The pacification of Ituri, a region in northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) badly affected by conflict, has been a long and arduous process. Much has been achieved over recent years but, as analysts and officials involved point out, the region is not yet out of the woods.
Since the first of three disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) programmes started in 2004 some 25,000 combatants and 10,000 children have been demobilised. Thousands of weapons have been collected. Programmes have been set up to help former fighters revert to civilian life. Hundreds of thousands of displaced civilians have returned to their homes.
But some small armed groups, splinters of the Front des nationalistes integrationistes (FNI) and of the Forces de résistance patriotique en Ituri (FRPI), did not take part in the latest programme. Since the completion of the third DDR programme in October 2007 several FNI leaders have surrendered, leaving only a few commanders and around 100 men, now considered criminal rather than military threats.
The FRPI, on the other hand, is “reportedly recruiting new combatants and being resupplied with weapons,” according to the latest report on DRC, sent in April 2008, by the UN secretary-general to the Security Council.
The group “maintains an operational capacity that allows it to launch hit-and-run operations against FARDC [The DRC army]. Clashes have halted returns of internally displaced persons in parts of Ituri… The fragile security situation poses a serious threat to the strengthening of community reintegration and recovery processes in some areas of Ituri.,” the report said.
FRPI groups are estimated to comprise some 500 men.
Many of the former fighters who have disarmed, especially children, have not been properly reintegrated into civilian society - and with the authority of the state, in the view of some analysts, yet to be fully restored in Ituri, many civilians still feel a need to keep weapons.
Between 1999 and 2003, Ituri was the theatre of a particularly bloody sideshow of DRC’s wider civil war. Fighting between different communities mobilised into numerous armed groups killed some 50,000 civilians and prompted a large proportion of the region’s population to flee their homes. Access to many areas of Ituri was impossible for humanitarian workers and civilians alike.
Photo: Jane Some/IRIN
|Jonas Mfouatie, head of UNDP in Ituri|
The first DDR campaigns may have succeeded in disarming large numbers of these fighters but, as Jonas Mfouatie, who heads the UN’s Development Programme in Ituri, told IRIN, the reintegration component fell short.
“The third phase of the DDR [which UNDP coordinated] has been largely successful but we have about 12,000 ex-combatants from the first and second phases who did not receive anything at all by the time the programme was suspended,” he said in Ituri’s main town, Bunia.
“We know that the government has signed on to resume the programme but this will take time. What happens to these people in the meantime?"
Over recent years many fighters have returned to armed groups because they were not all given the necessary help to resume civilian life.
Mfouatie pointed out that thanks to DDR, most parts of Ituri were now accessible and that many civilians were safely able to work their farms, providing a boost to food security.
“The district now has more schools, more shopping centres and health centres, and economic activities have resumed across much of Ituri” he told IRIN.
The UNDP official also explained that the third DDR phase differed from its predecessors in that it included efforts to disarm civilian communities.
“We have adopted a community security approach whereby we conduct a diagnosis to help us identify what the population considers to be the factors of risk for them,” he said. “We call it ‘freedom from fear’.”
According to David Mugnier, the Central Africa project director of the International Crisis Group, which in May 2008 published an extensive report (in French) on Ituri, the third DDR programme (ending in October 2007) was “better conceived in trying to associate communities on the ground, to make them benefit from reinsertion and therefore more inclined to take fighters back.”
Photo: Alain Budema/UNDP DRC
|Destruction of weapons collected in the disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) process in Ituri, Orientale province|
“Our assessment is that there is still a lot to be done to disarm local communities,” he added.
“People have not surrendered weapons because the level of reconciliation is still very low. This was an inter-communal war from the beginning and people still don’t feel secure. This is largely because the state is still absent in a way.
“Until recently, the security forces, the police and army, were also a source of insecurity. That didn’t inspire people who saw them as enemies, that it was time to disarm,” said Mugnier.
He added that another disincentive to disarm among the Ngiti community, who predominate in the FRPI, was their current ready access to mining resources and their lack of trust in the authorities to manage these properly.
Ituri is rich in resources such as gold, timber, coltan, diamonds and possibly oil.
“The government is notorious for its corruption. There is no vision to establish the management required in a post-conflict situation,” he warned.
One major challenge of DDR in Ituri is what to do about former child fighters.
During the first two DRR programmes, “no serious study went into establishing exactly what activity would be feasible for such children,” said one humanitarian worker in Bunia who asked not to be identified.
Photo: Alain Budema/UNDP DRC
|Since the DDR programmes started in Ituri in 2004, at least 25,000 combatants and 10,000 children have been demobilised|
“If one [child] tells you, ‘I want to be a tailor,’ if in his village there are only a few people, after a short while he will run out of a market for his products, then what? He will become susceptible to re-recruitment into the militia groups,” the official said.
“Some militia leaders have said they do not go looking for the children to recruit; the children go to them in search of something to eat and something to occupy them”, he said.
Programmes to reintegrate some 5,000 former child soldiers are now run by the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) working with COOPI (an Italian NGO), Save the Children-UK and local NGOs.
When DDR3 began, far fewer children than expected enrolled for such programmes. “We suspect that instead of letting the children come out through this channel, the militias just chased them away,” Francine Shindano Mangaza, a child protection officer for UNICEF in Bunia, told IRIN.
"As a result, a lot of children just found their way back to the community unofficially. These are the ones that COOPI is now dealing with after an identification process through the help of the local community."
Some 10,000 child soldiers demobilised under the first two DDR programmes have not taken part in any reinsertion projects, in many cases because they have since reached adulthood and therefore become ineligible.
The first suspect to come before the International Criminal Court, Ituri militia leader Thomas Lubanga, faces charges related to the alleged forced recruitment of children, which is considered a war crime under international law.
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
Right now, we’re working with contributors on the ground in Ukraine and in neighbouring countries to tell the stories of people enduring and responding to a rapidly evolving humanitarian crisis.
We’re documenting the threats to humanitarian response in the country and providing a platform for those bearing the brunt of the invasion. Our goal is to bring you the truth at a time when disinformation is rampant.
But while much of the world’s focus may be on Ukraine, we are continuing our reporting on myriad other humanitarian disasters – from Haiti to the Sahel to Afghanistan to Myanmar. We’ve been covering humanitarian crises for more than 25 years, and our journalism has always been free, accessible for all, and – most importantly – balanced.
You can support our journalism from just $5 a month, and every contribution will go towards our mission.