Congo aid workers terrorised by rampaging militia

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The Independent Online

In Bunia, safety costs $1,000 (£600) per head. That is the impossible sum drunken soldiers demanded from a Congolese aid worker after crashing through his door two nights ago.

When he refused, the four men present were pinned to the floor and thrashed with rifle butts for six hours. One was almost shot. Meanwhile the man's 16-year-old niece - who had taken refuge in the house - was shoved into another room and repeatedly raped.

"It was unbearable, because I could do nothing," said the man, who works in the UN hospital, from a safe house yesterday. With his weltered arm resting in a sling, he requested anonymity for fear of reprisals. "They could come and finish the job," he said.

Bunia, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, is a cauldron of brutality, intimidation and abuse. Last month more than 430 civilians were butchered in ethnic massacres in the town, where a French-led contingent of 1,400 peace-keepers, some of them British, is due to deploy this week. Some remains were eaten by packs of stray dogs, others apparently cannibalised.

These days a Hema militia is in charge, and Bunia's half-empty streets are rife with looting, rape, death threats and extortion. The culprits are the gunmen who carried out the killing. At least 60 per cent of the Hema militiamen are children, the UN estimates.

Now Congolese aid workers appear to be targeted, probably for their hard currency pay packets. In recent nights a Red Cross worker and two local staff with the UN mission were attacked. Four other Red Cross workers have been murdered since March. "They are being disproportionately attacked," said a UN spokesman, Madnodje Mounoubai.

The 700 Uruguayan troops stationed in Bunia do not intervene to prevent attacks, instead remaining inside their armoured vehicles or fortified compounds. Despairing locals pray that the French-led force, which may be led by the Foreign Legion and will have orders to shoot, will bring security.

Wrapping a fresh bandage on a teenage girl's machete wound, Damien Rukwiza, a nurse, said: "We are waiting for them impatiently. Can't you call them so they come now?"

Bad as they are, Bunia's abuses probably pale compared with what is happening elsewhere. This week UN helicopters flew over at least three burning villages. Fearful for their lives, UN troops and aid workers dare not venture beyond the outskirts of town. "I am afraid to think of what is happening outside Bunia," said Sonia Bakar, a senior UN human rights investigator.

Many believe the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC), the ruthless Hema militia controlling Bunia, must disarm to bring peace. But at a press conference in Bunia's only functioning restaurant yesterday, the UPC leader, Thomas Lubanga, defiantly refused to lay down arms. He said: "If necessary my forces will return to base to help the multinational force. But we will not allow them to disarm us."

Then Mr Lubanga berated journalists, saying the conflict in Ituri province had been badly "misunderstood" by the international community. But observers in Bunia say Mr Lubanga and his cronies should be tried for war crimes. "This is like the killing fields again. It's Pol Pot resurrected," said one worker, who declined to be named.

Meanwhile, fighting continues to rage in the inaccessible rural areas. Yesterday a Hema group claimed that Lendu fighters massacred 350 civilians in the nearby lakeside town of Tchomia. A UN official in neighbouring Uganda said the toll should not be trusted. He said: "Congo has a history of manipulation. Everyone exaggerates the figures; it's part of the game. They know how difficult it is for us to investigate."

Back in Bunia, fear of a Lendu attack is growing but business is crawling back to life. A butcher's shop beside a mass grave was, perhaps insensitively, named "Butchers without Borders". More appropriately, on the main street the Café de la Paix was boarded up after being looted. The owner, an elderly Belgian called Kless, fled weeks ago, the men lounging on the steps explained. One added: "He came here in 1975. But I have no idea when he's coming back."