Ituri is often described as the bloodiest corner of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Despite three peace agreements purportedly ending the five year-old Congolese war, fighting in northeastern DRC intensified in late 2002 and early 2003. In early May 2003, hundreds of civilians were slaughtered in the town of Bunia and tens of thousands of others were forced to flee. Some sought shelter near the United Nations compound desperately looking for protection from the violence. While the international community focused on the town of Bunia, massacres continued in other parts of Ituri away from media attention. As one witness described it, "Ituri was covered in blood."
Based on information gathered by its researchers and on other reports, Human Rights Watch estimates that at least 5,000 civilians died from direct violence in Ituri between July 2002 and March 2003. These victims are in addition to the 50,000 civilians that the United Nations estimates died there since 1999. These losses are just part of an estimated total of 3.3 million civilians dead throughout the Congo, a toll that makes this war more deadly to civilians than any other since World War II.
Armed groups have committed war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other violations of international humanitarian and human rights law on a massive scale in Ituri. Assailants have massacred unarmed civilians, often solely on the basis of their ethnicity, killing scores and sometimes hundreds of civilians in each such attack. In one of several such massacres documented by Human Rights Watch researchers, Ngiti combatants together with soldiers of the Congolese Popular Army (Armée Populaire Congolaise, APC) of Mbusa Nyamwisi killed at least 1,200 Hema and Bira children, women and other civilians in Nyakunde. Over a ten-day period assailants carried out a well-planned operation, systematically slaughtering and often torturing civilians in house-to-house searches and executing hospital patients still in their beds. Many other massacres, especially those that occurred in more remote areas, were never even reported.
Armed groups also committed summary executions, forcefully abducted persons whose whereabouts remain unknown and arbitrarily arrested and unlawfully detained others, some of whom they subjected to systematic torture. Survivors told Human Rights Watch researchers that the Hema Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC) conducted a "man hunt" for Lendu and other political opponents shortly after taking power in August 2002. Many Lendu were arrested. Others fled or went into hiding, afraid to walk openly in the streets of Bunia. According to witnesses, senior UPC military officers were in charge of two prison areas that became notorious places of summary execution and torture.
Combatants of armed groups also committed rapes and engaged in such inhumane acts as mutilations and cannibalism, a practice meant to bring ritual strength to perpetrators and to inspire terror in opponents.
All groups have recruited children for military service, some as young as seven years old, subjecting them to the risks and rigors of military operations. As the war intensified, the forced recruitment of children increased so dramatically that observers described the fighting forces as "armies of children."
More than 500,000 people have been forced to flee from their homes in Ituri often encountering further violence in their flight. Members of armed groups have looted many of these homes and have sometimes burned down entire villages, destroying them to discourage any return. Armed political groups and their outside backers have violated international humanitarian law by deliberately preventing humanitarian agencies from delivering assistance to people whom they have defined as their enemies. In the last year, there have been more than thirty cases where humanitarian workers have been detained, threatened, beaten or expelled from Ituri. The most serious attack was the murder of six staff of the International Committee of the Red Cross in April 2001, an incident with wide ramifications further documented in this report.
Perpetrators of these crimes are rarely punished. According to information available to Human Rights Watch researchers, Hema, Lendu and other armed groups have not investigated any of the abuses described in this report nor have they held accountable those responsible for them. In those few cases where political movements have bowed to local or international pressure and have tried alleged perpetrators, the proceedings have not met international fair trial standards.
The war in Ituri is a complex web of local, national, and regional conflicts that developed after a local dispute between Hema and Lendu was exacerbated by Ugandan actors and aggravated by the broader international war in the DRC. National rebel groups such as the Congolese Liberation Movement (Mouvement pour la Libération du Congo, MLC), the Congolese Rally for Democracy-Liberation Movement (Rassemblement Congolais pour la Démocratie-Mouvement de Libération, RCD-ML) and the Congolese Rally for Democracy-Goma (Rassemblement Congolais pour la Démocratie-Goma, RCD-Goma) have supported local militia in their conflicts as a way to expand their own base of power in the DRC transitional government or perhaps even to derail negotiations. These national groups, as well as local ethnic groups in Ituri, have been and, in some cases, still are supported by the Ugandan, Rwandan and DRC governments.
Ituri is now the battleground for the war between the governments of Uganda, Rwanda and the DRC which have provided political and military support to local armed groups despite abundant evidence of their widespread violations of international humanitarian law. In doing so and in failing to exercise their influence over them to bring such abuses to an end, they share responsibility for these crimes. International leaders and the UN Security Council regularly denounce the crimes, but have also failed to end them or to deliver justice for them.
Uganda, the occupying power in Ituri from 1998 to 2003, failed in its obligation under international humanitarian law to protect the civilian population. The Ugandan authorities played a direct role in political and administrative changes in Ituri, stimulating new political parties and militia groups to form. As this conflict expanded to encompass more people and wider areas, Uganda used it as a pretext to remain in the resource-rich area, exploiting its minerals and commerce.
The availability of political and military support from external actors, whether national governments or rebel movements, encouraged local leaders to form new groups, generally based on ethnic loyalty. Some of these groups advocated increasingly extreme ethnically based positions. Leaders of these groups often set their own agendas and readily switched patrons as their interests dictated. In this fast-changing scene there was one constant: the abuses committed against the civilian population.
The conflict in Ituri is important not just because of the extent of the suffering and destruction imposed on local people, but also because of these links with broader struggles. The complex mix of local, national, and regional conflicts exists also in the Kivus, where civilians have suffered from massacres and other grave abuses, and it may develop elsewhere in the DRC. The continuation of this kind of local level combat endangers the peace process throughout the country and beyond.
Until recently, the conflict in Ituri has been largely ignored by the international community. Despite information to the contrary, some UN member states and UN officials viewed Ituri as merely a "tribal war" not related to the broader war in the DRC. Between 1999 and April 2003 the U.N. Organization Mission in the DRC (MONUC) had only a small team of fewer than ten observers covering this volatile area of some 4.2 million people. MONUC forces were urgently increased to several hundred in April 2003, but they had no capability to protect thousands of civilians who fled to them for protection when fighting again broke out between opposing militia groups in early May. The UN Security Council authorised an Interim Emergency Multinational Force with a Chapter VII mandate to protect civilians and UN staff in the town of Bunia for a short period while MONUC reinforced its presence. This decision, while helpful to residents of the town, has left tens of thousands of civilians outside Bunia unprotected and at the mercy of armed groups who continue to fight. At the time of publication, Human Rights Watch continues to receive reports of massacres in Ituri.
This report results from fieldwork done by two Human Rights Watch researchers in February 2003, along with follow-up research up until late June, focusing on ethnically targeted violence, violations of international humanitarian law, and the role of foreign armies in Ituri. It is based on investigations in Bunia, displaced persons camps north of Beni, and western Uganda border areas. Human Rights Watch acknowledges with gratitude and respect the assistance given its researchers by Congolese human rights organizations and numerous other groups and individuals who took great risks to provide information. For their safety we have withheld their names and details necessary to protect their identities.