The truth behind the cannibals of Congo

Eliza Griswold discovers how an astonishing story became even more chilling than claimed

Amuzati Nzoli, the world's most famous pygmy, sits on a rock and crosses his diminutive arms. Despite the heat, he's wearing a red balaclava. We are in his village of Luemba - a clearing in the 20,000 square mile Ituri Forest. Amuzati refuses to tell his story unless he's paid.

Amuzati Nzoli, the world's most famous pygmy, sits on a rock and crosses his diminutive arms. Despite the heat, he's wearing a red balaclava. We are in his village of Luemba - a clearing in the 20,000 square mile Ituri Forest. Amuzati refuses to tell his story unless he's paid.

The story, as I've heard it, is that he watched a group of rebel soldiers cook and eat his family in 2002: "They even sprinkled salt on the flesh as they ate, as if cannibalism was all very natural to them," he said at the time.

His account - and the sensation it caused - helped to mobilise the international community. The United Nations Security Council denounced the "cannibal rebels" and sent a peacekeeping force.

The uneasy peace across much of the country after five years of civil war is largely a myth. This corner of northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has had no functioning government since the Congo became independent in 1960. The only real law is an AK-47.

In the autumn of 2002, two of the rebel groups began a campaign of looting, rape, and murder throughout the Ituri forest. The soldiers fanned out for miles and burned everything in their wake. As a reward, they were promised four days of unbridled looting and rape, including the rape of children.

Soldiers even wore T-shirts emblazoned with the operation's name, "Effacer le Tableau" (clean the slate). The pygmies fled the Ituri forest for the first time in history. Amuzati and his clan have only recently returned.

"I'm leaving," I say. Amuzati backs down. His story is free, he says, but not photographs. Apparently, another photographer made Amuzati pose for hours with his bow and arrow as an army of fire ants marched over his body.

In this patch of Ituri, deforestation has driven most of the animals out of the pygmies' reach. They barter with farmers for food. "It's easy to cheat them," one man told me. Pygmies are excellent hunters but haven't yet learned the value of meat. They'll trade 10 gazelles for one T-shirt.

I ask Amuzati exactly what he saw in the clearing the day his family was massacred.

"They were cutting them the way they cut meat," he tells me. Amuzati watched as his mother, Mutandi, his younger sister, Salam, his older brother, Mangbulu, and his nephew, 5- or 6-year-old Zipoa, were dismembered by rebel soldiers.

Amuzati says he never saw anyone eaten, although he's certain that's what happened after he ran off into the jungle.

Every time his story is repeated he says, it gets more lurid. For pygmies, who occupy the lowest rung on DRC's social scale, Amuzati has become a hero.

Thanks to his newfound fame, he was flown to the capital Kinshasa to meet President Joseph Kabila. He loved the city; people outnumbered trees. He fell in with a group of prostitutes he calls his girlfriends. Thanks to the war, deforestation, and visitors like me, the pygmy's nomadic days are over. It occurs to me that, like everyone else in the forest, Amuzati and his clansmen might want guns to protect themselves. Amuzati looks aghast when I suggest this. "It would be a big mistake to give us guns - the Bantu would definitely kill us if they thought that we could kill them," he says.

Instead, Amuzati demands new shirts, shorts and shoes. I ask the other pygmies if they care as much about clothes. "We never used to, but we want to be like everyone else," one says. Their chief, Kabila, (no relation to the President) says: "By the next generation, the pygmies who don't wear clothes will be gone."

How, I ask Amuzati, did his story reach the world? A Catholic bishop named Melchisedec Sikuli Paluku, he says. I go to meet the Bishop in the town of Butembo.

He is a squat and sombre man who has grown both wary and weary of the press. For him, interviews are a devil's bargain. He trades his story in return for mediaattention for his waning human rights campaign. Since 2002, he has been loudly decrying rebel groups waging war in DRC. Recently, under a peace deal with the government, the rebels have been taking government posts. Despite their newfound legitimacy, the bishop continues to accuse them of cannibalism.

"Bemba's men were cutting fingers and ears off," he tells me. "That was normal. But when they started feeding them to the prisoners - that was something new."

