The Ituri conflict (French: Guerre d'Ituri) 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 as early as 1972, the conflict itself lasted from 1999 to 2003. A low level armed conflict continues to the present day.
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 began 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.
- 1 Background
- 2 Main conflict
- 3 Peacekeeping operations (2003–2006)
- 4 Aftermath (2006–2008)
- 5 Low-level continuation (2008–present)
- 6 Notes
- 7 External links
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 (June 1999)
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 (1999–2001)
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.
Renewed fighting (2001–2003)
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.
Peacekeeping operations (2003–2006)
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.
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 17 October 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.
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.
Disarmament and reconciliation
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.
Germain Katanga, the former leader of the FRPI was surrendered on 17 October 2007 by the Congolese authorities to the International Criminal Court. On 7 March 2014 Katanga was convicted by the ICC on five counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, as an accessory to the February 2003 massacre in the village of Bogoro. The verdict was the second-ever conviction in the 12 years of operation of the International Criminal Court, following the 2012 conviction of Thomas Lubanga Dyilo.
Low-level continuation (2008–present)
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.
FRPI attacks (2008–2012)
On 29 September 2008, FRPI militants attacked the town of Tseyi later pushing out FARDC troops from the village of Sorodowe Bukiringi. A day earlier 3 Congolese soldiers were killed in the aftermath of an ambush in the village of Kamati.
On 9 October 2008, FPJC looted and arsoned the village of Kombokado, fleeing when elements of FARDC approached the area.
On 13 April 2009, FARDC troops charged FPJC positions in the village of Poto Poto, the overpowered government troops later retreated to Rwadenge, clashes also occurred in the villages of Ero and Bukiringi.
On 21 January 2010, FRPI's witch doctor and spiritual leader 86-year-old Kakado Barnaba Yunga trial began in the military court of Bunia. Yunga was subsequently accused of launching a rebellion, looting, rape, cannibalism and a variety of war crimes, including organising rebel attacks on the hospital and primary school of Nyakunde Musezo as well as the deaths of 900 civilians.
On 6 June 2011, FARDC launched a three-day offensive against FRPI in the Semliki valley, in response to a rebel attack on the village of Buguma, during which 20 houses and a military camp were burned down. An undisclosed number of guerrillas were slain in the operation.
On 6 October 2011, FRPI launched simultaneous raids into the villages of Ozoba and Ruzinga Kidogo, looting and setting fire to 34 houses, FARDC and MONUSCO shortly intervened forcing the attackers to withdraw. Stray bullets killed one person and injured four.
On 10 October 2011, FRPI perpetrated two separate attacks on the villages of Basili and Mangiva, looting, torching houses and kidnapping 3 people and wounding 2 others.
On 13 October 2011, FRPI militants stole humanitarian aid previously distributed in the village of Mbodina, a unit of FARDC responded immediately skirmishing with the gunmen for an hour before the later fled into the jungle.
On 20 October 2011, a big column of FRPI militants entered the village of Aveba, the local FARDC garrisons offered no resistance to the assailants, instead retreating from the area. The insurgents seized 2 radios and a number of uniforms from the local police station before advancing towards Gety where they clashed with FARDC soldiers.At least one person was injured during the incident, 30,000 people also fled the two locales.
On 24 October 2011, one FARDC officer was killed following a friendly fire incident outside the village of Zungulika.
On 15 August 2012, hundreds of civilians fled the villages of Kapuru, Nyamavi and Kanjoka following continuous attacks and looting by FRPI, 2,000 heads of cattle accompanied the refugees.
FARDC counter-attacks and surrender offers (2012–2014)
On 6 December 2012, FARDC engaged in fighting with FRPI in the area of Boga, 2 soldiers and 1 militant were killed in action.
On 27 August 2013, FARDC engaged rebels in the villages of Kaswaba, suffering 5 casualties, stray bullets also wounded 2 civilians one of which succumbed to his wounds. Following the battle FRPI captured the villages of Tchekele, Koni and Olongba, later entering the town of Gety, forcing more than 90,000 people to flee the area.
On 1 November 2013, FARDC positions located in the area of lake Albert came under attack by FRPI insurgents, 10 rebels were killed as Congolese troops repelled the offensive.
Between 1–3 January 2014, FARDC engaged in firefights with rebels in the communities of Makone, Makindo and Tsamugamba, 100 stolen cows were recovered and returned to the local population.
On 5 February 2014, 150 rebels belonging to FRPI abandoned armed struggle and were integrated into FARDC.
On 5 April 2014, FARDC cleared the localities of Isura, Nyasumbe and Kigo from rebel presence. One soldier and 6 rebels were killed during the operation, the militants also seized farm animals from the village of Mandibe during their withdrawal.
