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The Ituri conflict is basically a conflict between the agriculturalist Lendu and pastoralist Hema ethnic groups in the Ituri region of northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). However, it has been vastly complicated by the presence of various armed groups who participated in the Second Congo War, the large amount of small arms in the region and the ethnic tensions of the region. More than fifty thousand people have been killed since the conflict began in mid-1999 and hundreds of thousands forced from their homes. Fighting continues as of March 2005.
Ethnic tensions between the Lendu and Hema may be traced to the colonial period. The Belgian authorities favored the Hema, resulting in education and wealth disparities between the two. This difference has continued into modern times. Despite this the two peoples have lived together peacefully, for the most part, share similar languages, and practiced extensive intermarriage.
The Hema and Lendu also have long standing grievances about land issues, that erupted into conflict on at least three previous occasions in 1972, 1985 and 1996. Much of the animosity revolves around the 1973 land use law, which allows people to buy land they do not inhabit, and then force the residents to leave two years later when it cannot be legally contested. Unscrupulous use of the law forced families to leave their homes because they were unaware it had been bought by someone else. Some Hema were apparently attempting to take land from Lendu using this tactic in 1999.
The 1994 Rwandan genocide sent pyschological shockwaves throughout the Great Lakes region. The massacre of perhaps a million people on the basis of ethnicity served to make people even more aware of their tribal and linguistic affiliation. The subsequent influx of Hutu refugees into the region that resulted in the First Congo War served as further emphasis. However, it was not until the Second Congo War, which began in 1998, that the situation between the Hema and Lendu reached the level of regional conflict. Much of the northern DRC, including Orientale province, was occupied and under the nominal control of the invading Uganda People's Defense Force (UPDF) and the Ugandan-backed Kisangani faction of the rebel Rally for Congolese Democracy (RCD-K) under the leadership of Ernest Wamba dia Wamba. The widespread conflict was accompanied by an influx of assault rifles and other firearms. While land disputes used to be fought with bows and arrows, the easy availability of small arms vastly increased the destructiveness of the fighting.
Course of the conflict
In June 1999, James Kazini , the commander of UPDF forces in the DRC, ignored the protests of the RCD-K leadership and created a new "province" of Ituri out of eastern Orientale province. He then named a Hema to be the new governor. This apparently convinced the Lendu that Uganda and the RCD-K were backing the Hema against them, and violence erupted between the two groups. The UPDF did little to stop the fighting and, in some cases, aided the Hema. However, even as the fighting intensified the UPDF continued to train both Hema and Lendu. Reports indicate that Lendu trainees refused to join the RCD-ML and instead set up ethnically-based militias.
The fighting did not begin to slow until the RCD-K named a neutral replacement to head the provincial government in late 1999. In the months between approximately 200,000 people were displaced from their homes and 7,000 were killed in the fighting. An unknown number died of conflict-related disease and malnutrition, but mortality rates as high as fifteen percent were recorded during two measles outbreaks in the affected regions.
The fighting flared again in 2001 after the UPDF replaced the governor with a Hema appointee. The RCD-K appointed governor was moved to Kampala and held by the Ugandan government without explanation. Throughout this period, the RCD-K had an internal power struggle that resulted in the splitting of the organization into the RCD-K of Wamba dia Wamba and the RCD-Mouvement de Libération (RCD-ML) of Mbusa Nyamwisi , which has prominent Hema in its leadership. Wamba dia Wamba returned to Bunia to denounce a proposed merger of the three major Ugandan-backed rebel groups, the RCD-K, the RCD-ML and Movement for the Liberation of Congo, as a Ugandan imposition. The quick collapse of Wamba dia Wamba's military base without Ugandan support is most probably a direct result of a perceived pro-Lendu stance.
The increased intensity of the violence is also the result of a 'borrowing' of ethnic ideology from the Hutu-Tutsi standoff. Human Rights Watch reported that the Lendu began thinking of themselves as kin to the Hutu, while the Hema identify themselves with the Tutsi. While there is little basis to this new formation of identity, it vastly increases the imagined stakes of the conflict.
For the next several years, even as the Second Congo War wound to an official end, a low level conflict continued in Ituri, with tens of thousands more killed. Half of the milita members are under the age of 18 and some are as young as eight. The continued conflict has been blamed both on the lack of any real authority in the region, which has become a patchwork of areas claimed by armed militias, and the competition among the various armed groups for control of natural resources in the area. In response, the United Nations directed its MONUC peacekeepers to carry out for aggressive disarmament exercises against local milities.
This new policy may have prompted the Lendu Nationalist and Integrationist Front (FNI) militia to murder nine MONUC peacekeepers near the town of Kafe in February 2005, the largest single UN loss since the Rwandan Genocide. In response, MONUC forces assaulted a FNI stronghold, killing fifty. On 1 April 2005, MONUC reported that less than half of the 15,000 militia members had disarmed by a deadline set by the United Nations. UN peacekeeper Col. Hussein Mahmoud stated that MONUC would now aggressively and forcibly disarm the remaining militias.
- IRIN Focus on Hema-Lendu conflict], 15 November 1999
- Backgrounder], Human Rights Watch, 2001
- IRIN Web Special on Ituri in Eastern DRC, December 2002
- Ituri conflict linked to illegal exploitation of natural resources, 3 September 2004
- UN troops killed 50 militiamen in self-defence, Annan says, 4 March 2005
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