The Cycle of Death in Congo!
- A people persecuted by killers on all sides of a bloody war
'They came many times. They killed civilians, not soldiers...' The full
horror of an African tragedy starts to unfold
Chris McGreal in Kongolo, Katanga
Tuesday July 31, 2001
The suffering of Albert Tambwe and his family is almost unbearable. Twenty
of his relatives - including two of his children - were murdered or died of
disease during the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and some
of the women in his family were raped. Mr Tambwe, his wife and young child
are emaciated from malnutrition and disease.
"My village is Lemba. It is not large but many people died there. I do not
know how many because I do not know who died and who ran away but I do know
that I helped to bury a lot of people besides my own relatives," he said.
Visits to Kongolo, Manono, Kalemie and other parts of rebel-held Congo
reveal that Mr Tambwe's experience is all too common in a region awash with
armed groups. They range from the Rwandan and Ugandan armies and their
Congolese rebel allies to the interahamwe Hutu militia responsible for the
Rwandan genocide seven years ago, Mayi-Mayi traditional warriors and
In Kongolo, where Mr Tambwe and his remaining family have sought shelter,
malnourished children barely cling to life as their parents tell of
atrocities at the hands of the Mayi-Mayi.
Two-thirds of the residents of Manono - home town of the assassinated
Congolese president, Laurent Kabila - fled intense fighting and bombing by
the Zimbabwean military that destroyed many buildings. Families tramped
hundreds of miles through bush in search of safety. Thousands remain
In Kalemie, three-quarters of children born during the war are dead before
their second birthday.
In January, the British medical agency, Merlin, recorded two-and-a-half
times more deaths than births in the relatively peaceful district of
Kalemie - an alarmingly high figure.
The ordeal for Mr Tambwe's family began a little more than two years ago as
Congolese government troops fought against the rebel Congolese Rally for
Democracy (RCD) and Rwandan forces for control of his village.
"When the RCD and Rwandans came to Lemba, the government soldiers attacked.
Many people were killed. I don't know how many because we ran into the bush.
When we came back, people were dead or missing," he said.
The Rwandans wrested control of Lemba from the government and moved on with
the front line. The villagers settled back into their homes and thought
their ordeal was over. It was just beginning.
Over the following two years, the Mayi-Mayi repeatedly attacked Lemba in
search of food, women and whatever they could loot.
"The Mayi-Mayi came to trouble us. They were not killing soldiers, they were
killing civilians. Others were bitterly beaten. Then they looted the houses.
The Mayi-Mayi came many times, and every time they killed people. They burnt
houses before they left," said Mr Tambwe.
As Mr Tambwe recounted the attacks, his wife, Kia Suybakene, lay wrapped in
a dirty cloth on a bare concrete floor hardly able to move. Her skin was
drawn tight over her sunken face - her cheeks sucked deep into her mouth,
her eyes bulging. If her eyes had not moved, she might have been mistaken
for a corpse.
Her husband said she was suffering a mix of disease and malnutrition. But at
the mention of the looting of the food Mrs Suybakene stirred and briefly
managed to hold herself upright.
"They took all our food; maize, groundnuts, chicken, goats, pigs. If you did
not give it to them they killed you. They said you were giving the food to
their enemies instead, so they ate everything and we had nothing," she said.
Then she slumped back next to her immobile four-year old son, Leopold.
The Mayi-Mayi cordoned off a part of Lemba. There were only two
circumstances in which the villagers were permitted near, and neither of
them was welcome.
When the Mayi-Mayi decided to kill someone, the victim was dragged to the
lair and butchered. Other villagers were then ordered to bury the corpse.
Stories circulated in Lemba that the militiamen were eating body parts after
the burial parties noticed that the corpses were mutilated and organs
"The Mayi-Mayi were eating flesh. They cut up the bodies, they took part and
they ate it. We could see they had been cut open and pieces removed," Mr
Certainly, some of the Mayi-Mayi took to wearing severed hands around their
necks, a practise reminiscent of the Belgian colonial practice of amputating
hands as punishment.
The killings were only part of the suffering. With the plunder of the
village food supply, and the dangers of venturing into the fields to plant
new crops, malnutrition set in. With hunger came disease. Two of Mr Tambwe's
five children died. He does not know of what but said they became sick
because they did not have enough to eat.
Lemba is in the southern province of Katanga. The region is so fertile that
in times of peace it fed the capital, Kinshasa, thousands of miles away. But
the front line runs across Katanga and the war cut people off from their
fields, leaving them to starve and become vulnerable to disease. The World
Food Programme estimates that it will need to feed 1.3m Congolese this year.
And then there was the systematic rape of Lemba's women. "If they arrive and
you are with your wife in the house, they take your wife by force," Mr
Tambwe said. "She becomes theirs. If you want to object to the idea, they
kill you. If you have young daughters who are not married, who have never
known a man, they were taking them by force."
Rape appears to have been widespread across eastern Congo during the
fighting, and all sides have been accused. But the most notorious case of
mass rape to emerge so far is in the town of Shabunda, deep into rebel-held
Shabunda was occupied by Rwandan troops but attacked and besieged by the
interahamwe in June 2000. As the town grew increasingly short of food, women
ventured into fields on the outskirts in search of cassava for their
families. The unlucky ones were abducted by the interahamwe as sex slaves.
People in Shabunda were not certain what happened to the women until the
Rwandans and RCD launched an offensive earlier this year that drove the
interahamwe beyond the town. As the Hutu militiamen fled, they left behind
2,000 women who had been systematically raped.
