The Ituri conflict was a major conflict between the agriculturalist Lendu and pastoralist Hema ethnic groups in the Ituri region of the north-eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). While the two groups had fought since at least as early as 1972, the conflict itself lasted from 1999 to 2003. A low-level armed conflict continued until 2007.
The conflict was complicated by the presence of various armed groups (many of which had participated in the Second Congo War), the large quantities of small arms in the region, the area's abundant natural resources and wealth, and the existing ethnic tensions throughout the region. The Lendu ethnicity was largely represented by the Nationalist and Integrationist Front (FNI) while the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC) claimed to be fighting for the Hema.
The conflict was extremely violent and was accompanied by large-scale massacres perpetrated by members of both ethnic factions. In 2006, the BBC reported that as many as 60,000 people had died in Ituri since 1998. Hundreds of thousands of people were forced from their homes, becoming refugees.
In June 2003, the European Union begun Operation Artemis, sending a French-led peacekeeping force to Ituri. The EU force managed to take control of the regional capital of Bunia. Despite this, however, fighting and massacres continued in the countryside. In December 2003, the Hema-backed UPC split and fighting decreased significantly.
Ethnic tension between the Lendu and Hema can be traced to the colonial period when the area was part of the Belgian Congo. The Belgian colonial administrators favored the Hema, resulting in education and wealth disparities between the two groups. This divergence continued into modern times. Despite this, the two peoples have largely lived together peacefully and extensively intermarried. While the northern Hema speak Lendu, the southern Hema speak Hema.
The Hema and Lendu have longstanding grievances about land issues that erupted into conflict on at least three previous occasions: 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 ownership can no longer 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 psychological shockwaves throughout the Great Lakes region. The murder of 800,000 people on the basis of ethnicity served to make people even more aware of their tribal and linguistic affiliations. The subsequent influx of Hutu refugees into the region, which led to 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.
UPDF's Ituri province creation leads to violence
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, resulting in the Blukwa massacre in which more than 400 ethnic Hemas were massacred by Lendu militias. 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-K and instead set up ethnically-based militias.
Temporary cessation of hostilities
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 prior 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.
Even as the Second Congo War wound to an official end in 2003, for the next several years a low level conflict continued in Ituri, with tens of thousands more killed. 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.
Human Rights Watch has documented links that AngloGold Ashanti, a subsidiary of mining conglomerate Anglo American, among others, supported the Nationalist and Integrationist Front (FNI). Payments were made to facilitate mining operations near the town of Mongbwalu, and gold was smuggled through Uganda to Europe and beyond. The benefits of this gold trade were shared by the companies and armed militias. Following the release of the HRW report in June 2005, Switzerland-based Metalor Technologies, the area's largest gold refiner, agreed to stop buying gold from Uganda.
On October 17, 2006, an Amnesty International, Oxfam and International Action Network on Small Arms joint-research effort in Ituri found US, Russian, Chinese, South African, and Greek bullets. The researchers stated that: “this is just one example of how lax arms controls fuel conflict and suffering worldwide. UN arms embargoes are like dams against tidal waves.” The research was conducted during September out of samples of arms and ammunition recovered since the UN arms embargo of 2003.
In the beginning of 2003 MONUC observer teams present in DRC since 1999 monitored serious combat and human rights violations in Ituri. In April 2003, 800 Uruguayan soldiers were deployed in Bunia. In the same month an observer died in a mine explosion. In May 2003 two military observers were killed by militiamen.
The withdrawal of 7,000 Ugandan troops in April 2003 led to a deteriorating security situation in the Ituri region, endangering the peace process. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan called for establishing and deploying a temporary multi-national force to the area until the weakened MONUC mission could be reinforced. On May 30, 2003, the Security Council adopted the Resolution 1484 authorising the deployment of an Interim Multinational Emergency Force (IMEF) to Bunia with a task to secure the airport, and to protect internally displaced persons in camps and the civilians in the town.
The French government had already shown interest in leading the operation. It soon broadened to an EU-led mission with France as the framework nation providing the bulk of the personnel and complemented by contributions from both EU and non-EU nations. The total force consisted of about 1800 personnel and was supported by French aircraft based at N'Djamena and Entebbe airfields. A small 80-man Swedish Special Forces group, (SSG), was also added.
The operation, Operation Artemis, was launched on 12 June and the IMEF completed its deployment over the following three weeks. The force was successful in stabilising the situation in Bunia and enforcing the UN presence in the DRC. In September 2003 responsibility for the security of the region was handed over to the MONUC mission.
The Lendu FNI and Union of Congolese Patriots militias murdered nine Bangladeshi MONUC peacekeepers near the town of Kafe on 25 February 2005, the largest single UN loss since the Rwandan Genocide. In response, MONUC forces assaulted a FNI stronghold, killing 50 militiamen. Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, the leader of the Union of Congolese Patriots, and other militia leaders were arrested by Congolese authorities and imprisoned in Makala, Kinshasa. Lubanga was accused of having ordered the killing of the peacekeepers in February 2005 and of being behind continuous insecurity in the area. On February 10, 2006, the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Lubanga for the war crime of "conscripting and enlisting children under the age of fifteen years and using them to participate actively in hostilities". Congolese authorities transferred Lubanga to ICC custody on 17 March 2006.  Lubanga was found guilty and is sentenced to a total period of 14 years imprisonment in 2012.
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, Colonel Hussein Mahmoud, stated that MONUC would now aggressively and forcibly disarm the remaining militias. In April 2006 one Nepalese peacekeeper was killed and seven were taken hostage by the FNI. MONUC confirmed that seven of its peacekeepers were captured in an area 100 km east of Bunia, in the disputed northeastern region of Ituri. In May 2006 the FNI released the seven Nepalese peacekeepers. On 9 October 2006, MONUC reported that 12 FNI militiamen were killed in clashes with the Congolese army. MONUC spokesman Leocadio Salmeron stated that “no population movements have been observed” as a result of the fighting.
On 11 October 2006, as part of the agreement that led to the release of the Nepalese peacekeepers and following a ministerial decree signed on 2 October, Congolese Defence Minister Adolphe Onusumba announced that FNI leader Peter Karim and Congolese Revolutionary Movement (MRC) leader Martin Ngudjolo were both appointed to the rank Colonel in the Congolese army, commanding 3,000 troops each.
The conflict has also seen the abduction and enslavement of civilians by armed troops. On October 16, 2006, Human Rights Watch stated that the DRC government needs to investigate and prosecute members of its army who participated in the abduction of civilians and their use as forced labour and called to end the practice. The whereabouts of nine civilians abducted on September 17 and 20 civilians abducted on August 11 remains unknown.
On 30 October a Congolese army officer, alleged to have been drunk, shot and killed two election officials in the town of Fataki, which provoked a riot. He was sentenced to death the next day. On November 24, DRC's military prosecutor announced that three mass graves, containing the bodies of about 30 people, were discovered in Bavi, Ituri. The commander of the battalion stationed in the town and a captain in charge of maintaining discipline were arrested.
In November 2006 the Ituri Patriotic Resistance Front, the last of the three militias involved in the conflict, agreed to a deal by which up to 5000 fighters would release hundreds of child soldiers and disarm in exchange for an amnesty. Militia members will be incorporated into the national army and their leaders made officers in the wake of general elections endorsing the government of Joseph Kabila. The FNI became the last militia to begin turning over its weapons in April 2007, though disarmament and demobilization continued through May.
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