet.”


Theme (s): Conflict, Early Warning, Governance, Human Rights,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]