‘I fled with my seven children – we watched our house burning from distance,’ says Dorcas, from a village in the Djugu territory in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). ‘We were running, my husband went one way and we went another… I don’t know what has happened to him.’
But Dorcas felt relieved to reach the relative calm of Telega village with her children. Many thousands of families in eastern DRC have fled and not all have found safety – many have been robbed and some killed.
‘My children and I ran through bushes to reach Telega. We feared using the roads. We slept out in dangerous places. We don’t have any food because we left everything behind.’
A history of tension
The Ituri province of eastern DRC has seen a huge escalation of violence over the past few weeks. The local Lendu and Hema ethnic groups have a longstanding dispute over who owns the land.
These tensions flared into conflict in 1972, 1985 and 1996. The bloodiest period took place between 1999 and 2003, where 60,000 people were killed and 400,000 fled their homes.
In February this year the attacks started again. Hundreds of people were killed and chaos ensued. Local radio reported that 1,300 children suffered machete wounds. Djugu hospitals struggled to provide beds and medicines for such a huge number of injured people.
Tearfund’s partner Action Entraide reports that more than 25,000 displaced people arrived in Tchomia, a village on the shores of Lake Albert, in February. Families have been crossing in boats without life jackets – seeking safety across the lake in Uganda.
Last week, the Tearfund team in DRC visited the area to find out the needs of the people there and plan for how best to respond. They sought out villages hosting displaced families to assess the impact of the crisis.
Seeking to build peace
Action Entraide and Tearfund have also been reaching out across the ethnic divides, inviting leaders from nearby Hema, Lendu and Bira groups to reflect on the escalation of tensions, and seek solutions. The meeting also welcomed representatives from the army, local police and the United Nations peacekeepers.
More than 150 people met in Bogoro, starting with a talk from a local pastor who said, ‘We have to discourage division and hate but rather stand together to stop the spread of this evil in our homes, our community and our nation.’
‘Nobody wins when we fight each other,’ responded one Hema leader. ‘We are all losers in the end. Some lose their cattle, some their houses. Others family members, friends and relatives. What is the point of fighting each other?’
A Lendu leader agreed: ‘The last war caused us a lot of suffering, nothing good came out of it. We don't want to go back to that!’
David Mcallister, Tearfund DRC Country Director, encouraged the group to consider St Paul’s message in Romans 10:12: ‘For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile – the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him.’
‘We have to get down on our knees and humbly cry to God to forgive us,’ David said. ‘Because God the Father sees no distinction between Hema, Lendu or Bira.’
‘Together, we say no to division and call for peace,’ agreed Njangusi, a widow from the Lendu community who supports vulnerable women in her church. In the previous conflict her house was burnt down and Njangusi lost all her belongings.
Alongside theses declarations of unity, the leaders of the ethnic groups voiced concerns that young people with limited education, poor job prospects and often drug users are particularly susceptible to being drawn into violent groups. Action Entraide believes that engaging with and supporting vulnerable young people is key to preventing further violence, and is looking to scale up its work with young people.
- For families like Dorcas’s who have suffered so much and experienced trauma – particularly for those who have lost or been separated from loved ones.
- For Action Entraide to continue its peace and reconciliation work, bringing community leaders together in unity to denounce violence.
- For young people to be supported so that they chose not to take part in or incite violence, and for those who have perpetrated the atrocities to choose a path of forgiveness and peace.