BUNIA, DR Congo – “The orders came from the forest. They were moving from house to house…as darkness was settling in, we were surrounded. They followed people into their homes.”
Collette Weka remembers the night her village was attacked with painstaking detail.
In August, armed men aligned with ethnic militias in DR Congo’s north-eastern Ituri province, carried out a shockingly brutal overnight attack on civilians, using arrows and machetes, cutting throats and lighting houses on fire as they moved through a village of a rival ethnic group. Bullets were reserved for those who tried to run.
Weka is 52, and a mother to eight children aged between 12 and 20. She miraculously managed to escape the attack with four of her kids, walking ten days through the forest to seek shelter in the provincial capital of Bunia.
But her husband of 27 years, and remaining four children were left behind in the chaos, presumed killed.
“I don’t know if their bodies rot there. I don’t know if they were buried. It’s very painful,” Weka told VICE World News in a site for the internally displaced called ISP, one of 64 overcrowded displacement camps in Ituri province, two months after the attack took place.
The decimation of Weka’s village is just one of hundreds of examples of similar attacks waged in the densely forested rolling hills and sparsely populated villages of Djugu territory, in Ituri province, since 2017, when the campaign of violence ignited. The attacks are largely waged by Lendu fighters, against Ituri’s minority ethnic group, the Hema.
UN officials have voiced fears that ethnic cleansing is under way and Congo’s own president last year called the situation an “attempted genocide.” But the international community has largely ignored the massacres, even as they have ramped up since 2019. An estimated 2 million people have been displaced since the attacks started three years ago.
International analysts say they cannot explain the cause of the conflict, but the violence has its roots in the ethnic dynamics of the Second Congo War – sometimes dubbed Africa’s World War – where militias from the Lendu and Hema communities armed themselves against each other, killing an estimated 55,000 people between 1999 and 2003.
Tensions between the Lendu and Hema date back to Congo’s colonial past under the Belgians, who are said to have favored Hema herders with land and political appointments. Despite being a minority ethnic group, Hema are the primary land owners in Ituri and these long held dynamics continue to fuel cycles of violence.
Simmering resentments amongst Lendus, who are historically farmers and the majority ethnic group, have since been manipulated by shadowy actors who have much to gain from destabilising eastern Congo.
Foreigners and Congolese businessmen capitalise on the vacuum of state power in unstable provinces to profit from a lucrative mineral trade. In gold-rich Ituri, regional networks organise and back militias to reap the benefits of instability and an unregulated mining sector.
“These individuals, they mobilise themselves, organise themselves. They have the capability to use money, buy weapons inside, to recruit young people who don't have jobs,” said Josiah Obiat, who oversees the UN peacekeeping mission, known as MONUSCO, in Ituri province.
“If you have this kind of people controlling the sector, you can understand that there would be resistance for government to get in and have control over that….the formalisation of the mining sector is one of the things that would help to reduce the amount of conflict that is going on here,” Obiat said.
In the last war in Ituri, Rwanda and Uganda threw their weight behind different armed groups and both countries have historically backed rebellions in Congo, prompting fears that the current violence will devolve into another full-blown brutal war.
But civilians and fighters on both sides told VICE World News that the ongoing violence is not simply an ethnic conflict, and emphasised that Hema and Lendu communities have lived peacefully since the last cycle of violence. They insist there is no palpable hatred but that these old resentments are being used as a tool to foment conflict and destabilise the region.
The renewed intensity and frequency of the attacks came as a surprise to leaders in both communities and increasingly, the attacks are indiscriminate and target communities outside of the Hema.
Thomas Lubanga is a former Hema leader of the political party Union des Patriotes Congolaise (UPC) and the former commander-in-chief of their military branch Forces Patriotiques pour la Liberation du Congo (FPLC). He was released from prison in March, having been convicted by the International Criminal Court in 2012 for recruiting child soldiers.
Lubanga dismissed the characterisation of the violence as “inter-ethnic” and instead described it simply as a “unilateral massacre.”
“There isn't a conflict between two ethnic groups in Ituri. There is a group of people in Ituri known as CODECO which is attacking, systematically, the Hema and other ethnic groups indiscriminately,” Lubanga told VICE World News. CODECO – the Cooperative for the Development of the Congo – is a loose coalition of mostly Lendu militias.
Lubanga, who fiercely maintains his innocence in his role in the last conflict, now serves as an unofficial consultant to the Congolese government, in what he says in a personal effort to bring stability back to his home region.
