John Bosco Lossa was teaching French to a class of 5-year-olds when the men entered his village waving machetes, spears and bows and arrows. "When we saw them, everyone ran," says Lossa, an ethnic Hema in the village of Blukwa in the Democratic Republic of Congo. "I did not stay to see what happened. I was scared. I thought I was going to die." Lossa and scores of other villagers fled into the bush where they hid for three days, returning to find their school, shops and huts looted and burned. Only 17 of the 48 children in Lossa's class could be accounted for. The rest had either remained in the bush or had been killed. "They cut people, shot them with arrows. It is so terrible I can't think about it," says Lossa.
Attacks like the one in Blukwa in September are all too common in the northeastern Ituri region of the D.R.C., along the border with Uganda. Since June, fighting between two local tribes, the Hema and the Lendu, has left some 5,000 people dead and over 150,000 displaced. The clashes are not directly connected to Congo's 18-month-long civil war, but there is little doubt that the war aggravates ethnic conflicts like the one in Ituri and elsewhere. In the absence of any central power, law and order has collapsed.
Control in Africa's third-largest country is now divided crudely among the warring parties--government forces, rebel groups and the armies of six outside states backing one side or the other. The resulting chaos has turned this potentially wealthy land into a living hell. Alliances and territories shift constantly, says Richard Cornwell from the Institute for Security Studies in South Africa: "Very often local disputes are exacerbated by the flow of weapons, the breakdown in order and the fairly ruthless manipulation of local groups by the participants in the larger war."
The Ituri region is one of the most densely populated in Congo. Villages cling to crumbling dirt roads that cut through lush forests and farmland. Barefoot children play with homemade toys and men herd cattle to market. Lendu farmers arrived in the mountainous area around 400 years ago, Hema pastoralists some 200 years later. Population figures are difficult to confirm--some say the tribes are almost evenly balanced at around 300,000 people each while others say the Lendu are at least 50% more numerous than the Hema.
Whatever the balance, there is little dispute that the Hema are richer. They inherited the area's large cattle ranches at independence and they dominate local commerce. The two tribes have clashed periodically since the early 1900s and relations have deteriorated over the past few years as wealthy Hema landowners grabbed land from Lendu.
Violence flared last June when groups of Lendu began attacking Hema villages. Since then, attacks and reprisals have become regular, organized and ferocious. Last month more than 400 Hema were killed in a series of attacks on Blukwa. A few days later Hema killed 150 in the Lendu village of Lingu. The Lendu attackers, often drunk on a local brew made from herbs and leaves, use machetes to chop at the heads and arms of victims, and shoot arrows with barbed metal tips. They burn villages and destroy crops. A local Red Cross worker and a Catholic priest even confirmed reports that Lendu attackers have mutilated the genitals and cut out the hearts, tongues and brains of Hema victims. "They mix [brains] with herbs and eat it," says Uzia Dzaringa, a Hema from the town of Kalo. Lendu say the Hema sometimes use firearms.
Three weeks ago the Christian Blind Mission, a German aid agency with offices in the region, released a grisly video showing butchered victims and burned villages. The images include a child with his head split open, a woman cut from her neck down to the small of her back and a man with an arrow through his head, the arrowhead entering above the eye and exiting over the ear. "We have become used to it now," says Tshulo Ngandju, director of the hospital in the town of Drodro. "There are many, many wounded. People with no hands, with arrows in the chest."
Those who survive often flee to the bush or to makeshift camps at church missions and outside major towns. Two months ago the international aid agency Medecins sans Frontières reported that epidemics of cholera, measles and even bubonic plague were spreading through the camps. At the Gate to Heaven mission in Drodro, father Desire Ngodjolo stands on a cold muddy field in the early morning mist as 4,000 displaced people begin their day. "There's nothing you do can do in a situation like this," he says. "The Christians are on both sides."
The Ugandan army-backed Congolese Rally for Democracy-Liberation Movement (RCD-ML) claims control of the Ituru region, but it is the weakest of three main rebel groups which together hold most of eastern and northern Congo. Two weeks ago the government in Kinshasa accused the Ugandan army of encouraging fighting between the Hema and Lendu in order to "justify and perpetuate their occupation of the east." Local people speak of rival Ugandan officers training the two sides and some Lendu say that Ugandans fought alongside Hema last year.
The Ugandan army denies those charges and says it acts impartially, though it may look as if it is taking sides because it often protects poorly armed Hema from better-armed Lendu. But Jacques Depelchin, head of administration for RCD-ML, confirms that Hema were receiving military help until two months ago from a rogue senior Ugandan officer who has since been arrested and sent home. Depelchin also says that troops loyal to the officer, Captain Kyakabale, clashed with forces belonging to another Ugandan officer, Colonel Peter Kerim, who has reportedly trained and armed 1,000 Lendu tribesmen.
Even without such Machiavellian intrigue, the war in Congo has undoubtedly prolonged the Hema-Lendu violence. When clashes between the two groups broke out in 1975, then-President Mobutu Sese Seko sent in the troops. For all his many faults, Mobutu at least managed to keep a lid on the country's simmering ethnic rivalries. "In those days all people were happy because of what Mobutu did," says Edward Dz'ba Ngorima, 52, chief of the Lendu town of Saliboko which was attacked last month by Hema. "They think there are problems now because there is no government." Says Depelchin: "The infrastructure may have broken down, but more importantly the very idea of what is supposed to be an administration has broken down. We aim to fix that." But so long as the RCD-ML and the Ugandans remain enmeshed in the larger civil war, they will be part of the problem, not part of the solution.