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SEBAGORO, Uganda — When Congo plunged into a vicious war two decades ago that led to an estimated 5 million deaths, the northeastern province of Ituri was one of the country’s bloodiest corners.
But by the mid-2000s, a tenuous peace prevailed. Healing was beginning between Ituri’s two main ethnic groups, whose animosity had spiraled into tit-for-tat massacres. Most who had fled made a cautious return. There were even interethnic marriages. Two warlords from the province were the first people in the world to be convicted by the International Criminal Court.
A sudden return to violence in February and March has shattered any illusion of stability.
Nearly 400,000 people have been displaced by renewed violence, according to the United Nations. More than 40,000 of them have fled Congo entirely, crossing Lake Albert in rickety boats to Uganda, where they have been resettled in an ever-expanding refugee camp.
Ituri is only the latest of Congo’s provinces to veer toward humanitarian catastrophe. More than 13 million Congolese need emergency aid, and 4.5 million have been displaced from their homes nationwide — more than anywhere else in Africa. But even by Congo’s standards, the speed and scale at which the crisis in Ituri has unfolded is extraordinary , catching many, including locals, by surprise.
Vomulia Yeruse was in her garden when she heard the voices of a group of men approaching her home. The house was perched on a steep hillside, and her garden was downslope and out of sight. Her husband, she said, was inside, probably relaxing and listening to their transistor radio.
People in her village, Gobu, had been saying the old war was starting again, but it came quicker than Yeruse expected.
With nothing but her daughter, Christine, 3, tied to her back, her son, David, 6, in her arms, and about $11 she had tucked into a sock, she fled down the hill and into the bush. She has not seen her husband since that day in mid-March.
“If they find you in the house, they will burn it so you come outside,” Yeruse said. “Then they catch you and chop you with the machete.”
Yeruse and more than a dozen other refugees in Uganda interviewed by The Washington Post said they had passed through burned villages and stepped over bodies all the way after fleeing their homes until they boarded overloaded boats operated by men who made them sell everything they had for seats.
“If they don’t chop you, you may still starve in the bush,” said Yeruse, just hours after she arrived in the fishing village of Sebagoro on the Ugandan shore of Lake Albert. “People are even starving at the dock because they have no money to pay for the boat or for food.”
To those who are fleeing and to outside observers, some aspects of the current situation worryingly echo Ituri’s traumatic past.
Relations between the Hema and Lendu, thought to be on the mend, are plainly still raw, imbued with generations-old grievances over land ownership and unsettled scores from past conflicts. The brutality displayed over the past two months is on par with some of the worst from the crisis years ago: widespread rape, dismemberment of victims, the kidnapping of small children. The displaced are almost entirely Hema.
Growing instability across Congo comes against the backdrop of an increasingly intransigent president. Joseph Kabila, who had already served through a two-term limit, refused to step down in 2016. Strife in other provinces has benefited Kabila, who has used it as grounds for putting off elections, effectively keeping himself in power long after his tenure should have ended.
Three independent observers working in the province, who all spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect their ability to work there, said there was no direct evidence linking Kabila’s government to instability in Ituri, but they said there were reasons to believe the fighting was not purely ethnic in nature.
They, as well as numerous refugees now in Uganda, cited a recent statement by Corneille Nangaa, the head of Congo’s electoral commission, that instability in Ituri could hamper the government’s ability to conduct a general election, long-delayed but now scheduled for December. Vast swaths of Congo are under limited government control at best, and the U.N. peacekeeping force, despite being the world’s largest and most expensive, is increasingly stretched.
Lambert Mende, a spokesman for Congo’s government, said that Nangaa’s comments had been taken out of context and that “the situation is cooling down” in Ituri. He vehemently denied that the government was providing Lendu militias with weapons.
“There is no reason to delay elections,” he told The Post, adding that reporters should be wary of “desperate opponents” who are trying to smear the government with a “bad image.”
The Congolese government has held close to that line. In saying it will boycott a U.N. conference in Geneva this month aimed at raising funds to alleviate Congo’s humanitarian crises, acting prime minister José Makila accused the United Nations of overstating the severity of the situation. Aid organizations were propagating a “bad image of D.R. Congo throughout the world,” he said, using an abbreviated form of the country’s name, the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Anti-Kabila sentiment was palpable in Kyangwali refugee camp in Uganda, about two hours by road from Sebagoro, where the refugee boats land.
