Ituri Forest Peoples Fund: Assisting Indigenous Peoples in Conflict Areas

As a Western non-governmental organization, providing aid to indigenous peoples in conflict situations is fraught with danger and tough choices forced by resource availability and security concerns. The involvement of the Ituri Forest Peoples Fund throughout the course of the civil wars and violence that have wracked the lives of the Efe and Lese peoples of the northeastern Ituri Forest of the Democratic Republic of the Congo illustrates those limitations. But while the decision of whether or not to put the project’s volunteers at risk was always our choice, the Efe and Lese have had no such luxury.

The Ituri was not always an isolated conflict area. In 1981 the country was called Zaire and was calmly decaying under the 20-year reign of President Mobutu Sese Seko’s kleptocracy. The 270-kilometer drive from the airport in Bunia to the Ituri village of Malembi was rugged, but you could get there in one or two days, even during the rainy season. Fifteen years later the trip stretched to over a week, with the last 70 kilometers traveled on foot. Collapse of the road system, through the willful neglect of Mobutu, caused the almost complete collapse of the Ituri’s once robust export economy. As quickly as the forest reclaimed the abandoned coffee and oil palm plantations that had provided local people with jobs, the lives of the region’s Lese farmers and Efe foragers returned to an almost pre-colonial state, dependent exclusively on what they could produce locally and on assistance from outside charities.

It was during this period of tranquil decline, between 1981 and 1996, that we and our students were able to visit every year or three, to continue our research on the lives of the Efe and Lese. We began to repay the generosity of all the families who invited us into their lives by helping them to establish and support a local primary school and public health clinic. To raise money we established the Ituri Forest Peoples Fund, which became a Cultural Survival project.

In the mid-1980s the national government started a program of school certification purportedly to ensure a minimum standard for school buildings. For the thousands of mud-wall and leaf-thatch schools in rural areas, this new policy meant an end to state support, which was already less than meager. When rising vehicle repair costs forced the Protestant mission at Akokoro to abandon their support of the schools north of Nduye in 1987, the Lese and Efe of Malembi asked if the Ituri Fund could help keep the school running. We agreed to provide books, school supplies, and teachers’ salaries, if the community would rebuild and maintain the classrooms.

It took two years for the local families to organize themselves to gather the materials and contribute the labor to build the huts and toilets needed for the primary school. With the help of nuns at Nduye we found and hired a retired teacher as headmaster. By 1993 the school had added three classrooms in Dingbo so that the youngest children did not have to walk the nine kilometers to Malembi each day.

With the primary school running reasonably well by 1992, we decided to help set up a clinic to provide basic health services between monthly visits by Sister Anna, an Italian nurse from the mission at Nduye. Trauma, parasites and infectious diseases are daily threats to the health of Efe and Lese families.

With Anna’s help we were able to send Kuri, a Lese man chosen by the community, to be trained as a nurse by Dr. Jean Marie Corbetta at the Catholic hospital at Mungbere. In 1994 we hired Anzalite, a local midwife who had been trained at the mission hospital in Mambasa. Each month when Sister Anna visited Malembi, she would drop by the clinic to see how Kuri and Anzalite were doing, to give advice, and to pick up any orders for medicines and supplies that were running low. Anna would make sure that these orders would be carried by hand from Nduye to Mambasa and eventually to the protestant mission pharmacy at the Nyankunde hospital near Bunia, where the Ituri Fund had set up an account. By the time the roads had collapsed to footpaths and Sister Anna was no longer able to make her monthly visits, Kuri would cycle or walk to Nduye or Mambasa or even Nyankunde to purchase medical supplies. Because he would only stock up on medical supplies once or twice a year, he would convert the cash from Efe and Lese patients into palm oil, to avoid losses due to inflation that was running rampant.

Ever since we started working in Malembi we have always relied on the support of others. Truck drivers towed us out of 50-meter-long mud holes. Peace Corps volunteers put us up while we were in town shopping, wildlife researchers shared their diesel fuel, and Protestant missionary pilots delivered our mail by tossing it out the cockpit window while flying low over our camp. The Catholic fathers, sisters, and brothers of the Nduye and Mambasa missions offered numerous kindnesses. And, of course, the Efe and Lese taught us about their lives.

