The Second War in the Congo: The Lendu and the Hema

9 Jun

Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)

Just a short explanation. I arrived in Kampala, Uganda on Sunday evening of this week and resumed my duties as a visiting professor in the Education/ Psychology Departments at Kyambogo University on Tuesday. I leave for Gulu and Kitgum tommorrow with a team of professors. From now on my posts will be written in Uganda and will  help educate you about the most current civil war -related issues Iwill continue to investigate in northern Uganda.

 The second war in the DR Congo commenced directly after the first war and lasted for fifteen extremely long years.  There was never any lull in the conflict between the first and second war. Known as the “Great War”, it was fought mostly in the northeast region of the Congo- Ituri District. It has been estimated that some 3.3million people died there between August 1998 and July 2003. Some residents of the northeast believe that based on the level of violence still occurring in the area the second war continues on. According to the International Rescue Committee ( IRC, 2003), “ It was the most deadly war ever documented on African soil with the highest death toll anywhere in the world since World War II.” It began because President Laurent Kabila in order to secure the capital city of Kinshasa and topple the Mobutu government ensconced there accepted help from the countries of Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi in the form of troops, training, arms, and general aid. After he had established his own government in Kinshasa he tired of their interference in what he considered to be “Congolese” matters and so in July 28, 1998 he released a public announcement calling for all Ugandans and Rwandans serving in his government in any capacity, administrative or military to immediately leave the country.

Ugandan and Rwandan troops had been crossing the border between their own countries and the DRCongo without permission under the guise of chasing down the Hutu rebels responsible for the Rwandan genocide. The Interahamwe, (Hutu militia responsible for the Rwandan Genocide) were living directly across the border from Rwanda and the Ugandan rebels had created bases in the far northeast sector. But Kabila was aware that each country had begun illegal mining operations in eastern Congo and had been transporting the raw materials back to their home countries to sell on the world market.

Five days later on August 2, 1998 the newly allied countries of Rwanda and Uganda invaded the DRCongo with most of the fighting taking place in the north-eastern region of the country and the city of Goma. Soldiers in the Congolese army stationed around Goma who were of Tutsi descent deserted their battalions and joined the Rwandan troops stationed in the area. The Rwandan army combined with Tutsi militia and Ugandan troops formed the RDC which took over the diamond mines of Kisangani on the upper Congo River. The Rwandan president even flew troops near the capital city and they took key positions surrounding Kinshasa. The commanders had orders to initiate a coup in which they would take over Kabila’s government.

But the Uganda/Rwanda aggressors had not counted on the countries of Zimbabwe, Angola, Namibia, Chad, and Libya entering the fray and coming to the defense of DR Congo with additional support from the Sudan. The allies succeeded in repelling the RDC’s strikes in the Northwest and Southwest region of the Congo but the war in the Northeast degenerated into open insurgence. Local residents armed “to the teeth” with whatever weapons they could lay their hands on engaged the Ugandan and Rwandan troops in combat on the main road to the capital city before they could take Kinshasa. Zimbabwean forces secured Ndjili International Airport just outside of Kinshasa. In the end many Congolese soldiers and civilians died in the fighting but President Laurent Kabila was able to keep his government intact.

The first four allies mentioned above were fellow members of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) along with DR Congo. They each had vested interests in the welfare of the DR Congo. Zimbabwe had loaned Kabila millions of dollars to fight his first Congo War and Angola needed a stable Congo which would not harbor Angolan guerrillas.

The feud between the Hema and the Lendu persisted and then began to include other tribal groups in the area concerned about their fair share of arable land and mineral resources. Desperate Hema, seeking to evict Lendu from what they considered to be their rightful land and mineral rights, pleaded with Ugandan forces to help them. The Uganda’s People Defense Force (UPDF) was only too willing to comply because this provided them with the opportunity they needed to intervene and take control the natural resources in the mineral –rich region of Ituri. Once involved, Uganda used its position in the region to illegally export Congo resources, especially gold to the international market. Some of this money was used to assure the continued loyalty of local Hema warlords and to back the rebel group Rally for Congolese Democracy   RCD-K led by Kisangani.

The Ugandan army with the help of the Hema managed to drive the Lendu in Ituri District from their lands. Hema guerrillas formed the Union Of Congolese Patriots (UPC/Hema). They also began to enslave Lendu males and females who had been captured during their raids on Lendu villages forcing them to work in the Ugandan-controlled mines. In 1999 the leader of the UPDF forces in Ituri created a new province and named a man from Hema descent as governor. This move on the part of the Uganda forces convinced the Lendu that the Ugandans and the RCD-K were rallying the Hema against them. In response to the assaults by Hema civilians, who were backed by the Tutsi in the area and the Ugandan soldiers, the Lendu formed their own militant organizations in order to protect their land. They called upon members of the Hutu community to stand with them. The fighting between the two groups culminated in the Bluhwa Massacre when 400 Hema were murdered by Lendu villagers and the UPDF although staunchly allied to the Hema did nothing to stop the slaughter.

