Features

On the road to genocide

Congo | "A cycle of violence and retribution": Pan-African efforts to end Congo's war are having the opposite effect: spiking its death toll

Issue: "The Bush mandate," Nov. 16, 2002

At 8:30 in the morning Kakani, head nurse in the intensive care ward at Nyankunde Evangelical Medical Center, had finished early morning rounds and was preparing to go to morning worship service when he heard sporadic gunfire and screaming. Through an open window, he saw dozens of women and children running toward the Congo mission compound from fields where they had been working since daybreak. Behind them were about 7,000 soldiers; they were rebel militiamen from the neighboring Ngiti tribe, their faces plastered in paint and leaf rings encircling their heads.

As Kakani (who is known by this single name) watched in horror, the militiamen brandished rifles, bayonets, machetes, and knives. "They killed anyone in their path-women, children, and the elderly," he later told Baptist missionary physician William Clemmer.

Mission workers say the Ngiti attackers killed 1,000 people in the first hours of a September attack on Nyankunde. Across northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo, brutal tribal massacres are increasing much as they did in nearby Rwanda in 1994, where 800,000 died before outside intervention brought the bloodletting to an end. Like the Rwandan killings that began not far from here, in northeastern Congo both numbers dead and savage brutality are increasing-with little outside attention.

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UN Security Council members met on Oct. 31 to hear about the rise of ethnic slaughter in Congo. They urged neighboring Uganda to use its troops in the area to protect civilians. Ugandan troops have been on alert in the town of Bunia 28 miles east of Nyankunde at the Security Council's request. But those orders make no sense in light of what Security Council members heard in the closed-door session. Deputy UN Congo relief coordinator Carolyn McAskie told council members that the Ugandan troops are contributing to the violence by siding with certain tribal factions and even participating in the killings.

Ms. McAskie reported that 60,000 people have died in the region as a result of fighting between Hema and Lendu militias. The Ngiti who attacked Nyankunde support the Lendu tribe. Militias "have been able to kill, rape, and mutilate in an environment of impunity," she said, leading to "a cycle of violence and retribution."

The UN has relied on Ugandan soldiers even though they have been complicit in Congo's four-year civil war, which has resulted in 2 million deaths. The conflict, now Africa's largest, erupted when rebels backed by Uganda and Rwanda tried to topple Congo's Kinshasa government of one-time rebel leader Laurent Kabila. He in turn received support from Zimbabwean, Angolan, and Namibian troops. After a bodyguard shot Mr. Kabila in 2001, his government passed to 30-year-old son Joseph.

Over 50,000 troops from other African nations have taken part in the civil war, splitting in two Africa's third largest country. Most troops pulled out as peace talks between Mr. Kabila and the rebels began in earnest just last month. The two sides appear to be close to a power-sharing deal that would keep the younger Kabila in power but would eventually lead to the country's first democratic elections after over 30 years of dictatorship. In response, Rwanda in recent weeks says it has completely withdrawn troops, while Zimbabwe, Angola, and Namibia pledged to do so by Nov. 9. Uganda will leave 1,000 troops at the UN's request in Ituri Province, the region that includes Nyankunde.

Peace in theory at the table, however, does not equal peace on the ground. The pullouts have created a power vacuum, provoking ongoing bloodbaths between tribes. Troops that remain contribute at best a false sense of security. Staff at Nyankunde hospital said the contingent of government soldiers who were sent to protect them fled at the first sign of fighting. "The UN has not 'rushed to assist,'" said Brook Ford, a missionary at Nyankunde, as initial reports suggested.

But workers at the mission did not hesitate to act. Kakani, who is from the Hema tribe targeted by Ngiti fighters, quickly realized that the mission compound-a regional center for Christian activity run by several evangelical mission agencies-would also be attacked. The Ngiti scorned the hospital for its history of treating people of all faiths and ethnic backgrounds.

Kakani closed windows and barricaded the intensive-care ward. Patients who could move were hidden under beds and in rafters. Ted Sugimoto, a physician on staff from Africa Inland Mission, at the same time hid patients in the orthopedic center. Hospital staff laid many on the floor to keep them safely away from stray bullets that peppered walls and windows.

Despite their efforts, the Ngiti went through the 250-bed hospital, killing in their beds all patients who resembled Hemas. The dead included "elderly disabled, adults, and even a baby strapped to his mother's back," according to Mr. Sugimoto. He saw one of the hospital chaplains tortured before he was killed. Another pastor, his wife, and infant were killed soon after singing Swahili hymns with departing workers. The Ngiti moved house to house, where many hospital staff had fled, slitting throats of victims and throwing their bodies outside. They looted homes and then burned them to the ground.

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