"What's more serious is that the informants were saying that the pygmies were being eaten," he says. "I am called the bishop of war," he told me, smiling slightly. Because of his refusal to back down, he's made enemies among DRC's warlords. Impunity is the order of the day, killing a meddlesome bishop would be nothing out of the ordinary.

Suddenly the rebels were headed his way, 150,000 civilians, including pygmies, fled south. When the hordes of displaced and traumatised people arrivedin the bishop's town, they warned him of the impending fury. But there was little he could do. So he turned to the international press. As his story caught the world's attention, the other atrocities associated with "Effacer le Tableau" - most notably charges of mass rape - largely escaped the media's notice.

"Out of all that, one word came out: 'Cannibalism,'" the bishop said. "I was very surprised that people focused on the cannibalism, because I had said 'grave violations of human rights'."

As the bishop's charges of cannibalism exploded in the international press, the United Nations sent a team to investigate. The rebels retreated for a time, the power of the word seemed to halt the war.

But not for long. To the north, surrounding the town of Bunia, charges of cannibalism have been added to the long list of atrocities between two ethnic groups: the Hema and the Lendu. The war between them is rooted in tribal divisions created by the Belgians.

When the colonialists left in the Sixties, the region's now 150,000 Hema (typically tall, Nilotic herders, akin to Rwanda's Tutsis) took over their plantations. But the land had historically belonged to the roughly 750,000 Lendu farmers (stereotypically, shorter agriculturalists.) Newly discovered oil has made the fight between the Hema and the Lendu worse. Both want the potentially lucrative land rights and their fighting is stoked by neighbouring Uganda.

In the past five years, more than 50,000 people have been killed in Ituri. Many more are massacred and buried. Some survive and are held captive beyond the UN's reach.

One survivor, Vivienne Nyamutale, 30, tells me she was a prisoner of Lendu fighters for 75 days. "I was taken as the fourth wife of the fetish chief, Chief Abele," she says.

On five separate occasions before the Lendu fighters attacked a Hema village, Vivienne says, Hema men were brought before the crowd, cooked, and eaten by the fighters. Finally, after one massacre, she escaped. Vivienne is one of a handful of women who tell me about rape camps farther along the Fataki road where we found two dead men.

Then I meet Chantal Tsesi. Draping a green batik cloth over her left shoulder, Chantal, 24, says that at 5am on 27 August, 2002, she awoke to gunfire in the gold-mining town of Mabanga-Gélé. She was alone with her 6-year-old son, Claude, as men armed with machetes entered her house.

"Today we are going to cut off your arm so you can't prepare mandro [traditional beer]" they said. She tells me: "They cut off my arm. They cooked it, while they were drinking our mandro, and ate it with the rest of the beans and rice." Claude had escaped with relatives. Then, she says flatly: "They told me they were going to find my husband and eat his heart."

After the attack, Chantal spent three months in the Drodro Hospital, where later the patients were killed bed by bed. Then her husband abandoned her because she can no longer work.

In the village, Chantal's mother, Eliza Dz'da, lived with another daughter, Georgette and her four children. All of them, Eliza says, were killed. "We had a shed and they tore it down to build the fire. They took our food and cooked pieces of Georgette and the children," she tells me.

Both Eliza and Chantal say they're not interested in vengeance. "God says that if someone does something bad to you, you must forgive him," Chantal says. Eliza says: "I've always lived with the Lendu, because they've always worked for us. When they came to work on the farm, they ate with us, and at the end of the day, we gave them money."

At a distance, their desire to forgive seems inexplicable. Up close, amid the fatigue of the war, it's easier to understand.

But the idea of forgiveness and its reality are two very different things. To try to get beyond the ethnic divisions stitched through every story, I go to see Petronille Vaweka, president of the Special Assembly of Ituri. She doesn't doubt the stories. "You can't hide it, the Lendu kill," she says. "So do the Hema, but they kill in secret. Now in this war, with drugs, they cook people and eat them. No one can lie - both sides have eaten each other."

In a conflict over land, gold, and oil, cannibalism as a crime of war seems to have entered the 21st century. No doubt, elements of both myth and magic play a role in the accounts. Rumours of cannibalism do much the same thing as the act itself: They terrify. That terror becomes its own form of psychological warfare.

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