Torture, murder and cannibalism: how two UN men died in Congo

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The Independent Online

Death, when it came, must have been a relief for the two UN soldiers. Stationed at an isolated gold mine in war-racked Ituri province, they were supposed to be observing peace yet fell victim to some of the worst horrors of war in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

When the bodies of Major Safwat Oran of Jordan and Captain Siddon Davis Banda of Malawi were finally recovered, their UN colleagues were aghast. Their corpses were covered in cigarette burns, shot in the head and had their sexual organs cut off.

The circumstances of the murders in Ituri, northeastern Congo, last month are still under UN investigation. But details are emerging. They will give pause for thought to the 1,400 troops, some of them British, many of them French, due to deploy this week to rescue the blighted UN mission.

On 6 May a vicious battle erupted in Bunia, 40 miles to the south, the prized town at the heart of Ituri's ethnic cauldron. Militiamen from the Hema and Lendu tribes drew blood with guns, knives, spears and poisoned arrows. Within a week, more than 430 people would die.

A week later Mongbwalu, a once thriving but now desolate gold-mining centre, was still calm. But the townspeople, also fearing an attack, began to flee. So did the two UN military observers, according to a local aid worker who helped recover their bodies. Major Oran and Capt Davis Banda sent a radio message to their superiors in Kisangani, 400 miles to the west across a swathe of impenetrable bush. Later in the day, they were carrying their bags from their house - once home to the Belgian mine boss - when Lendu fighters tackled them. Accusing them of collaborating with the Hema, they carried them off. The two soldiers were never again seen alive.

The following Sunday night a helicopter carrying their remains flew into Bunia airport using car headlights as a guide. A Belgian priest, Father Joe Deneckere, was there. "The smell was truly awful. It remained with me for days afterwards," he said yesterday.

King Abdullah II of Jordan sent a special plane to Kinshasa to recover Major Oran's body; Capt Davis Banda was returned to Malawi aboard a UN flight. A horrified UN condemned the "savage" killings of its observers, whose severed sexual organs - according to some reports the hearts and livers were also missing - raised the possibility of cannibalism.

During the battle for Bunia, some victims' remains were badly mutilated; some fighters wore penises and kidneys around their necks as magic amulets. Last December, during fighting for control of Mambasa, there were 12 confirmed cases of cannibalism, UN investigators said.

Soldiers from the Movement for the Liberation of Congo, led by a mobile phone entrepreneur turned warlord, Jean-Pierre Bemba, forced villagers to eat the remains of their slain neighbours. In one case a mother had to consume her son's arm; in another a pregnant woman was cut open and her foetus eaten.

Did the two UN peacekeepers die in vain? The first UN mission to Congo in 1960 saw UN troops lob shells on hostile cities and led to the death in a plane crash of the UN Secretary General, Dag Hammarskjold. It was an unmitigated disaster. This one is not much better.

Since its inception in 1999, the $2 million a day mission to Congo - known under its French acronym, MONUC - has been "a long, bad story", according to the analyst François Grignon. Lukewarm international interest is to blame, but so are naivety and ineptitude.

Of the planned deployment of 8,700 troops, only about 5,000 are on the ground. Western nations are reluctant to contribute troops so the majority of those in place hail from poor countries such as Uruguay, Morocco and Senegal.

As a result, unarmed observers such as Major Oran and Capt Davis Banda find themselves stationed in isolated villages without the backup of the hundreds of troops supposed to be protecting them.

A much-touted disarmament and repatriation programme for Rwandan Hutu fighters has painfully crawled forward. During the first attempted disarmament, in the southern town of Kamina, the Hutu fighters raided a nearby Congolese government arsenal and shot their way into the surrounding bush. Of 2,000 Hutus, just 670 returned to Rwanda, the remainder being still on the run.

Another disarmament centre was set up in Lubero, far from any significant centre of Hutu fighters. The centre, which cost $100,000 a week and is now closed, finally repatriated a few dozen Hutus. "It was a fiasco," one disarmament officer admitted.

Of the estimated 10,000 to 15,000 Hutu combatants in Congo, between 600 and 700 have been disarmed. In Bunia, a weak and confusing mandate fused with a foreseeably volatile situation to explosive effect during last month's Bunia massacres. During the killings the 700 Uruguayan troops cowered behind their razor-wire compound, outraging aid workers and some townspeople. Although their main task is to protect UN personnel and bases, MONUC soldiers are also mandated to protect civilians in "immediate danger".

A UN spokesman said yesterday: "If they [the Uruguayans] hear gunfire within their range of action they will intervene." When asked to define "range of action", he answered: "I can't answer that." Later, a frustrated UN soldier explained: "If I see someone being hacked to death in front of me I'm authorised to open fire. But if it happens around the corner, and I can hear it, am I authorised to go and look?"

The killings were triggered by the withdrawal of 6,000 Ugandan troops, following concerted international pressure from as high as the office of the UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan. But despite local warnings of possible carnage, a robust force to fill the vacuum was not sent.

For now the only British officer in Bunia is a Scot who wears a kilt and bullet-proof sporran, but up to 200 more British troops are expect to join the operation. They will carry with them orders to shoot to kill if civilian life is endangered.

Lendu troops outside the town may attack. The volatile UPC, composed of at least 60 per cent child soldiers, may also attack if provoked, as its leader, Thomas Lubanga, warned yesterday. And if they manage to secure Bunia, the emergency force will face heading into the surrounding bush to ensure humanitarian access.

Where peace-keeping began

UN peace-keeping first began in Congo after Belgian colonial rule came to an end. In 1960 Congo, under the leadership of its first Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba, became independent. It rapidly collapsed into anarchy and a series of civil wars. The first of these came 11 days after independence with the secession of Katanga. Congo asked for a UN peace-keeping force, which was approved. In 1963 UN forces defeated the Katanga rebels and in 1964 the UN pulled out. Now it is heading back again with a French-led contingent of 1,400 troops.