In remote part of Congo, normalcy inches forward

Rebels have till noon Tuesday to leave Bunia so that a new commission can continue rebuilding.

In an old Greek restaurant next to the United Nation's headquarters here, Emmanuel Leku Apuobo, a former schoolteacher, leans forward and begins listing the work ahead.

There are refugees to resettle; schools, hospitals, and courts to rebuild; immigration and customs to be restarted; child soldiers rehabilitated and militias disarmed. There are, he says, 20,000 former civil servants in the Ituri district of Congo alone, waiting for peace and the chance to begin work again.

After nearly four years of civil war, this is a region that, as one longtime aid worker put it, has had "no demonstrable sign of government for years." Mr. Apuobo's unenviable job, as the head of Ituri's new interim administration, is to bring order to that chaos.

"Nothing has been very easy," sighs Apuobo. "The difficulty is with the armed groups who want to control Bunia [Ituri's main city]. One says, 'I want to control this part,' and the other says, 'I want to control that part.' While they're still fighting, we can't do much of anything."

Last December, most parties in this complicated war signed a peace treaty. But here in Ituri, in the far eastern part of the country, separated from neighboring Uganda by a sliver of Lake Albert, the bloodshed has continued almost unabated. Control of Bunia has changed hands at least eight times since the war began in August 1998, twice this year alone.

The conflict here has been one of Congo's most brutal and entrenched, driven by foreign greed and ethnic hatreds. Several of the main combatant groups, including the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC), which now controls Bunia, are not signatories to the main peace agreement. So as the peace process moved forward 1,200 miles away in capital, Kinshasa, it became clear that Ituri would need a separate peace deal.

The result is the Ituri Pacification Commission (IPC), a 177-person body representing most of the major players here, including armed and political groups, civil society, the UN, and the new Kinshasa government. Inaugurated on April 14, the IPC created Apuobo's administration and a 32-member assembly, and gave them the task of rebuilding Ituri.

"We are working to prepare for the unification of the country," says Pétronille Vaweka, the assembly president, as she leans against what was once the restaurant's old bar. "It is one step towards what we all want, which is to be part of the Congo again."

Suddenly, Ms. Vaweka's cellphone rings, and she fishes it from her handbag. The technological revolution came two months ago to this city of burned-out, looted buildings that last saw running water and postal service more than five years ago. Although the instability has forced many IPC members to take refuge in the restaurant, cellphones are their lifeline to the outside world. "We stay in touch with NGOs, with educators, and with our members in other cities."

The first sign of change in Ituri came at Bunia's airport, which is now controlled by the UN. A small man with an IPC badge began politely asking new arrivals for their passport and $30. It has long been the practice here that whichever armed group controlled a region raised money by running immigration and customs. The IPC wants to assert its authority - and raise funds - by taking over these duties.

Ituri is rich with minerals, oil, timber, and other resources. Underneath the city, stretching for 50,000 miles, lies what may be the world's richest gold reef. Though the mines are officially closed, the gold still dug by hand and finds its way eastward to Uganda. It leaves in the pockets of Congolese businessmen who pay a 10 percent tax to whichever rebel group controls the city; or in airplanes belonging to Ugandan military officers, who at various times have armed most of the rebel groups here. The IPC would like to collect that tax, or better yet, restart the mines, but a different rebel group from the one that controls the city now controls the mines.

Work the IPC does is soon undone by the shifting security situation. It tried to reopen the schools, which had closed after fighting in May. But on June 7, the weekend before classes were supposed to resume, fierce fighting broke out in downtown Bunia, and the plans were abandoned.

The IPC hopes the arrival of a French-led multilateral peacekeeping force earlier this month will bring at least temporary stability to Bunia. If the French successfully demilitarize the city - it set a deadline of noon Tuesday for all gunmen to leave town - the commission hopes it can reopen schools and begin sending home the 10,000 refugee families still living in two UN camps.

But the IPC has been in an escalating power struggle with Thomas Lubanga, the leader of the UPC, who likes to portray himself as the savior of Bunia.

"When the UPC came to the help of the population of Bunia, many people called the UPC 'Moses,' " he said in an interview last week. "Some people accuse us of fighting for this area's riches, but our aim is to pacify Ituri. Our aim is to cooperate with the democratic government."

Despite his words of reconciliation, Mr. Lubanga has consistently undermined the IPC's work. He has refused to remove his soldiers from the street, saying they are military police bringing order to the lawless city. Monday, he told Reuters that most of his men had left the city while an unspecified number would remain on. Last week, he tried to appoint his own mayor to replace the one installed by the IPC.

Even if security is brought to Bunia, that is only one small part of Ituri. Nor will the UN peacekeepers stay forever. Lubanga has previously indicated that, if forced to leave the city, he would simply move his troops outside until the international community left.

As he reclines at headquarters, under the smile of a chubby image of Zeus, Apuobo tries to remain optimistic about his task. On paper, there are lots of plans, but until security comes, Apuobo's power, like that of the Greek god above him, is mythological.

"Almost two months now," he says, "we have been here ... waiting for the arrival of the international force. We were supposed to be able to do more than just count the bodies."

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