DR Congo's atrocious secret
Despite a peace deal signed two years ago to end the long-running civil war, violence is continuing in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo. And in the province of Ituri, Hilary Andersson finds evidence of cannibalism by some rebels:
There is a part of the world where atrocities go beyond all normal bounds, where evil seems to congregate. Almost everyone who has ever worked there will know where I am talking of. The area is not very large on the map of Africa. But the region in and north of the forests of central Africa has hosted Rwanda's genocide, the massacres in Burundi, the devastation of southern Sudan, the mutilations in Uganda, and the atrocities of the north-eastern Congo.
And so I had the usual feeling of dread when we flew into the area on this trip. We left the acacia-lined, sunswept plains of east Africa and, as we approached, the sky began to darken. We began to descend through black clouds that hugged the huge forests below. We landed in a ferocious rainstorm in the small town of Bunia in the north-east of the Congo.
'Hole in Africa's heart'
The Congo is a vast territory, the size of western Europe. The war is not about any principle at all, violence has just moved in where there is no authority But it has been called the hole in the heart of Africa, because much of it is a giant power vacuum.
In the north-east, at least seven warlords are locked in brutal scramble for personal power and control. Lots of the fighters are children. Rape is more widespread than possibly anywhere else on Earth. And the war is not about any principle at all, violence has just moved in where there is no authority.
We visited a refugee camp set in a small valley, a piece of land like a basin. Around its rims the United Nations patrolled to keep the militia out. It reminded me of the atrocities in Bosnia, where at a certain point individuals turned into human devils.
In an afternoon every person we spoke to, without exception, had witnessed not just killing but horrific mutilation. The children had sunken, troubled eyes. The women looked exhausted and the men were bursting with what they had to tell. Their relatives had their hearts ripped out, their heads cut off, their sexual organs removed. This, it seemed, was the standard way of killing here. Why? You want to know why?
Yes there is war, but this is different. This is not just killing, or taking territory. It is deliberate mutilation on a scale that makes you reel with horror. It reminded me of the atrocities in Bosnia, where at a certain point individuals turned into human devils, bent on doing not just the worst they could but the most atrocious.
We met a woman who I will call Kavuo, not her real name. Survivors of militia attacks remain in hiding for fear of further violence. To talk to her about her story we had to travel to a remote location in the jungle, where we could not be seen or heard by others. What she had to speak of is an atrocity shrouded in secrecy here, an atrocity. It is taboo to even speak of it.
The events she told me about happened two years ago and hers was one of the first public testimonies of its kind. Kavuo was on the run with her husband, her four children and three other couples. They had spent the night in a hut, and got up in the morning to keep moving. But they had barely left the hut when six militia men accosted them. Kavuo and the women were ordered to lie with their faces on the ground. The militia ordered Kavuo's husband and the other men to collect firewood. Then the women were told to say goodbye to their husbands. They obeyed.
The militia then began to kill the men one by one. Kavuo's husband was third. Her testimony is that the militia men lit a fire and put an old oil drum, cut into two, on the flames. I will omit other details. But Kavuo says the militia cooked her husbands parts in the drums and ate them.
Those who have studied the region say cannibalism has a history there but as a specific animist ritual, carried out only in exceptional circumstances. Fighters told us that those who carry out such acts believe it makes them stronger. What has happened now is that the war has turned Congo's society upside-down.
Warlords are exploiting this, and perverting existing beliefs for their own ends. Fighters told us that those who carry out such acts believe it makes them stronger. Some believe they are literally taking spiritual power from their victims. That once they have eaten, they have the power of the enemy. These atrocities are also designed to instil utter fear into the enemy.
It is estimated that four million people have died in the Congo as a result of the long running war. That is truly staggering. It is more than those killed by Cambodia's Pol Pot and more than those killed in Rwanda. Most people have died of hunger and disease that the violence has left in its wake.
Kavuo lost four of her children to illness and malnutrition even before her husband was killed. Now she lives in a remote village in the forest, and cannot afford to look after her surviving children. If this is her story, imagine how many others are like it and the numbers begin to make a horrifying sort of sense.
As we flew out of the Congo, I could see the vast forests below, thick with trees, infested with malaria, and barely accessible. A huge area that few outsiders venture into an area where evils happen that are rarely reported.
The blood red sunsets, the streaks of black clouds a weird sort of echo. Anarchy is not just a word. In the north-eastern Congo we saw its reality. What is happening there is proof of the scale of devastation that chaos can invite, and of the terrifying human capacity for unleashing deliberate evil on the innocent.
[This was broadcast on Thursday, 7 April, 2005 at 1100 BST on BBC Radio 4]