restricted access Conflict in Congo
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Conflict in Congo
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Megan Camm

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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 [End Page 71] 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 Bloodiest Corner

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 [End Page 72...