On the Trail of the Congo's "Cannibal Rebels"

Cannibalism as a Crime of War
Notes from different corners of the world.
March 26 2004 11:20 AM

On the Trail of the Congo's "Cannibal Rebels"

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Maria lost her arm defending her children; she says soldiers ate flesh from the arm after they amputated it
Maria lost her arm defending her children; she says soldiers ate flesh from the arm after they amputated it

In Bunia, the town's population has swelled from 6,000 to 120,000 people. Most have left everything—crops, possessions, their families—to escape the ongoing massacres in the bush. Through a network of local human rights organizations, I arrange to meet with a handful of survivors. One Sunday morning, over a hundred people show up to tell their stories.

One of them, Vivienne Nyamutale, 30, says that she spent 75 days captive with the Lendu fighters in the bush. "I was taken as the fourth wife of the fetish chief, Chief Abele." On five separate occasions before the Lendu fighters attacked a Hema village, Vivienne says, Hema men were brought before the crowd, cooked, and eaten by the fighters. Vivienne is Hema. She survived captivity only by swearing that she was Alur, the most common tribe in this part of Congo. Finally, after one massacre, she ran into the night and escaped. Vivienne is one of a handful of women who tell me about rape camps farther along the Fataki road where we found the two dead men.

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Later, I visit a camp for displaced people and meet Chantal Tsesi, 24. We sit in the camp's office to talk. On the floor, a 2-week-old baby cries. The baby's parents have been killed; she was left at the camp by a neighbor who grabbed the infant while fleeing the massacre.

Draping a green batik cloth over her left shoulder, Chantal says that at 5 in the morning on Aug. 27, 2002, she woke to gunfire in the gold-mining town of Mabanga-Gélé. She was alone with her 6-year-old son, Claude, as men armed with machetes entered her house. "Today we are going to cut off your arm so you can't prepare mandro [traditional beer]" they said to her. She tells me, "They cut off my arm and took it outside where they had made a fire. They cooked it, while they were drinking our mandro, and ate it with the rest of the beans and rice." Claude had escaped into the bush with relatives. Then, she says flatly, "They told me they were going to find my husband and eat his heart."

Catherine, 9, too afraid to stay in the hospital, is taken back to the bush after being treated in Drodro
Catherine, 9, too afraid to stay in the hospital, is taken back to the bush after being treated in Drodro

After the attack, Chantal spent three months in the Drodro Hospital, where, later, the patients were killed bed by bed. Then her husband abandoned her because she can no longer work. In the village, Chantal's mother, Eliza Dz'da, lived with another daughter, Georgette, and Georgette's four children. That August morning, Eliza says, she heard Lendu women ululating as the fighters entered the village to attack. Georgette and Eliza's grandchildren tried to escape. All of them, Eliza says, were caught and killed. "We had a shed made of leaves, and they tore it down to build the fire. They took our leftover food and cooked pieces of Georgette and the children," she tells me.

Both Eliza and Chantal say they're not interested in vengeance. "God says that if someone does something bad to you, you must forgive him," Chantal says. "That's why I think it's possible for this war to end. May God forgive them all because they didn't know what they were doing." Eliza says, "I've always lived with the Lendu, because they've always worked for us. When they came to work on the farm, they ate with us, and at the end of the day, we gave them money."

At a distance, their desire to forgive seems inexplicable. Up close, amid the deep fatigue of the war, it's easier to understand. Still the idea of forgiveness and the reality remain extremely different.

"If the Lendu had wanted to live here with us in the camp, I would have no problem with it," Eliza says, when I ask why she has chosen to live in this IDP camp. This camp is controversial, because it is—in international aid speak—"mono-ethnic," mostly ethnic Hema. This can be dangerous. During the 1994 Rwandan genocide, aid went straight to Hutu extremists, who took over Congolese refugee camps. Now, having learned their lesson, aid groups are wary of ethnic self-segregation.

To learn more about the camp I go to see the smartest woman in town, Petronille Vaweka, president of the Special Assembly of Ituri. Although she too has heard rumors about the camp, she doesn't doubt the women's stories. Our talk turns to cannibalism. "You can't hide it, the Lendu kill," she says. "So do the Hema, but they kill in secret. Now in this war, with drugs, they cook people and eat them like fish. No one can lie—both sides have eaten each other."

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, cannibalism has a complex history, involving a lot of rumor and imperialist myth. Interestingly enough, during colonial times, it was the whites who were believed to be cannibals. "The whites were thought to turn their captives' flesh into salt meat, their brains into cheese, and their blood into the red wine Europeans drank," Adam Hochschild writes in King Leopold's Ghost. Belgian priests, mining officials, colonial authorities—all were thought to have a taste for Congolese flesh. In Luise White's book Speaking with Vampires,one interviewee tells White that the colonialists "never managed to eat all the flesh so they saved the rest in tins, like corned beef." In the context of Congo's copper mines, the tales make practical sense. Since the rapacious white man consumed everything else he came across, he would hardly refrain from eating African flesh.

Now, in a conflict over land, gold, and oil, cannibalism as a crime of war seems to have entered the 21st century. No doubt, elements of both myth and magic both play a role in contemporary accounts. In essence, rumors of cannibalism do much the same thing as the act itself: They terrify. That terror becomes its own form of psychological warfare—a tactic to consume the enemy's power.

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