Bloody ethnic clashes in the Ituri district of northeastern DRC, which broke out in June last year, drew international attention to an ongoing conflict between the Hema and Lendu people in the area.
The clashes resulted in the deaths of some 4,000-7,000 and an estimated 150,000 displaced people. Hundreds of survivors have been left seriously maimed, and local hospitals are stretched to the limits of their skills and resources to care for patients with gruesome machete injuries and traumatic amputations.
Villages have been razed to the ground, homes burnt, crops and land abandoned, and vital possessions including seeds, agricultural tools and clothes destroyed. No peace agreement between the hostile parties has yet been reached, and the rebel Rassemblement congolais pour la democratie-Mouvement de liberation (RCD-ML), which controls the area, calls the present lull in the fighting no more than “hopeful”.
As a “test of sentiment”, according to RCD-ML leader Ernest Wamba dia Wamba, the authorities are encouraging people to return to their abandoned and destroyed villages. But many of the displaced fear to return to villages where there is inadequate security and no structure has been put in place for returnees.
Since the beginning of February, hospitals have admitted new victims attacked on an individual basis when attempting to go home. Nominal security - sometimes only two or three soldiers - is provided in the villages by the Ugandan army, which occupies northeastern Congo and backs the RCD-ML. Humanitarian agencies complain extremist sentiment from both the Lendu and Hema camps is obstructing a basic response to the crisis that was deemed “acute” last October.
Origin of the conflict
Hostility between the Lendu and Hema communities is rooted in unequal acquisition and access to land, education, and local government.
Although neither community originated in the area, the settlement of the Bantu Lendu agriculturists pre-dated the 19th century arrival of the Nilotic cattle-herding Hema. Both sides have differing interpretations of the original history and pattern of settlement, but it is generally recognised that the minority Hema benefited disproportionately from the departing Belgian colonialists.
They inherited plantations, farms and fertile lands, and became a land-owning class. The Lendu were employed to work on the land, and see the Hema are acquisitive “outsiders” who migrated from areas in Uganda and Sudan. The comparative wealth of the Hema gave them more access to education and greater representation in administration and local government despite having a minority status. Other tribes are involved in the conflict, also woven into this relationship of inequality.
The Alur, for example, used the Lendu for cultivation and service “like slaves”, according to one local player. The area is actually a patchwork of many different tribes, of which the Lendu and Hema are only part. According to RCD-ML representatives, out of a population of 1.4 million in the main Djugu area of Ituri, some 450,000 are Lendu and about 250,000 are Hema. This local construction of communities fits into a larger political context in the Democratic Republic of Congo where the state has tended to lend “authenticity” to Bantu groups.
More recently, Nilotic groups like the Hema have been associated with the occupying armies of Rwanda and Uganda. There were hostile flashpoints between the Lendu and Hema before the current conflict - notably 1975 and 1991 - although nothing comparable to the present massacres. Lendu and Hema representatives say previous conflicts were stopped during former president Mobutu Sese Seko’s regime through the mechanisms of local administration, security and intelligence, as well as successful mediation and traditional agreements. Theories put forward as to why the massacres began tend to focus on expansionism by the Hema and unequal land access, which provoked attacks by the Lendu, then spiralled into counter-attacks.
The “trigger” event that turned an inequality – typical on the continent – into mass killings is not known. It has been variously attributed to evictions and manipulated borders as well as planned retribution.
In 1998 there were some incidents of Hema manipulation and Lendu looting that have been retrospectively related to the build-up of hostilities. But inequality of land and representation did not make the killings inevitable. Research in the area of conflict shows that initial attacks were far more sophisticated than spontaneous grievances, and paperwork kept in the administration files of Blukwa – a flashpoint of the clashes – demonstrate an element of planning and execution in the absence of any real authority.
