The Walendu Bindi chiefdom in Ituri province in the Democratic Republic of Congo has fallen into the hands of the rebels of Force de Resistance Patriotique de l’Ituri (FRPI) who have replaced both state authorities and the army in the chiefdom.
This is despite the state of siege imposed by the DR Congo government in Ituri and North Kivu provinces since May 6, 2021.
The state of siege was imposed to curb or eliminate the activities of armed groups in eastern DR Congo. It was followed by authorisation granted Ugandan Peoples Defense Forces (UPDF) by the Congolese government on Nov. 30, 2021, to enter Congolese territory and carry out joint military operations with the FARDC against Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) rebels in the eastern DR Congo.
To reach the Walendu Bindi chiefdom, one has to pass through the Ituri provincial capital of Bunia.
Walendu Bindi under firm grip of rebels
After about 30 kilometres and passing through four illegal road blocks mounted by unmandated Congolese soldiers, an uneasy calm signals entry into the zone controlled by FRPI rebels.
A young man dressed in civilian attire and carrying an AK-47 rifle opens the barrier and you are welcomed to Walendu Bindi chiefdom.
Since the end of 2020, successive waves of displaced persons have been arriving in this zone in their thousands to search for even relative protection from FRPI rebels.
They have fled from killings perpetrated in the neighbouring chiefdoms of Boga and Tchabi by Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) rebels, an armed group which claims allegiance to the Islamic State and their allies within the Hutu community installed in the zone.
The FRPI is a militia of over 1000 men, created towards the end of the 1990s with the aim of “chasing away the Ugandan army which had invaded Ituri”, according to ‘Colonel’ Munobi, spokesperson of the movement during an inauguration ceremony of a school.
The FRPI had in Feb. 2020 signed a demobilisation accord with the DR Congo government but seven months later, following reciprocal provocations, the process collapsed.
Since then, the FRPI armed group has repositioned their men on the principal highways leading to villages. It controls all movements and claims to be a protective cover against ADF expansion and atrocities.
To the far south of Walendu Bindi, an FRPI position dominates the deforested plain. Some combatants kill time in their camp playing poker with their guns slammed over their shoulders.
“We implanted these positions here in June to stop the ADF and their Banyabwisha allies (who are Congolese Hutu based in the Bwisha chiefdom in North Kivu) from attacking the population and from entering our chiefdom,” declared self-proclaimed ‘Colonel’ Jean-Robert Kufa Mbafele.
In June last year, with some 100 militia, Kufa Mbafele confronted the ADF and said “we lost three men in the fighting.”
At the foot of the hills, a deserted road meanders through Mitego, Boga and Tchabi chiefdoms. In 2021, more than 100 civilians were massacred in the area and the inhabitants remain traumatised to date.
Patrick Sande Loki, a traditional doctor still vividly remembers the May 30, 2021 attack on Boga.
“It was around midnight. We heard loud voices crying ‘open the door’ and immediately afterwards, gunshots started ringing out,” Patrick recalled.
He succeeded in escaping with some of his children but when he returned to Boga in the morning, he found his house razed down and the body of his mother inside the ruins. His wife was seriously burnt. Patrick took his wife to the hospital but she died two days later.
One week later, armed men assaulted the hospital where Patrick’s wife had been taken and which is supported by the French humanitarian organisation Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF).
“Everything in the hospital was looted,” recalled Jerome Wamara, the administrator of the hospital.
A report by the United Nations in DR Congo explains that in the beginning of June last year, ADF combatants arrived to carry out recruitment among the Banyabwisha in Tchabi, paying 300 US dollars per recruit. Between 30 and 40 persons, most of them children, were recruited.
UN experts have since expressed worries over the force and influence of the ADF within the local population.
In November and December 2021, the Ugandan army bombarded what they described as ADF bastions in Tchabi. But no soldier has gone there to ascertain the casualty figures of this operation on the spot.
“Up till the beginning of December, there were only six Congolese soldiers in all the Tchabi chiefdom,” said Augustin, a member of the Hutu community in desolation.
During the course of discussions with displaced persons, a representative of the local youths said “if nobody controls this situation, the youths will create a self-defense militia.”
In 2020, several tens of members of the Banyabwisha community accused of being invaders, were massacred in their camps. The attacks were attributed to the youths of Tchabi.
Ituri, just like neigbouring North Kivu, has been under a state of siege since May last year. This exceptional measure gives full powers to the army to fight against armed groups infesting the regions for the past twenty-five years.
However, in Tchabi and Boga, the FRPI, considered by the people as being a lesser evil, is not combated by the army and the overwhelmed local authorities cohabit with them.
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