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Last Updated: Saturday, 18 October, 2003, 11:18 GMT 12:18 UK
Africa's forgotten and ignored war

By Fergal Keane
BBC correspondent in DR Congo

Danny leaned into the plane and asked if we were all strapped in. Then he paused, as if thinking about what he was going to say next.

Congolese teenager panning for gold
Congolese teenager pans for gold, but the war has affected the trade
"Folks, as we are missionaries, we always start our flights with a prayer," he said.

Then he began to pray.

He asked that we be safe on our journey. He asked, too, that his passengers might find the story they were looking for in Congo.

By now Danny would have known exactly the kind of story we would find.

He had grown up in Africa. It was his home.

Every other day he flew into north-eastern Congo. He had helped evacuate hundreds of people when the fighting erupted around Bunia in late spring and summer.

Danny knew Congo alright but he wore his faith like armour, and from his world above the clouds this missionary pilot saw a different Africa.

Peaceful

From up there, one could see the well tilled fields of Uganda, the silver immensity of Lake Victoria, the occasional fishing boats speckled on its surface, and then the land sloping upwards into mountains and forest and another expanse of water, Lake Albert.

An invisible line divides the lake and at half past three on a sunny afternoon we crossed into Congo.

As I said, from the vantage point of these skies, one saw a different Africa.

It was a green place, a peaceful place.

We passed over small brush fires, the thick white smoke curling into the sky and then dissipating as it hit the cold air further up.

From here Congo was at peace. Then we began to descend.

We crossed a line of hills and banked to the left, then circled and flew over a large town.

This was Bunia - our destination, its streets busy in the sunlight.

Coming in to land we could see the tents of the UN troops, their white armoured vehicles, the barbed wire encircling the airport perimeter.

Blue helmets, white vehicles, the green hills of Central Africa.

Echoes of Rwanda

Congolese children
Children have been the target of militias
For one jolting moment I was carried back to another place, a central African nation where I had watched the UN fail to halt genocide.

Rwanda.

Over the next few days the echoes of that other tragedy would follow wherever we went.

The UN compound in Bunia is encircled by razor wire and guarded by Uruguayan troops.

They looked tired, dusty and uncomfortable.

There were Bangladeshis too, and Pakistanis and there are Nepalese on the way.

The armies of the world's poorest countries, just as was the case in Rwanda.

For, here at the outset, let us be clear about one matter: that Congo is a tragedy the developed world has done its best to ignore.

Congolese soldier
A Congolese soldier in a war-torn country
Four million people have died from massacre, famine, disease.

Four million in just five years.

In that period the armies of no fewer than seven African countries have fought here.

They did not fight for the good of the Congolese but as part of a latter day scramble for Africa, a war for the country's rich resources of diamonds, gold and minerals.

In recent years we've recoiled at fresh accounts of the horrors inflicted on Congo under the colonial rule of the Belgian king Leopold.

Heroes

Yet even as a powerful new account of his terrible reign was being published, a new age of evil was overtaking Congo.

That night in the Lushakavini hotel I pulled out a copy of the latest report on Congo by Human Rights Watch.

Its chief researcher is a remarkable woman called Alison Des Forges.

I remember during the Rwandan genocide, meeting a group of survivors and one of them pressing into my hand a letter for Alison.

"She is my friend, and she must be told what has happened to us," the woman said.

He saw the corpses of his family, including his nephew who was five-years-old, with his stomach cut open. They were cutting the flesh and eating the victims
Witness to a massacre
Alison Des Forges and the brave Congolese activists who help her are heroes of our time.

They are brave because recording the testimonies of the traumatised survivors of Congo's horror is in itself traumatising work.

They are brave because it can also be dangerous work: human rights activists have been abducted, tortured and murdered.

It is only when you hear the testimony that they record, that you understand why they are so driven to bear witness.

For example, this story recorded from a Pygmy man, in late 2002.

"About 20 miles from Mambasa, the militia attacked a pygmy camp."

"A man called Amuzati who was hunting in the forest heard shooting. As he wasn't far from his camp he returned to see what was happening."

"About half a mile away from the camp he heard shouts and crying, and then there was silence."

"He came closer and saw several militia men."