During each hiatus between our field trips, help from others was vital to continuing our support of the Malembi primary school and clinic. Bryan Curran, who had started working for the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) at Epulu after finishing his research in Malembi, made periodic trips to check on the school and clinic. John and Terese Hart, also of WCS, generously carried cash raised by the Ituri Fund for the school and clinic and dropped it off with Father Silvano in Mambasa on their way to their research site at Epulu. Whenever Kuri or his brother Ngutcha made the long trip from Malembi to Mambasa, Father Silvano would pass the funds on to them and forward the letters they brought for us.

For 15 years we were able to visit and maintain relatively close ties with the Ituri, but the Efe and Lese were getting poorer and more isolated. When the first civil war started in 1996 life got even more precarious, and our direct contact with families in Malembi ceased.

Father Silvano was on leave in Italy when the war started and was unable to return. The nuns were forced to relocate to Goma from Nduye. For the first time in 30 years, the Nduye and Mambasa missions were closed. A peace treaty brokered by Zambia in August 1999 did nothing to reduce the violence, and fighting continued throughout the country.

In August 2002 more than 1,000 Ituri residents sought refuge in the Catholic mission in Mambasa. Father Silvano and other priests of the Order of the Sacred Heart had by this time returned to DRC. By early September troops of the Congolese Rally for Democracy-National (RCD-N) loyal to Roger Lumbala, the self-declared president of Isiro, were moving along the Epulu and Nduye roads toward Mambasa to oust another rebel group, the Congolese Rally for Democracy-Liberation Movement (RCD-ML). Lumbala’s troops were notorious for their brutal conduct. With their allies the Movement for the Liberation of the Congo (MLC) they used raping, killing and looting to gain territory. In October the RCD-N entered Mambasa and for the next four days Lumbala’s troops sacked the town, raped and enslaved women, and killed or brutalized anyone who dissented. This terror was standard practice when a village was taken—a way of paying the soldiers. Father Silvano was arrested but was released unharmed 12 days later. At the same time, rebels raided Nyenkunde, slaughtering doctors, nurses, and patients, destroying the facilities, and closing a hospital that for over 30 years had saved countless lives and trained a new generation of local health care workers.

In Gbadolite on December 31, 2002, the three militia groups agreed to immediately stop all hostilities, but violence has continued to plague the Ituri. It escalated after May 2003 when Uganda began to remove its troops from the area. The war officially ended in July 2003, but renewed hostilities remain a serious risk. The access roads from Mambasa and Mungbere to Malembi are now mere footpaths, making travel long and arduous, even on the best of days in the dry season. both civil wars many families abandoned their villages to aggregate in larger towns with Catholic missions where they hoped they might find greater security. Armed teenagers from unregulated militias now hide out in abandoned villages. Travel by anyone continues to be risky, particularly off the main roads and for non-Congolese who are perceived as rich. This insecurity has prevented the Ituri Fund from returning to Malembi.

Between 1996 and 2001, thanks to the help of Father Silvano and the courage of Kuri and his brother Ngutcha, we were able to transfer funds and continue supporting the school and the clinic. In 2002, Father Silvano asked us to work with a Combonian priest based in Wamba, Father Franco Laudani, who was helping to provide primary schooling in the region. Though Father Laudani has repeatedly been imprisoned by different rebel groups he, remarkably, continues his mission, traveling on foot and by motorcycle to schools he helped rebuild. Today funds for the Malembi school raised by the Ituri Fund are transferred to his mission in Uganda. Father Laudani uses these funds to subsidize the salaries of the primary school teachers, to cover his travel expenses to oversee the Malembi primary schools, and to provide books and other school supplies.

In 2002, a local NGO working to provide health services in the Ituri had begun to provide oversight and support for the Malembi clinic, but since May 2004 we have not been able to determine whether they continue their support. We hope to return to the area once it is safer to travel, and may visit Mambasa in late 2005 or early 2006.

David S. Wilkie and Gilda Morelli help coordinate Cultural Survival’s Ituri Forest Peoples Fund. Morelli is an associate professor of psychology at Boston College and Wilkie works for the Wildlife Conservation Society. Both have over 15 years of research experience in the socio-economic aspects of household-level natural resource use in central and west Africa, and in Central and South America.

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