In reaction to the Lendu’s vehement response the UPDF named a new governor for Ituri region but wisely sent him to Kampala to serve out his term. In 2001 The Hema and Lendu began fighting again causing the UPDF to replace the current governor with a man of Hema heritage further incensing the Lendu.  Physical conflicts fueled by unjust land distribution claims lodged by the Lendu against the Hema erupted in the years 1972, 1985, and again in 1996.  

Long after the fighting in the west had ended Uganda continued to fuel the war by supporting rebel groups located in Ituri District.  Rwanda did so as well by backing the Reassemblement Congolaise pour la Democratie, (RCD) and the Movement de Liberation du Congo (MLC).

Congolese rebel groups also appeared in the vicinity especially around the Kivus which was under the control of the Congolese Tutsi who were supported by the Rwandan army and the rebel group, the Rally for the Congolese Democracy (RCD-Goma).

They were referred to in the villages as Mai-Mai and came together to resist the invasion of the Rwandan army and strikes made by Congolese Tutsi, These were fluid groups that came together and disbanded according to the defensive needs of the district but some groups were no more than bandits who used their notoriety as rebels to amass great wealth by exploiting all villagers regardless of ethnic affiliation.

The Great War changed how wars have since been waged in Africa. No longer do two armies come together and fight it out until one is victorious. No more are civilians considered exempt under the “rules of war”. Confrontation in this new type of combat is short and deadly and limited to quick fire fights and short skirmishes that determine the right to claim specific pieces of land which provide access to valuable minerals. In their haste to control these resources even the Ugandan and Rwandan armies fought it out to see who would control what territories. Civilians suffer most in this new type of warfare as rebel groups deliberately terrorize local residents using tactical methods such as torture, mutilation, and the systematized rape of women to keep all of the local inhabitants compliant and subdued.

Residents who are unlucky enough to find themselves within the area of conflict have been enslaved, tortured, mutilated, starved, murdered, and even eaten by rebel groups on both sides. Men and women in Ituri district have been forced to work in the mines by Congolese, Rwandan, Ugandan, and Burundian troops for no salary or any form of compensation at all. Rwanda went as far as to sell mining rights to Congolese land to foreign firms. Ugandan troops openly conducted mining operations in Ituri District where they removed valuable minerals and sold them on the world market as Ugandan resources up until 2003.

 Not only have the rebel militias and the Congolese army used the citizens of the Congo to their own advantage but they have intentionally left them with nothing: no land, no resources, no wildlife, no farms, no crops, no livestock and above all, no chance at a reasonably happy life. Approximately 5.4 million Congolese citizens died in the Second War in the Congo as a result of war-related afflictions. The insurgents have forced millions to become refugees, to leave their villages for displacement camps where thousands are crowded together within tiny fenced-in compounds controlled by impatient soldiers and well-meaning NGO’s. It is as if they live in suspended animation just waiting for the day that they will be told to leave so that they can begin their lives once more. In the soldiers’ relentless greed not only did they abscond with the people’s lands and resources; they stole their futures as well.

The Second War in the Congo officially ended in July 2003. Troops from Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi publically withdrew from all regions of the DR Congo although rebel groups financed by Uganda and Rwanda still inhabit sections of Ituri and North/South Kivu. The Hema and Lendu continue to hold on to their grudges against one another only they are more concerned at the moment with staying out of the rebels’ way. The warlords and rebel commanders have not been punished. In fact many were made generals in the Congolese Army at the end of the war and their men inducted as soldiers into the Congolese Army as well. There are citizens of the DR Congo who believe that the Second War in the Congo never stopped – it continues on today especially in the resource –rich territory of Ituri District. The International Criminal Court (ICC) has issued indictments but has yet to sentence anyof the militia leaders for human rights violations perpetrated during this war.

 If ever there was a country that needed vindication it is the DR Congo. If ever there was a people who needed relief it is the Congolese people. How can a country as large and as rich in natural resources as the DR Congo remain home to one of the poorest populations in the world?

 According to Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja,director of the Oslo Governance Centre of the United Nations Development Programme and professor emeritus of African studies at Howard University, Washington, D.C, “For if billions of dollars can be spent in fighting against ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity, and war crimes in the Balkans, why it is difficult to devote even a small fraction of that amount to combating similar crimes in Africa?”

Kat Nickerson      Kampala,      Uganda

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