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

Cannibalism Is Just the Latest Atrocity in the Struggles Between Hema and Lendu
Notes from different corners of the world.
March 25 2004 11:24 AM

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

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This Hema man was bound and impaled before being shot; his ears were bitten off
This Hema man was bound and impaled before being shot; his ears were bitten off

I am flying north with the French military to the town of Bunia—" mapping the earth," as I have heard soldiers say (in fact, the correct term is "napping the earth"), flying low to the ground, rising along hills, dipping into valleys. It's a flight tactic to avoid possible hostile fire. I take off my shirt and vomit into it. The soldiers pretend not to notice.

Below us, the forest canopy hides the roofs of looted missions and charred thatched huts: the aftermath of ongoing massacres between two ethnic groups, the Hema and the Lendu. Now charges of cannibalism have been added to the long list of atrocities between them. The war is rooted in colonialist favoritism and tribal divisions created by the Belgians. When the colonialists left in the 1960s, the region's now 150,000 Hema (typically tall, Nilotic herders, akin to Rwanda's Tutsis) took over their plantations for cattle. But the land had historically belonged to the roughly 750,000 Lendu farmers (stereotypically, shorter agriculturalists).

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Once the colonialists left, the Hema began to practice a form of apartheid, which they learned from the whites, against the Lendu. The Lendu responded with fury. The conflict has been stoked by the Democratic Republic of Congo's neighbors—most distinctly, Uganda—who play the two groups off one another in order to sell weapons and steal resources. Newly discovered oil deposits have made the fight between the Hema and the Lendu worse. Both want the potentially lucrative land rights.

When I arrive in Bunia, overwhelmed by the number of players here, Michel Cassa of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs tells me that the Hema "are putting into practice what their parents learned: Replace the rulers, treat the Lendu 10 times more brutally than the Belgians did." He goes on, "On the other side, the Lendu think that historical injustice gives them the right to unlimited revenge. It's not different than Sept. 11—'We are going to confirm the brutality that you have practiced against us. We don't have your weaponry so we will strike you where it hurts.' "

Immaculate, 32, in Drodro hospital north of Bunia
Immaculate, 32, in Drodro hospital north of Bunia

Arriving in Bunia, I've already heard an account of cannibalism that's difficult to fathom. A few months before the pygmies were attacked, a Lendu warlord named Kiza reportedly killed and ate a man named Ukela in the gold-mining town of Mongbwalu, about 50 miles from Bunia. According to witnesses I'd met in a camp for the displaced, they watched Kiza eat the young man's heart in front of the crowd. It was punishment for an assassination attempt.

Apparently, the victim's family is living in Bunia. One afternoon I set out to find them. It turns out Ukela's brother, a former child soldier named Mica, is living in a tent along the town's dusty main street. "No one comforted us," Mica tells me quietly as we talk about his brother's murder. "He was never buried, so he haunts me now." Because of the stigma of the atrocity, Mica's family is regarded as slightly freakish.

Mica lives behind the Red Cross building. I wander inside. In 2001, six International Committee for the Red Cross workers were murdered on a road north of Bunia. After their deaths, the ICRC abandoned northeastern Congo. Now, DRC's National Red Cross is the only group to identify and bury the dead, and they do it with absolutely no money or support. "We have no cameras, and no way to identify bodies," Bernard Israel Chilembi Kabakubi, the organization's president, tells me. He is sitting at a wooden desk, beneath which one of his few remaining workers is sleeping off a bout of malaria. In the absence of dental records, he tells me, clothing is the most reliable means of identifying the dead. "We just bury them. We have only pieces of bandages to use as masks. We have no soap, even, to wash our hands."

In the past five years, more than 50,000 people have been killed in Ituri. In truth, the number is likely higher because most people are massacred in the bush and buried immediately. "We bury everyone—soldiers, civilians, everyone," the president tells me. Outside, motorbike taxis whiz past driven by child soldiers trying to make some money before fighting begins again. Most can't travel to the other side of town, because Bunia is now ethnically divided between Hema and Lendu. Crossing the boundary can mean death.

One morning, at a U.N. press conference, a local journalist angrily asks the MONUC (the United Nations Mission in Congo), "I am Lendu, and I cannot go to the market. People act with total impunity because there is no justice. What do you expect to do about it?" The military spokesman, looking tired, gives the same response he usually does: There is no military solution for helping the Hema and the Lendu to get along again.

Outside the town of Bunia, ethnic massacres continue. Militiamen blowing whistles appear in the early morning surrounded by women singing, urging them on. Sometimes they use dogs to track down those who fled; they loot, rape, and massacre whoever they can find before disappearing back into the forest. It's too dangerous for people to leave their houses and collect the dead in the road.

Three photographers and I decide to drive north to several villages where massacres have taken place. The landscape is a patchwork of stepped farms—as if Iowa were rumpled into hills. One of the photographers with us, Khan Renaud, has spent months here. He knows the people and the stories that have been trickling out of the villages.

We are headed to the once-bustling market town of Fataki. The town is deserted and destroyed. On the wall of a looted store, beans littering the floor, someone has scrawled in chalk: "The Hema are crazy. They have fled Fataki."

On the road, we come across the bodies of two young men. One has been impaled through the rectum. He's missing an ear, which is just part of the deal here—whether eaten or taken as a totem of power and protection. Several weeks earlier, Renaud took photographs of a woman impaled with her baby and another of a woman whose ovaries had been removed. It seems that the scale of violence is getting worse, as if taking lives is not only about revenge, but also power. The power to desecrate and annihilate.

At night, we sleep in a nearby school house, pushing the benches together, and we wake to nearby gunfire. But whoever was firing probably sees our trucks and runs away.

The next morning, the villagers gather in the schoolyard to cook what they scavenge. They don't dare sleep in the village in case of another attack. The ground is black with their scorch marks and black with old blood, as is the hospital, where, last July, all 27 patients were murdered in their beds. One woman, who had been abducted, tells me she overheard the Lendu militia talking about the United Nations. "They said that if the U.N. comes here, they will do nothing. They just watch you fight and do nothing. They don't even take your guns away. As long as you don't make them angry, you can keep fighting."

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