A local conflict in eastern DRC’s Ituri area, which has already killed thousands of people and is currently one of the country’s most serious humanitarian crises, risks getting caught up in the wider DRC war, regional analysts and humanitarian sources said.
The clashes between the pastoralist Hema and agriculturalist Lendu ethnic groups in the Djugu area of Ituri began in mid-June, essentially over long-standing local land disputes. But the presence of various Congolese and foreign armed groups, the easy availability of weapons, the war-ravaged economy, and a rise in “ethnic ideology” in the area have provided dangerous fodder for the conflict’s rapid extension and ferocity, analysts told IRIN.
“It’s a very old dispute, but this conflict is linked to the current situation in the region,” a humanitarian source said. “It started as a land issue, but it has now become a conflict over power and money,” another source told IRIN. “They started with bows and arrows but now they’re using AK-47s,” he added.
A UN assessment mission to Djugu estimated in October that over 100,000 people had been displaced and scores of villages burned to the ground. Though casualty figures were impossible to confirm, estimates ranged from 5,000-7,000 people killed, the mission report said.
In addition to people who have died as a direct result of the conflict, there are the “untold numbers that have died of illnesses or epidemics attendant upon living under marginal socio-economic circumstances or in the bush, without adequate access to drinking water or medical care,” an MSF spokesperson told IRIN on Saturday.
Two large measles epidemics in affected areas between August-October resulted in mortality rates as high as 15 percent, primarily among displaced populations, and an MSF centre near Bunia treated about 200 cholera cases from mid-September through October, the spokesperson said. Outbreaks of meningitis and the plague have also been reported, and malnutrition rates have soared.
“Vast areas of the landscape are empty, dotted with burned villages and abandoned fields containing the sparse remnants of the summer crops,” an NGO report received by IRIN said.
Conflict between the Hema and Lendu has occurred several times in recent decades, including in 1972, 1985 and 1996. A local NGO involved in human rights and reconciliation issues told IRIN that the country’s 1973 land law was an important source of the problem because, under the law, people can purchase already-inhabited property and then present title to the land two years later when it becomes uncontestable in court. This practice has resulted in families being driven off their fields and out of their homes, the NGO said.
The latest violence started after members of the Hema group reportedly tried to extend their land holdings onto Lendu property, allegedly with land title documents falsified in collaboration with local authorities, sources told IRIN.
Djugu, with an estimated population of one million, is part of the “province” of Kibali-Ituri, created earlier this year by the Ugandan-backed Rassemblement congolais pour la democratie-Mouvement de liberation (RCD-ML), led by Ernest Wamba dia Wamba. Reports indicate that Ugandan soldiers had fought in the conflict on the side of the Hema, in exchange for cash payments.
A Ugandan military official, however, denied that Uganda was involved. “We are not in that place to support either of those groups. We are there for our security,” the official told IRIN. “There could be some errant soldiers who are supporting one group, but I have not received information on that,” he added.
Wamba said the conflict was linked to long-term disparities in wealth and access to education, which had favoured the Hema. “Those inequalities, which are a colonial legacy, are now being exploited,” he told IRIN.
Meanwhile, with the volatile military and political situation in the DRC, the Hema-Lendu clashes could create new obstacles to the implementation of the Lusaka peace plan, analysts said. “This could create conflict between other ethnic groups in the area,” one analyst told IRIN. “Collaboration between different armed groups creates latent problems that could explode at any moment, thus jeopardising the ceasefire.”
Wamba said the Djugu fighting had recently subsided, and displaced people had started coming out of the bush. A commission led by senior RCD-ML official Jacques Depelchin had initiated reconciliation efforts between the two groups, he said. “I can’t say everything is cleared up but the indications are that the war there will be stopped,” Wamba told IRIN.
But other sources questioned whether the local political will existed to reach a sustainable solution. “Even if temporary arrangements have stopped the killings for now, the conflict has not been solved, and without true reconciliation between the two groups, it will start up again for sure,” a humanitarian source told IRIN.