IRIN interview with Ituri administration leader Petronille Vaweka

Petronille Vaweka is the president of the interim administration of the embattled Ituri District, Orientale Province of northeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), a natural resource-rich region that has been devastated by several years of economically driven ethnic strife that has resulted in the death of some 50,000 people and the displacement of another 500,000 since August 1998, when the latest war in the Congo erupted.

Fighting between primarily Hema and Lendu militias and allied ethnic groups has continued despite the installation on 30 June of a two-year transitional government on and the recent formation of a united national army, ostensibly bringing an end to over four years of war.

Vaweka has also been chosen to serve as a deputy from her province to the National Assembly, part of the two-year national transition government leading to democratic elections.

IRIN spoke to Vaweka on Friday in Brussels, Belgium, during a European tour organised by Pax Christi International, an international Catholic movement for peace. Her visit came as the EU-led interim peace enforcement mission, "Artemis", had handed over responsibility for security of Bunia, the main town of Ituri, to the UN peacekeeping mission in the DRC, known as MONUC. Unlike "Artemis", whose operational jurisdiction was restricted to Bunia, MONUC now faces the challenge of ensuring peace throughout the Ituri region.

QUESTION: How would you evaluate the "Artemis" operation - did it bring stability to Bunia?

ANSWER: The "Artemis" mission was necessary, as it came at a critical juncture: people were beginning to lose hope, and MONUC did not have a sufficiently strong mandate. Armed groups were beginning to reinforce themselves, and it was thanks to "Artemis" that we were able to avoid the worst from happening. Since the fighting of May and June 2003, the town of Bunia was emptied of its inhabitants. Many were able to return during the "Artemis" operation, and if they were unable to return to their homes, they were at least able to stay in temporary shelters in the town.

Q: Now that "Artemis" has completed its mission, is there a risk of the previous conflict erupting once again?

A: The mission of "Artemis" was not to deploy into the interior of Ituri, but rather to secure and disarm the town of Bunia. The MONUC force that has recently arrived will have an immense task, as it will have to build on what "Artemis" has accomplished in order to deploy its troops into the interior of Ituri.

However, for it to be successful, three conditions will have to be met: maintain a strategy in line with its mandate under Chapter Seven of the UN Charter [which authorises the use of force], provide the number of soldiers that have been promised, and adhere to the deployment plan. But I am already encouraged by the fact that "Artemis" has shown the way, and MONUC has shown itself to be willing to dialogue with the people of Ituri.

Q: What is the future of the Ituri Pacification Commission (IPC) given the recent installation of the two-year national transitional government in Kinshasa?

A: The current Ituri administration is an intermediate one. It will be necessary in the near future that the national transitional government extend its authority in a more visible manner throughout Ituri. Let us say that the IPC will need a few more months to prepare people for living together peacefully, which is the IPC's main role. Until now, the IPC has not been able to work effectively because of the armed groups.

Q: What will become of these armed groups?

A: "Artemis" engaged these militias in a political dialogue, which led to certain of them agreeing to cantonment until they could be demobilised. Add to that the armed groups consultation commission ["la commission de concertation des groupes armes", which is part of the IPC], through which the [militia] leaders can discuss their points of view, and the recent meeting [among the militias] that was held in Kinshasa, I am convinced that the [militia] leaders are beginning to commit themselves to peace. Although I am aware that certain militias have not yet disarmed and that arms continue to arrive [in Ituri].

Q: Until their disarmament and demobilisation, what will prevent them from carrying out attacks?

A: Since the [Ituri] assembly was put in place in April 2003, we have been asking for technical and other support for the cantonment of these groups, but with no response yet, other than promises. MONUC said that it was not mandated to handle this. Meanwhile, the situation has gotten worse and armed groups have transformed themselves into groups of bandits who pillage to sustain themselves and who form pockets of resistance all over the place. That shows just how important a demobilisation and reinsertion programme is. In three months, with qualified technical experts, we could manage to resolve the situation. We hope that the [national] transitional government will assume responsibility for this programme, and the support of international organisations would be appreciated.

Q: How about the humanitarian situation at present - is the response adequate?

A: You could mobilise all the humanitarian means at your disposal, but that would not resolve the underlying problem of Ituri, given the number of displaced persons and the total destruction of the economy. You can care for the displaced from week to week, but that will never be enough. On the other hand, humanitarian agencies could try to return the displaced people to their homes, in places such as Butembo, Beni, Kanyabayonga, and from [neighbouring] Uganda.

However, in order to accomplish this, security must be restored so that people can return to their homes and begin to cultivate crops. Furthermore, the humanitarian programme must be better thought-out: mafias are organising themselves in the displaced camps - meal tickets are being sold, and food supplies are being stockpiled, all to the detriment of the truly vulnerable people who can no longer access this aid.

Q: What does the future hold for you?

A: Do I really have a say in the matter? I entered politics without having wanted to, when the people of Ituri made me the head of their assembly. Having just begun that job, I was named a deputy at the national level. My greatest concern is that my political involvement will serve to bring peace to Ituri. When that has been achieved, I think I will return to working in the humanitarian NGO sector. My true "raison d'etre" is to help the most vulnerable and all those who are suffering.