Sun, May 25, 2003 - Page 6 News List

World slowly waking up to bloodletting in Congo

BATTLE FOR BUNIA Peacekeepers, lacking the authorization to intervene, were forced to hide behind razor wire last week as civilians were massacred


Dead bodies litter Bunia's empty streets. From some the blood still drips from machete slashes, spear thrusts and bullet wounds.

Others are two weeks old and stinking, half-eaten by the packs of dogs flopping lazily about the once-prosperous north-eastern capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

There are women's bodies scattered in Bunia's main market place; a baby's body on its main road; two priests' bodies inside one church.

Last week, a burning corpse was tossed on to the main UN compound's lawn, to show 700 Uruguayan peacekeepers what they were missing while they cowered under fire behind its razor-wire perimeter, unauthorized to intervene in the latest massacre of Congolese civilians.

As the two-week fight for Bunia between rival ethnic militias cooled this week, Albert Asumani slipped back to the ransacked suburb of Nyambe where he lives.

"Why? Why are we killing our brothers? When will it end?" he said, stripping off a pair of yellow rubber gloves he had donned to toss two dead neighbors into a pit-latrine.

This week, for perhaps the first time, western countries appear to be asking the same question about Congo's four-and-a-half-year war, which at one time involved nine national armies and a confusion of local militias, and which has already claimed an estimated 4.7 million lives.

On Tuesday France sent military observers to Bunia; it is now considering sending troops with orders to shoot to kill. Britain may send a small force in support. This flicker of attention to the world's biggest war comes after UN Secretary General Kofi Annan called for a "coalition of the willing" to police Bunia and the surrounding hills of Ituri province.

Carla del Ponte, the UN war crimes prosecutor, has suggested that the mass killings by the local Hema and Lendu tribes "could be genocide."

In fact, the war in Ituri is not a genocide, a word which describes a systematic program of annihilation. It is too chaotic, with random atrocities perpetrated by Hema and Lendu militias. Nor is the killing of 300 people in Bunia particularly extreme by Ituri's recent standards.

Last September in nearby Nyakunde village, 1,200 Hema civilians were killed. In all, Ituri's war has claimed an estimated 50,000 lives.

"No one was bothered about Nyakunde or took much notice of Ituri before," said Anneke Van Woudenberg of Human Rights Watch. "But now you have a few UN peacekeepers getting shot at and suddenly everyone's interested in Congo."

The battle for Bunia began on March 6, as Ugandan troops withdrew from the town in line with a recent peace accord.

With the UN mission in Congo unable to fill the vacuum -- having only 4,000 troops to police an area two-thirds the size of western Europe -- a massacre in Bunia had been widely predicted.

"Does the world care what happens to Congo? No," said Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Vollot, the French commander of UN forces in Ituri.

"We've been sending messages every day to [the UN headquarters in] New York [saying] this was going to happen, that we need more troops. Nothing was done."

The Lendus took the town, and began looting and killing Hema civilians, putting 250,000 people to flight.

Among the 12,000 that remained, crammed against the razor-wire of the UN compound, was Safi Sabina, 32.

"People were screaming, we were running from the machetes," she said, bowing her head to the baby in her lap as she began to cry. Her father, mother, two aunts and three young brothers and sisters were all murdered by the militiamen.

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