The northeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) region of Ituri is bracing itself for a new round of conflict, "ethnic cleansing" and civilian desperation, even as peace talks have concluded between the government and warring rebel factions, and most foreign troops have withdrawn from the war-ravaged country.
Ituri, bordering Uganda, is one of eastern DRC's least stable and most conflict-affected areas. A population of several million is largely cut off from international humanitarian assistance due to a dangerous patchwork of military occupation and control. The faction in control of the regional capital, Bunia, Union des patriotes congolais (UPC), is not a signatory to the 17 December Pretoria accord between the present government, five armed groups, the political opposition and civil society.
The UN reports that 50,000 people may have been killed in the region since the war-within-a-war began in 1999. Hundreds of thousands are displaced, food security is poor, and outbreaks of diseases such as cholera and measles commonplace. The few local and international humanitarian agencies which do attempt to operate in the region face very limited access outside, Bunia, and a highly unpredictable relationship with local authorities and factional leaders.
The UN peacekeeping force in the DRC, MONUC, has posted up to eight military observers at any time to Bunia, the conduct of some of whom has been praised, but whose influence is largely symbolic.
The tensions in Ituri result from several factors, including historical land ownership and tensions between the Hema and Lendu communities, and have been fanned by military, commercial and political forces.
The chorus of warnings from UN agencies and NGOs, human rights groups, political commentators and diplomatic sources has reached a crescendo in recent weeks, while fighting continues on the ground. New humanitarian supplies due to arrive by air have not yet been delivered due to protracted negotiations with local leaders.