DRC: In Ituri, the endless war of community militias

He is one of the few to have answered the call

DRC: In Ituri, the endless war of community militias

He is one of the few to have answered the call. Smiling, Olivier Ngabu Songambele stands with his hands crossed behind his back inside the Diango demobilization camp, about 10 kilometers from Bunia, the capital of Ituri province, a mining region in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Until a few months ago, the self-proclaimed general and his few dozen men were fighting on behalf of the Cooperative for the Development of Congo (Codeco), one of the most deadly armed groups in the province.

“We were ordered to kill, to loot, to steal. When we met someone, we murdered him, even if he was a brother, ”recalls the former militiaman. A "brother", in other words a Lendu, the community that Codeco claims to defend against another, that of the Hema. The militia is regularly accused of massacres of civilians, including women and children, by human rights associations and the UN. Exactions of rare violence committed in places with machetes, beheading or burning alive villagers, always "with the objective of dehumanizing", details the military governor of the province, Lieutenant General Johnny Luboya Nkashama.

In front of the barn converted into a dormitory, the scruffy veterans seem harmless. A total of 101 agreed to lay down their arms at the April 17 launch of the government's Disarmament, Demobilization, Community Recovery and Stabilization (P-DDRCS) program in Ituri.

Not all of them are Codeco alumni. Some identify with the Patriotic and Integrationist Front of Congo (FPIC), one of about ten armed group factions active in eastern DRC, according to the Kivu Security Barometer (which maps conflicts in the region). "The work of disarmament will really begin as soon as the funds - 3 million dollars - are disbursed", justified the governor at the end of April.

Demobilized returning to agriculture

On the Django site, beans were sown and many demobilized returned to their former profession: agriculture. Looking back on his years spent with Codeco, Olivier Ngabu Songambele claims to have integrated this mystical-religious movement by "force". "It's like a church. Pastors or witch doctors are those who have the most power. They hold rites before attacks to protect fighters from bullets,” he explains. According to the Group for Research and Information on Peace and Security (GRIP), these practices are inspired by "godza, a spirit already active during the previous conflict", specifies the 2021 report.

The two communities, whose antagonism dates back to Belgian colonization and then to President Mobutu Sese Seko's "Zairization" policy, which favored the Hema during the redistribution of property belonging to foreigners, have already violently clashed through interposed militias. during the Second Congo War, from 1999 to 2003. After fourteen years of relative peace, the conflict resumed at the end of 2017.

The attacks are attributed to Codeco from the following year, while the association was originally only an agricultural cooperative founded in the 1970s. It was also in 2018 that the name of the leader of the group, Justin Ngudjolo, emerges, although until today the inner workings of the movement remain opaque.

"When our leader died [in March 2020], the group split," reports Olivier Ngabu Songambele who took the lead of one of the dissident factions, the Army of Revolutionaries for the Defense of the Congolese People (ARDPC). . The various groups began to act in dispersed order. Another branch, the Congo Liberation Army (ALC), even attacked Bunia prison in September 2020.

Land marginalization

Almost three years later, no trace remains of this attempt to free the prisoners. In the "Kingdom of Gbadalajara", nickname given to the adult quarter, more than 2,000 prisoners were crammed in for 500 places, including Codeco militiamen. "But no one will admit it here," quipped the man in charge of internal security known as "King Sauzaire." Alongside his close guard, "Lieutenant General Tiger", who parades with his rank on his T-shirt, the head prisoner makes his way down the crowded central aisle, holding the others to attention. prisoners.

Among them, Maximilien – who wished to conceal his surname – moves with difficulty with his crutch between the buckets placed under the gutters to collect rainwater. "I lost my leg in 2003 when I jumped on a mine," he says. He is a former member of the Integral Nationalist Front (FNI), one of the Lendu groups active during the Second Congo War. At 58, the veteran admits to having been accused of complicity with Codeco but refuses to say more.

Just like Amos, dressed in a yellowish and faded blouse, the prison uniform. The 50-year-old also seems not to understand the conflict in which he is engaged. But the one who presents himself as a trader is justified by the marginalization, in particular land, of which his people have been victims since colonization. "It's us that the state locks up, but the Hema, too, have weapons," insists Amos.

When the new wave of violence began in 2017, Hema leaders did not seem to support the idea of ​​re-arming former communal groups. But gradually, the Popular Front for Self-Defense in Ituri (FPAC), otherwise known as "Zaire", which claims to defend the Hema, made its appearance.

Control of certain mining sites

Although it continues to operate in the shadows, since 2022 its modus operandi has shifted "from retaliatory or self-defense operations to large-scale attacks", says the report by UN experts from June 2022. The Zaire did not participate in the peace process launched in Nairobi in December 2022, unlike the main faction of Codeco, the URDPC, before it was ejected by the Congolese authorities.

"Everything suggests that certain elites are at work on both sides," admits Christian Utheki, president of the G5, an association bringing together five communities who claim to be victims of Codeco. Sometimes presented as a political branch of Zaire, the G5 is accused in the December report by UN experts of "mobilizing financial resources through voluntary and forced contributions intended to finance the activities of the group".

But beyond the identity conflict, the interests also seem to be economic. All seek to establish their control over certain mining sites, the main source of funding for two rival militias. Illegal gold mining activities "in which elements of the Congolese army were involved", according to UN experts.

On the ground, it is difficult to differentiate the militias from the regular forces. They have the same weapons, the same mismatched uniforms and sometimes ransom the same car at checkpoints located a few meters from each other. Military operations against armed groups have come to a halt since the majority of Congolese soldiers have been sent to another front in North Kivu, against the rebels of the March 23 Movement (M23). Since then, "whole sections of Ituri have not been covered", assumes an officer who hopes that reinforcements will arrive quickly to prevent the situation from getting even worse.