His dialogue with national leaders can be seen as part of a larger government strategy, enlisting ex-warlords as peacemakers.
Floribert Ndjabu and Germain Katanga are former Lendu leaders of the Force de resistance Patriotique (FRPI) who now lead a state-backed peace delegation in Ituri, tasked with demobilising an estimated 20,000 predominantly Lendu rebels. Katanga was convicted by the ICC in 2014 for war crimes, including murder.
VICE World News travelled with Ndjabu and Katanga’s peace delegation into Djugu territory, the site of a majority of the massacres and destruction since 2017, including the attack on Weka’s village.
The men planned to meet with rebels under the CODECO umbrella group. Ndjabu says based on their personal histories, his delegation of former participants in the previous conflict is well-placed to convince active rebels to lay down their arms.
“We can advise them, ’If you do not accept peace, you see where we come from? We're from prison, aren't we? So, don't make problems, just accept state intervention,’” he said.
According to Ndjabu, if combatants agree to give up their weapons and live at a government-run site, the government will in turn provide financial and material support to reintegrate – either into civilian life or into the national army. But this provision of the peacemaking effort sanctioned by the government has been widely condemned by the international community, including the United Nations.
“It doesn't help to put former armed groups into the national army. I think [the UN] has stated that the national army should have a process of recruitment which is competitive and which does not attract people who have committed serious violations of human rights in the past… It's not a way to build a credible national army,” Obiat, the head of the Bunia office of the UN peacekeeping mission in Congo called MONUSCO, told VICE World News .
High-ranking diplomatic sources, hesitant to go on record against a government initiative, echoed this concern: that opaque and under-funded plans for reintegration into the national army undermines the need for justice and reconciliation after years of traumatic attacks. In the capital, Kinshasa, there is also deep skepticism about enlisting men like Katanga with checkered pasts as peace envoys.
Early stages of the government's attempts at a peace process are already unravelling, bolstering this skepticism. Funding lags delayed the first several phases of the peace mission and the central government has not released a plan detailing the specifics of reintegration into civilian or military life.
One CODECO rebel faction bought into the deal laid out by Ndjabu and his team in August. Things deteriorated soon after. In September, approximately 100 heavily-armed CODECO fighters marched into central Bunia, the provincial capital, in a show of force reportedly intended to send a message that if the fighters did not receive food and stipends, they would return to the bush.
Six weeks later, rebels from the same area led an offensive on the outskirts of the city. The attacks led at least 5,000 civilians from villages to flee into the city of Bunia in a single day and saw large-scale responses both from MONUSCO and the national army. The army says it killed 33 rebels in four days of intense clashes.
Still, Ndjabu insists it’s the government’s right to continue to try and make it work.
“If the state of Congo decides, in its sovereignty, that this is important for them, to take people into the army, that's the sovereignty of our country,” Ndjabu said, dismissing the criticism from the international community.
Rebel leaders deeper into the heart of CODECO territory, Djugu, are watching the first stages of the peace process closely.
“The future of the peace process is uncertain. It’s really dark,” a high ranking CODECO spokesperson, Basa Zukpa told VICE World News.
Zukpa wouldn’t disclose his exact location in Djugu but described the conditions for him and his soldiers as dire.
He claims his men are willing to comply but blames the peace delegation for failing to deliver on initial promises.
“All of this would be possible if the [delegation] respected our request. They said they will take care of our soldiers, providing them with food and so on… but nothing has been done,” he continued.
Brutal attacks on villages continue as the delegation carries out its work. The conflict could tip into full scale war – as it did in the 1999-2003 Ituri war – if the Hema community organises militias to defend against the attacks on their communities and against other minority ethnic groups aligned with the Hema. There are reports that young Hema men are organising self defence groups and mounting roadblocks in their territory and of a fledgling rebel group known as "Zaire," which has set up in Dala, a small village near a CODECO stronghold and gold-mining town called Mongbwalu.
And as the peace process stalls, civilians who rely on agriculture for their livelihood are barely getting by. 58-year old Xavier Francis Bahimuka Losidjo lived through the first war in Ituri from 1999-2003 and says this current conflict is far worse.
“In the previous conflict, the farmers were able to keep working their fields… farmers could go back and forth to the conflict zone ,” he told VICE World News.
Losidjo fled his village, Dego, during a CODECO attack in March. Since then he's been sleeping outside an IDP camp in Bunia, waiting for a tent to become available for his family.
His hopes that he would be able to return to his farm during the day have been dashed by the recent flare in violence.
“There's just no way to get back home now. It's been devastating.” ●