Conflict in Congo

From the Winter 2011/2012 Faith issue  

To read about land issues elsewhere in Africa, click here.

By Megan Camm

ITURI, Democratic Republic of the Congo—It is July 20, 2010, and Djupanyahonoré is a ghost town populated by 644 ghosts. The heaped skeletons of its dwellings lie cold, but the acrid tang of burned houses pollutes the mountain air. Bending at their hips, the women of this northeastern hamlet scoop charred beans into the folds of their colorful pagnes, multi-purpose swaths of waxed cotton that serve at once as clothing, baby slings, and blankets. With laden skirts, they walk barefoot over blackened thatch to add their beans to a growing heap, where grandmothers with arthritic fingers pick out the edible ones. Old men sit silently in the shade while the young men rummage through rubble, excavating the remains of their huts’ wooden supports. These will fuel the evening cooking fire and protect the oldest, youngest, and weakest members of the community from plummeting night temperatures. It’s the rainy season, and at an altitude of over 5,500 feet, passing the night without shelter is hazardous.

The children, gray with fine soot, are not playing. One boy sits outside the shell of his home, ankles tucked to the side, arms drawn into his shirt, hands clasped under his cheek, staring listlessly at the ground. The only manmade sounds are an occasional solitary wail and the plinking of beans into salvaged cooking pots.

UN Habitat, the United Nations body tasked with mediating land conflicts in eastern Congo, arrives in a neighboring village this morning, just a day after the attack. A small contingent of Indian UN peacekeepers and a sizeable, somber crowd of Djupanyahonoré eager to present evidence of the previous day’s events are waiting for the team of three mediators. Each has already been apprised of the basics. The Djupamula, a neighboring clan that shares a grandfather with the Djupanyahonoré, and the Djuparigi, their allies, ambushed the village of Djupanyahonoré at about 7 a.m., after most able bodied men and women had already left for their fields.

The assailants came brandishing machetes, lances, and clubs. The Djupanyahonoré fled into the forest, leaving behind their tattered Congolese francs, bibles and saint cards, household goods, clothing, blankets, crude farming tools, and recent bean harvest, meant to sustain them through the coming dry season. The Djupanyahonoré insist the attackers arrived with 30 to 40 armed local police, there to loot before the Djupamula torched 80 or 90 houses. Either way, most Djupanyahonoré returned home to find what little they owned gone or ruined.


The scorched remains of the village form a tragic but hardly unexpected scene. The extended Djupa family is a microcosm of the entire Ituri District, known throughout central Africa for its virulent internecine land conflicts. But similar dynamics of strife are at play across Africa. When European powers formalized their control over most of the continent in the 19th and 20th centuries, they often instituted land codes that took little or no account of existing land tenure practices. Post-colonial states—due to weakness or corruption—generally failed to reform tenure systems, and the aftershocks of these colonial policies still plague these nations today.

The Djupanyahonoré and the Djupamula—who live in eponymous neighboring villages—are both members of the Alur ethnic group. They have engaged in a decades-long blood feud over land ownership that originated in colonial times when the Belgians made a jigsaw puzzle of Ituri’s map, cutting and pasting populations, and carelessly smudging centuries of collective wisdom on local land tenure. Passions run deep between these related clans, but the disputes can be even more volatile between rival tribes considered to be of different ethnic origin, like the Hema and Lendu. Their land-based conflicts have made Ituri a notorious object lesson for broad swaths of central Africa.

The Belgians didn’t stop at modifying the limits and locations of the broader Hema and Lendu territories in the early 20th century. They interfered down to the level of villages, leaving a legacy of conflict. When colonial agents altered the boundaries of their village, the Djupanyahonoré refused to recognize the state’s appropriation of two fertile farming hills to be used as pasturage by related clans. The Djupanyahonoré continued to farm parts of these hills, despite the colonial injunction, while the Djupamula grazed livestock nearby. Until the early 1980s, there were few problems. Land was abundant enough that the needs of farmers and herders alike were met.

