Medical/Health Care

Machete attacks and forest escapes, as conflict returns to Congo’s troubled Ituri

A wave of militia attacks in the Democratic Republic of Congo's northeastern Ituri province has left hundreds dead and roughly 300,000 displaced in recent weeks, triggering a new humanitarian crisis in a region already grappling with the second worst Ebola outbreak in history, on top of multiple other conflicts and health epidemics.

On a visit to Ituri last week, Congo's President Felix Tshisekedi described the violence � blamed on an ethnic Lendu militia � as attempted genocide and a plot to destabilise the central government. The Congolese military said it had totally neutralised the armed group it considers responsible for the attacks.

In June, reporter and photojournalist Olivia Acland travelled across the conflict-torn province, finding camps overflowing with displaced people who told harrowing tales of machete attacks, lost loved ones, and villages burnt to the ground.

Ituri, a fertile region rich in gold deposits, has been an epicentre of conflict in Congo for decades. Between 1999 and 2003, around 60,000 people were killed here, as a power struggle between rebel groups escalated into ethnic violence.

Clashes regularly pit the region's Hema cattle herders against traditionally arable Lendu farmers. Tensions are rooted in social, economic, and political inequalities exacerbated by Belgian colonialists, controversial land laws, and foreign interventions by regional states.

After years of relative calm, conflict reignited in December 2017 following scuffles between Hema and Lendu youth. Subsequent attacks uprooted roughly 200,000 people � mostly Hema � and left more than 260 dead.

The motives and identity of the attackers are still subject to speculation, though analysts say the roots of the violence cannot be reduced solely to ethnic divisions. A decades-old agricultural-religious organisation called CODECO is alleged to have recruited and trained Lendu fighters.

The latest round of violence began on 10 June when four Lendu traders were killed in an ambush on their way back from a market. The attacks were blamed on Hema assailants and sparked a wave of brutal killings against Hema civilians.

An estimated 300,000 people have since fled to camps dotted around Ituri and in its biggest city, Bunia, while others have crossed into neighbouring Uganda. The death toll remains hard to estimate as some villages are remote and too dangerous to access.

At this point our estimations are provisional, said Marie-Noel Nyaloka, coordinator for civil society groups in Bunia, before reeling off a list of villages and the number of people killed in each location.

Aid groups have been slow to respond and camps � most of which have existed since the last spike in violence in 2017 and 2018 � have received little help. The last time we received tarpaulins was in 2018, said Dogu Uketwengu, head of a camp on the shores of Lake Albert.

The exodus of people is particularly worrying in a province where Ebola has killed 136 people since August. Three new cases have been confirmed in recent weeks in Bunia, where a treatment centre can be found right beside an overcrowded displacement site.

The UN's migration body, the IOM, has warned that poor living conditions in the camps severely increase the risk that Ebola � and other diseases like cholera and measles � will spread.

Source: The New Humanitatian