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Last Updated: Tuesday, 20 May, 2003, 08:35 GMT 09:35 UK
Fleeing DR Congo with tales of horror
By Will Ross
BBC, western Uganda

Allegations of cannibalism and mass murder are coming from Congolese civilians of the Hema ethnic group who have fled across the border into western Uganda.

Fleeing clashes in Bunia
Terrified civilians have fled in their thousands
It is impossible to verify some of the more extreme claims - for example that the ethnic Lendu militia have eaten the hearts of Hema victims or worn their intestines as a grisly headdress.

But there is no doubt about the fear felt by fleeing civilians.

United Nations officials are taking the allegations of cannibalism seriously and plan to investigate.

Amos Namanga Ngongi, head of the UN mission in Congo, told reporters that the reports were too persistent to be entirely without foundation.

In the fishing village of Ntoroko, at the southern tip of Lake Albert, the authorities claim 12,000 refugees have crossed the border over the last month.

It is impossible to verify the figures especially as those fleeing the conflict in Ituri District are now living amongst the Ugandan community.

"They are our brothers and sisters so we welcome them and they stay together with us," says Emmanuel Kawaya, the chairman of the sub-county before warning that they are placing a strain on facilities and resources.

Protection

Following the influx, it is now hard to tell if you are in Uganda or the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Congolese music rings out from the bars and open-air hair salons offer the latest in fashion. Even those running from conflict keep up with the styles.

UNREST IN ITURI REGION

During the exodus from the Ituri district, most of the refugees benefited from the protection of the withdrawing Ugandan troops.

"We would all have been massacred on the way if it weren't for the large numbers of Ugandan soldiers," whispers Antoinette.

Antoinette says the Lendu militia around Bunia town have been killing the Hema in large numbers.

Between Bunia and the border, she claims to have seen empty villages where Hema once lived. She says now they are occupied by the Lendu and their allied Ngiti militias.

Antoinette now sleeps under the stars outside Ntoroko's Anglican church.

She has no food, is ill but has no access to medication and fears cholera due to the lack of adequate sanitation.

Ntoroko does have a cholera problem - and posters advising on preventative measures can be seen throughout the town.

New life

Some of the withdrawing Ugandan troops not only protected the refugees during the walk to the border but came in useful at a vital hour: when 20-year-old Bernadette gave birth on the way to the border.

UN peacekeepers in Bunia
The small UN force have failed to halt the violence
The soldiers constructed a wheelbarrow from wood and pushed Bernadette with baby Meshack to the border.

She says that when the Lendu started killing the Hema in Bunia she could not find her husband and had no option but to flee.

She still has no idea whether her husband is alive or where he is.

She has not eaten for two days and is now struggling to breastfeed baby Meshack.

Forty kilometres away in Rwebisengo, a group of 400 refugees crossed to the Ugandan side of the Semiliki River which marks the border.

The situation there is slightly different as those fleeing are not all from the Hema ethnic group and do no not have a historical connection with the Ugandans.

For that reason the authorities hope to establish a camp for the refugees.

Warnings

Degracius says he is a businessman from Butembo of the Nande ethnic group and accuses the rebel Union of Congolese Patriots, UPC, of forcing him to flee.

"If you are not Hema you are automatically an enemy of the UPC and are treated as a Lendu," he claims.

All of the refugees I met were critical of the United Nations for not protecting them from the militias.

Chipe, a 10-year-old soldier in Bunia
Uganda and Rwanda have been arming the militias
"I don't know if the minds of those at the UN headquarters are functioning well," says Ngadjole Lonema who describes himself as a businessman from Bunia.

He criticises the UN for deploying as few as 700 peacekeepers on the ground while the Ugandan army has been withdrawing some 9,000 troops from Congo.

I asked Ngadjole Lonema what advice he would give to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.

"He must deploy at least 15,000 troops immediately to prevent the Hema being eliminated from the map of Congo. If he doesn't act quickly he will count the dead bodies like they were counted in Rwanda in 1994."

While hope is currently pinned on a ceasefire between the opposing factions, many suggest that militias capable of carrying out horrendous human rights atrocities are unlikely to turn into a disciplined force overnight.

So the immediate deployment of a large peacekeeping force is essential.




SEE ALSO:
Truce as Congo town empties
16 May 03  |  Africa
In pictures: Congo town empties
16 May 03  |  Photo Gallery
Disease fear in DR Congo town
15 May 03  |  Africa
Uganda plans looting charges
15 May 03  |  Business


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