Violence in Ituri, one of the many conflicts that destabilizes the Democratic Republic of the Congo, could be qualified as “crimes against humanity” or even “genocide”, according to a United Nations report on the resumption of hostilities since December 2017 .
« At least 701 people have been killed, » according to an investigation by the Joint United Nations Human Rights Office (UNJHRO) presented in Geneva on Friday.
The conflict is between two Ituri communities, the Lendu, mainly farmers, and the Hema, herders and traders, in this northeastern province bordering Uganda, also known for its gold and oil.
« The vast majority of victims seem to have been targeted because of their belonging to the Hema community », with 402 killed between December 2017 and September 2019.
« One of the major issues in the conflict is indeed Lendu control of the land, » added this joint work by the United Nations Mission in the Congo (Monusco) and the High Commission for Human Rights.
« These attacks appear to have been planned and organized with the aim of inflicting serious loss and long-term trauma on members of the Hema community, » said the authors.
The goal? « Prevent them from returning to their villages and from being able to take control of their lands ».
« However, the investigations carried out to date have not sufficiently demonstrated the intention to destroy the Hema as an ethnic group, » qualified the UN experts.
A Rwanda in “miniature”
They also documented “reprisals by members of the Hema community” during the first phase of the violence between December 2017 and May 2018, with “village fires and isolated attacks” against Lendu.
A previous conflict between 1999 and 2003 had killed tens of thousands of people until the intervention of a European force, Artemis, under French command.
Belgian writer David Van Reybrouck was able to compare this previous conflict to a “miniature version” of the violence in Rwanda which led to the 1994 genocide (800,000 dead, most of them among Tutsi communities).
“The Hema, with their cows, felt close to the Tutsi: an ethnic minority, who formed the upper layer of society. The Lendu were cultivators who compared themselves to the Hutu: numerous, but at the bottom of the scale ”, he writes in his reference work“ Congo, a history ”(2012).
The new violence has caused massive displacement (nearly 57,000 refugees in Uganda and more than 556,356 internally displaced since February 2018), according to the report. There were also “168 injured and 142 victims of sexual violence”.
« The attacks continue, » a spokesman for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said in Geneva on Wednesday.
« On January 3, three civilians were killed, including two women and two children by unidentified attackers, » said spokesman Rupert Colville.
“Degree of organization”
The conflict resumed in three stages, details the report, with first « inter-community clashes » between Hema and Lendu in late 2017-early 2018.
From September 2018, “Lendu attackers” targeted the Congolese army, which responded. Last phase from June 2019, « with attacks on the Hema community » by Lendu attackers, and « military operations against these attackers ».
« From September 2018, the attacks by Lendu attackers indicate a significant degree of organization, which has gradually increased, » the report said.
Like the Congolese authorities, its authors aim at the responsibility of a pro-Lendu militia known under the name of Cooperative of economic development of Congo (Codeco), under the presumed direction of a certain « Ngudjolo ».
In early July 2019, the new president Félix Tshisekedi had denounced “an attempt at genocide” and a “plot” in Ituri.
He announced a “large-scale” military operation against the attackers, saying that “the defense forces will be kept here until their eradication”.
These same Congolese forces « have also committed numerous human rights violations », accuses the report which quotes « extrajudicial executions, ill-treatment, sexual violence and unlawful arrests and detentions as well as violations of the right to property ».
The report calls on the Congolese authorities to « address the causes of the land-related conflict », « strengthen the presence of state institutions in the territory of Djugu » and « strengthen » the presence of the military.
He suggests to the United Nations force in Congo (Monusco) to “extend” its “temporary military presence” in the territory of Djugu ”, the epicenter of the violence.