In Ituri, DRC, several thousand isolated civilians are once again caught in the trap of conflict
"I even saw the corpse of a mother"
Amisi is 20, married, a young father of three children and a farmer in the area around Tchey/Mukato. He travelled from Kule to Ozoba the previous day via a corridor opened by the military for the safe passage of civilians following urgent demands by aid organisations and the civilian society of Gety. He has just been brought to the MSF transit site in Aveba.
"We decided to leave Kule because we were suffering too much, particularly from a lack of food," he said. "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 that he is in Aveba, Amisi will wait for his family to join him. He is already very anxious about the future: how to find a house, a home, and how he and his family, his 3 children and wife, will simply survive….
Since the end of 2009, thousands of civilians have found themselves caught between the military and armed groups in southern Ituri in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Exhausted, some of them have finally managed to escape.
By stealthily crossing the lines in small groups, they were able to reach Gety and Aveba, two small towns in Irumu territory where 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 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 with gentle, lush hills that undulate to the south of the town of Bunia along the great Lake Albert and mark the border with the district’s neighbour, Uganda. Its soils are fertile as much in the great eastern plain of Similiki, which plunges towards the blue waters of the lake as on the edges of the expansive forests of the west towards Tchey. This land could flourish, but unfortunately the only sign of life here is the peaceful farming population of Ngity ethnic origin. Because the area is so rich in precious minerals, it has engendered a lot of greed and innumerable acts of violence. These hills are partly the reason why Ituri has acquired its sad reputation as a land of violence.
“For the people of Kinshasa, the word Ituri alone is enough to cause fear. 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,” said a young doctor from the “Médecins d’Afrique” organisation when arriving in Bunia from Kinshasa.
“Ituri hasn’t put its demons to bed”
What remains today following the very dark period at the turn of this century is a permanent sense of insecurity that has never really gone away. It can be witnessed by the abuse by one of the conflicting groups perpetrated on the civilian populations who have become extremely weary of the never-ending violence.
“In Irumu territory, a significant part of the population is, or has been, recently displaced,” explained Elsa Moulin, an MSF coordinator based in Gety where MSF is supporting the hospital and several health centres. “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. It is events such as these that are happening now which make those on the outside start to realize that Ituri has not put its demons to bed.”
The latest episode of violence started last December. The regular army launched an offensive against the pockets of militia in the areas of Poto-Poto and Tchey, followed by just as many counter-offensives during which thousands of civilians were ensnared. “Their choice was simple,” said Elsa Moulin. “To run away, risking their lives, or hide for months without food.”
Papa Kinzo was a farmer in Oku, a village in the fertile area of Poto-Poto, very close to the forest. On March 23 he brought his very sick child to the mobile clinic organized by MSF in Ozoba. He had barely managed to escape.
“On December 7, the soldiers drove us out of our villages. 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....”
“It took them four days to reach Ozoba”
Events escalated at the beginning of March after the army’s second offensive. Alarming news reached Gety. According to rumours, which could not be verified, civilians were being killed simply because they went to forage for a bit of food for their family.
“We received the first of those who escaped on March 8,” explained Elsa 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, 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 gradually over the following days in the hope of escape. The community leader in Walendu Bindi and MSF (the only humanitarian organization present at this time) jointly conducted negotiations with the military heads of both opposing parties appealing to allow civilians to exit safely from the crossfire zone. Unfortunately, until the end of March, only small groups of people had emerged from the bush. The role of the militia is a subject of deep discussion and questioning.
As a result, the MSF team continues to receive an increasing number of exhausted escapees and to refer them to Aveba and Gety. Of these, nearly 10 percent of children under five suffer from severe malnutrition and have to be hospitalized in Gety. As for the number of people who fell on the way due to exhaustion or bullet fire coming from one side or the other, it is simply impossible to verify. The area remains off-limits.
A total of 2,046 people were able to escape in this way; however, in the first days of April, the remaining people have been stuck again. In concrete terms, even if the door is still open, very few people succeed in escaping the bush.
How many people are still trapped on the edges of the forests today, without food and close to the gunfire? Several thousand at the very least, say community leaders.
“We have the feeling all these gunmen have no clue about their family members," said a furious Laurence Gaubert. “It’s a tragedy since, due to the insecurity, it’s impossible to deliver any humanitarian assistance to them.”
Local people confirm that nobody except a brave, tenacious student from Bunia has managed to save their families from the net, and only a very small number of civilians have succeeded in reaching the people who are trapped.
When student Adaba Masumbuku returned to Gety with his family, he painted a picture of people at the end of their rope. The leader of the MSF mission cannot hide her pessimism, asking “should we wait for these people to die on the spot before we see the situation change.”
Many inhabitants of Gety and Bunia doubt they will one day 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 just to get trapped.
“Yet, 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,” concludes Laurence Gaubert.
The latest news is that fighting has resumed in Mukato Ngazi forest, preventing civilians from escaping once again.