But in recent years, each clan has grown, and with the added population pressure has come violence. Crops are vandalized or stolen, and animals injured or killed in the night. Periodic tit-for-tat clashes and retributions—often bloody—punctuate the clans’ relationships. The feud has been escalating for over three decades now, but the local Congolese government is too weak, apathetic, or complicit to intervene in any meaningful way.

Perhaps this inaction is due, at least in part, to the reality that the burning of Djupanyahonoré is hardly extraordinary. After all, Ituri District has a long-standing reputation. In the midst of a fierce ethnic war between the Hema and Lendu tribes sparked by their communal land conflict, Human Rights Watch branded it in 2003 “the bloodiest corner of the Democratic Republic of the Congo,” a damning description in a country where an estimated 5.4 million people died as a result of war between 1998 and 2007—more than in any other conflict since World War II.

It is the spread of such communal battles—and the history of broad, land-based ethnic conflict—that prompted Florian Bruyas of UN Habitat in Nairobi to recommend the establishment of an Ituri office. The new office opened its doors in May 2009. With only three mediators to cover all of Ituri—at 25,350 square miles and 4 million people, a smidge bigger than West Virginia with double the population density—the office has restricted its activities to Djugu and Mahagi, two of the five territories in Ituri. In just the first four months of 2010, the team identified about 2,800 land disputes in these two locales.

For the three mediators, the scope of their mandate is Sisyphean. Between January and September 2011, they managed to resolve about 180 disputes, with another 250 cases in progress. Over the past two years, they have conducted dozens of community awareness workshops in villages throughout Djugu and Mahagi. Though they spend as many as 28 days a month on the road, they are fighting an uphill battle. Axel Kitoga, one of the mediators, often feels frustrated by the work. “Before we started,” he says, “I thought [resolving these conflicts] would be easy. But now that I’m in the field, I see we have the obligation of means, not of results. We can only help the parties find a solution. We can’t impose one on them. And often, the parties prefer violence.”

Preventing bloodshed stemming from land disputes will not be easy in the Congo or anywhere else in the region, but land reform is a necessary precursor to building peaceful and prosperous communities. Across Africa, land reform is a controversial and deeply politicized topic. Extreme examples, such as Zimbabwe’s ill-advised land seizures, where commercial farms owned by white Zimbabweans were commandeered and redistributed to war veterans and others with political clout but no farming experience, can lead to far more harm than good.

But if done correctly, land reform can result in improved child mortality and nutrition figures, protection for women and girls against sexual violence, and increased investment in the local economy and infrastructure. When individuals and communities feel confident that their rights to a portion of land will be respected, they are willing to consider long-term objectives, rather than just immediate survival. The resolution of existing conflicts could bring peace that allows resources to be diverted from fighting to schools, roads, healthcare, and agricultural technologies that result in increased food and financial security.


Not only is land at the root of almost every problem facing eastern Congo—at times spilling over to Sudan, Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi—it has also led, in Ituri alone, to the deaths of over 60,000 and the displacement of more than 500,000 people in little over a decade. Tens of thousands have been forced to find refuge in neighboring Uganda and Rwanda.

The infamous Ituri Conflict—the “war within the war”—erupted in 1999 at the height of the Second Congo War. External factors, such as Ituri’s occupation by Ugandan forces, came into play, but violence emerged primarily from a struggle to control land by the Lendu and Hema, two of the region’s dominant ethnic groups. The war was fought between consortiums of local tribal militias and proxies in the form of Ugandan, Rwandan, and Congolese armies. Disorganized bands, often armed only with machetes, clubs, lances, and bows and arrows descended on civilian populations, killing, raping, and burning as they went. Victims, including women and children, were often brutally mutilated. Grisly photos of young men proudly posing next to neat rows of severed heads circulated among humanitarian workers.