When the women returned to Shabunda, there was initially silence and shame.
But because it was widely known that they had been raped, some of the
victims spoke publicly of their plight. Some had children by their
attackers. Others discovered that their husbands wanted no more to do with
them. In a few cases, the women had been raped in front of their families
before being abducted.
But it is not solely the irregular Hutu extremist forces and the Mayi-Mayi
that have persecuted the civilian population. In Katanga, the Rwandan army
systematically looted several towns, including Kongolo and Kalemie, after
capturing them from the Kinshasa government. The Rwandans have also hunted
down Hutus deemed guilty of genocide.
The UN has accused the RCD of carrying out massacres claiming thousands of
lives in more than a dozen towns, including one incident in which 15 women
were buried alive after being tortured. The rebels are accused of rape,
looting and a scorched earth policy in other areas.
Mulawa Ngoy and her five children were burnt out of their home in Kateya
village by the Congolese rebels.
"When the war came, it was suddenly. We saw some troops coming and we ran
away. We lived in the bush, drank muddy water, were bitten by mosquitoes. We
did not get enough food. Then we went back to our village," she said. "The
RCD came a second time, and this time they burned out village, all the
houses. We ran away again, and when we got back we found some corpses. It
was very difficult because they had been there some days and they were
smelling badly. The RCD forced us to bury the corpses."
Mrs Ngoy says that at least four other villages near her own - Kaombo, Loni,
Kisaka and Kisampi - were torched and their crops destroyed by the RCD,
presumably to deny shelter and other assistance to its enemies. But the
result was that thousands of people were left exposed in the bush with
little to eat, their children growing sick.
Aid workers are themselves targets at times. Six International Red Cross
staff were murdered near Bunia, in north-eastern Congo, in April. The
identity of the culprits remains unclear.
Ultimately, many Congolese blame Rwanda for their misery. Rwandan troops are
widely unpopular in the east, even among the Congolese rebels they support,
and held responsible for creating the war that has caused so much misery.
Rwanda's president, Paul Kagame, denies his government has blood on its
hands. "Why is it Rwanda that has blood on its hands? Why is it not the
international community? If we are talking about people dying in the Congo,
it is not Rwanda's creation. Congo's problems are all over Congo. They are
not only in eastern Congo. People focus on eastern Congo because they want
to bring out Rwanda as the culprit. But all of Congo has problems, serious
problems, emanating from a long history," he said.
But while many Congolese want rid of the Rwandan army, they also fear its
departure. They worry that they will be even more vulnerable to the
Mayi-Mayi and interahamwe. And they are not at all certain that the Kinshasa
government's forces will not retaliate against people in the east of the
country for a perceived collaboration with the rebels and invaders.
"I liked the future better under Mobutu," said Mr Tambwe. "Mobutu did not
know we existed so we were not afraid of him. Now we have to be afraid of
too many people when all we want is live in our homes and eat."
Principal military groups in eastern Congo:
Congolese Rally for Democracy (RCD)
Main rebel organisation in the southern part of rebel-held Congo. Heavily
reliant on support from the Rwandan military which has done much of the
Rwandan and Ugandan armies
Invaded what was then Zaire in 1996 and spearheaded the overthrow of Mobutu
Sese Seko. Reinvaded in August 1998 after a rift with Mobutu's successor,
Laurent Kabila. Although initially allies, the two armies have clashed and
are now hostile to each other
The Hutu extremist militia that led the genocide of about 800,000 Tutsis in
Rwanda in 1994 in alliance with the then Rwandan army. Backed and trained by
the government in Kinshasa
Traditional warriors in eastern Congo who believe that magical charms can
ward off weapons. The Mayi-Mayi have switched sides several times and
largely prey on the civilian population
Kinshasa government forces
Joseph Kabila's army is heavily reliant on support from the Zimbabwe
military and on its backing for the interahamwe to pursue the war against
the rebel-held east
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001
Huge death toll in Congo
Chris McGreal in Kongolo, Katanga
Tuesday July 31, 2001
After three years of war, the scale of the calamity suffered by
the Democratic Republic of Congo is finally being revealed as a
truce opens up areas previously cut off by fighting.
Emerging from behind the lines of the rebel-held east is a picture of
murder, rape, starvation and disease among a population persecuted by
armies and groups.
A study by an American humanitarian agency says that 2.5m civilians -
eight of the population - have died in eastern Congo because of the
although other aid groups question the figures.
"If it is half as bad as the estimates ... then it is still
are talking about 1m, 2m people who have died," said the UN's
coordinator in eastern Congo, Claude Jibidar.
The survey of deaths in eastern Congo by the New York-based
Rescue Committee (IRC) concluded that 350,000 civilians have died
at the hands of armed men. It says more than 2m others fell victim to
consequences of war, usually hunger or disease. And that is without
considering what has occurred on the Kinshasa government side.
"The loss of life is perhaps the worst in Africa in recent decades,"
the IRC's president, Reynold Levy.
Certainly few Congolese could have imagined the scale of their
today when Mobutu Sese Seko was overthrown in 1997 after Rwanda's
of the then Zaire.
Under Mobutu there was neglect, decline and desperation. But the past
years have added the burdens of hunger and terror.
Congo's new president, Joseph Kabila, says the scale of deaths amounts
genocide. But at the forefront of the terror and killings are groups
to Kinshasa, or at least those opposed to its enemies.
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001
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