The children lay dead, and their killers had fled again. So where was the UN?

At the moment there are fewer than 5,000 UN troops in the vast terrain where terrible massacres are taking place
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The Independent Online

The UN couldn't spare a helicopter to get us to the scene. I could hardly blame them. They were overstretched as it was, patrolling huge tracts of remote countryside and keeping the peace in the town of Bunia with its restive militias. We decided to drive. I didn't like the idea. There had been many ambushes along the road in the past. The UN might control Bunia but the countryside beyond was still the land of militiamen. Yet there was no other way of getting to Kachele. We rose before dawn and set out on the road north. I use the word road, but it hardly describes the dirt track which leads, over five bone-crunching hours, to the village of Kachele, scene of the Congo's latest massacre. The Land Rover slid in the mud. In places the bush was so thick it brushed the windows of the car. This was perfect ambush country. In this part of Congo alone 50,000 people have been killed in the last five years. Many of them are members of two warring ethnic groups: the Hema and the Lendu.

Close to Kachele we saw a log lying across a track leading into the hills. Our guide, Dego, told us it had been placed there by Lendu tribesmen, those accused of carrying out the slaughter of Hema people at Kachele. "They are just over that hill," he said. Not for the first time in Central Africa, I was reminded of WB Yeats line: Little room / great hatred.

Here desperate poor people fought each other for land. But this is not mindless tribal violence. In this part of the world land means food and that means survival.

If these people lived in a country with a functioning state, these disputes over land would likely never have erupted into such appalling violence. Congo's vast natural wealth should provide prosperity for all. But instead, they have been cursed to live in a land ruled by first by a venal Belgian King, then by Mobutu Sese Seko, the world's most corrupt dictator, and now a country where foreign armies from Uganda and Rwanda have come to plunder and fight.

Now there is a UN peacekeeping force, but for years the international community ignored the war. We should record that the world knew what was happening. It knew that foreign governments were arming the tribal militias and plundering. It knew also that crimes against humanity, punishable under international law, were being committed. But in all this time there hasn't been a single indictment for these crimes. In fact many of the militia leaders live in extravagant comfort in the capital Kinshasa, indispensable it seems, to Congo's nascent peace process.

In Kachele, a place where a few hundred people eked a living out of the hills, the survivors sat around in their rags. Some looked bewildered. An old woman crouched outside the hut in which her family had been murdered. A cluster of children sat together in an open space between the mud and thatch huts. Here are the facts of the massacre at Kachele. Shortly after five o'clock in the morning, as the light crept over the valley, a party of Lendu militiamen approached the village. One of them fired shots. It was the signal for the killing to begin. Families panicked by the shooting ran out of their huts. They ran into the militia and were cut down, mostly with the weapons used by Africa's poor: machetes, clubs and spears.

Sixty five people were killed. Forty of them were children. Forty children hacked and bludgeoned at the hands of adults. The killers escaped as they nearly always do, and a few hours after that the UN peacekeepers arrived, too late to do anything but count the corpses. Kachele's chief is bitter. Antoine Dhabi is 37. He inherited the chieftaincy from his brother who was murdered by the Lendu. He told me his daughters - eight-year-old Esperance and 13-year-old Antoinette - had been abducted by the attackers. Antoine Dhabi said he felt like giving up and leaving for the town. The land of his ancestors had become too dangerous. "The Lendu want to wipe us all out," he said. Talk to Lendu people who have been attacked by the Hema militias and you will hear the same thing. They too have suffered appalling massacres.

In recent years we have recoiled at fresh accounts of the horrors inflicted on the Congo under the colonial rule of the Belgian King Leopold. Yet even as a powerful new account of his terrible reign was being published, a new age of evil was overtaking the Congo. On my last night I pulled out a copy of the latest report on the Congo by Human Rights Watch. Its chief investigator in Central Africa is a remarkable woman called Alison Des Forges. Alison and the brave Congolese activists who help her are heroes. They are brave because recording the testimonies of the traumatised survivors of Congo's horror is itself traumatising. They are brave because it can also be dangerous: human rights activists have been abducted, torture and murdered. It is only when you hear the testimony they record, that you understand why they are so driven to bear witness, for example, the testimony of a Pygmy man named Amazati, recorded in late 2002.

About twenty miles from Mambasa, soldiers from the Ugandan-backed Movement for the Liberation of Congo attacked a pygmy camp. A man called Amuzati who was hunting in the forest heard shooting. As he wasn't far from his camp he returned to see what was happening. About half a mile away from the camp he heard shouts and crying and then silence. He came closer and saw several soldiers. He saw the corpses of his family, including his nephew who was five, with his stomach cut open. They were cutting the flesh and eating the victims ... he was filled with emotion and afraid that if he shouted, they would catch him too, so he crept away.

Or there was the story told by the aunt of a rape victim - there is an epidemic of sexual violence in north - eastern Congo.

One day in early November we were on the road near Mambasa when we ran into three soldiers who seemed to be MLC. Some had camouflage uniforms and others just had green ones; some of them had green berets. They took our things including our bicycle and goats and then they took our niece who was only 15 and raped her in front of us. Then they took her away with them. We have not seen her since. Her name was Marie Anzoyo. I know other girls who were taken including a girl called Therese and another called Vero.

Marie Anzoyo, Therese, Vero. Three names out of millions. There are questions which must be asked on their behalf. They are questions for the powerful nations of the world. At the moment there are fewer than 5,000 UN troops being deployed in the vast terrain where the massacres are taking place. Is the international community, more particularly the wealthy, developed world, willing to finance a much bigger force? Is it willing also to deploy thousands of its own soldiers to help keep the peace? The answer is no. I wish the small force of Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Uruguayans the best. They are brave people in a dangerous place. I only wished I felt more confident that they can succeed.

The writer is a BBC Special Correspondent.