Heart of Darkness

In Hell's Waiting Room

Children, like this Lendu fighter, are often forced into service by warring ethnic groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Missionary Jan Mol is afraid he may be losing his faith. When the pastor makes his way past the shell craters to his parish house in the burned-out center of Bunia, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (D.R.C.) he has to run a humiliating gantlet. Already, at midday, drunken 7-year-olds wearing women’s high heels flock around the 67-year-old, flaunting their Kalashnikovs, disrespectfully blowing cigarette smoke in his face, and threatening this mzungu from Holland with bread knives and hand grenades.

These children are the new lords of the street. They “kill and loot and obey the rule of violence, not the rules of the Lord,” Mol says, and he feels that he is already in hell’s waiting room. “If United Nations soldiers don’t come soon to separate them, we are going to experience a real catastrophe,” the minister says. He watches incredulously as a Blue Helmet [U.N. peacekeeper] from Uruguay stands on the Boulevard de la Libération and allows himself to be harassed by a heavily armed boy wearing a wig, with a pack on his back and beer bottles stuck into his belt. The Dutchman is convinced: “We are witnessing genocide, and the U.N. is standing by, doing nothing.”

At least two weeks ago, child soldiers from the Union of Congolese Patriots, belonging to the Hema tribe, took control of Bunia, a city of 300,000. They drove out their opponents from the Lendu tribe, hacking them with machetes or shooting them. Butchered bodies lay on the streets here for days. Mol, who has lived here since 1971, sees a “disaster like that in Bosnia or Rwanda” coming, where hundreds of thousands were beaten, shot, or slashed as the world looked on.

When the battle for the capital of the Ituri region of the D.R.C. began, the pastor tried, again and again, to get the commander of the 750 or so Uruguayan Blue Helmets who are stationed here to intervene. But by the time a few U.N. soldiers, armed to the teeth, finally moved out into the streets, Mol’s colleagues, Father Aimé Ndjabu and Father François Mateso, were already dead. One had his throat slit, the other had been riddled with machine-gun fire.

Around the bodies of the two missionaries and 48 other victims, their young killers were celebrating. They called out to Mol: “We will kill all our enemies!” The Blue Helmets pulled out and merely noted the incident. They allowed themselves to become spectators to mass murder, as happened before in Srebrenica in Bosnia, when Serb militia killed more than 7,500 Muslims in 1995.

After a couple of days, the U.N. soldiers counted about 300 bodies in the center of Bunia alone. How many dead there were in all, no one knows, because the international peacekeepers don’t dare, even in armored vehicles, to leave the city. “2.4 million people live in Ituri province,” says Marcus Sack of German World Hunger Aid, “and a million of them are now refugees. What is happening in the hills is pure terror.”

It was not until last week that the bodies of two U.N. observers were found, 65 kilometers from Bunia. They had been hacked to pieces.

In the city’s hospital, Sack saw the survivors of this inferno: women and children with limbs chopped off, victims with gunshot wounds, now being taking care of by members of Doctors Without Borders.

“In addition, we have several credible accounts of cannibalism,” claims U.N. representative Amos Namanga Ngongi, and speaks of “incredible barbarity: In Congo people run around wearing amulets made of human bones.” This man from Cameroon is the secretary-general’s special envoy to the D.R.C. and is here in Bunia for only a short visit.

He explains the scandalous inactivity of his soldiers by saying they were unprepared “for such warfare.” But the Blue Helmets’ job is specifically to protect the civilian population. Even so, Ngongi is optimistic. “Killers can be transformed into non-killers,” he says to his people as he prepares to leave. Then he is off—his plane is waiting.

But Ngongi seems to be alone with his optimism. Since the fighting broke out here close to five years ago, the International Rescue Committee estimates that between 3 million and 4.7 million people have lost their lives. Not since World War II ended has the death rate in any war been this high.

Amnesty International estimates that tribal warfare between the cattle-herding Hema and the farmers of the Lendu in the northeast of this huge country has alone cost 60,000 lives. And no end to the bloodletting is in sight.

To the contrary: Just five kilometers from this city under Hema control, uniformed soldiers from the Lendu are watching the roads leaving the town, itching for revenge. And development worker Sack is not alone in believing that “they are waiting for weapons from outside the country; when they get them they will attack at once.”

