“The future is dark,” sighs Joachim Lobo, a teacher who longs “to pick up the chalk” and be reunited with his pupils if ever peace is restored to northeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
“I lost my job because of all this nonsense,” Lobo says of communal violence in the gold-rich Ituri province, where he taught French and philosophy. “We thought we would have a responsible government, yet we don’t know when we can return to our land.”
In 2019, the 60-year-old father of nine fled Sombuso, his natal village in Djugu, and now lives in a camp for displaced people 20km (12 miles) away in Loda, close to a base for foreign troops serving in the United Nations mission in the DRC, MONUSCO.
Conditions there are dire, he says. “No latrines, no food, no drinking water, no medical care.”
Lobo, who belongs to the Hema community, traditionally stockbreeders and traders, left Sombuso to escape the brutality of a wing of the Congo Development Cooperative (CODECO) group created by Lendu people.
Experts say CODECO is made up of fighters from the Lendu ethnic group who claim to defend the property rights of Lendu farming communities in Djugu. Lendu militias are held responsible for the killing of several hundred Hema civilians.
‘We don’t know when we can return’
This is not the first time “Papa Joachim” flees violence in Ituri.
In 1999, he abandoned his home after the outbreak of the Second Congo War (1998-2003), which saw the armies of more than half a dozen African countries enter the vast DRC. The violence cost tens of thousands of lives in Ituri.
At the time, the Lendu and the Hema were killing each other in militia attacks, which were stopped in 2003 by Operation Artemis, a military intervention by a European Union Force (EUFOR) backed by the United Nations.
Tens of thousands of civilians have been displaced in Ituri since violence resumed in December 2017 in the Djugu and Mahagi areas, but this time it was different from the wartime clashes.
The Hema have not reconstituted their militias and Lendu public figures condemn the raids committed in their name by CODECO forces.
President Felix Tshisekedi, who took office in January 2019, denounced “attempted genocide” and a “plot” during a rare visit to the provincial capital Bunia in July that year, at the height of an outbreak of violence.
He announced a “large-scale” military operation dubbed “Ituri Tempest” against the attackers, which led to the killing of a CODECO chief.
‘A rebel like you’
A year later, Tshisekedi dispatched a delegation of former militia chiefs from the time of the Second Congo War to negotiate the surrender of pro-Lendu fighters.
The team was led by Floribert Ndjabu, a man who served 15 years in preventive detention on suspicion of the murder of nine UN peacekeepers in 2005.
“I told them: ‘I was a rebel like you – you have nothing to teach me,’” Ndjabu said to AFP news agency.
The outcome of the talks has been a noticeable decline in the number of deadly raids, according to witnesses.
Key roads that had been blockaded, such as the RN27 linking the DRC and Uganda, are once again open to traffic but the vehicles are escorted by the military, AFP saw.
Part of the population remains sceptical about any peace process.
“We need military pressure, with means sufficient to allow the army to secure the population and enforce peace, while justice should take care of the criminals,” said Agathe Gipatho, a 60-year-old woman, during an exchange with members of the Alur community in Nioka.
“People are tending to return to their villages,” said Dieudonne Kpadyu Mnyoro. “But their key concern is safety, an end to the violence.”