Ituri's Greek Cypriot community finally flees

Fighting in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo has escalated so much recently that members of the region's oldest expatriate community have fled into neighbouring Uganda.

On 17 and 18 May scores of Greek Cypriot residents of Ituri were flown to Entebbe, Uganda, after spending three nights hiding at Bunia airport.

"The number we counted on one plane was about 60, but there were probably more on another UN flight," Elizabeth Roussos, the vice-consul of the Cyprus consulate to Uganda, said.

"Some have gone to the border at Kasese, waiting to go back. Others have gone to Greece, some are staying here," she added.

Since the latest round of violence broke out after 6 May in Bunia and surrounding areas, thousands of Congolese have poured across Uganda's porous border to seek shelter. The wave of killings that has swept across Ituri has left its civilian population in a state of shock, and Ituri's Greek Cypriots were no exception.

Whenever violence erupted in the past, a hardcore group of Cypriots always tended to stick it out in Ituri. Their numbers may have been dwindling steadily, but there were some who refused to be scared away - until now.

Until recently, 56-year-old Ituri trader John O (who insisted that his full name not be published) had never fled his hometown of 50 years. Armed thugs have beaten him, robbed him repeatedly, and on many occasions he has seen Bunia descend into bloody chaos.

"I've been attacked by thugs on many occasions, and I was shot by a Lendu militia in a robbery, but I still stayed on," he told IRIN.

"What really made me decide to get out was that the fighting had become so unpredictable - there are no boundaries to it," he said. "It started to encroach right inside the town centre."

He said this round of fighting started after the Ugandans left the town on 6 May. "The Hema took over the town and both they and the Lendu started attacking us," he said. "They said that all their problems were because of us."

The final straw for John O was when a grenade was thrown into one of the Cypriot compounds in Bunia, exploding and seriously injuring two people.

"That was when our group was finally evacuated," he said. "It was arranged by the UN with permission from Kinshasa. They flew a plane from there and took us to Entebbe, along with others."

The Cypriot community has rarely involved itself in politics, preferring instead to keep a low profile. Yet the Cypriots have lived in Ituri as long as anyone alive today can remember. Many have married indigenous Congolese.

According to John O, the Cypriots first settled in the region at end of the 19th century, shortly after King Leopold of Belgium initiated the "scramble for Africa". For years, they enjoyed the fruits of Belgium's colonial divide-and-rule economy and in their heyday numbered between 3,000 and 4,000. But since the late President Mobutu Sese Seko's reign, their numbers have declined.

Most are cross-border import-export businessmen or farmers, part of the thriving export trade operating out of the region into Uganda, Rwanda and Sudan.

"They deal in salted and smoked fish from Lake Albert. Some of them grow and trade in coffee. They run a lot of eastern Congo's profitable agriculture," Roussos said.

"We used to call some parts of Ituri 'little Greece'," said John D, 57, a Cypriot coffee grower from Isero in the northeast.

"We Greeks have beaten the whole of eastern Congo in successful trade. Because of us, it used to be the richest area in the whole region for production of coffee," he added.

However, while the Cypriots have excelled in many trades, they apparently missed a slice of Congo's most lucrative and controversial business: mining.

"We had nothing to do with mines," said John D. "This has always been for the Belgians and more recently the South Africans. But not the Greeks. We were not allowed before independence and we haven't bothered since. We are farmers."

John O was in the more controversial timber business, although he said none of his timber was smuggled across borders or transported on Ugandan or Rwandan military vehicles. "I never worked with the Ugandan army, not even on one shipment," he said.

Insofar as one can distinguish between legal and illegal activities in this region, John O's trade was legitimate. Every log was cleared with the regional authorities in accordance with his licence and Congo's environmental regulations. But who were the "authorities"?

"We export according to the laws of Kinshasa," John O said. "Even now, the government offices we look to for permits are administered from Kinshasa. This has always been so, right up to today."

This may seem odd, considering that Kinshasa has not been in control of Ituri since 1997. What about John Pierre Bemba's rebel Movement liberation congolais? Or the "administration" of the rebel Rassemblement congolais pour la democratie (RCD-Goma)? Were these not now the authorities?

"The chiefs of the rebels are just people we deal with," said John O. "They have no claim on us. They are thugs. Congo's mandate is in Kinshasa."

But the Cypriots said they did not know that the government of Kinshasa had been accused of supporting some of eastern Congo's most repugnant militias, including the Hutu "Interahamwe" responsible for the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

"We never heard about anything like that," John D said. "I had no idea. For us Greeks it is just important that we are following the law of the land."

He added that lawlessness had increased massively since Congo's warring parties split into smaller groups. "Even when Bemba's men were in control, they were quiet. They only started misbehaving later when all the factions broke up," he said.

Looking back over the years, John D and John O were unanimous about whom to blame for the country's troubles. "Mobutu destroyed everything," John O said.

"If it wasn't for him, the Congolese people could be living in the richest land on earth," John D said. "If we had had [Patrice] Lumumba, he could have made Congo a wonderful place. He was not a racist, he was calling on everyone to unite."

Both men said Lumumba's murder on 17 January 1961 - approved of if not assisted by the CIA at the height of the Cold War - that was the turning point for the Congo.

"From the moment of his assassination, that's when the thugs took over," John D said. "America wanted Mobutu. They hated Lumumba because they couldn't buy him. And the Congolese are still suffering because of it."