Bunia, Congo -- Where Kalashnikov-toting teenage
militiamen once swaggered through Bunia's streets in their plastic sandals
and tattered T-shirts, heavily armed French troops now patrol in groups
and respond quickly to any provocation.
Since they were dispatched here a month ago as an emergency force,
hundreds of French troops have moved quickly to tamp down a spasm of
ethnic warfare between Hema and Lendu militias who hacked and shot to
death as many as 500 people in May, raped women and even resorted to
cannibalism, according to Human Rights Watch.
The central market in Bunia, once a looter's paradise dotted with
bloated, stinking corpses, is again a bustling place of business, but the
town itself is not yet free from terror, and refugees from other towns in
northeastern Congo's lawless Ituri province say outlying areas remain
Even in Bunia, nighttime "disappearances" of civilians following visits
by armed militiamen are still a regular occurrence, though the number has
tapered off from a rate of about four per night a few weeks ago.
"The French control Bunia," said Amagi Uringi, "but the night belongs
to the militia."
Uringi, 55, listened through a wall as gunmen rousted his cousin out of
bed at 11 p.m. and stole money, a radio and several goats. Family members
later found the cousin's body in a nearby ditch.
The gunmen accused Uringi's cousin of collaborating with the majority
Lendu ethnic group, a sign that the attackers came from the Union of
Congolese Patriots (UPC), the militia dominated by the minority Hema
people that has slowly ceded control of Bunia to the French. The group
denies knowledge of the attacks.
The French detachment in Bunia acknowledges the periodic reports of
midnight attacks but says it cannot guarantee security on an individual
"The force is unable to put a soldier behind every inhabitant of
Bunia," said Col. Gerard Dubois, the French military spokesman.
Ituri's ethnic war is part of a much larger war in Congo that has
killed up to 3.3 million people, mostly through disease and starvation,
according to the International Rescue Committee, but Bunia stands out as
the place where ethnic violence has reached a crescendo.
Repeated clashes between rival Lendu and Hema militias, initially
sparked by land disputes, have left 50,000 dead in Ituri province, many of
them civilians, since 1999. Both Hema and Lendu forces have been backed by
Rwanda and Uganda in their bid to dominate the area, which is rich in
gold, diamonds and uranium.
A particularly fierce round of killing in May under the noses of 700
Uruguayan U.N. peacekeepers, who were prevented by their rules of
engagement from firing on the combatants, prompted U.N. Secretary-General
Kofi Annan to call for a multinational force.
France and other European nations responded with Operation Artemis, and
about 1,500 troops have set up camp in Bunia, trying to secure the town so
the more than 200,000 refugees who fled during the fighting can return.
Every day, mighty patrols of armored vehicles kick up dust all around
the town. Two weeks ago, French troops began venturing outside Bunia and
have managed to secure the town's perimeter.
The force has concentrated on trying to rid Bunia of militiamen with
weapons. Late last month, a convoy of trucks rumbled out of Bunia carrying
the last load of militiamen from the UPC, which controlled Bunia before
the French arrived. But on Friday, 200 French troops clashed with 60
members of the Hema militia, and killed three of them after being fired
Still, Dubois says, Bunia is slowly being pacified.
"Fifteen days ago, there was a weapon every 10 meters in Bunia," he
said. "We're on the right track."
But the French have not attempted to address the constant clashes in
the vast, lawless countryside around Bunia -- nor do they plan to. Their
mandate includes only Bunia, though they have taken up positions at
strategic intersections outside town in order to defend its perimeter.
As a result, reports trickle into Bunia, often days after the fact,
that militiamen have stormed through villages and hacked people to death
"Fighting is continuing outside the city," said Anneke Van Woudenberg
of Human Rights Watch's Africa division.
Ten miles north of Bunia, Lendu fighters attacked the village of
Katoto, according to people who survived the violence and fled to Bunia.
The United Nations has placed its faith in a political process to
restore a civilian administration to Ituri and eventually ease tensions in
the entire province. Under U.N. supervision, a group of citizens
representing a cross- section of the province have formed the Ituri
Pacification Commission, an embryonic provincial government.
But the UPC, which sees itself as the true authority in Ituri, has
fought every effort of the group to assert itself in Bunia, and UPC
Commander Thomas Lubanga has called the commission a "mafia coalition."
As a result, U.N. officials are wrestling with what kind of military
presence will be needed after Sept. 1, when the French are scheduled to
leave Bunia. The mandate of the current U.N. peacekeeping mission in
Congo, known as MONUC, expires at the end of this month, and the Security
Council must decide whether to extend it.
William Lacy Swing, the new head of MONUC, said Monday he hopes to put
in place a peacekeeping force of as many as 3,800 troops, mainly from
Bangladesh, Nepal and Indonesia, by September.
It can't come too soon for the outgunned French intervention force or
for the local civilians.