The United Nations is investigating reports of cannibalism by rebels in north-eastern Congo, where the slaughter of civilians continues unabated despite peace agreements.
The Congolese call themselves a "cursed people". With a war that has left an estimated 3.5 million dead, the people of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have probably suffered the worst massacres of any single nation since the Second World War.
Manodje Mounoubai, a spokesman for the UN mission in Congo, told the Associated Press yesterday that during the past week UN investigators had been looking into reports that Congolese rebel troops had killed and eaten Pygmies. The rebels of the Congolese Liberation Movement (MLC) and Congolese Rally for Democracy-National are apparently killing the Pygmies if they return from hunting expeditions without food.
An official with a rival rebel group, the Congolese Rally for Democracy-Liberation (RCD-ML), said: "We hear reports of MLC and RCD-N commanders feeding on sexual organs of Pygmies, apparently believing this would give them strength. We also have reports of Pygmies being forced to feed on cooked remains of their colleagues."
As he arrived at a centre for displaced people at Eringeti, Cwinyai Ushuto said: "We have suffered a lot. Why does the world keep on standing back when Congolese are being slaughtered like sheep in an abattoir?" The centre is near rebel-controlled Beni, about 1,250 miles north-east of the capital, Kinshasa, and about 30 miles from the Ugandan border.
More than 40,000 people were crammed into the centre when I recently visited. Tearfund, a British charity, provides relief supplies.
Although none of the refugees I spoke to mentioned cannibalism explicitly, their tales of atrocities by the rampaging rebel groups were no less shocking.
Mr Ushuto, 41, fled fierce fighting in Mongwalu, one of the many towns in the north-east under siege from the different factions of rebel groups backed by foreign armies. He led 20 people in the vanguard of a group of 3,500 women and children. By the time he arrived at Eringeti, having walked 60 miles through tropical forests in heavy rain and fog, only nine were alive. The other 11 succumbed to hunger and disease.
Many more were expected to die in the group behind them. "We pray for those who die along the way and leave their corpses resting on tree trunks. They become meat for the vultures as we have no means to bury them," said Mr Ushuto, who lost all his property to the rebels and was separated from his wife and six children. He carried a bottle of cooking oil, which he spread on his feet to walk faster or run when fleeing the rebels.
Katungu Mwenge, 25, saw her daughters aged seven and nine gang-raped and her husband hacked to death by a rebel faction. She fled with her four other children to Eringeti, where they were using banana tree leaves for blankets under a leaking plastic roof.
Tetyabo-Tebabo Floribert, 18, was badly traumatised. Rebels decapitated his mother, three brothers and two sisters. Anyasi Senga, 60, fled her village with 40 others and lived in the bush for two months, surviving on wild fruits and roots. Ambaya Estella's three children and her husband were killed by the rebels, who killed most of the inhabitants of her village using axes and machetes. "They held guns but they preferred to decapitate people with axes and knives, probably to make the deaths more painful," she said.
She managed to escape with her orphaned grandchildren during the stampede and walked to Eringeti.
The violence comes despite rebels signing a power-sharing peace deal on 17 December with the government. President Joseph Kabila has raised suspicions in the rebel camp by reportedly deploying large numbers of troops near rebel-controlled territory.
Forcesfrom the countries involved in the Congo war – Zimbabwe, Angola, Namibia, Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi – are allegedly still at large. They are backing the tribes they see as the best proxies to facilitate their continued plunder and theft of the DRC's vast mineral resources. The fighting between the Hema and Lendu tribes in north-eastern DRC has been the most ferocious.The six countries claim to have withdrawn their forces. But first-hand accounts by displaced Congolese suggest they are still there. Mr Ushuto said: "I can tell you that the Ugandans and Rwandese soldiers are still here and fighting to get our resources."
The Rally for Congolese Democracy (RCD), which formed in 1998 to drive the late president Laurent Kabila from power, subsequently splintered into at least four rebel factions, the RCD-KML, RCD-National, RCD-Goma and UPC, controlling different cities in eastern Congo.
Jean Louis Kyaviro, the secretary general of the RCD-KML, said his group intended to use captured Ugandan prisoners as evidence that foreign forces still fought in the Congo.
To support Tearfund's work with refugees in the Congo, phone 0845 355 8355.
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