Ituri braces for Ugandan pullout

Without exception, the humanitarian organisations in Ituri District say security remains their uttermost concern in continuing their relief work in this part of the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The killing on 3 April of Hema in Drodro town and 14 surrounding villages in Ituri underscored this concern and the continued danger to people of the district. These concerns remain as the date for the start of the Ugandan troop pullout nears.

Uganda's presence in Ituri has drawn considerable criticism. Some of that criticism has been directed at its alleged past role in playing off the Hema and Lendu communities in Ituri against each other, thus spreading instability to justify its presence in the mineral-rich district. Some Ugandan military officers who have served in Ituri have also been blamed for exploiting the natural resources of the district. The result has been international pressure for the Uganda People's Defence Forces (UPDF) to begin leaving the DRC, a departure now set for 24 April.

Yet observers of the political scene in Ituri worry that if a Ugandan pullout leaves a security vacuum a disaster could follow swiftly. "If there is the slightest security vacuum, there'll be genocide here," one analyst in Bunia told IRIN.

Expectations are that Thomas Lubanga's Congolese rebel group, the Union des patriotes congolais (UPC), ousted from Bunia by the UPDF on 6 March, would try to make a comeback and fighting between Lendu and Hema would erupt anew.

Uganda has repeatedly called for a neutral international force in Ituri to fill any vacuum when its forces leave. Also, it has suggested that the Congolese government organize a security structure for the district. The commander of Ugandan forces in Ituri, Brig Kale Kayihura, drove that message home at the opening of the Ituri Pacification Commission (IPC) meeting on 4 April.

"We are anxious to withdraw back to our country. Indeed, we are even ready to withdraw before the date of 24 April, 2003," told delegates.

An 18-member body of the IPC is assessing the security context of Ituri and will submit recommendations to a district assembly that is to be set up to govern Ituri. So, despite the calls for an international force for Ituri, the IPC for the moment has responsibility for security in the district after the withdrawal of the Ugandans.

Need for international force

Another analyst told IRIN it was dangerous to ask UPDF to leave Ituri beginning 24 April without providing an alternate security formula for the district. "Peace needs to be created with a military presence," the analyst told IRIN.

The analyst, who has a military background, told IRIN that to provide security, Ituri would need at least three mobile infantry brigades and one airmobile battalion for quick reaction.

In addition, an international police force of between 400 and 600, as well as 200 advisers were needed, the analyst said. The immediate installation of an international criminal court and the clearly declared presence of the DRC government in Ituri were a must, the analyst added, to bring legitimacy to these actions.

"If no force replaces the UPDF with a peace enforcement mandate, there'll be no peace," the analyst said.

Failing that, another long-time analyst of Ituri said, the international community could pay for Uganda to carry out peace operations on condition its force cooperate with UN military observers and that the operation is conducted under the command of the present Ugandan force commander, [Brig Kale] Kayihura who has been credited with bringing relative stability to Ituri. He said a neutral force would need at least two mobile infantry brigades with land and air transport. (One brigade consists of about three battalions or 2,400 men.)

"The incoming force would also need an air monitoring capability to cover Ituri," Kayihura said.

Uganda's entry into Ituri

Uganda has denied its presence in Ituri is for material gain. Kayihura told IRIN there were several issues related Uganda's presence in Ituri: for example the need to secure the IPC process, which was concluded on 13 April; the need to eliminate the presence of the Ugandan dissident group, the People's Redemption Army (PRA) in Kwandruma, about 80 km northeast of Bunia; the need to halt the shelling of Uganda from Ituri; and the need to stop armed cattle rustlers from crossing from Ituri into Uganda.

Kayihura said these PRA dissidents, led by former UPDF Col Eddison Muzoora, lieutenant colonels Samson Mande and Antony Kyakabale were linked to Ugandan politician and a former army colonel, Kiiza Besigye. Kayihura said the bulk of the PRA's arms had come through the Congolese rebel UPC group to the Aburo Hills in eastern Ituri, south of Kwandruma.

"This group [the PRA] is allied with Thomas Lubanga's UPC and the Lendu of Kpawdroma," he said. "The PRA wants to go to West Nile and link up with the Joseph Kony's Lords Resistance Army."

