Marauding rebels are massacring and eating pygmies in the dense forests of north-east Congo, according to UN officials who are investigating allegations of cannibalism in Ituri province, where fighting between several rebel groups has displaced about 150,000 people in the past month.

Many of the displaced tell of rebel fighters capturing and butchering pygmies, Manoddje Mounoubai, spokesman for the UN ceasefire monitoring mission in Congo, said yesterday.

The UN had sent six officials to investigate the accusation as well as other human rights abuses, he said.

Other UN officials in the capital, Kinshasa, and the eastern city of Goma said that widespread cannibalism had already been established.

‘Ituri is completely out of control and cannibalism is just the latest atrocity taking place,’ said one, who asked not to be named until the investigators deliver their report. ‘Perhaps this will finally alert the world to what’s going on.’

Ituri’s forest-dwelling pygmy tribes have been caught between opposing groups supporting the government and Ugandan-backed rebel groups in the last battles of Congo’s four-year civil war.

The two Ugandan-backed movements routinely enslave pygmies to forage for forest food and prospect for minerals, a UN official said.

Hunters returning empty-handed were killed and eaten.

Sudi Alimasi, an official of the pro-government group Rally for Congolese Democracy-ML, said it had begun receiving reports of cannibalism from people displaced by fighting more than a week ago.

‘We hear reports of [enemy] commanders feeding on sexual organs of pygmies, apparently believing this would give them strength,’ he said.

‘We also have reports of pygmies being forced to feed on the cooked remains of their colleagues.’

Cannibalism has re-emerged throughout eastern Congo as the last vestiges of colonial influence have been eroded during the war. Much of the vast forested area is controlled by the Mayi-Mayi, a loose grouping of tribal militias united by their magical beliefs and taste for human flesh.

On a recent assignment in eastern Congo the Guardian correspondent saw many Mayi-Mayi fighters wearing parts of the bodies of their Rwandan enemies, in the belief that this would make them invincible.

‘We are hearing reports of untold horrors in Ituri,’ said Wyger Wentholt, of Médecins sans Frontières.

Report by James Astill in Nairobi, The Guardian, 9 January 2003.

Death in the Congo: a mother watches as machete militiamen murder her little girls

From her hiding place in the woods outside the Congolese town of Bunia, Ruta Bonabingi watched as militiamen roasted and then ate the severed arms of her dying daughters. It was the horrifying finale to 48 hours of terror for Ruta and her family.

Three weeks after ethnic violence engulfed Bunia and the surrounding Ituri province, crazed gunmen stormed Shar, five miles outside the town. Shooting or hacking to death anyone they came across, they torched every home in the village.

Ruta managed to escape with most of her family, although two of her brothers were killed before they reached safety in the nearby forest.

After pressing deeper into the woods for two days without food and water, she thought she had finally reached safety when out of nowhere the militiamen, from the Lendu tribe, struck again.

With bullets flying everywhere in the hail of gunfire that ensued Ruta became separated from two of her daughters, Mateso, aged 12, and Michelle, who had just turned two.

After securing the rest of her family in another hiding place, Ruta crept back to the clearing to try to rescue the girls.

‘There were many people wounded from bullets lying on the ground,’ she said.

‘The Lendu were going about with machetes, chopping off one arm from the shoulder and then the other. Some people were screaming but most were silent. Then I saw them. Their arms had already been cut off.’

The militiamen calmly cooked the flesh over an open fire before throwing their victims, some of whom were still alive, into the flames. ‘They were both moving, although very weakly,’ Ruta said. It is accounts like this that have galvanised the horrified world into action.

The United Nations Security Council meets today to finalise plans for a rapid reaction force, led by France, which could be in Bunia by as early as next week. Tony Blair has hinted that Britain could send several hundred soldiers to the region later.

The latest violence in one of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s bloodiest provinces erupted in the first week of May as Uganda withdrew its troops in compliance with a peace plan to end the five-year war.

Despite the presence of the 700 UN peacekeepers already in Bunia to monitor the withdrawal, rival Hema and Lendu tribesmen fought viciously for supremacy in the town.

The peacekeepers had repeatedly warned the UN that a bloodbath was likely and requested reinforcements.

They were ignored. Lacking the firepower, equipment or mandate to intervene, they retreated powerless to their compound and watched.

No one knows how many have died. The Red Cross has found 415 bodies on the streets or in mass graves, and may just be the tip of the iceberg. There are fears that thousands more were killed in outlying villages. At least 50,000 people have been victims of violence in Ituri since 1998.

The Congo conflict has claimed between 3.1 and 4.7 million lives, mainly from war-related hunger and disease, since it began, making it the world’s deadliest war since 1945.

Bunia itself was relatively calm yesterday although an occasional explosion, possibly caused by landmines, rocked the outskirts of the town. Few dared to venture out on to the streets, however. The town is virtually empty after Lendus, who made up the majority of the population, fled into the hills following the Hema capture of the town last week.

Along the town’s main street shop doors hung drunkenly from their hinges. Windows on many buildings were smashed, their contents looted. The few establishments that escaped pillaging were firmly shuttered. A Hema boy, aged no more than eight or nine, sauntered down the street dressed in a ridiculously oversized military uniform, his camouflage jacket flapping about his calves.

He disappeared into a building for a moment and re-emerged casually swinging an AK47 from his hip.

A pick-up truck filled with grim-faced Hema soldiers and mounted with a fearsomely large machinegun roared down the street.

At the top of the road, two armoured personnel carriers manned by Uruguayan soldiers guarded the UN compound, barely visible behind 8ft-high protective barriers of razor wire.

Hundreds of Bunia’s terrified residents, both Hema and to a lesser extent Lendu, remain in the compound where they fled when the fighting erupted.

Alarmingly, the town’s radio station, now in Hema hands, gave warning this week that anyone who did not leave the camp immediately would be treated as ‘an enemy of state,’ according to UN officials.

The move has chilling echoes of hate radio during Rwanda’s 1994 genocide when broadcasts urged Hutus to fill up the half-empty graves.

Many appear to have heeded the call, but Basara Mateso prefers to take his chances with the UN. He fled to the compound when the Lendu attacked his predominantly Hema suburb two weeks ago.

As he fled, he became separated from two of his seven children. When he ventured back a few hours later he found the bodies of both his teenage daughters, hacked to death with machetes.

‘Ngathi was cut across the chest,’ he said. ‘Mami’s head was missing. Both of them were without their hearts and their livers. Their bellies had been cut open.’

Missionaries, Catholic priests and foreign aid workers have all confirmed that some Lendu militiamen have been eating their victims’ hearts and livers, apparently in the superstitious belief that it would make them invincible.

Adrian Blomfield in Bunia., 31 May 2003.

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