The Ituri Conflict (1999-2003….)
The ituri province is in the Northeast corner of the DRC, just east of Lake Albert.
The province has been the longtime homeland of the Lendu tribe, which, like the Hutu in Rwanda, have traditionally lived an agricultural life. Centuries ago, the Hema tribe moved into the region, and, like the Tutsis in Rwanda, introduced a pastoral, cattle raising culture. Both tribes co-existed in relative peace until the Belgians chose to favor the Hema over the Lendu in their colonial administrative policies. In particular, they introduced the idea of property to land deals which had previously been far more fluid in ownership. The Hema, with the help of the Belgians, privatized the land, bought vast tracts of farmland, and proceeded to evict the Lendu living there. Unknown to either tribe were the vast mineral reserves, particularly in coltan, that existed beneath the tribal lands.
The enmity between the Hema and the Lendu escalated into ethnic conflict in the wake of the Rwandan genocide which heightened ethnic tensions throughout the Great Lakes region. When the combined forces of Rwanda and Uganda (and their numerous proxy militias among the Banylunge tribes of the North Kivu) went to war against Mobutu and toppled his government in the 1st Congo War (1996-97), the regions of the east were engulfed in conflict. Hutu refugees, remnants of the interhamwe militias which had perpetrated the genocide, Banyulunge militia loyal to their Tutsi allies in Kigali and Kampala, Mayi Mayi warriors seeking to eject invading Ugandans and Rwandans, and government troops loyal to Mobutu preyed on the civilian populations. Once Laurent Kabila’s forces had toppled Mobutu’s regime, hopes of peace in the region were raised, but Kabila had little control over the rich Eastern regions of his country, and soon, the general turned on his Rwandan and Ugandan allies and ordered them to leave the country. Thus, the 2nd Congo War commenced.
In 1998 Kagame faced an internal rebellion against his regime in the traditional Hutu stronghold in northeast Rwanda. These forces were supported and supplied by Hutu militias ensconced in the Kivu provinces just beyond Rwanda’s borders In the Congo. So RPF troops, combined with Tutsi militia among the Banyamulenge, banded together with Ugandan forces to form the RDC which quickly advanced east. Kagame also flew troops to the west and took key positions surrounding Kinshasha which threatened the capital itself, while the RDC advanced on the diamond center of Kisangani on the upper Congo River. The offensive was only blunted when troops from Angola and Zimbabwe entered Congo to defend Kabila’s government. Soon, troops from Libya, Chad and the Sudan had also entered the country to fight against the RDC. Truly, a pan-African War had commenced. The allies succeeded in blunting the RDC’s attacks in the North and the South, and the war soon bogged down while the situation in the east degenerated into complete anarchy.
In 1999 the CDC split into two factions, one pro-Ugandan (the RDC-K) and the other pro-Rwandan (the RDC-G). In the Ituri region these forces fought each other as well as government forces (in alliance with the Hutu interhamwe) and independent militia from the various tribes in the region. Eventually, the pro-Ugandan forces splintered into three competing gangs, and the fight deteriorated into a free for all in which warlords leading katongo (child warriors) fought for control of the rich mining camp sites. To secure territory, these gangs needed to prey on village people. In such a war, the combatants rarely fought each other, and instead used terror (massacres, rapes, maiming of children) to compel obedience from the civilians in a particular village. When one gang was forced out by a rival, the new militia would wreak vengeance on the villagers for aiding and supporting the ‘enemy’. This pattern would repeat itself again and again. Not only were warlords exploiting the mining interests to enrich themselves, but the regimes in Kamapala and Kigali also demanded their cuts. International diamond traders and speculators in gold and coltan also profited from the anarchic terror unleashed on the region.
From 1999-2003 the violence spiraled out of control. Only after the United Nations landed a sizable contingent of armed troops in the region (Monoc) did the rape, pillaging and murder begin to wind down, but the violence has continued to this day as the DRC has struggled to reassert its authority in this troubled land.