However, Kayihura said the UPDF had deployed along the axis to Uganda's West Nile Province, near the northwest tip of Uganda and the border with the Congo, to block the move.

Ugandan jet bombers destroyed the PRA camp and airstrip at Kwandruma, Kayihura said. Scared by this action, he added, the Lendu in the area turned in 22 PRA loyal to Muzoora, but he escaped to the Blue Mountains, east of Fataki. Kayihura said this group "was neutralized" on 16 March, forcing the PRA to scatter. Four of the PRA surrendered to UDPF in Bunia, he said.

Besigye, a former Ugandan presidential candidate, has denied any link with the PRA. A privately owned Kampala daily, The Monitor, reported him as saying on 12 April that the PRA was "a concoction" of the Ugandan intelligence services "competing for a cut in the hefty budget of the intelligence industry".

Disposition of the Congolese UPC

Kayihura said the remaining UPC elements and the PRA were allies. He said they were concentrated and were reorganising around Drodro, Largo, and Mblukwa. Some of Lubanga's remnant 'army" and those of the PRA, he said, were moving towards Lake Albert along a north-south line running from Largo to Kasenyi, a lakeside town southeast of Bunia. Ugandan troops have now confined them along the lakeshore between Lidyo and Kwandruma, Kayihura said.

The UPC retreat followed their expulsion from Bunia. Observers and residents of Bunia say that before Ugandan troops moved into Bunia under Kayihura, Lubanga had introduced a harsh regime spreading fear among people in Bunia. Movement of people was curtailed to the point where access to different parts of the district was close to impossible.

Ugandan forces moved into central Bunia after the UPC shelled the UPDF's tactical headquarters at the airport and planted four mines across the airport road. The attack had been expected since 1 March after the UPC former chief of intelligence, Ali Ngabo, and other local informants passed intelligence to the UPDF.

Improved security

Whatever the reasons for Uganda's entry into the DRC, observers in Ituri told IRIN that since UPDF troops forced the UPC out of Bunia, security has improved considerably in Ituri. Prior to 6 March some UPC members had broken with Lugana, signed a cessation of hostilities agreement and took part in the IPC meeting.

Under this political climate, roads have reopened, Bunia's residents are able to walk the streets without fear, and food has started appearing in the town's tiny market. The Ugandan army says it has reopened the Bunia-Kasenyi road and has enabled fish catches to reach Bunia's market. The Bunia-Komanda and Bunia-Djungu roads are also open.

"Following the defeat of the UPC at the hands of the UPDF on 6 March, 2003, and its retreat from Bunia, wide swathes and entire communities of the Ituri District that had been hitherto inaccessible to humanitarian workers may now become accessible," OCHA reported in its draft Open Ituri Humanitatrian Action Plan document.

Lendu, Hema rivalry

A security vacuum, analysts said, would probably lead to the resurgence of the worst forms of Lendu-Hema rivalry. The underlying and complex web of ethnic rivalries in Ituri that date back centuries appears to be at the core of Ituri's current problems. The sharpest differences have been between the two leading communities, the Lendu and the Hema.

In Djugu territory, in the centre of Ituri District, the Lendu (a Sudanic ethnic group) are pitted against the northern Hema, also know as the Gerere, who are a pastoral people. In the southern Ituri area of Gety, the southern Hema are pitted up against the Ngiti, also a Sudanic group. The north and south Hema are allied against the Lendu and Ngiti who, although ethnically the same, speak different languages. Age-old land feuds between Lendu and Hema grew in intensity with the breakdown of government control in Ituri and with the power play of foreign and local political heavyweights.

"There was no protection so little by little communities started to protect themselves," Ruhigwa Baguma, a Hema chief and delegate to the IPC, told IRIN.

Baguma, who is a professor of agronomy, said gold, timber, Coltan and fish are the new spoils for which the rivals were fighting. Other analysts said that because of their cattle wealth, the Hema were traditionally stronger than Lendu, who worked the land. When state control broke down in the district, the Lendu attempted to break their underling status. Where previously they used bows and arrows to settle scores, the proliferation of arms increased the intensity and volume of violence.

"The anger with which these killings have been carried out is indescribable," Kayihura said.

