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

Using Sensationalism To Bring Attention to a Human Rights Abuses
Notes from different corners of the world.
March 24 2004 10:44 AM

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

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Child soldiers in Eastern DRC
Child soldiers in Eastern DRC

On my way to see the man who first told Amuzati's story to the world—a Catholic bishop named Melchisedec Sikuli Paluku—I watch a group of child soldiers run away into the jungle. They are tripping over their fatigues and weapons. Thanks to the influx of arms from the DRC's neighbors, an AK-47 costs only $30-$50. Most end up in the hands of children, who form an estimated 60 percent of the DRC's rebel fighting force. These days, their leaders, courting legitimacy, have heard enough from the international community to know that child soldiers are a major no-no. The kids know it too. So when they see a car full of white people coming along the road, they split.

In his redbrick bishopric on a hilltop in the town of Butembo, Bishop Paluku, a squat and somber man, has consented to meet with yet another pushy journalist who wants to talk to him about cannibalism. It is Sunday afternoon, and he has already celebrated several masses.

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We dance around the subject for several minutes, but the bishop knows how the press works by now, and he wants to get started on his story. On the wall, there is a giant decal of a formal French garden. He leans against the arm of a plush chair in his reception room. The bishop has grown both wary and weary of the press. For him, these interviews are a devil's bargain: He trades his story's potential sensationalism for the media's ongoing attention to his waning human rights campaign.

Child soldiers in Bule
Child soldiers in Bule

Since the fall of 2002, he has been loudly decrying rebel groups waging war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Recently, under a peace deal with the government, the rebels have been taking government posts. It's as if they're being rewarded after warlords-turned-politicians like Vice President Jean-Pierre Bemba and a host of others have exploited DRC's mineral wealth for all that they can. Despite their newfound legitimacy, the bishop continues to accuse them of cannibalism.

"Bemba's men were cutting fingers and ears off," the bishop tells me as we eye the shrubbery on the wall. "But that was normal; it wasn't astonishing. But when they started feeding them to the prisoners—that was something new."

"What's more serious is that the informants were coming saying that the pygmies were being eaten," he says. The rebels were headed his way, so the bishop called his local warlord, Mbusa Nyamwesi, head of a rival rebel group, to warn him of the approaching threat.

"I am called the bishop of war," he told me, smiling slightly. Because of his refusal to back down, he's made many enemies among DRC's warlords. Security at his hilltop home is tight. Impunity is the order of the day; killing a meddlesome bishop would be nothing out of the ordinary.    

Late in the fall of 2002, as the rebels drew nearer, 150,000 civilians fled south, the pygmies among them, flooding the bishop's town. When the hordes of displaced and traumatized people, nuns and priests among them, arrived in the bishop's town, they warned him of the impending fury. But there was little he could do. Nyamwesi, the local warlord, had already told the bishop he couldn't contain the rebel onslaught. So the anxious bishop turned to the last weapon he could think of: the international press.

Two days before Christmas, he called Agence France Presse: "As they move toward Beni and Butembo, Jean-Pierre Bemba's men are engaging in terrible atrocities. They are forcing their prisoners to eat the organs of dead men, especially pygmies. It's horrific," he said. Several hours after he spoke to AFP, the bishop's phone began to ring, as news of the flesh-eating rebels versus lovable pygmies caught the world's attention. The other atrocities associated with Effacer le Tableau— most notably charges of mass and systematic rape—largely escaped the media's notice.

"Out of all that, one word came out: 'Cannibalism,' " the bishop said, watching me as I scribbled notes. "I was very surprised that people focused on the cannibalism, because I had said 'grave violations of human rights.' " As the bishop's charges of cannibalism exploded in the international press, the United Nations sent a team to investigate the charges. Then the rebels began to retreat. For a moment, the power of the word seemed to halt the war itself.

Now, due, in part, to the media attention, the International Criminal Court at the Hague is considering taking on the crimes of Ituri.

"If the ICC takes on this case, we're at a disadvantage now," Bishop Sikuli tells me. "We had a woman here who had been forced to eat part of her husband, but she's gone. Because all these people have disappeared—they came back and back and back—but when they found out that the United Nations was doing nothing, they stopped coming back," he says, looking at me. "They were very angry, and very angry at me."

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