Extermination of the pygmies

Deep in the Congolese jungle, rebel groups are united only in their desire to wipe out the Bambuti. Their weapons include murder, mass rape and cannibalism, reports Anne Penketh
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The Independent Online

The attackers come after darkness falls, making their way through thick jungle in search of the pygmy settlements. Then the horror begins. "They started killing people and eating them ... I saw them cutting up human flesh, then they were putting it on a fire to grill it. I got scared and ran away, not knowing what else happened behind me."

The attackers come after darkness falls, making their way through thick jungle in search of the pygmy settlements. Then the horror begins. "They started killing people and eating them ... I saw them cutting up human flesh, then they were putting it on a fire to grill it. I got scared and ran away, not knowing what else happened behind me."

Those are the words of Amuzati N., a Bambuti pygmy who escaped a massacre by a rebel group in Democratic Republic of Congo, the scene of the conflict known as Africa's "first world war" because of the number of parties involved in the struggle for the mineral-rich country.

His testimony, and that of other members of the Bambuti in eastern and northern Congo, prompted a human rights group in Britain to submit evidence yesterday to the International Criminal Court accusing the rebel groups of a "campaign of extermination" of the Bambuti pygmies. Ugandan and Rwandan-backed rebels are accused of mass killings, cannibalism and systematic rape in the pygmy communities, who are believed to be the original inhabitants of the equatorial forests.

Such crimes against humanity, which have been recorded since 1998, "continue up to the present", said Mark Lattimer, the director of Minority Rights Group International, whose group formally filed a report to the court based in The Hague. Eyewitness accounts contained in his 30-page report say that the rebels have deliberately targeted the Bambuti pygmies, who are considered "subhuman" or dismissed as beggars and thieves by other ethnic groups.

One of the groups accused of the atrocities, the Ugandan-backed Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC), is part of the transitional government that emerged as the result of a 2003 peace accord.

Reports of cannibalism in the Democratic Republic of Congo first surfaced in May last year. Eyewitness testimonies were rare. But the horrific accounts in the latest report leave no doubt as to the scale of the problem - and crucially, explain why such atrocities are happening.

Mr Lattimer said: "The pygmies are threatened with being eaten as a weapon of war to get them to leave the area." Also, their attackers believe that by consuming the flesh of a pygmy they are conferring magical powers on themselves, while they are also targeted because they are suspected of collaborating with the Mai-Mai, who have fought on different sides in the long-running war. In some cases too, the Bambuti have been abducted and forced to act as trailfinders by armed groups, leading to retaliation by rival forces.

Mr Lattimer, working with the Réseau des Associations Autochtones Pygmées du Congo, led a month-long research mission to the area in January, during which more than 80 interviews were taped with the victims or witnesses of atrocities against the pygmies.

His investigation found that from October 2002 to January 2003, combined rebel forces ran an operation in Ituri province code-named "Effacer le tableau" (wiping the slate clean). The aim, according to survivors, was to rid the jungle of the Congolese pygmy population, estimated to total about 90,000 in the eastern region.

"It was in the night around 8pm, when people began to fall asleep," said Sumbula R., who survived a massacre by armed men in military clothes in the village of Mbuluku. "Once they were sure the village was asleep, they attacked and started to shoot and kill.

"They started shooting at all those who tried to escape. One ran this way, they shot him. Another ran that way, they shot her - even the women.

"They captured the young children, gathered them and held them until daylight. Then they put some of them in a mortar and pounded them to death. They destroyed the huts and set them on fire. The people were also burned."

Pindjaone B., from the same village, was already hiding in the forest with her husband and mother when four soldiers came across them. "They started to push us around and to intimidate us, asking for goat meat. We said we were not able to find that sort of thing. They said that was good because we were people with powers, people who could heal illnesses. That if we didn't have meat they could eat us and they would get the power.

"Then they asked my husband several times to sleep with my mother in order that they could see our power. They beat him but he refused to do it. Then they raped my mother and me, one after the other, each by two of them.

"Afterwards they asked my husband to sleep with me in front of them to see how we make love. After strong threats and blows my husband finally accepted and we did it in front of my mother and in front of them. It was horrible."

Some Congolese believe that back pain or other ailments can be cured by sleeping with Bambuti women, which has been given as an explanation for rape, but the report charges that the high incidence of rape and the systematic use of mass rape constitute a crime against humanity.

Cecile N. from the region of North Kivu, was one of nine Bambuti women chopping firewood when about 20 rebel soldiers from the Rwandan-backed RCD-Goma appeared, armed with rifles and knives. She said that after orders from their commander: "The soldiers raped us in turn; at least two or three soldiers for one woman."

Minority Rights Group International is calling for a full investigation by the International Criminal Court into "persecution, extermination and other crimes against humanity" against the Bambuti population, with a view to prosecuting those responsible.

The prosecutor, Luis Moreno Ocampo, announced last month that he intended to investigate crimes committed in the Democratic Republic of Congo, focusing on the Ituri war, in which an estimated 60,000 people have been killed. Mr Lattimer's group wants him to include the fate of the Bambuti in his investigation. The groups identified by the report include the MLC of the Vice-President, Jean-Pierre Bemba, who was one of four vice-presidents sworn in as a result of the peace accords intended to end the five-year war - the second to tear the country apart since the overthrow of the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko.

Mr Lattimer said yesterday: "The perpetrators of these crimes should be pursued and punished, no matter how high their office." But the report makes it clear that various rebel groups in the eastern region can be blamed for the attacks on the Bambuti, who are vulnerable because of the location of their villages in the jungle and their knowledge of forest paths and hunting skills.

"Institutional disregard for the rights of the Bambuti and the lack of seriousness with which complaints of abuse are treated, have meant that all armed groups in the eastern DRC have been able to prey on Bambuti villages with impunity, looting and raping at will," the report says. "Where the Bambuti have been forcibly displaced from their villages, they have frequently had to live for prolonged periods unprotected in the forest, exposed to wild animals, disease and starvation."

Until now, attempts to seek redress from Congolese authorities have been in vain. "The Bambuti victims or witnesses of human rights abuses committed by the RCD-Goma universally report that redress was unobtainable," the report continues. "Complaints were never taken seriously. Reports of abuses were either dismissed out of hand, were never investigated, or the complainant was never informed of any outcome."

In addition, many victims were too afraid to report the abuses, or held back because the local authorities were themselves responsible for the attacks.

An MLC representative now serving in the transitional parliament in Kinshasa yesterday defended the group against the accusations of atrocities in Ituri province, which have occurred since the International Criminal Court came into effect on 1 July 2002. "Those who were accused of taking part in cannibalism or massacres were transported to Gbadolite where they were judged before a court and the media," Thomas Luhaka told Reuters, without giving details of any convictions or sentences.

He added: "If there are individuals who committed crimes and are called to appear before the ICC, the MLC will not protect them. What we don't want, however, is for foreign or national actors to use this as a political card against the MLC."

It remains to be seen whether the international court will take up the petition from the human rights campaigners, although Mr Ocampo has privately indicated that he would favour broadening his investigation to include the Bambuti. Because of the continuing unrest in the eastern region, which has gone on despite the peace accords, the prosecutor has, however, indicated that it would be difficult to start his investigation until October.

In the meantime, there are other tools that governments could use to stop the atrocities, particularly by exerting financial pressure on the recipients of development aid from western countries. "Uganda and Rwanda are strategic allies of the UK Government. The British Government writes very, very large cheques for them and should make sure that it obtains absolute assurances that none of that money is used to fund intervention in Congo," Mr Lattimer said.

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