Another analyst told IRIN that with the absence of a central political force, politics was determined by attempts by all major groups to promote their interests at the cost of the welfare of communities, thereby destroying any peaceful coexistence.

The Lendu north chief delegate to the IPC, Larry Thewi Batsi, told IRIN that the Hema, with help from Uganda, had burned small Lendu localities in Ituri, forcing them to take up arms like cutlasses against attackers and that the situation deteriorated until 2001. Batsi claimed that when the pro-Kinshasa government Rassemblement congolais pour la democratie-Mouvement de liberation (RCD-ML) ruled the area, Uganda sided with the Hema.

Under RCD-ML rule in Ituri, there was a brief phase of stability and serious attempts to reconcile the society, an analyst told IRIN. This was an initiative of a provincial governor who was not a member of any Ituri ethnic group.

When Ugandan troops the governor in August 2002, the Hema-Gerere communities (that dominated the UPC) took over the administration and the UPC assumed its repressive rule of other communities, the analyst said. Soon various ethnic militias formed self-defence units and political parties set up paramilitary forces "operating uncontrolled throughout Ituri".

German Agro Action, which fights hunger worldwide, estimates that 80,000 IDP families (some 224,000 individuals) were immediately victims of ongoing inter-ethnic fighting before, during and after the UPC took over Ituri. An estimated 40 percent of the district's total agricultural production was lost in 2002, and the economy collapsed as business and entrepreneurs fled the area. Extortion and persecution came with the UPC government. Ituri's main hospital at Nyankunde, west of Bunia, and adjacent villages were destroyed or looted by ethnic militia during September 2002.

Analysts said constantly shifting alliances and the initial UPDF support to one particular community created an anarchic environment that never allowed Iturians to recover from a period of continuous persecution which began in 1997. However, that changed with the UN report on the exploitation of DRC's resources, and the UPC alliance with the Rwandan-backed RCD-Goma. With this knowledge, Uganda finally dropped its support for the UPC.

"Museveni found out that if he supported UPC against other communities Uganda would be forced to leave Ituri [leaving him unable to defeat Ugandan dissidents]," an analyst told IRIN. "Uganda could only control Ituri with the cooperation of at least one of the major groups."

Factors hindering humanitarian access

Till recently vulnerable communities in Ituri had been living under a climate of lawlessness and disorder. One local organisation said people were subject to extortion by any authority of the day, women were most at risk of abuse, and there was still a total lack of basic services.

"Sometimes clothing is very difficult to acquire," a humanitarian worker told IRIN.

In 2002, access was very restricted when the UPC denied aid agencies permission to go beyond Bunia's immediate surroundings, a representative of a humanitarian agency told IRIN. But, aid agencies said, UPDF had been cooperative. For example, the UPDF has been guarding WFP warehouses since 6 March and humanitarian actors are no longer targeted.

Despite these improvements, the continued presence of pockets of armed groups, the very poor road network, hostile communities and the presence or suspected location of landmines still prevent full-scale humanitarian action district wide. The presence of mines in Ituri, planted by the UPC and earlier by the Armee populaire du Congo of Mbusa Nyamwise, has caused humanitarian agencies to limit the reach of their operational areas.

After the UPC "cleared" out the Lendu Ngiti between Gety and Bogoro they planted mines along the road. In Irumu, 40 km west of Bunia, a UPDF soldier died from a mine blast. At Tchabi, southern Ituri, a civilian lost a foot. Mines have also been placed around wells, maiming people who have gone to fetch water.

"Our concern today is these mines. There are areas suspected and areas of known land mines," a humanitarian worker told IRIN.

UN Mine Action (known as UNMAS) and Handicap International are trying to locate and clear these areas of mines.

For humanitarian actors to work effectively, there must be access to the vulnerable after the departure of the UPDF. Therefore the international community must follow through on the UPDF's efforts to pacify Ituri, observers say.

"The presence of UPDF has brought so much good to the community in general," one political observer told IRIN.

Need for an assessment mission

After the departure of the UPDF, there will be need for several assessment missions to various communities. This is because many communities have been isolated for far too long. Huge segments of the population fled. Once security is guaranteed, many will want to return to their communities and will need housing, schools, health care, water, roads and farm implements.

