A Congolese victim of ethnic violence rests inside a ward at the General Hospital in Bunia, Ituri province in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo June 25, 2019. © 2019 Reuters/Olivia Acland

It was an overnight raid. Fighters believed to be from an ethnic Lendu-led militia stormed Loda, a village about 100 kilometers north of Bunia, the provincial capital of Ituri, on June 17. They killed 6 people, including at least 2 children, with gunfire and machetes. All the victims were ethnic Hema. About 40 houses were burned down.

A witness told Human Rights Watch that “two assailants armed with machetes chased [her] brother while others were looting their house.” She managed to hide in the bush and found her brother’s body when she returned in the morning. “They had cut him up in pieces,” she said.

Militia attacks like the one in Loda have killed at least 444 civilians in Ituri since March and displaced more than 200,000 people since the beginning of the year, according to United Nations sources. Schools and health centers have been destroyed. Most killings follow the same pattern, with fighters from the Lendu community – split into rival factions and other groups – slaughtering ethnic Hema and Alur residents.

The violence has surged since a Congolese army military operation in March resulted in the death of Justin Ngudjolo, the leader of the Lendu-led Cooperative for the Development of Congo (CODECO). The group has since split into different factions and continues to kill civilians across the province. Meanwhile, Congolese security forces fighting the militia have also committed serious abuses, including extrajudicial executions.

The current violence stems from longstanding issues not addressed since the early 2000s, when tens of thousands of civilians died in countless massacres between 1999 and 2007. The control of land and natural resources between communities was a central issue then and today.

Much of the bloodshed has its roots in competition over gold mines. Ituri’s mines have long been a cash cow for ex-rebels, politicians, and Congolese military officials who are involved in smuggling gold into neighboring countries.

In January, the UN’s human rights office in Congo said the killings, rapes, and other forms of violence targeting the Hema community may amount to crimes against humanity. On June 4, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court also voiced concerns over the “escalation in serious violence” in Ituri, calling on the Congolese authorities to properly investigate the alleged crimes.

The government needs to act to stop the killings between communities in Ituri, but a long-term solution requires that state institutions step up investigations of abuses and prosecute those responsible. It’s crucial that Congolese troops respect human rights so that they can be part of the solution, instead of making matters worse.