- The attackers come after darkness falls, making their
way through thick jungle in search of the pygmy settlements. Then the horror
begins. "They started killing people and eating them ... I saw them
cutting up human flesh, then they were putting it on a fire to grill it.
I got scared and ran away, not knowing what else happened behind me."
- Those are the words of Amuzati N., a Bambuti pygmy who
escaped a massacre by a rebel group in Democratic Republic of Congo, the
scene of the conflict known as Africa's "first world war" because
of the number of parties involved in the struggle for the mineral-rich
- His testimony, and that of other members of the Bambuti
in eastern and northern Congo, prompted a human rights group in Britain
to submit evidence yesterday to the International Criminal Court accusing
the rebel groups of a "campaign of extermination" of the Bambuti
pygmies. Ugandan and Rwandan-backed rebels are accused of mass killings,
cannibalism and systematic rape in the pygmy communities, who are believed
to be the original inhabitants of the equatorial forests.
- Such crimes against humanity, which have been recorded
since 1998, "continue up to the present", said Mark Lattimer,
the director of Minority Rights Group International, whose group formally
filed a report to the court based in The Hague. Eyewitness accounts contained
in his 30-page report say that the rebels have deliberately targeted the
Bambuti pygmies, who are considered "subhuman" or dismissed as
beggars and thieves by other ethnic groups.
- One of the groups accused of the atrocities, the Ugandan-backed
Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC), is part of the transitional
government that emerged as the result of a 2003 peace accord.
- Reports of cannibalism in the Democratic Republic of
Congo first surfaced in May last year. Eyewitness testimonies were rare.
But the horrific accounts in the latest report leave no doubt as to the
scale of the problem - and crucially, explain why such atrocities are happening.
- Mr Lattimer said: "The pygmies are threatened with
being eaten as a weapon of war to get them to leave the area." Also,
their attackers believe that by consuming the flesh of a pygmy they are
conferring magical powers on themselves, while they are also targeted because
they are suspected of collaborating with the Mai-Mai, who have fought on
different sides in the long-running war. In some cases too, the Bambuti
have been abducted and forced to act as trailfinders by armed groups, leading
to retaliation by rival forces.
- Mr Lattimer, working with the RÈseau des Associations
Autochtones PygmÈes du Congo, led a month-long research mission
to the area in January, during which more than 80 interviews were taped
with the victims or witnesses of atrocities against the pygmies.
- His investigation found that from October 2002 to January
2003, combined rebel forces ran an operation in Ituri province code-named
"Effacer le tableau" (wiping the slate clean). The aim, according
to survivors, was to rid the jungle of the Congolese pygmy population,
estimated to total about 90,000 in the eastern region.
- "It was in the night around 8pm, when people began
to fall asleep," said Sumbula R., who survived a massacre by armed
men in military clothes in the village of Mbuluku. "Once they were
sure the village was asleep, they attacked and started to shoot and kill.
- "They started shooting at all those who tried to
escape. One ran this way, they shot him. Another ran that way, they shot
her - even the women.
- "They captured the young children, gathered them
and held them until daylight. Then they put some of them in a mortar and
pounded them to death. They destroyed the huts and set them on fire. The
people were also burned."
- Pindjaone B., from the same village, was already hiding
in the forest with her husband and mother when four soldiers came across
them. "They started to push us around and to intimidate us, asking
for goat meat. We said we were not able to find that sort of thing. They
said that was good because we were people with powers, people who could
heal illnesses. That if we didn't have meat they could eat us and they
would get the power.
- "Then they asked my husband several times to sleep
with my mother in order that they could see our power. They beat him but
he refused to do it. Then they raped my mother and me, one after the other,
each by two of them.
- "Afterwards they asked my husband to sleep with
me in front of them to see how we make love. After strong threats and blows
my husband finally accepted and we did it in front of my mother and in
front of them. It was horrible."
- Some Congolese believe that back pain or other ailments
can be cured by sleeping with Bambuti women, which has been given as an
explanation for rape, but the report charges that the high incidence of
rape and the systematic use of mass rape constitute a crime against humanity.
- Cecile N. from the region of North Kivu, was one of nine
Bambuti women chopping firewood when about 20 rebel soldiers from the Rwandan-backed
RCD-Goma appeared, armed with rifles and knives. She said that after orders
from their commander: "The soldiers raped us in turn; at least two
or three soldiers for one woman."
- Minority Rights Group International is calling for a
full investigation by the International Criminal Court into "persecution,
extermination and other crimes against humanity" against the Bambuti
population, with a view to prosecuting those responsible.
- The prosecutor, Luis Moreno Ocampo, announced last month
that he intended to investigate crimes committed in the Democratic Republic
of Congo, focusing on the Ituri war, in which an estimated 60,000 people
have been killed. Mr Lattimer's group wants him to include the fate of
the Bambuti in his investigation. The groups identified by the report include
the MLC of the Vice-President, Jean-Pierre Bemba, who was one of four vice-presidents
sworn in as a result of the peace accords intended to end the five-year
war - the second to tear the country apart since the overthrow of the dictator
Mobutu Sese Seko.
- Mr Lattimer said yesterday: "The perpetrators of
these crimes should be pursued and punished, no matter how high their office."
But the report makes it clear that various rebel groups in the eastern
region can be blamed for the attacks on the Bambuti, who are vulnerable
because of the location of their villages in the jungle and their knowledge
of forest paths and hunting skills.
- "Institutional disregard for the rights of the Bambuti
and the lack of seriousness with which complaints of abuse are treated,
have meant that all armed groups in the eastern DRC have been able to prey
on Bambuti villages with impunity, looting and raping at will," the
report says. "Where the Bambuti have been forcibly displaced from
their villages, they have frequently had to live for prolonged periods
unprotected in the forest, exposed to wild animals, disease and starvation."
- Until now, attempts to seek redress from Congolese authorities
have been in vain. "The Bambuti victims or witnesses of human rights
abuses committed by the RCD-Goma universally report that redress was unobtainable,"
the report continues. "Complaints were never taken seriously. Reports
of abuses were either dismissed out of hand, were never investigated, or
the complainant was never informed of any outcome."
- In addition, many victims were too afraid to report the
abuses, or held back because the local authorities were themselves responsible
for the attacks.
- An MLC representative now serving in the transitional
parliament in Kinshasa yesterday defended the group against the accusations
of atrocities in Ituri province, which have occurred since the International
Criminal Court came into effect on 1 July 2002. "Those who were accused
of taking part in cannibalism or massacres were transported to Gbadolite
where they were judged before a court and the media," Thomas Luhaka
told Reuters, without giving details of any convictions or sentences.
- He added: "If there are individuals who committed
crimes and are called to appear before the ICC, the MLC will not protect
them. What we don't want, however, is for foreign or national actors to
use this as a political card against the MLC."
- It remains to be seen whether the international court
will take up the petition from the human rights campaigners, although Mr
Ocampo has privately indicated that he would favour broadening his investigation
to include the Bambuti. Because of the continuing unrest in the eastern
region, which has gone on despite the peace accords, the prosecutor has,
however, indicated that it would be difficult to start his investigation
- In the meantime, there are other tools that governments
could use to stop the atrocities, particularly by exerting financial pressure
on the recipients of development aid from western countries. "Uganda
and Rwanda are strategic allies of the UK Government. The British Government
writes very, very large cheques for them and should make sure that it obtains
absolute assurances that none of that money is used to fund intervention
in Congo," Mr Lattimer said.
- © 2004 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd http://news.independent.co.uk/world/africa/story.jsp?story=538807