The conflict captured the imagination of the international aid community, and despite higher death tolls in the Kivu provinces to the south, where the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide was still unfolding, the United Nations singled out Ituri for special peacekeeping activities. In 2003, the Security Council authorized MONUC (the United Nations Mission in the Congo) “to use all necessary means to fulfill its mandate in the Ituri district,” though in other regions, MONUC’s powers were restricted. In May 2003, the European Union joined forces with MONUC, staging its first ever military intervention outside of Europe in Ituri’s capital, Bunia.

These rather remarkable efforts by the international community were only somewhat successful. EU and UN troops managed to secure Bunia but were unable to impose security in the rest of the province. Militias continued to initiate violence until nearly 25,000 fighters were disarmed by late 2007, when the conflict was declared over. Though the immediate violence was contained, its cause—land grievances between the Hema and Lendu—had only been compounded by the movements of refugee populations.


Before the Ituri Conflict, Sanduku was a quiet farming community. Hema families, who had been there for generations, minded their bananas and beans alongside their Lendu neighbors. Like other “Northern Hema,” the Hema of Sanduku adopted the Lendu language. Intermarriage was common. It’s not that ethnicity was invisible—Iturians say there are obvious physical differences between the tribes—or that there weren’t tensions between the groups prior to the Ituri Conflict. Land conflicts flared up in various corners of Ituri in 1911, 1923, 1966, 1971, 1981, and 1992-1993. But ethnicity hadn’t yet been politicized to the point where it defined the landscape. Land tenure issues, however, were present and immediate.

Just prior to the Ituri Conflict, wealthy and educated Hema in other parts of Ituri took advantage of a curious loophole. Ituri, like the rest of the country, is governed by two separate and contradictory systems of land tenure. Customary law, normally applied in Ituri, recognizes ancestral land claims. Communities own the land where they live and work because their parents and their parents’ parents lived and worked on that land. The customary chief, a hereditary position, is responsible for allocating land to individuals within the community, and his constituents consider his word law.

But in the late 1960s and early 1970s, President Mobutu Sese Seko embarked on a project of nationalization. In 1971, the government passed a law granting the state full ownership over all land. The 1973 General Property Law reaffirmed state ownership of all land and promised a presidential act to regulate the usage of customary lands, but this measure never materialized. At the same time, the Congolese constitution still recognizes property acquired under customary law. Under the current dual system, individuals can buy rights to the use of land, called concessions. After two years, the rights of others to contest such allocations of “enjoyment” expire. Prior to the war, most rural Congolese were ignorant of the 1973 General Property Law and the two-year contestation period. They continued to live in their ancestral villages under customary land law. So a handful of rich and educated Hema took advantage. They began buying vast concessions, waiting until two years later to inform the people living on the land—mostly Lendu, but also some Hema—that such a transaction had taken place. The new landlords then legally evicted local populations or coerced them into exploitative sharecropping.

This had been occurring on a small scale for years, but as the Second Congo War accelerated and the invading Ugandan army occupied Ituri, a few elite Hema capitalized on the confusion to accelerate their acquisition of new lands. Some even hired Ugandan soldiers as enforcers to evict the mostly Lendu populations from the property that these Hema had “bought” from the state. Although the problem was really between a handful of rich Hema and the rest of Iturians, these land grabs played on preexisting economic tensions between the Hema and the Lendu. Class and ethnicity rapidly became conflated.

In 1999, shortly after civil war erupted between the Hema and Lendu in other parts of Ituri, a group of armed Hema from a neighboring village attacked the Lendu of Sanduku. The Lendu fled, regrouping, for the most part, in Kpandroma, a heavily Lendu city 20 miles from Sanduku. Lendu actions against the Hema eventually displaced the native Hema of Sanduku. Many sought refuge in Hema-dominated Fataki, just four miles away. For several years, Sanduku was largely abandoned.

But life was hard for the displaced Hema in Fataki. The Hema from surrounding rural villages, accustomed to feeding their families through agriculture, struggled to nourish themselves. Many gradually gravitated to Sanduku. It was close enough to the protection of Fataki’s Hema soldiers and their allies to appear somewhat secure against Lendu attacks. There was also ample land. Although some of Sanduku’s new residents had lived there before the war, the majority came from villages deeper in Lendu territory.

