Orgies of bloody murder have left Congo traumatised

Declan Walsh,In Bunia,D. R. Congo
Wednesday 30 October 2013 06:03
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When the came for Joseph Nzeloy, the Congolese gunmen had an argument. Should they kill the farmer's family by slicing open their stomachs, cutting their throats or chopping off their heads? After a thought, they decided.

With a gun to his temple, Mr Nzeloy, 62, watched as the killers grabbed his wife, eight children and two brothers, and bound them. Then, one by one, they sliced their throats. Mr Nzeloy survived after being left for dead. "I heard everything but could do nothing. I was powerless," he said from his hospital bed.

This is the sort of killing the United Nations hopes to stop in Bunia, in the Ituri region of north-eastern Congo, with an emergency force sanctioned yesterday. A force of about 1,400 peace-keepers, led by the French but including troops from Britain and Belgium, Germany, Spain and Italy, will try to stop the massacres.

Between three and four million people have died in Congo's war since 1998 but western intervention has been minimal. But this month's vicious battle for Bunia has finally prompted a response from the West. Fighting between the rival Hema and Lendu tribes left more than 400 people dead. By local standards the bloodshed was not exceptional - villages were annihilated last year - but it happened metres from 700 UN troops, who did nothing to stop it.

Reports of cannibalism helped attract the West's attention. Some fighters believe that eating an enemy's heart, kidney or sexual organs brings magical powers. Benoit Tshikala found a friend's body on 12 May. His throat had been slit, his stomach cut open and his heart removed. "I had heard of that before but never seen it. I am still traumatised," said Mr Tshikala.

At the height of hostilities, one Lendu soldier paraded around the town with a kidney strapped to his chest. For now the UN has only a fingerhold on stability in Bunia. Armoured vehicles manned by Uruguayan troops thunder along the road from the headquarters to the airport. But true control lies with the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC), the ruthless Hema militia that seized control two weeks ago.

Daniel Litsha, secretary general of the UPC, described his group as "Congolese nationalists" who only sought "peace, reconciliation and the unity of our country". But on the streets of Bunia, the evidence suggested otherwise.

Dozens of child soldiers swaggered down Bunia's main street. Baraka Asiye, a 15-year-old with small, deadened eyes, sat on a motorcycle he was barely big enough to ride. An AK-47 was slung casually across his back. "I don't know how many Lendus I have killed," he said. "Some of them I shot, others I killed by hand with a knife." He added: "They are not good people. They are the enemy."

The troop deployment announced yesterday has raised fears that the Lendu militia will attempt to seize control of Bunia before the soldiers arrive. The UPC has intensified intimidation against the few remaining Lendu. Some have been killed; others found bullets in front of their doors. In the past few days anonymous letters have warned "enemies" to leave within 48 hours. Nearly all have gone.

Yesterday morning a UN vehicle was followed closely by a pick-up truck full of gunmen. "It was clear intimidation," said Isabelle Abric, a UN spokeswoman. UN troops also found six mines on the edge of the airstrip, which is expected to be the flashpoint for any outbreak of fighting.

In the airport terminal, hundreds sat on their bags, hoping for a flight out. Many had been waiting for two or three weeks but few had the $60 (£36) fare to fly by cargo plane to Beni, 150km to the south.

In front of the town's Catholic church, a mound of freshly turned earth in a beanfield marked a mass grave. Three Lendu militiamen burst into the church hall where terrified civilians had been sheltering. They singled out the Hema and opened fire. Twenty-two people died in the attack.

Jean-Edouard Dhena Ndjango later found his mother had been shot in the head and his four-year-old son had had his stomach slit open. Why were the UN peace-keepers cowering in their base at the time, he asked angrily. "This observation mission is useless. You can't observe when people are killing one another and then count the bodies afterwards."

Fresh atrocities are flaring elsewhere in Ituri. According to Amnesty International, dozens of people are being imprisoned in metal containers in Aru, on the Ugandan border, following an attempted coup against the FAPC militia. Several have been tortured and at least four have been executed. Rwanda and Uganda, who have covertly supported the rival Hema and Lendu groups, are manipulating the conflict.

The spate of tribal killings has invited comparisons with Rwanda's 1994 genocide but analysts say an all-out slaughter is still unlikely in Ituri.

"This is not a state-led genocide," said François Grignon of the International Crisis Group. "But you have two militia groups committing acts of genocide. And for both the extermination of the other is the only solution."

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