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Violence In Congo

June 9, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: The Congo story, and to Gwen Ifill.

GWEN IFILL: It’s too soon to say whether this weekend’s arrival of the first French soldiers in the U.N.-Mandated peacekeeping force can slow the violence in northeastern Congo, a conflict which has cost, at a minimum, hundreds of thousands of lives. Foreign correspondent Somini Sengupta has been covering developments there for the “New York Times.” She is in Bunia, the capital of the battle-scarred Ituri province. Somini, I understand this weekend that peacekeepers have arrived in Bunia. What have you seen?

SOMINI SENGUPTA: Yes, that’s right, Gwen. The first of the French soldiers who were part of this new multinational force authorized by the United Nations landed on Friday morning. They have come basically with a logistics team.

Their first mission will be to figure out what to do with the airport in Bunia, which is in very bad shape. It’s badly damaged, badly potholed. Very few planes can land at a time here. So their first task is to figure out how to fix the airport, how to deploy the rest of the troops.

So far, it’s unclear when the rest of the troops are going to land. A total of 1,400 soldiers from various countries are supposed to make up this new multinational force. They are… some of them are expected to come in tomorrow morning. It remains to be seen exactly when the full force will be deployed here. They certainly come with a very strong mandate, and that is to restore law and order to Bunia, which has not known law and order, which has not known any semblance of security for a very, very long time.

GWEN IFILL: Is that role also to disarm the rebels or the people who are involved in this conflict, whether it’s tribal or economic, whatever is driving this conflict? Is it to disarm them or just to hold them at bay?

SOMINI SENGUPTA: That’s a very good question. It’s one that people here on the ground keep asking. Frankly, it’s not one that we have a complete answer to. In essence, the multinational force’s task is to restore law and order. Their mandate from the Security Council does not specifically, does not explicitly say that they will disarm militias doesn’t rule it out either.

And the humanitarian agencies that I talked to and many ordinary people I talked to here wonder if they can actually do the job they’re supposed to, if they can actually bring law order to this town, short of taking the guns away from the hands of these two ethnic militias that are fighting each other. It also should be said that one ethnic group now controls this town, one ethnic militia. The Hema ethnic militia now controls this town, and while it would be possible perhaps to ask them to put down their guns in town, they certainly would not agree to do so, so long as their enemies, the Lendu ethnic militia, are hovering around just outside town, guns at the ready, so it’s very — it’s a difficult political task to accomplish. But short of disarming both of these militia groups, a lot of people on the ground wonder how Bunia will ever see peace.

GWEN IFILL: We have read your dispatches, particularly about the use of rape as a weapon of war. Can you give us a sense about what is at the root of this conflict between the two tribal groups that you just named?

SOMINI SENGUPTA: Yes. In Ituri province, which is in the northeast Congo, the conflict has pitted Hema and the Lendu. The Hema have traditionally been herders, pasturalists. The Lendu have traditionally been farmers, agriculturalists. And over the years there have been many, many skirmishes between them in the countryside.

In recent years, over the last four or five years, those conflicts have blown out of proportion. Both sides have formed militia groups. Both sides have acquired or been given some very powerful weapons– AK-47s, mortars, rocket- propelled grenades– in addition to the ubiquitous machete, which a lot of people here describe as the weapon of mass destruction.

So at the root of this conflict is… on the one hand, people say, it’s historical ethnic enmities between these two groups. But also, it should be pointed out that this province is scandalously rich– it has gold; it has diamonds; timber; coltan, the mineral that is used in cell phones. And they have been fighting mercilessly over these minerals– fighting, it should be added, with the help of the Congolese government and the governments of several neighboring countries. Rwanda and Uganda have both had troops in the eastern Congo over the last several years. Only recently, under a deal, have they agreed to pull out their troops.

GWEN IFILL: You have told us what’s happening in Bunia. Is there any way to know what’s happening outside in the rest of the province, or even in the rest of the country?

SOMINI SENGUPTA: We’re all trying to know what’s happening in the rest of this province. From time to time, you can look up at the hills outside of Bunia and see villages burning from time to time. We get reports of a massacre here and there. But because of the terrible security situation, and because of the U. N. peacekeepers, who are now on the ground with a very, very limited mandate, with very limited forces, there is really no way to know what’s happening outside the city. And this is one of the questions, one of the challenges for the new multinational force that’s about to land here. What extent will they be able to stanch the bloodletting outside Bunia, because to many people here, it means very little to just stop the fighting in Bunia for the next two or three months while the multinational force is here.

GWEN IFILL: And are the humanitarian groups who are on the ground also depending on this peacekeeping force to e able to open the way for them to be able to do their jobs?

SOMINI SENGUPTA: Yes, absolutely, even inside Bunia’s city limits humanitarian agencies cannot get food aid, medical aid to some of the neediest populations. It’s simply not safe for them to go outside the two U.N. guarded compounds, one in the center of the city, and one at the airport. And while those two compounds have thousands of displaced people, there are a great many more people outside in the rest of the city. And when I’ve been out there talking to families, I know that many families have told me that they can only eat one meal a day. The father of six children told me just yesterday that he hadn’t eaten in three days, and that’s largely because the people who are living in this town cannot go to their fields. They cannot eat what they grow. Their fields have been completely looted, or it’s simply not safe to go into the fields because there are militia groups running around.

GWEN IFILL: Somini Sengupta, thank you so much for joining us.

SOMINI SENGUPTA: Thank you very much.