The violence in the Ituri region of the Democratic Republic of Congo went beyond economics and ethnicity, historian Gerard Prunier told the court on Friday in the continuing trial of accused militia leader Thomas Lubanga.
Responding to a question from Judge Elizabeth Odio Benito, Prunier said the conflict began as an economic one, but quickly evolved into an ethnic one.
“Ethnicity plays a very strong role in African societies,” Prunier explained, “and that can easily be manipulated for all kinds of reasons.”
Prunier said he first saw an ethnic conflict spin out of control in Rwanada, where there were numerous cases of Hutus killing other Hutus.
“The taboo against murder is strong in most societies,” Prunier told the court. “But when you have a leader who tells his people it is okay to kill their enemy, to kill the other ethnicity, that taboo is lifted. Eventually, they kill so much that they don’t know who they’re killing, and the leader loses control.”
This was the case in Ituri in 2002 and 2003, he said.
Prosecutor Nicole Sampson asked if the Lendu and Ntigi peoples were the only groups attacking the Hema during this time. The Union of Congolese Patriots, led by Lubanga, claimed to represent the interests of the Hema people.
“No,” Prunier replied. “Everyone was killing everyone.”
Ethnic allegiances also played some role in the Ugandan involvement in the conflict, he explained. Prunier said some commanders in the Ugandan army believed they had ethnic ties to the Hema people, and this contributed to their willingness to assist them.
In 1999, the Hema also offered the Ugandans shares in cattle grazed on land stolen from the Lendu people, he said. This led to a system of “trafficking cattle” between the DRC and Uganda. But the alliance between the Hema and the Ugandans did not stick, because there was very little central leadership in the Ugandan army.
“At various points, the leadership in Kampala (Uganda) had no idea what the Ugandan officers were doing on the ground, and sometimes Ugandan commanders had no idea what their soldiers were doing either.”
Prunier’s testimony was followed by a re-examination of Wednesday’s witness by Prosecutor Manoj Sachdeva. This witness will appear in court again next week.