Rival ethnic communities in northwestern Democratic Republic of Congo have clashed many times over the years, but most recently over fish, observers say.
More than 200 people have died and another 150,000 have fled to the neighbouring Republic of Congo (ROC) since October 2009, when fighting erupted between the Lobala and Boba clans in Dongo, Equateur Province.
The clash was triggered by two attacks against Boba villages, including one in July 2009, in which 200 homes were burnt down.
"The clashes could have been prevented - or at least curbed - had there been more oversight of the distribution of resources at the Iwandi pool," said local analyst Polycarpe Nyalua.
Iwandi is one of the most prolific fishing spots along the River Ubangui which runs along the border between the two countries.
In February 1972, according to a Congolese army information officer, a pact was signed that would have shared fishing resources in Iwandi, putting an end to what he described as illegal fishing by the Boba.
A generation later, the Boba have revoked the pact and banned the Lobala from accessing the forest or the pools, the officer who preferred anonymity explained.
Lobala difficulties were compounded by the dramatic decline in the other mainstay of the local economy: agriculture. Coffee, cocoa and palm oil plantations across the Kungu region were virtually abandoned despite population increases.
DRC government spokesman Lambert Mende said the fighting in Dongo represented a "contemporary resurgence of an inter-clan quarrel dating back to the 1940s".
"The Lobala planned and executed an ethnic attack, considering themselves to be above the law," said local deputy Jean-Faustin Mokoma.
With the two main pools around 71km from Dongo, more accessible seasonal pools have been stretched to capacity, leading to skirmishes over who has the rights to the fish, which are sold in markets locally, in ROC and the Central African Republic (CAR).
Photo: Laudes Martial Mbon/IRIN
|Many of those who have fled intercommunal clashes in Equateur Province are children (file photo)|
Government spokesman Mende said: “The Dongo attackers had but one objective - to remove [other communities from] a strip of land that they consider belongs to them".
Nyalua, the analyst, suggested persistent aggression by the Boba had left the Lobala with few options.
A military source from the UN peacekeeping operation in DRC (MONUC), who preferred anonymity, told IRIN: "The Kinshasa authorities played down the seriousness of the situation, allowing it to degenerate before reacting… The conflict in Dongo is a powder keg that no one knows how to manage.”
"In Kinshasa, they dragged their feet before sending in qualified police," said local nurse Jude Liengo from the Boba ethnic group.
The government in Kinshasa said a Lobala militia group, made up in part of demobilized soldiers, staged an attack on Dongo in late October, targeting police and security forces. Government forces, however, recaptured the town in mid-December.
But local residents continued to flee. By mid-January, more than 107,000 reached the Likoula region (ROC), according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). Most were crammed into 70 sites along a 250km stretch of the River Ubangui.
Many more remain displaced within the DRC itself, while CAR hosts about 17,000 refugees, settled temporarily in sites near the River Ubangui in the Lobaye region. At least 60 percent of the refugees are children, many having fled orphanages, according to UNHCR.
A month has passed since the Congolese armed forces arrived to restore peace to Dongo, but the town remains deserted.
"The government has every interest in resolving the conflict through mediation, before pressing the populations to return to their villages, but they have to instill confidence and restore a climate of security," a MONUC source told IRIN, adding: "We cannot have a zone of instability and turbulence in the west of the country while we are trying to pacify the east."