Rebel attacks deepen displacement crisis in DRC’s Ituri province

Attacks by the CODECO militia, one of 120 rebel groups in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, have displaced hundreds of thousands of people.

Displaced communities living in church buildings after having fled the Ituri Conflict in Democratic Republic of Congo, April 28, 2022 [Hugh Kinsella Cunningham/NRC]
Displaced people live in church buildings after fleeing the Ituri conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo [File: Hugh Kinsella Cunningham/Norwegian Refugee Council]

One month since rebels closed in on Drodro village in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the once bustling wards of its hospital are empty, and Dr James Semire strolls the darkened corridors wondering when patients will dare to return.

The community is one of many in Ituri province’s Djugu territory that has seen a surge in attacks by a coalition of militia groups called the Cooperative for the Development of the Congo (CODECO). About 550,000 people have been forced to flee their homes from January to March, according to UN data.

Semire said members of the Hema herding community started to abandon Drodro in mid-March before a rumoured CODECO advance. The group – which claims to defend the interests of Lendu farmers, who have long been in conflict with Hema herders – is one of 120 known militias that have destabilised the eastern DRC since the 1990s.

Most Hema locals had left by March 22, the day CODECO fighters took up positions on a hillside near Drodro in broad daylight, the doctor recalled.

“Suddenly, someone came to tell me that there were gunshots outside,” said Semire, who also fled his home but still works in the hospital in case any people come in needing treatment.

“There are repeated attacks,” he said. “This delays the return of people here because it creates doubts.”

The CODECO raids have worsened a longstanding humanitarian crisis in Ituri province, where 3 million people are in desperate need of aid, according to the UN humanitarian agency.

Driven from the sources of their livelihood, Ituri’s displaced people have gathered in areas of perceived safety such as Rhoe, a camp of ramshackle huts near a UN peacekeeping base north of Drodro. Its population has nearly doubled to 65,000 since the beginning of 2023, according to camp representative Samuel Kpadjanga.

The needs of the camp’s residents are acute. Some dwellings are little more than ragged lengths of canvas stretched over sticks. Many residents are also traumatised after losing their homes and possessions and suffering physical or sexual violence, said Grace Mugisalonga, a mental health expert at Rhoe for the medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders).

The road between Rhoe and the provincial capital, Bunia, about 70km (45 miles) to the southwest, is dotted with CODECO checkpoints, which squeeze the camp’s supplies. The presence of fighters in the forests and fields around the camp makes attacks on those who venture out a regular occurrence, Kpadjanga said.

One resident, who asked not to be named, said a day earlier she had been held at gunpoint by three men in a nearby field.

“They argued. One said they should kill me, another said no. My life is safe, but they took everything from me, my scythe, my money,” she said back in a hut at Rhoe camp as a toddler peeked at her from the doorway.

In 2021, the government of the DRC declared a “state of siege” for both Ituri and the neighbouring province of North Kivu because of escalating violence.

The country has the largest population of internally displaced people on the African continent with the UN estimating at least 5.6 million have fled their homes.

The attacks have spilled over from villages to shelters housing the internally displaced, according to the UN. The Plaine Savo camp has been repeatedly attacked by armed groups, including those affiliated with CODECO, leaving families dead and shelters burned to the ground.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies