Democratic Republic of Congo: Thousands Trapped By Fighting in Ituri

Democratic Republic of Congo 2010 © Veronique Aubin /MSF

People displaced by the fighting in Ituri await assistance at an MSF reception camp in Aveba.

Since the end of 2009, thousands of civilians have found themselves trapped by the ongoing conflict pitting the military against other armed groups in southern Ituri in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Exhausted, some of the displaced have finally managed to escape the fire zone. By stealthily crossing the frontlines in small groups, they were able to reach Gety and Aveba, two small towns in Irumu territory where Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is providing them with emergency medical assistance.

“The majority of them were hungry and exhausted when we received them,” explains Laurence Gaubert, MSF’s head of mission in DRC. “We fear the worst for those who remain stranded. They can’t receive any help because they’re caught behind the front line.”

The district of Ituri is an area of fertile soils and expansive forests. South of the town of Bunia, lush hills undulate along Lake Albert, marking the border with neighboring Uganda. This land could flourish, but the lure of the precious minerals buried within those hills has triggered innumerable acts of aggression. As various armed groups have fought to control the area's natural resources, the name Ituri has become synonymous with violence.

“For the people of Kinshasa, the word 'Ituri' alone is enough to cause fear,” said a young Congolese doctor from an organization called Médecins d’Afrique. “My family panicked when I went home and told them that I was coming here to assess the situation at the general hospital. They all tried to convince me not to come.”

Ituri Has Not Put Its Demons to Bed

The turn of the century was a very dark period for Ituri, one that introduced a sense of insecurity that has never really gone away. It remains tangible among a war-weary population that continues to have their lives shaped and their movements dictated by the greed and cruelty of warring factions.

“In Irumu territory, a significant part of the population is or has been recently displaced,” explains Elsa Moulin, an MSF coordinator based in Gety, where MSF is supporting the local hospital and several health centers. “People continue to put up with this violence with a kind of general sense of indifference, as the past history of injustice and impunity haunts their memories.”

She adds, “It is events such as these that are happening now that make those on the outside start to realize that Ituri has not put its demons to bed.”

The latest episode of violence began last December, when the regular army launched an offensive against militias in the areas of Poto-Poto and Tchey. The militias, in turn, launched counter-offensives, and thousands of civilians were ensnared in the ensuing fighting. “Their choice was simple,” said Moulin. “(They could) run away, risking their lives, or hide for months without food.”

Papa Kinzo is a farmer who lived in Oku, a village in the Poto-Poto area. On March 23, he brought his very sick child to a mobile clinic organized by MSF in Ozoba. Three months earlier, he had fled from gunmen who besieged the region, barely escaping with his life.

“The soldiers drove us out of our villages,” he recalled. “Then, it was impossible to go back to search for food. People with guns were in the fields and they would shoot you if they saw you because there are militia in this area who live among us civilians. In fact, we have been driven out this way since 2001.”

Four Days to Reach Ozoba

Events escalated in early March, when the army launched a second offensive. Alarming news reached Gety. According to unverified rumors, civilians were being killed if they tried to forage for a bit of food for their families. “We received the first of those who escaped on March 8,” explains Moulin. “There were very few of them, undoubtedly the hungriest, but also the most courageous who tried to leave first. And they really must have been very brave."

"In particular," she continued, "there were mothers and children and then some old people—well, those who were able to walk. It had taken them four days to reach Ozoba by taking paths through the bush and by walking at night so they were not spotted.”

Population movements intensified as people tried to escape in the days that followed. The community leader in Walendu Bindi and MSF—the only humanitarian organization present at this time—jointly appealed to the military leaders of the opposing parties to allow civilians to exit safely from the crossfire zone. Unfortunately, through the end of March, only small groups of people had emerged from the bush. Questions lingered about whether the militiamen were using their own family members as human shields, putting their lives in danger.

As a result, the MSF team continues to receive more and more exhausted escapees and hastens to refer them to programs in Aveba and Gety. Among these groups, nearly ten percent of the children under five are suffering from severe malnutrition and have to be hospitalized in Gety. Because so much of the area remains off-limits, however, there is no way to ascertain how many people died on the way from exhaustion, disease, or gunfire from one side or the other.

Trapped Again

A total of 2,046 people were able to escape in the way, but the route was choked off again in early April, stranding many others. Community leaders estimate that there are still several thousand people trapped on the edges of the forests, close to the gunfire but without food.

“We have the feeling all these gunmen have no clue about their family members," says Gaubert, MSF’s Head of Mission. “It’s a tragedy since, due to the insecurity, it’s impossible to deliver any humanitarian assistance to them.”

Local people confirm that a single brave student from Bunia managed to save his family but that very few others have been able to reach the people who are trapped. Many inhabitants of Gety and Bunia doubt they will ever learn what happened behind the front lines.

There is profound silence about the situation in Ituri, about these populations, and especially about the women and children who flee only to find themselves trapped again. The latest news is that fighting resumed this past week in Mukato Ngazi forest. And yet, Gaubert asserts, “This conflict is not a lost cause and must be pulled out of oblivion and indifference. Solutions must be found to help those people to live in peace.”

One Person’s Story: "I Even Saw The Corpse of a Mother"

Amisi, 20, is married and has three children. He is a farmer in the area around Tchey, but he travelled from Kule to Ozoba by walking through a corridor established by the military for the safe passage of civilians following urgent appeals by aid organizations and the civilian society of Gety. He had just been brought to the MSF transit site in Aveba when he told his story:

"We decided to leave Kule because we were suffering too much, particularly from a lack of food. I usually went to work in the fields every day, but for several weeks the fields have been used by the military. So, there were not many options left to feed ourselves. In the bush or around the group site, we would find some mushrooms growing at the foot of the trees and sometimes some wild fruit that are normally eaten by monkeys.

But it wasn’t enough, and we had to try to forage at night in the fields where the FARDC [the national army] were. If you were caught there, you risked your life. Several times I would hear in the morning that such and such a person had been killed during the night. I even saw the corpse of a mother. I was lucky and I have God to thank for that. I am still here and I’ve been able to feed my family a little. With what I brought back from the fields, we would make a little bowl with cassava and cassava leaves and that sometimes fed the whole family for an entire week, eating one or two mouthfuls per person per day.

My wife and my three children are still in the 'exit corridor' with other groups of people. We had to separate at Mabhili because I had terrible headaches and vertigo. I heard that MSF was treating people at the exit, so I went on ahead. It was too unbearable. I followed the corridor, but it is not direct because we need to do all we can to avoid the gunmen."

Now Amisi will wait for his family to join him. He is already very anxious about the future, wondering how he will find a new home and how he and his family will survive.

MSF provides medical assistance through mobile clinics and hospital referals for people displaced by violence in Ituri district. In the town of Bunia in 2009, 700 children under five years old were hospitalized and a further 2,000 received care through MSF consultations every month. More than 1,000 women received medical and psychological care, mostly for rape.