For nearly 10 years, the Hema déplacés lived, farmed, and built their homes in Sanduku, harassed by occasional Lendu attacks, but generally able to survive. Then, in 2009, the first wave of Lendu returned home to Sanduku. Not surprisingly, they were unhappy to find Hema enemies occupying their land. Further waves of returnees have been arriving in Sanduku ever since. The Lendu were able to recover some of their land, but much is still occupied by displaced Hema.


Today, some Hema residing in Sanduku are resisting the Lendu chief’s regular public declarations that all Hema déplacés must leave. Newly educated by the likes of UN Habitat, representatives of the Hema déplacés sit in the shade of avocado trees during outdoor mixed-ethnicity meetings and cite the 1973 General Property Law, which holds that all land belongs to the Congolese state and any Congolese is free to live in any part of the country. They argue that the land they occupy didn’t really belong to the Lendu who used it before the war. They’d simply been enjoying the right to use it. Indeed, not one Lendu has been able to produce a legal deed proving ownership. Even if any such documentation had existed, it surely would have been lost or destroyed during the war.

But in rural areas, Sanduku included, the 1973 law was never uniformly applied. The chief of each community apportions the land within his village’s borders as he sees fit. Under this system of land tenure, then, the Lendu chief in Sanduku has the right to deny access to land. He is under no obligation to designate land to Hema “outsiders.” In this area, reconciliation between the 1973 law and customary law is essential to prevent further conflict. But with more than 500,000 displaced in just over a decade, confusion over who owns the rights to land is deeper than ever. And confusion can lead to violence.

This is precisely the problem confronting Hema déplacés in Sanduku like Ngona Gikwa Floribert. Born and raised in the neighboring Lendu-dominated community of Tsupukidogo, he and his family were displaced due to Lendu attacks during the Ituri Conflict, eventually settling on a plot of land in Sanduku in 2001. Ngona claims that when he arrived, there were no houses or crops on the land. Since then, Ngona has built a one-room circular hut with a packed dirt floor; planted a banana “garden” of several hundred trees; sown cassava, corn, sweet potatoes, and vegetables; and established an expanding business selling guinea pigs to Congolese soldiers stationed in the village, perhaps the only residents of Sanduku rich enough to afford this delicacy. During the 10 years he lived there, no one claimed the land. But in May 2011, Melchior Djodja, a Lendu who had spent the war in a nearby village, came to evict Ngona from the land he has occupied for a decade. Ngona is willing to move—he has repeatedly asked his chief in Tsupukidogo if he can reoccupy his prewar lands. But the Lendu chief has denied him permission to return, proclaiming that no Hema shall live in his localité. In August 2011, Ngona was chased from Tsupukidogo with death threats and curses by an angry mob of his former neighbors because he had dared to inspect his pre-war holdings, which lie mostly fallow.

Ngona’s neighbor in Sanduku, Maurice Bavi-Nguna, is also from Tsupukidogo. A Hema, he too has not been allowed to reoccupy his pre-war lands. Melchior is also claiming the land Maurice lives on. In May 2011, Melchior began building a massive octagonal hut that, when completed, will fully block the entrance to Maurice’s home.

In May 2011, Ngona and Maurice brought the case to the tribunal at the elevated level of the collectivité. The case was not entertained. In July, Melchior asked for a mediator. A Lendu, Loi Dhei Medard, heard the case. Melchior’s demands included the immediate departure of both Maurice and Ngona and 10 years worth of monetary damages, because during that time, Ngona and Maurice profited from farming the land. Melchior also insists that Ngona must pay him the value of 67,000 unfired bricks and a brick-making machine that Melchior left on the property when he fled the war.

Although Medard’s authority does not extend to making a ruling—he is merely supposed to bring the parties together to try to reach a compromise—the lanky mediator decided in favor of Melchior. At the end of the August 2 hearing, Medard ordered Maurice to vacate the land. Medard did not issue a ruling on the dispute between Ngona and Melchior.

