BUNIA, 23 Mar 2005 (IRIN) - Three months after the resumption of fighting between Lendu and Hema militias in Ituri, a district in the northeast of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a vivid picture of human-rights violations is emerging.
Pregnant women have been gang raped, children burnt to death and villages razed to the ground.
UN observers and NGOs believe the militias' objective is to change the ethnic composition of Djugu, a territory to the north of Ituri's main town, Bunia.
"The strategy of the Lendu militias is to chase away the Hemas from their territory in Djugu. The means to achieve this is a policy of burnt earth, selected killing, rape, total destruction of entire villages and kidnapping for sexual slavery," said Louis-Marie Bowaka, coordinator for human rights in Ituri for the UN mission in the DRC, known as MONUC.
Large portions of Djugu certainly seem abandoned from the air. Neither livestock nor people are visible. Verdant hills with neatly carved plots are unattended, even though it is the start of the planting season.
Safety in Tche
Thousands of people have fled to a camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Tche, a village 62 km north of Bunia.
Tche's camp, dotted with hundreds of straw-and-stick huts, sits between rolling hills. On the overlooking hilltop, MONUC's Pakistani 2nd Battalion, armed with tanks, keeps watch - its presence a comfort to the camp's 20,000 residents.
Our mortars control the hillsides," Irfan Hashmi, a major in the battalion, told IRIN. His troops, he said, had "directly saved about two thousand people from the Lendu, and rescued three children who came with their necks half cut-off."
"He said his battalion had secured a perimeter of four to six kilometres around the camp in order to keep the IDPs safe from militias. A community defence committee had also been set up, with the support of village chiefs.
Almost two months since the camp was established, some kind of a routine has returned to life. The UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) has set up a special primary school for displaced children. Women are able to pound corn, while others haul water from a water point constructed by Oxfam, a British-based NGO.
Newcomers have flattened portions of the hillside and started to build new homes.
The battalion set up the camp at Tche on 28 January, following several Lendu raids on Hema villages.
Since mid-December 2004, these attacks have caused the displacement of some 100,000 Hema; 80,000 of them are now living in the Kakwa, Gina, Tchomia and Tche camps according to MONUC and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Bunia.
Inhabitants of Tche gave vivid accounts of their ordeals. One of them, Bubu Moubin, came from the village of Niamamba near Lake Albert, about 30 km southeast of the camp.
He told IRIN that attackers had used machetes to kill 10 of his 80-member extended family. He had hidden in the bush for a month before reaching Tche.
"They left us nothing; now we are half naked," he said.
Losina Bius, from Bui village, about seven kilometres north of Tche, recounted the day when Lendus attacked. "The children were in the church praying - then we heard the sound of bullets being fired and the older ones ran outside and fled," she said.
Another witness, Leonard Losida, said: "We were running to the hill and saw that the church was burning. We did not see the children anymore."
Some of the attacks have been extremely brutal; victims have been badly mutilated and often raped. "Now Hemas run away as soon as they hear the Lendus coming," Losida said.
However, it was not always like this. Lonema Lano, who used to be a teacher in Tche village, said: "Six years ago there were no problems between Lendus and Hema. We even intermarried.
"Now many have divorced. We don't know why the Lendus attack us." The Lendu have killed four members of Lano's family.
Background to the latest hostilities
The fighting in December probably sprang from a struggle to control smuggling operations and tax fiefdoms along Lake Albert, according Modibo Traore, the OCHA humanitarian affairs officer in Bunia.
By the beginning of January, the Hema Union des patriotes congolais (UPC) and Lendu Front des nationalistes et integrationnistes (FNI) had begun to attack civilians as well as each other. The fight was no longer simply over revenue but territory too.
One political observer of the Ituri situation for the last 30 years, who did not want to be named, said the situation in the district was similar to ethnic wars elsewhere.
"We often talk about Bosnia and what happened there. It looks very similar here," the observer said.
Witnesses of the Lendu attacks said the raids followed a familiar pattern: militias attacked with guns and machetes, and were followed by women, children and even elderly people who looted the villages and carried away everything of value. Then they burned homes to the ground.
Rudi Stelz, the project coordinator at German Agro Action, the largest NGO providing food and non-food items to the IDPs in Tche, said this type of action was already the "normal behaviour" of the militia.
"Looting and stealing is part of the conflict culture here. It is like an income," he said.
Traore said six years of war had removed all inhibitions among young men.
"For them, killing and raping is now totally normal - the militias even maltreat their own people. The latest conflict is no longer between militias; it is against civilians," he said.
MONUC's coordinator for human rights in Ituri, Bowaka, said that what was happening in Ituri could be described as "ethnic cleansing".
He said: "What we see is definitely not genocide. Their goal is to drive the villagers into the camps and keep them there."
In fact, he said, on 14 and 15 January, FNI militias found 1,500 Hema in the bush and brought them to the camp in Kakwa. In another instance in Lydio, eight kilometres south of Tche, FNI militias held 52 people for four days before telling them to seek protection at the Pakistani camp.
While investigating a number of human rights abuses, Bowaka said, "Now there are very few people actually killed."
A local NGO in Bunia, Justice Plus, has been monitoring the Hema - Lendu conflict since 1999. The organisation's director, Aime Magbo, said the Lendu and Hema had both committed "grave human rights violations" in the three months they had been fighting over control of territory.
Degeneration of the conflict
Following the killing of nine Bangladeshi peacekeepers on 25 February, aid operations have been suspended several times.
"The dynamics before December 2004 were clear, we knew who and where the commanders were. Now everything is out of control," Massiomo Nicoletti-Altimori, the head of the UNICEF office in Bunia said. "There are problems within the militias themselves - FNI, UPC, and PUSIC [Parti pour l'unité et la sauvegarde de l'intégrité du Congo] are split."
He added: "Some [combatants] entered the process of disarmament and reintegration - and the demilitarisation of commandos caused confusion among the militias. With the exit of the big bosses, there is no more control over them."
Major Hashmi of MONUC said: "The FNI became disorganised after MONUC retaliated for the killing of the Bangladeshi blue helmets. They are now trying to establish a new base in villages. They have lots of AK-47s and mortars but no ammunition."
He described the situation as calm, but not normal.
One of the most serious problems facing humanitarian actors and the Congolese government is how to deal with incredibly brutal rape.
Some women have even been sexually abused with knives, according to Nicoletti-Altimori. UNICEF, together with its partners, is now trying to set up a women's committee, which will sensitise the public to the problem. However, this is a difficult task since it touches on cultural sensitivities.
"Women don't want to come forward when they were raped," Nicoletti-Altimori said. "The problem is that their husbands abandon them and the victims are stigmatised. We have to handle the issue in a very delicate manner."
Cooperazione Internazionale, an Italian NGO, has been providing psychological care for rape victims. Those with physical trauma are taken to Bunia for medical treatment, obeying strictures laid out by the UN World Health Organization.
If five days have elapsed since the rape occurred, the victims receive contraceptive pills and antibiotics against venereal diseases. If, on the other hand, up to 72 hours have elapsed, then women also receive post-exposure prophylactics against HIV infection.
"But this is in an ideal situation. Mostly, it is too late," Nicoletti-Altimori said.