“If Kabila isn’t giving the Lendu pangas and petrol, then who is?” asked Makivuno Silva, 18, using a common word for machetes. He said that this time around, as opposed to the war that started just before he was born, no one thought of putting up a fight against the Lendu. “How can we even think of fighting back when we are outmatched like that?”
He and others scoffed at the idea of returning to Congo anytime soon, expressing a sentiment that may point to another political calculation behind the violence. If the displacement numbers are correct, and most of the displaced are indeed Hema, then Lendu politicians may be able to prevail over Hema candidates who they claim are wealthier, favored by the central government and use those advantages to win elections despite coming from a minority population.
David Gressly, the U.N. secretary general’s deputy special rapporteur for Congo, recently traveled through the affected parts of Ituri and said that while most of the Lendu population seemed still to be in place, Hema villages were devoid of women and children. Some Hema men, ages 15 to 50, have stayed behind to protect what is left of their livelihoods. The United Nations says nearly 80 percent of those who have fled to Uganda are women and children.
“We consider the situation to be quite tense and quite serious,” Gressly said. Battalions of Uruguayan and Bangladeshi peacekeepers are being deployed in Ituri to prevent fighting from spreading farther south and west, he said. “This needs to be contained before it sets the whole place on fire.”
Of Congo’s tinderboxes, Ituri is the most combustible. Four major bouts of ethnic violence predate this year’s strife, and locals say grievances between the Hema and Lendu go back to colonial times, when Belgian administrators gave the Hema better access to education and government jobs.
Although two militia leaders from Ituri were convicted by the International Criminal Court in The Hague in 2012 and 2014, another, Bosco Ntaganda, a Hema warlord, is still on trial, accused of 13 counts of war crimes and five counts of crimes against humanity.
A new set of ringleaders may be behind the recent violence, but journalists and human rights groups have not determined exactly who.
“You can’t live a settled life there, not now, maybe never,” said Yeruse. “Maybe I will die in Uganda.”
Not returning to Congo means settling in Kyangwali. The land it sits on was bought by the Ugandan government in the 1960s and has been used to host successive waves of refugees from Sudan, Rwanda and Congo. New arrivals are bused to the camp from Sebagoro and given basic items like jerrycans for water collection, tarps for shelter and machetes to chop tree branches from a nearby forest to prop up the tarps.
The journey from Ituri can take three to 10 hours, depending on the quality of the boat’s motor. Many operators prefer to cross at night, when the lake is calmer, their boats navigating among the thousands of scattered Ugandan fishermen who set their nets in the dark. From the shore, the fishermen’s lanterns make it appear that the boats filled with those fleeing Congo are passing through the reflection of a starry sky, while the silhouette of Ituri’s Blue Mountains looms behind them.
Most who arrive have not eaten for days and have spent multiple nights sleeping in Ituri’s dense forest. Compounding the misery, some of the most recent arrivals have brought cholera, which is endemic in eastern Congo. Nearly 2,000 cases have been reported in Kyangwali. Thirty-six people have died, and new cases have been reported in locals near where the refugee boats come ashore. The only silver lining is that this outbreak is not of the drug-resistant variety. By government order, each person arriving in Uganda by boat is now put on a prophylactic course of antibiotics.
But a much more common affliction — boredom — has spread more widely through the camp, making the prospects of settling here all the grimmer for its largely young inhabitants.
“I had been in school for almost two years back in Congo. I might have wanted to be a nurse, or a teacher, but no matter what, I wanted to learn English,” said Mapenzi Dzanina, a 16-year-old who managed to bring with her a cherished necklace but little else.
In late February, she and a few schoolmates watched from the forest as a group of men set their village alight. The arsonists spoke to each other in Lendu, which she understands, and to her, it seemed that they were under the influence of drugs. While storage rooms full of corn and cassava that their families had harvested went up in flames, the men laughed, she said.
It was not until she reached the Ugandan shore three days later that Mapenzi had anything to eat — biscuits given to her by a U.N. worker. In Kyangwali, she stood again among her friends from home, this time surveying the hills dotted with tents made of white tarp, sticks and mud that would be their home for the foreseeable future.
“There are no schools here,” she said. “Maybe I won’t ever go to school again.”