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Friday, 5 January, 2001, 15:12 GMT
Congo's forgotten war
Lendu hunters
Lendu villagers use bows and arrows in self-defence
By Chris Simpson from eastern DR Congo

The hospital at Rethy in north-eastern Democratic Republic of Congo takes in a steady flow of war-wounded civilians.

"They come from a radius of 150km," explains the head of nursing.

"There will be people who have been shot, others who have been stabbed in the throat or the abdomen. I can say that from over 1,000 people we have treated here, over 45% will have died".

In a nearby building, local officials show off shells, mortars and other war debris, all collected during the past year's fighting.

The war in the north-eastern region of Ituri has claimed thousands of lives, but has gone largely unreported.

Vicious conflict


The main combatants are not regular armies, but rival militias, supposedly representing the Hema and Lendu ethnic groups.

The conflict has been marked by vicious massacres and pogroms on both sides.

Whole villages have been burned to the ground. Communities which once lived side by side are now fiercely polarised.

Humanitarian agencies estimate that over 200,000 people have been displaced inside Ituri, with thousands crammed into ad hoc camps and settlements, facing hunger and disease.

Conflict origins

The origins of the war are heavily disputed.

Patients in the hospital in Rethy
Patients travel as far as 150km to reach Rethy hospital
According to Hema spokesman André Muhito Kasongo, the Hema have been fighting against "a campaign of extermination" led by Lendu extremists.

He says that Hema cattle-grazers and land-owners have become a source of envy and resentment for rival Lendu farmers, who tend to be small-scale cultivators.

Mr Kasongo says the Hema have fought a war of self-defence. "The only thing we could do when we were attacked was to flee."

But Lendu community representatives say the conflict has been stoked by an unscrupulous Hema elite, intent on appropriating vast swathes of lucrative farmland.

The Lendu maintain they have long been victims of discrimination, defined as second-class citizens under the Belgian colonial regime and mistreated by successive Congolese administrations.

While there had been sporadic outbreaks of violence in the past, the current conflict began in June 1999 and appears to be strongly linked to problems within the Congolese rebellion.

Ugandans blamed

Ituri is nominally controlled by one of the Congolese rebel factions, the Congolese Rally for Democracy - Liberation Movement (RCD-ML).


About 200,000 are thought to have been displaced
Led by veteran academic, Ernest Wamba dia Wamba, the RCD-ML is an offshoot of the main, Rwandan-backed RCD.

Having moved from Goma to Kisangani, RCD-ML is now based in Bunia, close by the border with Uganda.

But the rebel movement's authority has been undermined by splits and faction-fighting and it appears to have little real power.

Wamba dia Wamba has faced two coup attempts from his deputies and has accused Ugandan military commanders of plotting his downfall.


Anyone who has any ounce of responsibility has to do everything they can to ensure the worst doesn't happen

RCD-ML official Jacques Depelchin
Congolese critics say sections of the Ugandan military have played a key-role in fuelling ethnic tensions in Ituri, forming tactical alliances with Hema politicians, supplying soldiers to fight against the Lendu and looking for a large stake in the local economy, buying up gold and timber concessions.

Uganda denies the accusations.

According to a senior Ugandan commander in Bunia, "our soldiers are here to protect Uganda's own security interests and keep the peace".

Tension

The RCD-ML has attempted to heal the Hema-Lendu rift, establishing peace commissions and encouraging dialogue.


The area offers gold and timber concessions
But rebel official Jacques Depelchin warns the war may not yet have run its course.

"Anyone who has any ounce of responsibility has to do everything they can to ensure the worst doesn't happen".

While tentative grassroots peace initiatives are under way again, tensions remain high.

At villages near Rethy, Lendu residents produce bows-and-arrows.

"We normally use these for hunting, now we use them for self-defence," a man explains. Lendu villagers now regard Hema villages just a few kilometres away as "no-go" zones.


What we are doing at the moment is simply a drop in a bucket

Oxfam's Anneke Woudenberg
In Bunia, Hema victims of the war explain why they cannot return to their burned-out homes. They complain bitterly about the lack of security.

The prevailing insecurity in Ituri has forced several relief organisations to leave the province.

Oxfam's Programme Representative for Congo, Annke Van Woudenberg, says Ituri's problems are particularly severe given the scale of the fighting and the disruption it has brought.

But she stresses they are part of a more generalised breakdown in Congo which the international community has failed to address.

"The whole of Congo in terms of humanitarian issues has become what we call a forgotten emergency. There is so little money going to what is fast becoming one of the biggest humanitarian disasters in the world. What we are doing at the moment is simply a drop in a bucket".

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See also:

15 Dec 00 | Africa
Rights group warns on DR Congo
30 Jun 00 | Africa
Congo's unhappy birthday
18 Dec 00 | Africa
Regional clashes in DR Congo
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