Congo’s neighbors, Rwanda and Uganda, have played considerable roles in the ethnic warfare that began in 1998. According to a report published by Amnesty International in April, they “systematically plundered eastern D.R.C.’s natural wealth on a vast scale,” and “deliberately stoked interethnic conflicts and mass killings” in order to get access to gold, timber, and coltan, which is used to make cell phones. The wretched child soldiers, themselves a “constantly expanding tragedy,” merely do the dirty work for profiteers in Kampala and Kigali.

While Kivu province was invaded by the Rwandan army and even today is controlled by the Congolese Rally for Democracy, the Ugandan army secured Ituri province, farther to the north, and took control of its large reserves of gold. It is believed that there may be oil reserves in the land near Lake Albert. According to estimates from Canada-based Heritage Oil, they might amount to “several billion barrels.”

In the beginning, the comparatively well-trained Ugandan army supported the Hema militias. But these people felt closer to the Tutsi in Rwanda, and allied themselves with the government in Kigali. So Uganda turned to the Lendu, and it is now supplying them with weapons.

The result of these shifting alliances is constant changes in who is in power in which regions, and the unimaginable atrocities committed by both groups upon the other. The events have led even the U.N.’s former head prosecutor for war crimes in former Yugoslavia, Carla del Ponte, to speak of  “looming genocide.”

In Ituri, the killing constantly gets worse. On May 7, Uganda signed an accord with the government in Kinshasa and agreed to pull its last troops out of Ituri, and anarchy has reigned there ever since. The Ugandans handed over their weapons to the Lendu fighters, who have made good use of them. They have taken advantage of any authority to slaughter the Hema in huge numbers.

A few days later the Hema, now armed by Rwanda, took their bloody revenge and seized the city. Since then, the Lendu of Bunia are either dead or refugees. At least 50,000 have supposedly crossed the border into Uganda. The murderous chaos and the U.N.’s inability to control things serve Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni’s interests well.

Right after his army had left Congo, and the widespread murder had begun, the president began to speak scornfully of the U.N. soldiers in Congo as “dangerous tourists.” And the head of military intelligence in Uganda, Col. Noble Mayombo, told a reporter for Kenya’s Daily Nation that Uganda would consider marching back into Congo “to protect our own security.”

“Looting, killing, and turning people into refugees,” are, according to Sack, the dreadful trinity at work in Congo, and there is no sign that things will be changing soon. “We have information that Congolese government troops are moving toward Bunia from the south,” says the French head of the Blue Helmet mission, Daniel Vollot, and he sees bad things about to happen. And he had just made some progress in bringing the opposing sides together.

Two of them are standing right next to Vollot under a mango tree: one leader of the Hema militia, Floribert Kisembo, and the “chief of staff” of the Lendu fighters, Mathieu Ngudjolo. The two commanders are telling their child soldiers sincerely that they now want to obey the U.N. suggestion and send out joint patrols into the looted city.

Kisembo is wearing green rubber boots and has brought, as a symbol of his power, a shoehorn adorned with a lion’s head. He looks around grimly. Ngudjolo, for his own safety, has to be driven around town in an armored vehicle.

While in Bunia there are such desperate attempts to keep something resembling order, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan seems to have lost faith in his own armed forces. After more than a week of killing, the U.N. Security Council agreed to his proposal to send in peacekeepers. And even though Blue Helmets from Bangladesh are expected to arrive in the region in September, Annan has approached the European Union with a request for troops.

So far, only France has responded, stating that it will provide some 1,000 soldiers for such a mission. But only on the condition that both Uganda and Rwanda agree to the introduction of French soldiers. This may torpedo this attempt to prevent genocide. During the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, French troops played an infamous role, supporting the Hutu militia. At the end of 100 days of killing, about 800,000 people had lost their lives. Already the government in Kigali has expressed opposition to any French participation. [In early June, a French-led peacekeeping force began deploying in the D.R.C., putting 100 troops on the ground in Bunia.—WPR]

And so not too much will change in Congo, which writer Joseph Conrad described, back in 1899, as a “valley of death.” His protagonist, Kurtz, cries out: “The horror! The horror!”