Some humanitarian organisations are ready to spring into full action once security improves. The UN World Food Programme (WFP) is unable to reach large areas such as Gety, in the south of Ituri and armed elements still exist. However, the agency is shipping food deliveries from Kasenyi to Bunia, although quantities are limited to 150 mt of relief food each week due to a lack of trucks, Robert Deckker, the WFP head of sub-office for North Kivu and Ituri, told IRIN.

This year, WFP planned for 3,500 mt of food destined for nutritional centres and displaced people. Returnees are to get seed and agricultural tools. Families of malnourished are also to get aid. The agency's greatest priority is food security, which is linked to the overall physical security situation. There is fear among many agencies that if the UDPF leaves and a security vacuum forms there would be a lot more killings and displacements.

"A power vacuum would destroy humanitarian operations," Deckker said.

It would destroy the kind of work the FAO has been doing over the last three years in Ituri where there has been a "massive displacement" of farmers, Jean-Pierre Kandole, the leading FAO official in Ituri, said. In 2002, the agency helped 13,500 families with 33 mt of crops, hoes, seeds of corn, bean, groundnuts, soya and rice. In 2001, it distributed 10,000 hoes and 7.5 mt of crops and in 2002 - using OCHA finance - it helped IDPs, their host families and returnees in market gardening.

"We served 10,000 families who were given crops, hoes, rakes, shovels and insecticides," Kandole said. "This was very successful because it enabled IDPs to make money, which helped them meet their health needs, buy clothes and generally improve their living conditions."

In 2003, FAO is running an ECHO and Belgian government financed programme for some 3,800 families all over eastern Congo, not just Ituri. This programme consists of aid for nutritional centres with agricultural implements and crops destined for families of children who are at these centres.

Water and sanitation

Water and sanitation remain one of Ituri's greatest needs and the British charity, Oxfam, is the only NGO involved in this line of work in Ituri. Its first objective is to work with IDPs and returnees.

Six months ago Hema prevented Oxfam from helping the Lendu but since 6 March Oxfam has found it easier to enter all areas of Ituri. But needs remain significant, Oxfam's Flory Balaga told IRIN in Bunia. He said that 200,000 people needed aid in the town.

Bunia is served by two water utilities - the state-run firm, Regideso, and Ngongo, a Roman Catholic Church company. Presently they provide services to only some parts of Bunia. Other parts of the town have no water.

But the availability of water does not necessarily mean good health. Consumers have been failing to pay their bills to Regideso that draws its water from a river. The company is bankrupt and consequently unable to purify its water. Treatment stopped when the ICRC halted delivery of purification chemicals after six of its volunteers were killed in April 2001. Consequently in September 2002, when there was cholera epidemic and only Oxfam provided urgent water treatment products.

Ngongo uses spring water and supplies entire families in north, central and west Bunia. Oxfam has helped to protect sources against animal faecal contamination. And with the help of ECHO, Oxfam is now trying to protect the open wells that town residents have sunk and is providing water purification chemicals.

"We are doing this because in September, when cholera hit, the Lendu cut water supplies in the north and east of the town leaving nothing for the town centre. So the wells will help to ensure that in a similar situation the centre can be served - especially medical centres," Balaga said.

In the rest of Ituri, villages have not received emergency aid, he said, "and this is the greatest need". The increasing number of people returning home heightens the urgency. All major urban centres such as Djugu, Fataki, Rethy, Nioka and Mongbwalu lack water systems. Irumu, west of Bunia, has no treated water.

There is also a big problem of scurvy for IDPs who ran into the bush to avoid war. They need shelter and soap. Oxfam says it needs money to help 100,000 of these people.

"It would be suicidal if Oxfam left Ituri," Balaga said.

German Agro Action is also calling for multisector humanitarian intervention on emergency lines. The NGO operates in Irumu, Djugu and Mahagi territories and will be engaged in sectors of food, agriculture (funded by ECHO), provision of non-food items (USAID funded) and agricultural feeder roads, food security and road rehabilitations (USAID funded).

Health Situation

Ituri lacks all functional health and medical facilities and has only seven practising doctors in the area, a doctor with the humanitarian NGO Medair told IRIN. Again, health workers say their greatest need is security so they can access certain localities and help with the rehabilitation of medical facilities.