Congolese are weary of the war, but there is no hope in sight
"He saw the corpses of his family, including his nephew who was five-years-old, with his stomach cut open."

"They were cutting the flesh and eating the victims... he was filled with emotion and afraid that if he shouted, they would catch him too, so he crept away."

Or there was the story told by the aunt of a rape victim - there is an epidemic of sexual violence in north-eastern Congo.

This is the story she told: "One day in early November we were on the road near Mambasa when we ran into the militia."

"Some had camouflage uniforms and others just had green ones; some of them had green berets."

"They took our things from us including our bicycle and goats and then they took our niece who was only 15-years-old and they raped her in front of us."

Even children are sent off to fight
"Then they took her away with them. We have not seen her since."

"Her name was Marie Anzoyo. I know other girls who were taken including a girl called Therese and another called Vero."

Marie Anzoyo, Therese, Vero.

Three names out of millions.

We rose before dawn on the second day and set out on the road north.

I use the word "road", but it hardly describes the dirt track which leads, over five bone-crunching hours to the village of Kachele, scene of Congo's latest massacre.

The landrover slid in the mud, bounced over ruts. In places the bush was so thick it brushed the windows of the car.

Ethnic wars

This was perfect ambush country, a landscape of concealment and hidden watchers.

In this part of Congo, alone 50,000 people have been killed in the past five years.

The country is full of refugee camps like this with people living in fear
Many of them members of two warring ethnic groups: the Hema and the Lendu.

Close to Kachele we saw a log lying across the track leading into the hills.

Our guide, Dego, told us it had been placed there by Lendu tribesmen, those accused of carrying out the slaughter of Hema people at Kachele.

"They are just over that hill," he said.

Not for the first time in Central Africa, I was reminded of WB Yeats' line: Little room / great hatred.

Survival

Here, desperately poor people fought each other for the sake of land.

This is not mindless tribal violence.

In this part of the world land means food and that means survival.

If these people lived in a country with a functioning state, these disputes over land would likely never have erupted into such appalling violence.

UN peacekeeper in Kachele
UN peacekeepers approach a Congo village
Congo's vast natural wealth should provide prosperity for all of its people.

But instead, they have been cursed to live in a land ruled first by a venal Belgian king, and by Mobutu Sese Seko, the world's most corrupt dictator, and now a country where foreign armies like Uganda and Rwanda have come to plunder and fight.

In Kachele the survivors sat around in their rags.

Some looked bewildered. An old woman crouched outside the hut in which her family had been murdered. A cluster of children sat together in the open space between the mud and thatch huts.

Too late

Here are the facts of the massacre at Kachele.

Shortly after 0500, as the light crept over the valley, a party of Lendu militiamen approached the village.

One of them fired shots. It was the signal for the killing to begin.

Families panicked by the shooting ran out of their huts.

They ran into the militia and were cut down, mostly with the weapons used by Africa's poor: machetes, clubs and spears.

Sixty-five people were killed.

Forty of them were children.

Forty children hacked and bludgeoned at the hands of adults.

The killers escaped as they nearly always do, and a few hours after that the UN peacekeepers arrived.

Too late to do anything but count the corpses.

Kachele's chief is bitter.

Antoine Dhabi is 37-years-old. He inherited the chieftaincy from his brother who was murdered by the Lendu.

He told me that his daughters - eight-year-old Esperance and 13-year-old Antoinette - had been abducted by the attackers.

Antoine Dhabi said he felt like giving up and leaving for the town.

The land of his ancestors had become too dangerous.

"The Lendu want to wipe us all out," he said.

But talk to Lendu people who have been attacked by the Hema militias and you will hear the same thing.

They too have suffered appalling massacres.

Howl of grief

As we were leaving the village we heard singing.

I got out of the landrover and walked in the direction of the voice.

I say singing, but it is hardly an accurate description

It was partly song, but also, partly, a howl of grief.

An old woman was performing a ritual of mourning - dancing on the mass graves which contained the bodies of the dead.

Her name was Marianne and she had just come back to the village to find that her son and several of his children were dead.

I asked our guide Dego what she was singing.

"She sings that her children are gone, that they are decaying in the earth," he said.

Then the old woman climbed down from the grave and got down on her knees, and then threw her arms across the mound of earth.

And in this way, she said farewell to her children.

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