A series of meetings held last week in Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), brought together representatives of armed militias from the troubled Ituri District of northeastern DRC, who held discussions with members of the country's newly-inaugurated two-year transitional government and the UN peacekeeping mission, known as MONUC.
None of the ethnic-based militias fighting for control of Ituri is signatory to the national power-sharing accord that led to the installation on 30 June of the Congo's new government, led by President Joseph Kabila. Last week's talks were aimed at including them in a peace and reconciliation process from which they had complained of being excluded.
In a memorandum of understanding signed at the end of the talks, the Ituri militias agreed to work together with the new government in restoring state authority across the region. They also pledged to end hostilities and to bring an end to "uncontrolled" groups that have continued to commit massacres despite the signing of several ceasefire agreements.
Since August 1998, when war erupted in eastern DRC, it is estimated that at least 50,000 people have been killed and at least 500,000 displaced in Ituri by economically driven conflict - often taking on ethnic dimensions - for control over the region's natural resources.
During his visit to Kinshasa, IRIN had the opportunity to speak with Thomas Lubanga, leader of the primarily ethnic Hema Union des patriotes congolais (UPC), one of the main armed groups of Ituri. Lubanga talked about what his movement would do to increase humanitarian access in the region, his efforts toward peace and the good behaviour and discipline of his armed forces. This is an excerpt of the interview on Tuesday.
QUESTION: In your capacity as leader of the UPC what action do you plan to take in order to enable humanitarian organisations to have greater access to populations in need of help?
ANSWER: The vulnerability of the people of Ituri has always been of concern to us, and it was with this in mind that we governed during the seven months that we were in power in [Bunia, the main town of Ituri]. Currently, if there are places where humanitarian organisations can carry out their activities with ease and in security, these are places where our forces are cantoned. We have already made declarations that our forces and allies must lend their support in any place where humanitarian groups need access to vulnerable populations. This is our contribution to the humanitarian efforts which are so important for the people of Ituri.
Q: Despite recent commitments to peace made by Ituri militias during peace talks in Kinshasa with the transitional government and MONUC, killings are still reported to be taking place. Do the armed groups of Ituri truly wish to cease hostilities and to enable humanitarian access to affected populations?
A: The massacres that are taking place in Ituri are beyond the control of these so-called armed groups. Massacres in Ituri began in early 1999 when none of these groups even existed, through criminal incursions motivated by inter-ethnic hatred. Today, it is true that those who were active in 1999 continue to be active today, independent of these armed groups.
Q: To whom are you alluding, exactly?
A: We are alluding to those who are loosely grouped under the label "FNI" [Front des nationalistes integrationnistes], but who are really a bunch of independent, unorganised groups under the leadership of no one. Despite this, efforts are made to group them together as one political-military group known as "FNI". This is a dimension that must be understood: who is killing who in Ituri, why, and who is interfering with humanitarian initiatives in Ituri.
Q: Are you therefore accusing Lendus, since the FNI consists primarily of Lendu people?
A: The massacres that have recently taken place in Fataki [about 80 km north of Bunia] were orchestrated from Kpandroma, about 140 km north of Bunia. And everyone knows that Kpandroma is the headquarters of the FNI. Therefore, it is impossible to say that the FNI does not know who was operating in Fataki. They are responsible for knowing this because those who committed the massacres came from the village or the general region where they [FNI] are based.
Q: Are you saying that someone was behind the FNI in organising these attacks?
A: In organising, yes. Otherwise, how can you explain the sudden creation of armed groups opposed to the UPC? You have to wonder where this came from, and from whom. It is rather curious that there was a blossoming of political and military ideologies that came together in the sudden creation of armed groups. There are those who have never set foot in Bunia since the creation of their armed groups, unless it was part of a MONUC-led activity, for example. Nor have they set foot in any other area. Therefore, it is clear that these groups are being controlled from elsewhere. It is important to understand this.
Q: To be clear, whom are you accusing?
A: These groups are supported by neighbouring countries and perhaps even by elements within our own country - there are those who ardently support these groups.
Q: Can you guarantee that your forces will remain under your strict control after 1 September, as the EU-led multinational peace enforcement mission sent to bolster MONUC is leaving?
A: Our forces have always remained under control. We have controlled our forces, we have built our forces, we have organised our forces, and it is we who command them in our capacity as heads of the movement. We control them militarily through our military chiefs, who we control on all days, at all times. Therefore, there should be no fear that our forces would act independently, as has been the case of certain unstructured and unprincipled groups.
Q: All armed groups have been asked to withdraw to cantonment sites for eventual disarmament. Have your forces complied with this?
A: Our forces were the first to respect the demands made by the international community upon the arrival of the multinational force in Bunia. Today, we are holding discussions with the government and the military leaders of the country to see what might be done with our forces.
Q: How will the UPC respond to any provocation by other militias without compromising the security and well-being of the people of Bunia?
A: We have confidence in the new deployment of MONUC [whose mandate and manpower were strengthened by a 28 July UN Security Council resolution]. And we hope that this deployment under Chapter Seven [of the UN Charter] will help ensure that no provocations take place. If there are any armed groups planning activities in the region, I believe they will be answerable to MONUC and the international community.
As far as we are concerned, there is no war between us and whatever other force, because we did not take up arms against these recently-created groups, we were fighting the RCD-K/ML [Rassemblement congolais pour la democratie-Kisangani/Mouvement de liberation, a former rebel group now part of the national transitional government], and it is the RCD-K/ML we took over from in Ituri. There is, therefore, no reason at present for us to get involved in another war in Ituri. We will inform the international community of any attack that is launched, because we are respecting the international community's demands. We hope that the preventative measures that will be taken by MONUC's second task force will ensure that there are no provocations.
Q: Before the arrival of the multinational force, the UPC was in control of Bunia, after having chased Lendu militants out of the town. How will you respond to the desire of these combatants to return to their homes in Bunia?
A: Everyone is free to return to their residence, their home, anywhere. We cannot oppose this and, in fact, it is not even our responsibility to assure the security of the population, be it in Bunia, be it in the interior. If combatants wish to return to Bunia, and a number already have, what is important for us is security. The international community can deal with those creating insecurity.