(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

Hoping for peace in Ituri

Marabo resident, Ituri district
Nicholai Lidow/IRIN

The conflict in Ituri District of north-eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) officially ended three years ago, but residents have continued to live between fighting and peace.

It all began as a land dispute between the ethnic Hema and Lendu, but escalated as numerous armed groups fought for control of valuable gold deposits and trade routes.

"At first we only had machetes and bows and arrows," said a man who identified himself only as Didier, describing the early days of the war. "Eventually we got guns and became a real military unit."

Six years of fighting left 60,000 people dead and forced 500,000 to flee their homes, according to aid workers in the region.

In Linga, a town nestled in the hills 75km north-east of Ituri's capital Bunia, nearly all the residents fled into the surrounding hills in 1999 as the violence intensified. Many spent years hiding in the bush, foraging for food.

The soldiers who remained in the town were not much better off. "We didn't have anything," Didier explained, as he sold goods from a stall in Linga's central market.

Much of the violence was carried out by the Hema-dominated Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC) and the Lendu-dominated National Integrationist Front (FNI).

When UN peacekeepers arrived in 2005, many of the FNI fighters were relieved to be taken to transit sites for disarmament. But others fled into the bush rather than disarm.

"They were afraid of the whites [UN peacekeepers]," said Didier, a former FNI soldier.

For several months, these FNI soldiers raided the town and looted from civilians. UN peacekeepers restored order and the area is now generally calm, but some civilians still remain in the hills, three years later, too afraid to return.

Woman on the road to market. Linga, Ituri district

Woman on the road to market. Linga, Ituri district
Nicholai Lidow/IRIN
Woman on the road to market. Linga, Ituri district
Tuesday, February 10, 2009
Un retour difficile pour ceux qui avaient fui le Kivu
Woman on the road to market. Linga, Ituri district

Photo: Nicholai Lidow/IRIN
A woman going to the market in Linga, Ituri District. Nearly all town residents fled into the surrounding hills in 1999

Unfulfilled promises

Didier and others who participated in the disarmament sometimes question their decision to cooperate with the UN. "They promised us so many things, but we didn't receive anything," he says.

Mohammed Wahab, spokesman for the UN Mission in Congo (MONUC), said the national disarmament and reintegration programmes had not been as "active" as hoped and "couldn't keep their promises to the ex-combatants after disarmament".

MONUC, however, estimates that 80-90 percent of the fighters have been disarmed, but scattered groups remain active in more remote areas. 

In September 2008, many of these dispersed militia coalesced into the Popular Front for Justice in Congo (FPJC), which claims to be fighting because the government has failed to provide security in the region.

Marabo, a village 30km south-west of Bunia, was attacked by the FPJC in November. Fortunately no one died, the elders explain; everyone fled when the armed men entered the village and began looting.

A joint offensive involving Congolese military and UN peacekeepers pushed back the FPJC into the remote forest around Tchey, 30km south of Bunia. Since then, many government soldiers have been deployed to Marabo.

However, the soldiers have yet to build a base in Marabo, instead occupying houses in the village. The presence of so many armed men is a source of tension.

There have been several reports of rape and theft by government soldiers in the area, locals said.

An elder, who declined to be named, asked: "In what kind of country do you find military living among the civilians like this?"

Violence toll

Years of violence and militarisation have taken a toll on Ituri's citizens. In Nyakunde, a school-boy skipped down the street wearing a home-made hat depicting a crudely drawn soldier shooting at a stick figure.

''In what kind of country do you find military living among the civilians like this?''

Iturians remain divided on the question of who should be blamed for the war. On 26 January, the International Criminal Court (ICC) began proceedings against Thomas Lubanga, leader of the UPC, on charges of conscripting child soldiers.

The court planned to broadcast the trial in Bunia, but had to close the screening because of "security concerns" due to the number of Lubanga supporters.

Despite these lingering challenges, Ituri is unlikely to return to full-scale violence as long as the 3,000 MONUC peacekeepers stay. However, with the war in neighbouring North Kivu and the violence caused by Uganda's Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebels in Haut-Uélé district, to the north, MONUC is redeploying some Ituri peacekeepers to these areas.

The LRA attacks have displaced more than 100,000 and many are seeking refuge in Ituri, according to aid workers 

Back in Marabo, the elders consider whether Ituri is likely to remain peaceful. "No one can tell the future," they said, "but we hope so."

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