AFRICA/DEMOCRATIC CONGO - ITURI: THE ROOTS OF A CONFLICT WHICH IS CAUSING THOUSANDS OF VICTIMS
Ituri (Fides Service) – From the Ituri region in north east Democratic Congo, reports of massacres and war continue despite the deployment of a European peacekeeping force under the aegis of the UN. Yesterday, 16 June, another massacre was reported in the northern district of Nioka in which about fifty people were killed. Public opinion is dismayed by these crimes and cannot understand the reason for so much violence. With the help of eyewitnesses, who ask not to be named for security reasons, Fides Services gives a brief report on the conflict.
The root is a territory dispute between two tribes, the Hema shepherds and the Lendu farmers. The tribes live in the same territory and speak the same language. This is a question of old tribal rivalry which in the past often gave rise to fighting between armed youths settled with the intervention of the tribal elders. To find a lasting solution to the dispute between Hema and Lendu, former President Mobutu intervened personally and then again the tribal elders, who laid down rules of co-existence.
The fall of Mobutu in 1997 and the arrival of Laurent Kabila upset the fragile balance achieved. Kabila came to power with the support of troops from Rwanda and Uganda. Once installed in the capital Kinshasa, the new President, anxious to rid himself of the increasing influence exercised by these two neighbouring nations, decided to attack his old allies. The conflict took on the dimensions of a regional war with the intervention – on the side of Kinshasa – of Angola, Zimbabwe and to a lesser degree Namibia. Kabila launched a manhunt for Tutsi, the main ethnic group in Rwanda, accusing the Kigali government of wanting to set up a Hema-Tutsi empire at the expense of Congo, taking possession of Congolese territory inhabited by ethnic groups similar to the Rwandan Tutsi. Uganda and Rwanda were supported by a series of Congolese guerrilla movements.
In this context the war in Ituri exploded. The Hema in fact are considered one of the ethnic groups similar to the Tutsi. Factions linked to the Kinshasa government supplied firearms to their enemies, the Lendu. Rwanda and Uganda who control the zone, also armed the rival factions. The conflict broke out in 1999 in north Ituri, when a village in the area was torched. At first it was viewed as a localised episode, but violence spread in no time involving all the ethnic groups present in the area.
The resources of Ituri feed the war. The region is rich in gold, coltan (used in electronic industry, particularly for cell telephones), uranium and oil (still to be exploited). This is why the deployment of a European peacekeeping force led by France, leaves some local observers contacted by Fides Service perplexed: “There are not only local actors behind the tragedy in our country. We know for example that the Kinshasa government is supported by France, while Rwanda is backed by the United States. If the European troops really intend to help restore peace they must be impartial. If instead a situation were to arise in which they were seen to side with one party or the other, they will be attacked. The people of Ituri want peace and they welcome anyone who sincerely wishes to restore peace to this martyred country. These poverty stricken people are well aware of the riches that lie beneath their feet, but they are ready to sell them cheaply to foreign powers for the sake of living in peace.”
These years of war have consolidated deep lying hatred. One seven year old child who saw both his parents killed said: “they must kill all the members of the tribe which killed my family”. This remark reveals a climate of violence which affects particularly the youngest members of society. In Bunia 70% of youth know how to use firearms and the people are armed, even if only for self-defence. “The Church has an immense task to disarm consciences and restore peace in hearts” says a local priest. LM (Fides Service 17/6/2003 EM lines 38 Words: 478)
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