Bandits, militias, and alleged abuses by the army are causing access problems for aid workers trying to help large concentrations of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the territory of Irumu, part of the Ituri region in northwestern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
Among the 130,000 IDPs in the Ituri region, 89,864 (69 percent) are in the territory of Irumu, about 40km southwest of Bunia, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
Remnants of militia groups which fought for control of Irumu until 2007 remain active, carrying out sporadic attacks against civilians.
Banditry and human rights abuses have reportedly been carried out by the Front for Patriotic Resistance in Ituri (FRPI), a militia group previously linked to the Lendu-dominated National Integrationist Front (FNI), and a new group that emerged in 2008, the Popular Front for Justice in Congo (FPJC). These militia groups, estimated to have no more than 100 people within their ranks, were responsible for 52 deaths in 2010, prompting a military operation by the DRC army, FARDC, to neutralize their activities and move populations to protected areas.
One such site is Bukiringi where an estimated 2,500 displaced people live in temporary shelters, each consisting of a 4x4 metre rectangle of earth covered by plastic sheeting.
“The war between the Lendu groups and the FARDC was the reason we left our homes. Many people died on the way. Now, we don’t have the same problems, but our biggest problem at the moment is our housing,” Olongwa Daniel, the vice-president of the committee of displaced people, told IRIN. “An NGO came and put these shelters up, but many of the roofs have been torn off. Our children now have to sleep outside and they get a lot of illnesses when it rains. The NGO said they would come back and construct better housing.”
Of Bukiringi’s 20,000 inhabitants, 11,000 have been displaced from conflict areas and have sought refuge among the native population. Excluding the 2,500 IDPs living in camps, most have been welcomed into families and while humanitarian workers say they are encouraged by the peaceful cohabitation of the communities, the stream of new arrivals since 2010 is exerting pressure on the availability of basic resources.
“The first priority for humanitarian workers is to create security for the displaced to return home. Otherwise, we will have a sustained long-term humanitarian emergency. People here are already vulnerable and the conflict has made them more so,” Séverine Ramis, field manager for Save the Children in Province Orientale, told IRIN. “The other option is to adapt the humanitarian response and target transition funders so that there is a long-term investment involved, especially for those people that have been in Bukiringi since 2010.”
While a number of agencies have intervened to alleviate the conditions in the camps at Bukiringi, some say the humanitarian response in the region of Ituri has been eclipsed by the ongoing attacks by the Lord’s Resistance Army and large-scale displacements in the Uélés. Other humanitarian issues in the district also remain neglected by funders.
“In many territories of Ituri, notably Djugu, there are vulnerabilities that do not stem from conflict, but rather, from vulnerability in economic terms, especially with populations that have returned home six months ago or even one or two years ago,” said Ramis. “Also, around the mines of Mongbwalu and near Lake Albert, you have the prostitution of young girls and sexual violence, but all this is hidden behind the humanitarian priorities in Haut and Bas Uélé. A lot more people are made vulnerable from structural causes, than from conflict and displacement of populations in Ituri.”
A number of the displaced communities in Bukiringi arrived before 2008, but are unable to return home until their security is guaranteed, and their current situation remains precarious. “Do we help people who have been there for 6-7 years? Do we continue to consider them displaced?” Ramis told IRIN. “In general, we would say no, but since there are no transition funds, humanitarian agencies respond with short-term emergency treatment.”
Alleged FARDC abuses
According to an OCHA February 2011 bulletin, about 12 percent of Ituri’s IDPs are still out of reach of humanitarian agencies and “access is heavily dependent on improved security, which needs to be guaranteed by the FARDC and MONUSCO [the UN Organization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo].”
A contingent of the FARDC is stationed beside the camp at Bukiringi. Reports from humanitarian organizations in both Ituri and the Uélés claim that a large percentage of the abuses in the two districts are carried out by the FARDC, including illegal taxation, forced labour, sexual assault and pillage of resources.
"The FARDC is a protective force for the Congolese people, but at the same time they represent both a burden and a threat to the population - first because some of them are not paid and meet their basic needs by illegally taxing the population living in the area, and second because a substantial part of them are highly undisciplined and commit serious abuses, including sexual violence and looting,” said Marcel Stoessel, Oxfam’s country director for DRC.
In Irumu, some agencies say more than 50 percent of exactions are carried out by the FARDC. Col Sikabwe Fall, FARDC commander of the Operational Zone in Ituri, agrees that a lack of discipline among certain troops is responsible for individual cases of abuse, particularly among officers originally part of former rebel groups and who joined the army after the end of the war in Ituri. But, he said, humanitarian agencies often “act in bad faith” and their claims that the army is responsible for 50 percent of abuses are incorrect.
“Let’s take an example: There was one of our men who raped a woman in Aveba. The agencies were informed and we immediately took measures to punish him. But later, the agencies issue a report saying “rape on site by the FARDC”. They only tell part of the story - at least they should tell the truth. If one army officer rapes a woman and on the other side, armed militias take 30 women into the bush as sexual slaves, please analyse, is it 50 percent?”
Camp inmates support militias?
An April bulletin from OCHA holds the FARDC responsible for threats against some of the displaced populations. Fall attributes this to the fact that some individuals in the camps continue to provide support to armed groups.
Olongwa Daniel from Bukiringi says it took a while to convince army officials that they had nothing to do with the militias. “At the beginning we had a lot of problems with the FARDC and they had to be disciplined to understand that we are not conspiring with the militias.”
The identity of Irumu’s armed groups is also a subject of controversy. While most agencies concur that the militia groups are merely bandits without any political ambitions, the FARDC says it is difficult to make out the reasons for their attacks.
“Certain acts are in fact incomprehensible,” said Fall. “For example, there might be an attack on a village and the people of the village recognize their own children among the militias. It’s a bizarre situation where they are in fact attacking their own parents and burning the village.”