Law's Reach

Now serving 5 million people: With single courthouse

June 4, 2004


BUNIA, Congo (AP) _ Nights at the Uruguayan U.N. military camp. Days in a courthouse surrounded by barbed wire, with U.N. peacekeepers on guard outside. Death threats all the time.

This is life for the small team of judges and prosecutors dispatched here from Congo's distant capital to help restore the rule of law _ and central government authority _ to a tense region still ruled by the gun in the wake of a five-year war.

Their means: A single courthouse serving 5 million people in the vast northeastern district of Ituri.

"It's not enough, but it's a start," said chief prosecutor Chris Aberi, one of 12 judicial officials who constitute the government's sole presence in this small, wild-east town of dirt roads, crumbling buildings and rampant poverty.

Troubles in Ituri started brewing in 1998, when this stretch of dense forests and rock-strewn hills was nominally taken over by Ugandan- and Rwandan-backed rebels who seized much of the northeast.

The rebels' weak authority allowed long-standing ethnic feuds to boil over in a separate conflict in 1999 between rival Hema and Lendu ethnic militias that's seen 50,000 people killed since.

Congo's war officially ended in 2002, but the transitional government serving until planned 2005 elections is still struggling to regain control over the vast nation.

President Joseph Kabila's administration suffered back-to-back crises this week when renegade commanders seized the eastern city of Bukavu on Wednesday, setting off riots in the capital Thursday that saw at least two protesters killed by U.N. forces. The violent demonstrations resumed Friday despite the renegades' promise to pull out of Bukavu, south of Bunia.

In Ituri, violence has grown ever more brutal over the last several years, worsened by struggles to control the region's mineral wealth. In 2003, massacres and reported cannibalism drew world condemnation and a French-led intervention force.

The United Nations took over the peacekeeping mission in Ituri late last year. Increasing its strength to 4,800 troops, the United Nations has expanded operations to several towns outside Bunia and detaining dozens of militia leaders allegedly responsible for planning massacres and other killings.

But with no mandate to try them, the U.N. workers looked to Kinshasa _ and urged the government to establish a presence here to do the job itself.

In mid-January, Congo's government restaffed the Bunia courthouse for the first time since May 2003.

"When we got here, we found a widespread climate of impunity" had taken root, said chief judge Jean Ekabela, whose predecessor was detained last year by a local militia, the Union of Congolese Patriots _ a move that effectively closed the court.

"When anybody with a gun can do just about anything, justice doesn't mean much in the eyes of the people," told The Associated Press at his office inside the newly reopened courthouse, a single-story building surrounded by coils of concertina wire.

Outside, U.N. troops in white Humvees eyed passers-by from behind machine guns, inspecting those who entered. Blue-helmeted peacekeepers manned sandbag fortresses in the middle of traffic circles.

Some people said things were changing for the better, with the public beginning to respect the magistrates.

"People are starting to fear them," Issa Pirmohamed, a local businessman, said. "They've seen militia leaders arrested, and now they're starting to see them tried. It's a good sign."

But other Bunia residents have given the magistrates from Congo's distant west a cold welcome, deriding them as "Djadjambo," or foreigners, Ekabela said.

After work, they are all escorted home to several houses perched in the middle of a dusty, heavily guarded military camp for flak-jacketed Uruguayan peacekeepers. They rarely leave, Aberi said.

The court relies heavily on U.N. troops, who are holding about 70 militia detainees at several U.N. bases in Bunia, to do its enforcing.

The shortcomings of the 260-strong local police force, which has neither vehicles nor weapons, were apparent in April, when 36 prisoners escaped from a lightly guarded jail.

Despite the obstacles, judges have issued over a dozen verdicts in cases involving rape, murder, robbery and the illegal possession of arms.

The first trial of real significance _ that of a militia leader named Matthieu Ngundjolo _ got under way in April amid repeated protests by his supporters.

Though no violence has been reported, the head of U.N. operations in Ituri, Dominique McAdams, said such high-profile trials should be held elsewhere in Congo for security reasons.

By trying militia leaders locally, "you put everybody in jeopardy, the entire justice staff," McAdams said during an interview at U.N. headquarters. "You have to be realistic. Here, you don't have peace yet."

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.