/ 16 April 2003

Wealth of the Ituri fuels fighting in the DRC

Fertile soil, lush green hills and rivers running with gold make Ituri province one of the potentially richest in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

Fertile soil, lush green hills and rivers running with gold make Ituri province one of the potentially richest in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

But even as the four-year civil war winds down elsewhere, the drive to control the wealth beneath the feet of Ituri’s five-million inhabitants has stoked vicious fighting and ethnic massacres in this northeastern region, once touted as the breadbasket of the country.

”There is gold all over Ituri … If you take a shovel, a pan and a water pump and begin digging on a river bank, you will strike gold,” said Faustin-Goba Tengama, a 39-year-old gold dealer who operates out of a wooden shack in the provincial capital, Bunia.

But the potential wealth has brought mostly death and destruction. Men, women and children nursing machete and gunshot wounds fill the hospital at Drodoro Roman Catholic mission, 32 kilometres northeast of Bunia. They are the survivors of

an April 3 attack on the mission and 14 nearby settlements in which some 966 people were killed.

The raid was carried out by members of the Lendu community who looted from their wealthier Hema neighbours to finance the purchase of arms and ammunition used in the battles for control of Ituri, said Raphael Ngona, a priest at the sprawling, red-brick mission.

”The assailants came screaming and shooting in the air to intimidate people to flee and leave their property,” Ngona said. ”I even heard them shout: ‘We will sell your cows to buy guns.”’

Before the attack, Lendu men, women and children descended on the isolated settlements, making off with more than 18 000 head of cattle, hundreds of sacks of coffee beans and other property, Ngona said.

”This wealth is fueling war here,” Tengama said after peeling off bills from a thick wad of dollars to pay a miner for a handful of gold dust wrapped up in a black plastic bag. ”We are victims of our own wealth.”

Since the war broke out in August 1998, Ituri has become one of the deadliest places in Africa’s third-largest nation where troops of the government — based 1 600 kilometres to the west — rebels, tribal fighters and soldiers from neighbouring Uganda fight for control of the gold, coltan, timber, coffee — and possibly even oil.

An estimated 50 000 people have been killed in the Ituri region and hundreds of thousands forced to flee their homes.

The war broke out when Uganda and Rwanda sent troops to back rebels seeking to oust then-President Laurent Kabila, accusing him of arming insurgents threatening regional security.

The International Rescue Committee estimates that 3,3-million people have died throughout DRC, most of them from war-induced famine and disease.

Most foreign troops from the six countries that had backed the rebels and the government withdrew after a series of peace deals took hold, but fighting among rival rebel factions, tribal fighters and the remaining Ugandan troops has continued in the eastern and northeastern DRC.

Ituri, one of the last patches of Africa to be taken over by European colonial powers when they divided the continent among themselves in the late 1880s, wasn’t always the object of such unhealthy interest.

The Belgian colonial authorities saw in Ituri a sort of Switzerland in Africa — a region of prosperous dairy and cattle farms, wheat fields, temperate weather, bountiful rains and spectacular scenery.

But years of mismanagement and misrule under Mobutu Sese Seko, who ruled the Congo from 1964 until his ouster in 1997, stymied development.

A few months after war erupted in the DRC, killings in Ituri escalated to horrific proportions after the Congolese government, Uganda — and later Rwanda — armed rival tribes with assault weapons, using them as proxy forces in battles for control of the region, its wealth and the airstrips dotting the landscape that

indicate the presence of gold mines, residents said.

Instead, the Lendu and Hema turned their guns on each other, setting off an arms race.

The two communities have fought for control of land and other resources in the past, but casualties were low because they used arrows, spears and machetes. Attacks were sporadic because of fear of Mobutu’s police.

But as Ugandan-backed rebels splintered and fought among themselves, all semblance of law and order vanished, encouraging tribal fighters to launch increasingly vicious raids on rivals.

UN investigators confirmed that rebels of the Ugandan-backed Congolese Liberation Movement and the allied Congolese Rally for Democracy-National carried out rape, torture, killings and cannibalism in Ituri late last year.

”I will be willing to pray in any kind of religion for the bloodshed to stop in Ituri,” said Behrooz Sadry, deputy head of the UN mission to the country.

”But whether I can state with any guarantee that people will stop the killings, I cannot,” said Sadry, an Iranian whose first post with the United Nations was in the DRC when rebellion broke out shortly after independence in 1960. – Sapa-AP