Hundreds of thousands displaced in Congo inter-ethnic violence

Reports of sexual and extreme physical violence in clashes between Hema and Lendu groups

Congolese victims of ethnic violence rest inside a ward at the general hospital in Bunia, Ituri province, in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Photograph: Olivia Acland/Reuters

Congolese victims of ethnic violence rest inside a ward at the general hospital in Bunia, Ituri province, in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Photograph: Olivia Acland/Reuters

 

Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced in northeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, after violence broke out between the Hema and Lendu ethnic groups in Ituri province.

At least 161 people were killed in the week beginning June 10th, according to the United Nations and local officials. Incidents of sexual and extreme physical violence have also been reported.

Congolese escaping the region say Lendu rebels blocked roads and were killing civilians. About 7,500 people have crossed into neighbouring Uganda to escape the bloodshed, the UN said on Tuesday.

A man from the Hema ethnic group, who lives in the Ugandan capital Kampala, told The Irish Times that his brother-in-law was pulled from a car in the DRC and murdered by Lendu rebels, shortly after the violence started. He had been trying to reach his children.

“I have my family there. My mother called, I tried to call her back, her number was off. I tried to call my brothers and sisters, their numbers are off,” said the man, who didn’t want be named for security reasons.

Between 1999 and 2003, tens of thousands of people were killed during clashes between the Hema and Lendu. About 300 people died in another outbreak of fighting between 2017 and early 2018.

The most recent spate of attacks began in March. They initially took place only at night, but have become more widespread in recent weeks. “They showed they want to kill people, they started burning villages, killing people in them. It’s a tribal war but now it’s really one side,” said the Congolese man, suggesting the Hema are the ones mostly being targeted and killed this time.

“It’s not secure, people are running from the villages.”

Social media

Social media users – including members of WhatsApp and Facebook groups – are both fuelling violence and helping civilians in Ituri province get information to stay safe.

In a Facebook group called Bunia Actualite, named after Ituri’s provincial capital, locals have been posting photographs of the dead, some with clear wounds that appear to be from machetes or axes. There are also videos of attacks, indicating where violence is happening, which have been helpful for Congolese trying to escape.

Others have been posting threats. “I will kill you all,” read one post.

In a statement on Tuesday, the UN refugee agency said more than 300,000 people from Ituri province are believed to have been displaced since early June.

Almost 20,000 people have fled from rural areas to Ituri’s provincial capital, Bunia, in an attempt to find safety. Many more are trying to reach the area but have been blocked, the UN said last week.

In total, about 4.5 million people are displaced in the central African country. Ituri province is also one of the regions of the DRC currently affected by the second worst Ebola outbreak in history.

More than 1,400 people have died from Ebola since August last year, with aid workers saying violence has been interrupting the response, leading the virus to spread further.