KYANGWALI, Uganda (Reuters) - Nguna Abooki was getting ready for bed on the evening of Feb. 1 when men with machetes and guns ambushed his village in eastern Congo, killing two of his children and three of his brothers.
“They cut them using pangas. Others were shot,” said Abooki, a 42-year-old fisherman whose words were separated by long pauses as he recalled the violence. “I don’t know why they targeted us.”
Abooki, an ethnic Hema, identified the attackers as members of the Lendu ethnic group, farmers who have clashed with Hema herders over cattle grazing rights, crops and gold mining in the Ituri region.
After 15 years of relative peace, there has been a surge in violence between Lendu and Hema this year, driven in part by a breakdown of government authority. President Joseph Kabila’s refusal leave power at the end of his mandate in 2016 has undermined the legitimacy of the state in the eyes of many Congolese.
Ituri was one of the places where Congo’s civil war began in 1998, sucking in troops from Uganda and Rwanda, fuelling a 5-year conflict in which about 5 million people were killed, mostly from hunger and disease.
With a resurgence of ethnic strife in the region, and a large refugee exodus of Hema to Uganda, there are fears of history repeating itself, experts say.
The International Criminal Court has convicted warlords from both sides of the Ituri fighting, but that has not prevented further violence.
Clashes between Lendu and Hema since February have left at least 70 people dead and forced more than 60,000 to flee, bringing the total number of Congolese refugees in Uganda to over a quarter of a million.
After gruelling journeys, the refugees are starting to share their stories. Seven refugees interviewed by Reuters have given some of the first accounts of mass killings they said had been carried out by Lendu fighters.
Abooki’s journey to Uganda began immediately after seeing his family members slaughtered. In the confusion of the attack, he and his wife escaped but were separated in the darkness. Fearing for his life, he caught a boat across Lake Albert into Uganda and arrived the following morning.
The route across the 40-km (25-mile) wide lake has become a well-worn but treacherous path: four refugees died when their overloaded canoe capsized in February. Lendu fighters have attacked Hema as they fled for the lake, refugees said.
The United Nations refugee agency UNHCR expects 200,000 refugees to reach Uganda from Ituri this year.
On arrival in Uganda, refugees are processed in a former fish-weighing station on the banks of the lake. They are then bussed 30 km (20 miles) through dense forest and a wildlife reserve to the Kyangwali refugee camp, 240 km (150 miles) northwest of the Ugandan capital, Kampala.
Their feet are sprayed with disinfectant before they are allowed to enter the camp, whose ground has been churned to mud by heavy rains. Clean water and food are hard to come by. In the last two months, 32 refugees have died from acute diarrhoea, the UNHCR said.
For the refugees interviewed by Reuters at the camp, it is still better than home.
Lendu groups typically attack Hema villages shortly after dusk. They come with guns, machetes, axes and bows and arrows, refugees said. Homes are torched.
For days, Jombu Musingo, 58, from Kakwa village, slept in the bush to evade attackers after they killed his parents and a dozen family members.
“People have been killed. Houses have been burnt. People who have been killed, their bones are lying about outside. Dogs are eating them,” Musingo said.
Meanwhile state authority in Congo has collapsed, leaving thousands without protection. The refugees interviewed by Reuters all said that the Congolese military were unable or unwilling to help.
A Congolese government spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
Soldiers tell the Hema that they do not have ammunition to defend them against Lendu attacks, and instead encourage Hema communities to flee, refugees said. Troops also run at the sight of Lendu marauders, they said.
“When you run to them for protection, they also run and leave you,” said Elisha Baby, 22, a fisherman from Bajere in Ituri, referring to the Congolese military. “They say here there’s going to be a big war.”
Writing by Edward McAllister; Editing by Ed Cropley and Giles Elgood