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Background to the Hema-Lendu Conflict in Uganda-Controlled Congo
Human Rights Watch, January 2001

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In the past two years, Ugandans have recruited and trained both Hema and Lendu to serve in the forces of the Congolese Rally for Democracy-Liberation Movement (RCD-ML), a rebel group which is backed by Uganda and which nominally controls this area. Within the last year, however, at least some Ugandan officers have reportedly favored the Hema:

  • In June 1999 Brigadier General James Kazini, then commander of the Ugandan People's Defence Force (UDPF) in the Congo, ignored objections of the RCD-ML and created a separate province of Ituri with Bunia as its capital. He named a Hema to head the new administration. The installation of the new governor coincided with an outbreak of violence between Lendu and Hema [see below], with the Lendu and others seeing Uganda and the RCD-ML as increasingly committed the Hema. In the months of violence that followed, an estimated 7,000 persons of both groups were slain and 200,000 fled their homes.

  • Investigatory commissions named by the RCD-ML and the local administration concluded that UDPF soldiers had done little to contain violence in areas under their control and that several of them had actively helped Hema attack Lendu. Although the Ugandan government has denied these accusations, it has reportedly begun judicial proceedings against one captain accused of having given such assistance.

  • Even as the extent of the Hema-Lendu conflict became clear, UPDF soldiers continued to train recruits from both sides. More recently the Lendu trainees are said to have deserted the RCD-ML forces to fight instead in locally based militias.

  • At the end of 1999 the RCD-ML replaced the Hema governor of Ituri by a person from neither of the rival groups. In the following months, the ethnic fighting diminished but it revived several weeks ago after Col. Muzoora named a Hema as interim head of the province and placed the governor named by the RCD-ML under house arrest. The colonel later "deported" the deposed governor to Kampala, where Ugandan authorities continue to hold him without explanation. The Lendu attacked Hema first in Nyankunde, a village south of Bunia where Col. Muzoora had recently visited with the new Hema appointee. Lendu militia then attacked Hema in other villages south of Bunia, killing scores of people and driving some 8,000 across the border into Uganda. Ugandan troops intervened to end this fighting.

During this period leaders of the RCD-ML, locked in a struggle for power, have been in Kampala at the request of Ugandan authorities, trying to settle their differences. The Congolese politicians failed to come to an agreement until last week when the RCD-ML factions supposedly reconciled and agreed also to combine with the Congolese Liberation Movement (MLC) into a new front against the Congolese government. Jean-Pierre Bemba of the MLC was supposedly to head the new group, the Congo Liberation Front (FLC). But Professor Wamba dia Wamba, head of the RCD-ML, balked at this agreement which he said was "imposed" by Uganda. In Bunia, Wamba and his group are seen as more allied to Lendu and other groups opposed to the Hema. The other RCD-ML faction reportedly celebrated the merger, seeing it as confirming the status of their leaders, one of whom is a prominent Hema. In a January 19 statement, Bemba blamed "undisciplined" rebels supporting the Lendu for the violence. He asserted that his troops, presumably meaning the RCD-ML forces supposedly now under his authority, would soon restore order.

Suliman Baldo, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch who returned from the region last month, warned of the gravity of the situation in Bunia. "What makes these attacks so dangerous," said Baldo, "is the way the two groups are now identifying with the Hutu-Tutsi categories that figured in the Rwandan genocide. The Lendu are now thinking of themselves as kin to the Hutu, while the Hema are identifying with the Tutsi. The two groups have competed for control of the land for a long time, but these identifications and the connection they have to genocide threaten to transform the struggle into something far more devastating." The Lendu, who number some 700,000 in the area, live primarily from their crops while the Hema, about 150,000 people, rely on both cattle raising and cultivation for their livelihood. The two ethnic groups share a similar language and have regularly practiced interethnic-marriage.

Human Rights Watch called upon both the United Nations and donor countries with influence in Kampala to do everything possible to persuade President Museveni to restore discipline among his troops and to assure accountability for any killings and other abuses against civilians in northeastern Congo.