The operating table was gathering dust and scalpels were abandoned on its side. The hospital in Drodro, one of the main towns in Djugu territory in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), was deserted. James Semire put his white coat on for the first time in weeks.
The acting chief medical officer fled the facility on March 22 with his team to escape an attack attributed to militiamen of the Cooperative for the Development of Congo (CODECO), a mystical, religious armed group that claims to defend the Lendu community from the Hema community . That day, his colleague – a laboratory technician – was seriously injured. “He received several blows from a machete to his head, neck, shoulder and lower limbs,” said Semire.
This is not the first time that the 30-year-old has abandoned his job in the middle of a shift. Earlier this year, Drodro and the surrounding area were attacked in retaliation for the murder of a teacher on January 8. Since it resumed in 2017, the conflict between the Hema and Lendu peoples has left several thousand people dead in Ituri.
The conflicts between these two communities date back to colonization when the Belgian authorities relied on the Hema to the detriment of the Lendu, who claim to be the indigenous people. After independence, the Lendu’s sense of marginalization became more pronounced when the Hema received agricultural concessions at the time of President Mobutu Sese Seko’s “Zairianisation,” a process whereby foreign-owned properties were redistributed to the Congolese people.
Economic and land rivalries remained dormant until the late 1990s, when community militias tipped the region, rich in arable land and minerals – particularly gold – into the Second Congo War (1999-2003) involving Kinshasa and the two neighboring Rwandan and Ugandan armies.
The number of displaced people has doubled
“In the past, the health facility remained empty for two or three weeks at most after the attacks. But now, as the attacks continue, patients are afraid to return,” said Semire, despite the hospital’s reopening. In mid-April, the doctor only dared to stay for a few hours and continued to spend the night in a makeshift house 12 kilometers away, in Rhoe.
In the central alley of the Rhoe camp that has become a village, vendors sat in front of their basins of flour, their hands bleached by cassava. Motorcycles honked their horns to make their way through the crowd. Since January, the number of people displaced by the violence has doubled. About 65,000 people have taken refuge in the town. They all belong to the Hema community and have come to seek the protection of the MONUSCO, the United Nations peacekeeping mission, who have been stationed on Rhoe Hill since late 2018.
In front of her shelter, elderly Dzenza – who only wanted to give her first name – watched the children wander around, a rolled cigarette tucked behind her ear. “I am 80 years old and I have never seen so much violence,” said the woman who lost four members of her family on the day her village was attacked a few months ago in Buku. “I don’t understand what’s happening,” she added, helpless in front of her near-empty cooking pot.
In the second half of April, the World Food Program (WFP) organized for food to be distributed. It was the first since June 2022. The UN agency gave out bags of cornmeal, oil cans and peas. “Will this food be enough for everyone? And how long will it last?” asked Samuel Kpadjanga, in charge of the site. “The greatest source of suffering here is hunger. No one wants to go out and farm the surrounding fields for fear of attack.”
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Residents barely dare to go to the church, located just before the entrance to Rhoe Camp. The place of worship has no walls – a few benches are surrounded by wooden stakes which hold up tarpaulins when it rains. From here the worshipers can look out over the green hills during mass. The opposite hill, two kilometers away as the crow flies, resembles all the others. However, no one from the camp, which mostly hosts Hema people, will venture to Blukwa Mbi, a Lendu village.
Militias, attacks and killings
To get there, you have to cross the market where people used to meet and exchange. Today, the wooden stalls serve as a dividing line between the two communities. A few kilometers further on, Blukwa Mbi is silent. The only sound is the wind blowing through the pine trees. The red brick buildings that line the road seem to have been abandoned. One of them, an old school, is barely still upright.
The establishment has been destroyed and burned on several occasions, its furniture and its library looted. It first happened during the Second Congo War from 1999 to 2003, and again when clashes resumed in 2017. “The school was moved 14 kilometers away because of the security situation. Living here had become impossible,” said Origène Uwonda, the principal. The teacher also moved, staying with a host family, to get away from the so-called Hema zone. “Men up to no good” regularly carry out attacks, he said.
In Blukwa Mbi, the “Zaire” militia is blamed for the destruction. The group, which claims to defend the Hema community, has been accused of attacks and killings by several human rights groups as well as the UN. It is also CODECO’s great rival, the other local group purporting to defend the Lendu community, whose acts of violence are also regularly denounced.
“When Father Florent, a Lendu priest, died in the Hema zone [in 2017], the justice system did not do its job to find the culprits. So mob justice started to be practiced,” said Salomon Jibu, for whom the cleric’s death was the spark that reignited old animosities. The man, who claims to be a spokesperson for the Lendu community, is vengeful. “In fact, my name can be translated as ‘Hema’s corpse’,” he explained calmly. But in this village, he is the only one who dares to pronounce the word CODECO. The militia – absent – also seems to terrify its own community.
An invisible border
Rivalries in the localities of Rhoe and Blukwa Mbi are far from isolated in Djugu territory, the epicenter of community conflict where Hema and Lendu villages are intermingled. In Ituri, there have been nearly 400 victims of the CODECO and the Zaire, according to the Kivu Security Barometer (which maps conflicts in the region) since the beginning of the year. This figure does not include the collateral victims of this war. Daniel Pidjo Goba, head nurse at the Blukwa Mbi health center, tries to treat them.
A few weeks ago, a pregnant woman died on the premises. “She needed an emergency C-section. And we couldn’t save her,” he said. Usually, the main center for difficult deliveries is located about 15 kilometers away at the hospital in Drodro, in the Hema zone. But since January, no one has dared to cross the invisible border between the two communities. “They are assured that they will be treated well there, but patients won’t listen,” he continued.
The caregiver is also afraid to go to this hospital. However, it is where he restocks his medication and his supplies are almost empty – as is the waiting room. Since clashes summarized, adults have no longer come for treatment, due to a lack of funds. “There are extremists on both sides, but when things get tough, we are the ones who are penalized,” said the nurse, feeling powerless.