- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 25, 2003

BUNIA, Congo — French military muscle has transformed life in this town in the far northeast of the Democratic Republic of Congo to a remarkable degree. But none can tell whether the calm will outlast the Central African summer.

Where Kalashnikov-toting, teenage militiamen in plastic sandals and tattered T-shirts once swaggered through empty streets with impunity, heavily armed French troops now patrol in groups and respond quickly to any provocation. Bunia’s central market, previously a looter’s paradise dotted with bloated corpses, looks like a bustling place of business.

This week, a detachment of French soldiers even ventured 10 miles outside of town to determine whether militia groups had evacuated Bunia as promised. With Mirage jets screaming overhead, Neema Kabagouja, 28, lugged a bundle of firewood down the badly pitted road, a deserted no man’s land only a month ago.

“We need peace around here,” she said as she trudged along in sandals and a brightly colored wraparound skirt. “If the French are here to make peace, that’s good and I support them.”

Yesterday as night fell, the force wrapped up a week-long effort to rid Bunia of militiamen openly carrying weapons, a measure intended to allow the civilian population to live without constant fear. A convoy of trucks rumbled out of town carrying the last militiamen from the Union of Congolese Patriots, the group that controlled Bunia before the French arrived.

“Fifteen days ago, there was a weapon every 10 meters in Bunia,” said Col. Gerard Dubois, the French military spokesman. “We’re on the right track.”

But many other local developments complicate this picture of an African town resuming its rhythms of normal life.

Guns are out of sight, but midnight terror — or the possibility of it — remains a fact of life. No one knows what might be happening in the countryside, where most of the Ituri region’s 2.4 million people live. And everyone, from the United Nations to the French to the average Congolese, wonder what will happen after the troops’ mandate expires Sept. 1.

Bunia, the main town in Ituri, has enjoyed an unusual measure of calm since the first combat troops of the multinational force led by the French arrived on June 10.

In preceding months, it had witnessed some of the worst atrocities in Congo’s war, which has cost 3.3 million lives from combat, disease and starvation. Repeated clashes between two ethnic groups, the majority Lendu and the minority Hema, have left 50,000 dead in Ituri since 1999, and merciless targeting of civilians lent an echo of genocide to the clashes.

A particularly nasty round of killing in May, combined with the complete absence of any civil administration in Ituri, prompted U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to call for a multinational force — not blue-helmeted peacekeepers — to intervene in Bunia. France and other European nations responded with “Operation Artemis,” and about 750 Uruguayan troops have also set up camp in Bunia.

Since then, French soldiers have come under fire from drunken gunmen and killed two of them. This week, they fired a warning shot over three who refused to put down their weapons. Every day, patrols of armored vehicles kick up dust all around the town.

Though the French have plenty of military might on display in Bunia, nighttime “disappearances” of civilians after visits by armed militiamen are a regular feature of life in the town. The number of attacks has tapered off — they were occurring a week ago at a rate of four per night — but the night attacks sent a clear message to the townspeople.

“The French control Bunia,” said Amagi Uringi, 55, “but the night belongs to the militia.”

Recently, Mr. Uringi listened through a wall as gunmen rousted his cousin out of bed at 11 p.m. and stole money, a radio and several goats. Family members later found his body in a nearby ditch.

The French detachment in Bunia, though it acknowledges the periodic midnight attacks, says it cannot guarantee security on an individual basis.

“The force is unable to put a soldier behind every inhabitant of Bunia,” Col. Dubois said.

The gunmen accused Mr. Uringi’s cousin of collaborating with the Lendu, a sign the attackers came from the Union of Congolese Patriots, the Hema-dominated militia that has slowly ceded control of Bunia to the French. The group denies all knowledge of the attacks.

More bloody but less well-known are the constant to-and-fro clashes in the lawless countryside around Bunia. The mandate for the international troops includes only Bunia, though they have taken up positions at strategic intersections outside town in order to defend the approaches.

As a result, reports trickle in, often days after the fact, that militiamen have stormed through villages and hacked people to death with machetes. Ten miles north of Bunia, Lendu fighters attacked the village of Katoto on Saturday, according to survivors.

“As soon as we heard the first shot, we left because we knew they would kill everyone,” said Lotsove Veneranda, 53, who now stays in Bunia with her son.

Others who witnessed the attack said that the Lendu burned houses and killed sick people who were too weak to flee. One man who returned afterward to bury the dead said he also saw the carcasses of goats, suggesting the fighters needed food.

The United Nations, which is expanding its large headquarters in the center of Bunia, has placed its faith in a political process to restore a civilian administration to Ituri, and eventually ease tensions in the entire province. Under U.N. supervision, residents representing a cross-section of the province have formed the Ituri Pacification Commission, an embryonic provincial government.

A group of envoys at the United Nations in New York, including U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte, spent a day in Bunia in mid-June. Afterward, they cautioned against a “purely military approach” and said a political solution through the commission is “urgently required,” according to a report on the visit.

But the Hema group, the UPC, sees itself as the true authority in Ituri, and has fought every effort of the pacification commission to assert itself in Bunia. The UPC commander, Thomas Lubanga, has called the commission a “mafia coalition” against his militiamen.

As a result, U.N. officials are also wrestling with what kind of military presence will be needed after Sept. 1, when the French are scheduled to leave Bunia.

The United Nations’ peacekeeping department is pressing the Security Council to approve a deployment of more than 2,000 U.N. peacekeepers from Bangladesh with a mandate similar to the one granted the French. But it has encountered resistance from some countries, including the United States, that believe no durable peace is possible without a political settlement, according to U.N. officials.

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