On 18 May 2014, rebels launched attack on the villages of Medhu, Androzo and Maga, causing substantial material damage to local farms and raping two elderly women. More than 5,000 people fled the area due to the incident.
On 24 May 2014, insurgents burned 11 houses in the village of Chamlipa, 15 goats were also seized by the militants.
On 25 May 2014, insurgents shot and killed an elementary school principal in the village of Rudjoko, later indulging in looting.
On 10 August 2014, the leader of FRPI failed to appear at an arranged meeting with the local authorities of Walendu-Bindi, after his demands of a full amnesty and a general's rank in the FARDC were declined. Justin Banaloki first expressed his willingness to surrender in 2012.
On 17 September 2014, MONUSCO opened an office in the village of Avebo with the goal of providing militants a place to surrender.
On 19 September 2014, according to a MONUSCO report FRPI militants launched a wave of attacks on the villages of Zunguluka, Alongi, Sisa and Ofayi, causing mass displacement.Two people were killed, four women raped and nine civilians were also abducted. FRPI's second in command Mbadu Abirodu dismissed the accusations.
On 14 October 2014, FRPI guerrillas abducted 16 people from the Boga village, the victims were tortured and one of the kidnapped women was also subjected to rape.
FRPI new offensives (2014–present)
On 4 December 2014, FRPI rebels set fire to three houses, driving away chickens and goats in the village of Dissianza.
On 7 December 2014, FRPI militants stole 100 cows in the pasture of Burasi after threatening the owners with death.
Between 15–16 January 2015, a total of 22 FRPI rebels and 7 FARDC soldiers were killed following clashes in the area of Walendu-Bindi.
On 17 January 2015, Congolese troops engaged in heavy fighting with FRPI militants in the outskirts of the village of Aveba. A day earlier rebels raped and killed 5 women in the village of Mahindi.
On 31 January 2015, a group of unidentified gunmen crossed into Ituri from neighboring Uganda, later entering the town of Aru where they headed into a crowded nightclub located inside the hotel Digital. The gunmen then opened fire on the patrons, killing 14 people, including 2 FARDC soldiers, a police officer and a UN volunteer. The casualties also included over 15 wounded. Local authorities responded by holding an emergency meeting regarding the attack. According to local sources the perpetrators of the attack retreated into Uganda following the incident.
On 17 February 2015, FRPI guerrillas killed two merchants in the village of Mussa. On the same day, a group of Mai-Mai militants killed 4 people and injured 10 others in the town of Ezekere, over 20 houses were also looted and burned.
On 9 March 2015, a refugee camp located in the area of Lagabo came under a rebel attack, 12 civilians were wounded and one woman was raped, as the rebels looted the encampment.
On 17 March 2015, suspected FRPI militants assassinated the head of the Mugbe village, Walendu Bindi.
On 6 April 2015, a guerrilla raid on the locality of Kamatsi was interrupted by the intervention of government troops, as a result 4 of the attackers were killed and 10 were wounded.
On 16 April 2015, two women were shot and a girl was raped by militants in the area of Kagaba.
On 19 April 2015, a security force operation in the Muhani village, led to the death of 3 militants while 10 others were wounded. A parallel insurgent attack on Musana resulted in the death of a single woman.
On 12 May 2015, insurgents executed 10 flour merchants previously abducted between Nyakasatu to Burasi during late April 2015.
On 13 May 2015, FARDC launched an offensive against rebel positions in the Bukringi mountains, Ituri. Two militants were slain and 650 families were displaced as the villages of Nyaigo, Lesudo, Katoto and Mukorodo became engulfed in fighting.
On 18 May 2015, FRPI commander Mbadu Adirodu announced the surrender of 300 militants, claiming that more will abandon armed struggle in the coming weeks.
On 25 May 2015, an attack by Mai Mai fighters resulted in the deaths of four people, including 3 policemen. The incident took place in the chiefdom of Babila Babombi Mambasa area, the victims were attempting to install mining equipment at the request of a local official.
On 3 June 2015, a FARDC outpost in the village of Talisa Lokele came under attack by Mai Mai Simba fighters, resulting in the death of one soldier and the injury of a second one, a single soldier was abducted as the rebels departed with three stolen rifles.
On 4 June 2015, negotiations regarding the surrender of 300 FRPI rebels were ceased after the guerrillas declined to part with their weapons. Fighting erupted in the area of Aveba, prompting the involvement of Monusco, a total of 34 rebels were slain and 9 surrendered unconditionally, while FARDC lost 4 dead and 13 wounded.
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