June 18, 2019 / 4:13 PM / a month ago

Survivors recall horror of Congo ethnic attacks

BUNIA, Democratic Republic of Congo (Reuters) - Machete-wielding attackers descended on Esther Nzale’s village in northeastern Congo eight days ago around 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 kilometers (eight miles) 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.

Civil society groups said the resurgent violence in Ituri province, long a flashpoint for ethnic tensions in Democratic Republic of Congo’s volatile east, had killed at least 240 people since last week, and they expect the toll to rise.

More than 300,000 others have fled their homes, according to the United Nations.

The violence has reawakened painful memories of clashes between Hema and Lendu from 1999-2007 that 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, though local militias continued to battle government forces and prey on the local population.

Fighting between Hema and Lendu flared again in late 2017 and early 2018, killing about 300 people before a fragile calm returned.

But last week four Lendu traders were killed in attacks the community blamed on the Hema, which locals say sparked off the latest violence.

Nzale fled Kpatsi 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.

In the nearby village of Tche, 161 bodies were found in a single mass grave.

“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 John Stonestreet

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