Mongbwalu, for example, is insecure because of mines, John Kanyamanda, a doctor with MEDAIR, told IRIN. In addition, he said some ethnic groups often prevented medical teams from reaching other more needy groups. To overcome the problem, he said, a balance has to be struck and each group informed of the help given to the other.

"This tactic works where there is no fighting," he said.

However, he said, there had been improvements even in the area of Gety. Where a year ago Medair could not serve this community because of Lendu complaints, there was now access. However, Kanyamanda said, to reach the northern town of Fataki Medair has to negotiate passage through district medical officers because Lendu and Hema control different stretches of road.

Medair has still not reached the western district town of Mambasa from Bunia because of perceived insecurity. Not too long ago along the Bunia-Mambasa road, Ngiti people seized a vehicle belonging to the Italian relief agency, Coopi, so Medair is serving Mambasa from its North Kivu base of Beni.

Since 6 March, Kanyamanda said, the situation had improved with people moving freely. However, pockets of danger remained such as the Ngiti towns of Gety and Songola, and the Lolwa-Mambasa road.

Medair says that urgent medical requirements are surgical materials, maternity beds, other beds and mattresses, bed sheets, orthopedic equipment and the need to retain health professionals. The big problem after putting things in place will be how to get and maintain medical supplies without interruption, Kanyamanda said.

"Donors have to evaluate whether or not if they commit materials they won't be looted as happed at the Nyakunde Hospital," he said.

The referral hospital was the largest and best equipped in all of Ituri and served the neighbouring district of Isiro. Rebels stripped the hospital bare, leaving only the shell intact.

Kanyamanda said if Ituri's medical facilities were to provide a minimum service at pre-war levels, it would need at least 15 doctors who are paid regular salaries. Those who have stayed throughout the war, and out of dedication to their jobs, get monthly stipends of between US $70 and $100 from Mediar.

These doctors have to cope with malaria, respiratory infections, cholera epidemics, measles and AIDS. If peace returns fully, they'll be faced with caseloads of thousands of people who had fled to the forest in search of safety. Most are naked in the areas between Lolwa and Kamanda and Mambassa. Many have emerged from the bush with scurvy, respiratory infections, and pregnant women suffer from anemia and malnutrition.

"The medical situation in Ituri is catastrophic because there are places we've not visited for one year. This is manifested by epidemics of cholera and measles," Kanyamanda said.

Child Soldiers

Children have suffered grossly in the four-year war in Ituri and have been prime candidates for recruitment into the various armies. Kassi Conda Ntare of Save the Children UK in Bunia said cultural and other factors had contributed to their recruitment. Some children had joined fighting forces out of the need to protect their parents. In other cases parents have compelled their child to join the militias because they have been unable to give cows, money or other material goods.

Traditional practices also contributed to the recruitment of child soldiers, Ntare said. In traditional societies children are initiated to be men from puberty but child solders were few and used only in defensive and not offensive actions.

"In the African context, to have a weapon is a sign of virility," Ntabe said.

By February, the UPC had 6,000 children aged between eight and 17 years in its ranks. Lenti Ngiti leaders told SAVE they had about 5,000 child soldiers in their ranks. The Hema have confined theirs to camps in Rwampara, Sota, Katoto Kunda and Tchari.

SAVE UK is sensitizing communities to disallow recruitment of the children and informing them of various conventions that prohibit the practice. They are also made to understand that any officer recruiting child soldiers is liable to prosecution. The aim is get the political and military groups to declare demobilization. After that, children would go to transit orientation centres to prepare them for civilian life, an exercise Ntabe estimates will cost some US $400 per child and take six months to complete.

Ntabe said many of the children needed trauma treatment. They had raped and beaten adults, and brutalised other children. He said two of every five children had killed with knives.

"This horror has affected these children," he said.

Generally, he said, the child soldiers are not maltreated by their own kind, unless they commit serious military mistakes like accidental firearm discharges.

Girls represented 10 percent of the child soldiers, he said, and usually served as the concubines of "officers" but never of soldiers of the same age. All child soldiers are also used as bodyguards, spies, cooks, guards and munitions porters.

[Also see IRIN Web Special on Ituri]