BUNIA, Democratic Republic of Congo (Reuters) – A group of machete-wielding assailants descended on Esther Nzale’s village in northeastern Congo last Monday at noon, setting houses on fire and hacking to death her husband and others.
“Some people were burned alive inside the houses,” Nzale said from a camp for displaced persons more than a dozen kilometres away. “They killed people with machetes and we don’t even know what they did with the bodies.”
Nzale comes from Kpatsi, one of the villages inhabited by Hema herders that was attacked last week by armed men believed to belong to the rival Lendu farming community.
The resurgent violence in Ituri province, long a flashpoint for ethnic tensions in Democratic Republic of Congo’s volatile east, has killed at least 161 people since last week and forced more than 300,000 people to flee their homes, according to local officials and the United Nations.
It has also recalled painful memories of the 1999-2007 conflict between Hema and Lendu which resulted in an estimated 50,000 deaths. Among the causes were disputes over grazing rights and political representation.
After that conflict ended, Iturians experienced a decade of relative respite from ethnic violence, even as local militias continued to battle government forces and prey on the local population.
Clashes between Hema and Lendu flared again in late 2017 and early 2018, killing about 300 people before a tenuous calm took hold.
But last week, four Lendu traders were killed in attacks the Lendu blamed on the Hema, which locals say sparked off the latest violence.
Nzale fled with the surviving members of her family. They found shelter under white and blue tarps in a makeshift camp in Ituri’s capital city, Bunia.
The 161 bodies found all came from a single mass grave in the neighbouring village of Tche. Local officials fear the real death toll is much higher.
“They were all burned down and these hooligans are still there now,” said Etienne Kadho, a 59-year-old who had fled from Malili 2, rattling off a list of five villages that were attacked.
“The bodies are lying on the ground and they haven’t even thought of burying them.”
(Reporting by Djaffar Sabiti; Writing by Juliette Jabkhiro; Editing by Aaron Ross and Ed Osmond)