Ngona relayed the order to the Land Commission in the predominantly Hema town of Fataki, and the staff agreed that the mediator had overstepped his bounds. However, to appeal Medard’s decision, Ngona and Maurice would have to send a petition to Bunia, Ituri’s capital. Buying the paper and envelope and paying someone to transport the documents 54 miles to Bunia would be prohibitively expensive, so they decided they could not afford to appeal. Ngona and Maurice both say they are willing to cede access to Melchior, assuming he pays them the value of the property they have placed there—the banana, avocado and mango trees, yams, corn, and hardwood stands.

Even if the financial details are worked out, the much larger problem is that neither Ngona nor Maurice have anywhere else to go. Their Lendu chief in Tsupukidogo rejects them, as does their Lendu chief in Sanduku, and they find the Lendu suggestion that they move to the uninhabited west of the territory unacceptable. There are good reasons why it has remained unsettled despite intense population pressure in Ituri—such as endemic malaria and wild animals like lions, leopards, and elephants, and a complete lack of roads, schools, and health centers. “Well, if the Hema don’t want to move to western Djugu,” the Lendu suggest, “why don’t they go join their Hema brothers in Hema-controlled collectivités?” The now all but homeless Hema counter, “Those Hema terrains are already overpopulated, and, having never visited that part of the country, we would be strangers there with no connections to local chiefs and no hope of obtaining enough land to live off.” Indeed, most Hema chiefs have accepted their native Lendu populations and expect Lendu chiefs to reciprocate. The situation is at an impasse.  

The conflict between Melchior, Ngona, and Maurice mirrors literally thousands of others occurring in Ituri. Although neither the Hema nor the Lendu want to live through another war, both feel wronged by the other and ignored by the Congolese state. No one is willing to back down, and another ethnic war is a very real possibility.


Countries throughout Africa—from South Africa to Ethiopia, Liberia to Kenya, Malawi, Burundi, and Rwanda—have begun the process of land reform. These reforms will not be easy, and there are no shortcuts to success. Fruitful reforms require consultations at the grassroots level that allow historically disenfranchised communities to air their grievances and see their concerns reflected in solutions. Communities must be educated on their rights and responsibilities, and the land laws that delineate these must be clear and fair. Undoubtedly, there will be winners and losers in the process, but every effort must be made to ensure transparency, fairness, and a spirit of compromise.

It is August 21, 2011. Djupanyahonoré has risen from its ashes. Laughing children dart between tidy mud huts while women roast plump ears of corn in the embers of outdoor cooking fires. It is the rainy season again, and dark clouds overhead suggest a torrential downpour is imminent. For now, though, the air is pleasantly cool, and a moist breeze rustles through the freshly dried elephant grass thatch. But scars remain beneath the surface. Since the attack, 194 villagers have left, some crossing into Uganda, others travelling only as far as the homes of nearby relatives. Unable to shelter or feed their families, many men have been abandoned by their wives and children, who have gone to live in the women’s paternal villages. Among those who have left are Chantal and Wani. Pregnant at the time of the attack, they couldn’t run as quickly as the others. They accuse the Djupamula of beating them. Both miscarried a few days later.

Litiwu and Kwonga were beaten with sticks, and Litiwu’s wife, Ang’al, was hospitalized for a week after she started vomiting blood because of a beating. No one has been arrested in connection with the attack on Djupanyahonoré, and there has been no serious investigation by the police, the local government, the United Nations, or any of the non-governmental organizations operating in the region. Like most land disputes in Ituri, the communal conflict between the Djupamula and the Djupanyahonoré over the two hills that divide them remains unresolved.

Life has returned to normal, but for the Djupanyahonoré and countless other individuals and tribes in rural Africa, normalcy is a state of uncertainty and insecurity over the one basic element of life and society that matters most—land.



Megan Camm, former managing editor of the Harvard Health Policy Review, has been researching land conflicts in eastern Congo under a grant from the Overseas Press Club Foundation.

[Photo: Megan Camm]

Related posts