There is also the possibility of a wider political dynamic, though this remains speculative, involving former soldiers and factionalism. All camps make references to a “hidden hand”, implying a political strategy behind the conflict. Ugandan soldiers claim former Mobutu soldiers are masterminding some of the attacks.
While there is no evidence of state participation in the Lendu-Hema conflict, the ethnic focus, the method of attack and the sheer numbers killed has led to accusations of “genocide”.
The UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights has called the killings “possible crimes against humanity”.
The first round of violence
According to displaced Lendu and Hema, the first mass machete attacks were launched by the Lendu from the Pitsi collectivity against Hema villages in the Djugu and Blukwa areas in June 1999. This coincided with the appointment of district governor, Adele Lotsove, a Hema, roundly criticised for her attempts to increase the economic and political standing of her own people, and her partisan handling of subsequent peace talks.
Concern among international and local observers to apply the concept of “balance” to a conflict that has seen vast numbers of both Lendu and Hema killed, has emphasised historical grievances and counter-killings. This tends to obscure the pattern and origin of the killings. Apart from complaints about their immediate circumstances, recent attacks and traditional grievances, Lendu and Hema victims concur that extremists in the Pitsi collectivity initiated mass killings.
The planned assaults took the Hema unaware, and aimed to remove the Hema from land considered Lendu. Both Lendu and Hema victims point out, also, that it would have taken lengthy planning to make the enormous numbers of arrows used in mass attacks. In the absence of any real authority, killings escalated when the Hema launched counter-attacks and used Ugandan soldiers in a defensive strategy.
Subsequently, the scale of tit-for-tat attacks over the last few months has resulted in thousands dead on both sides, gruesome injuries, and rendered meaningless notions of “attacker” and “defender”. A displaced Lendu man in Bunia described how a Lendu village, Buli, was attacked early one morning by Lendu extremists. His daughter broke her leg in the rush to find sanctuary in the Catholic church, where they waited for three hours before Ugandan soldiers arrived. Extremists have put pressure on Lendu communities, he says.
“They want us all to join the fight. When they come to us, the message is clear - let’s go and fight Hema and soldiers together with machetes. If you don’t, you will also be killed.”
Attacks were preceded by written warnings sent out in May from chiefs from the Pitsi locality that Hema should vacate the land and leave their livestock and crops behind. Blukwa administration has kept notes sent out by the Lendu chiefs of Bamgusu and Mukpa (Pitsi grouping) to the population of Uchubu and Juza to vacate by 18 June.
According to villagers and the administration in Blukwa, houses were burnt on 18 June, then the attacks moved onto Blukwa itself on 22 June. Copies of the threats from Pitsi are kept in official files held by the Blukwa administration. Written in Swahili, the note to Blukwa translates: “Today, today, today, visitors who are living here in these hills, you are ordered to leave.
Those who have cattle, goats and sheep should hand them over and leave our hills forever. The fifth day is your last day. After that, it will be as you have heard. Leave and get out.” Once received, original copies were attached to official letters from the administration requesting protection and increased security. Urgent alerts were sent to the security committee, commander of the army, and commander of the police in Bunia and Djugu, in June, but without response. The letters bear the official stamps indicating the date they were sent and the date received.
Representatives of the Hema community claim Lendu extremists are using an organisation formed around 1993 as a political vehicle - the ‘Liberation of the Oppressed Race of Ituri’, or LORI. In the KiLendu language, “lori” means “the place where things are settled”. According to its detractors, LORI has senior leaders based in Kinshasa. In February, representatives of LORI in Bunia told international journalists that the organisation was a cultural association and played no part in the killings.
Mass killings over the next few months, initiated by these extremists, included attacks on moderate fellow Lendu. The latter typically continued to live among the Hema and avoided active participation in the attacks. They make up a large proportion of the displaced in urban and trading centres like Bunia, Djugu and Drodro.
