- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 28, 2003

BUNIA, Congo — Lulls in the fighting, cease-fires and peace accords among warring militias fail to impress residents of this devastated town near Congo’s border with Uganda. They are looking for real military muscle to bring calm, and they stand a good chance of getting it.

“These agreements are pure cinema,” said Dr. Faustin Mpabenda, 42, a physician at a small clinic in Bunia that has been overwhelmed by casualties from recent fighting. “What we need is real soldiers who can impose peace by force.”

Britain, Canada, France, South Africa and several other countries are considering plans to dispatch a robust military force to Ituri province in Congo’s northeast. If approved by the U.N. Security Council, the contingent would have the power to do what none of the United Nations’ current peacekeepers in Congo can: disarm fighters by force and shoot them if they resist.

“Their most important task would be to demobilize, repatriate and reintegrate ex-fighters,” said Jean-Marie Guehenno, U.N. undersecretary general for peacekeeping operations.

Fabienne Hara, co-director in Africa for the International Crisis Group, a think tank based in Brussels, said that the latest violence in Ituri has exposed the U.N. mission in Congo — at least in its current form — as a dangerous farce, one that offers a false sense of security to embattled civilians.

“Right now, the U.N.’s peacekeeping abilities in Ituri are nonexistent,” Mrs. Hara said.

[The European Union expects to decide next week whether it can contribute to a U.N.-led peacekeeping force of 1,000 to 2,000 troops in Congo, a diplomatic source told Agence France-Presse in Brussels yesterday.

[France is expected to head the European contribution to the force, helped by countries including Nordic states, if EU member states agree to a U.N. request for troops to help restore calm in the Ituri region.

[Belgium has offered logistical support but no troops, said the source, adding that a decision is expected in about 10 days. Germany had initially opposed EU military participation, saying that Congo was too far away.]

This radical departure from the mission of the United Nations stems from the atrocious circumstances that have emerged in Ituri, home to 2.4 million Congolese. More than 1 million people have been driven from their homes, according to aid workers. Roughly 50,000 have died in fighting since 1999.

President Joseph Kabila controls about a third of his country. The rest is in the hands of various rebel groups that have set up their own administrative apparatus.

Ituri province stands out as a singular disaster. It has no government and no semblance of a police force that could maintain order — only undisciplined militiamen who have killed hundreds during the past few weeks.

They also killed two U.N. military observers in the town of Mongbwalu, 30 miles northwest of Bunia, as those officials tried to monitor a peace that has not existed for years.

The latest round of violence pushed the Security Council to ask countries for volunteer troops as diplomats began murmuring that Ituri was looking a bit too much like Rwanda, where in 1994 the Hutu ethnic majority slaughtered up to a million minority Tutsis and Hutus who would not cooperate.

In Ituri, the main actors are the Hema and the Lendu, though there are a half-dozen other ethnic groups in the region.

The Lendu are the majority, primarily farmers who trace their origins to Bantu tribes in Sudan. The Hema, a small minority, are descendants of tribes that migrated inland from the Nile River valley.

Human rights investigators say that both groups have started to see themselves in disturbingly Rwandan terms: The Hema see themselves as Ituri’s Tutsis and believe they are facing a majority that wants to kill them off. The Lendu believe they live under the boot of the Hema, as the Hutu did under Tutsis before Rwanda’s independence in 1959.

“What makes these attacks so dangerous is the way the two groups are now identifying with the Hutu-Tutsi categories that figured in the Rwandan genocide,” said Suliman Baldo, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, after a visit to the region last year.

The two groups have taken turns seizing control of Bunia this month, with civilians paying the price. Lendu militiamen marauded through the town after May 6, when the Ugandan army pulled out of the area. They attacked the U.N. compound, provoking Uruguayan peacekeepers to fire warning shots. Hema fighters struck back soon after, taking the town May 12.

Since then, an uneasy calm has prevailed in Bunia, but few observers believe the respite will last without outside intervention.

“In Ituri today, the elements of a devastating crisis are clearly present,” Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch wrote in a joint letter to the United Nations on May 21. “Thousands of civilians continue to be at risk as opposing Hema and Lendu ethnic militia groups remain fully armed and ready to attack again.”

Both sides have bloody track records in Bunia. The town’s residents, 80 percent of whom have either fled or taken refuge in camps clustered around U.N. installations, speak of nettoyage — French for cleanup — to describe what happens when a battle is over.

After the clashes, in which very few combatants die, fighters comb through houses and execute civilians. U.N. officials, patrolling the streets in armored personnel carriers during the hours after a battle, have heard the telltale rifle bursts.

Residents have spoken of incidents of cannibalism, while other post-battle victims faced machete attacks.

Lokana Kabagambe, 27, a Hema, lay on the floor of a makeshift hospital, his hands and neck bandaged, as he explained what happened after Lendu fighters took control of Bunia.

They searched through houses in a Hema neighborhood and found Mr. Kabagambe. “They didn’t ask me anything,” he said. “The just started hacking.”

But ethnic tensions don’t tell the whole story of Ituri’s war.

Fighting between Hema and Lendu is not new, but in past decades it was carried out with spears or knives, and seldom for extended periods. In the past five years, both sides have had access to firearms, which has changed the scope of the conflict.

“The conflict between the Lendu and the Hema did not start yesterday,” said the Rev. Dieudonne Uringi, 45, a Catholic priest in Bunia. “But its importance as a cause of the conflict now is actually declining.”

Western diplomats believe the Lendu received training and weapons from the Ugandan army before it pulled out of Congo this month. And the main Hema faction, the Union of Congolese Patriots, has signed an alliance with the Rally for Congolese Democracy, a rebel movement backed extensively by Rwanda.

Both countries, according to U.N. investigations, are most interested in Ituri’s natural resources, though Rwanda and Uganda vigorously deny this. The province has rich gold deposits — gold-trading shops line Bunia’s main street — and confirmed reserves of oil under Lake Albert, which forms its border with Uganda.

“This is no longer just tribal warfare,” Dr. Mpabenda said.

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