With the escalation of counter-attacks by Hema, there must be concern about the continued ability of the displaced to exist together. To date, displaced Hema and Lendu mix successfully in the centres and hospitals. But as the conflict continues, increased polarisation makes resentment follow purely ethnic lines, so that, for example, displaced moderate Lendu, are finding it increasingly difficult to find survival work in the fields. Initial attacks by Lendu extremists included assaults on other tribes, such as the Ndo Okebo and Alur, seen to share interests or territory with the Hema. These attacks were not small or incidental. The Ndo Okebo lost many people and villages in the Djugu area and, along with the Alur and Mambisa, are a crucial part of the peace talks currently underway.
The Hema began to use their comparative wealth and influence to hire Ugandan soldiers for counter attacks. Although the Ugandan army had no clear instructions on how to handle the conflict at this stage, soldiers admit there was a “sympathy” for the Hema, not just as victims of the first attacks, but because they were derided as having Ugandan origins.
In the absence of policy, the “special relationship” between the Hema and the Ugandan soldiers added a deadly dynamic, based partly on socio-political factors, and partly on wealth and resources. Some individual officers took the opportunity to accumulate wealth by protecting the Hema, acting like mercenaries.
Method of attack
Initial attacks on targeted villages caught victims unaware, and there was a wholesale slaughter by machetes and arrows of hundreds of villagers, and a comprehensive destruction of houses.
An unknown number of bodies – possibly thousands – were buried in mass graves or left in the bush for scavengers. Unable to return to occupied and destroyed villages, many families from both sides have failed to properly bury their dead. Counter-attacks followed a similar modus operandi.
These are descriptions of attacks by some of the victims: “They came dressed in sports shirts early in the morning, and some had animal skins round their heads. They carried a lot of arrows. There were hundreds of fighters. They started first in the village with machetes and burnt houses. If you ran into the bush, you would be hit with arrows.
Some of us managed to get back later and bury the dead but some of the bodies had been burnt in the houses, and some had been cut up. They take the heart, the sex, the tongue and the hands of the dead.” [Displaced Hema interviewed in Drodro, after Lendu attack on Buyi village in July 1999]. “The attackers came early on Sunday morning and killed more than 80 people in two villages, using machetes and arrows.
There were hundreds of Hema with Ndo Okebo. First they sent a letter saying they will attack us. They started the attack by encircling the village and blowing horns. Many were injured and we brought people to hospital, but we have no medicine.” [Lendu survivor interviewed in Saliboko, describing a 15 January 2000 Hema attack]. Ugandan soldiers concur that thousands of fighters group together for an attack. Mostly the attackers are adult male, but include boys as young as ten and occasionally women.
Victims are often trapped in their houses early in the morning and killed as they run for the bush, or tracked down in the bush with arrows and machetes. Many victims describe how the attackers bang on the doors of houses shouting an alert, then kill as people run out of the house.
The number dilemma
There are no reliable figures of dead or injured on each side.
A UN assessment mission to Djugu in October estimated over 100,000 displaced and said estimates of the dead ranged from 5,000-7,000. More massacres have taken place – on a monthly basis – up to February since that figure was established as the upper estimate. That figure and allegations of “genocide” provoked a reaction from RCD-ML authorities in January, who said no more than 2,000 had been killed.
But leader Ernest Wamba dia Wamba admitted in February that “numbers were estimates”, and “around 4,000” had been killed. Some humanitarian representatives in the field said 7,000 was now an accepted figure, and the number of dead could be greater.
Although there are no reliable figures on the numbers of dead on each side, there are certain patterns of hospitalisation and injuries. The vast majority of victims presently hospitalised with gross machete wounds and traumatic amputations are Hema. Hospital staff do not keep records, but say that the early victims were overwhelmingly Hema. Bunia hospital, on the other hand, has received more Lendu victims with bullet wounds. There are six such cases since January 2000, including small children, attributed to attacks by security forces.
One international humanitarian organisation warns that Lendu victims may not be brought into town and are more likely, particularly with bullet wounds, to remain in the bush. end part one
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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