This week marks the five-year anniversary of the fall of Bunia, a tiny trading town in northeastern Congo where over five hundred people were massacred by ethnic militia in a blood spree for gold and plunder. Many of those killed were then mutilated and their organs eaten on the killing floor.
As a reporter who covered the direct lead-up and aftermath of this carnage (I escaped just hours before the siege), the first week of May never goes by without a moment of reflection and pause. I'd grown up in a Texas Pentecostal church, seen the preacher draw the Devil out the throats of backsliding men, but until I'd been to Bunia, I'd never seen that kind of evil. When I did, I stared into it long and hard, took it inside and made it part of me, and its impression has since shaped my life.
I haven't stopped looking. In Congo, the killing continues today, a slow-turning mill of death and misery controlled by outsiders, fueled by greed, and a global hunger for industrial might. And according to the International Rescue Committee, an American aid group, it's claimed over five million lives, more than any conflict since World War II, mainly from war-induced sickness and hunger when fighting drives families into the bush.
In May 2003, Bunia - capital of the hill-swept Ituri district near the Ugandan border - was a latter flashpoint in Congo's multi-headed war, a thrumming organism of rape and pillage propped up by over half a dozen rebel groups and their shifty government sponsors. The war had begun in 1998 when Rwanda and Uganda invaded Congo to oust the president, Laurent Kabila, and to exterminate the tens of thousands of Hutu rebels who'd fled there after orchestrating Rwanda's genocide four years earlier. At its peak, the war sucked in seven African armies, who largely financed their stay by siphoning Congo's wealth of natural resources: timber, gold, diamonds, copper, and coltan, which is used to make chips in mobile phones and laptop computers.
To control these minerals, Uganda and Rwanda began arming and training local ethnic militia. In Ituri, it was the Hema and Lendu, who were already engaged in a bloody land dispute. Automatic weapons and rockets from their new government sponsors only spiked the carnage.
By May 2003, the Hema-Lendu war had killed over 50,000 people and driven hundreds of thousands into squalid camps filled with disease. That same year, Human Rights Watch reported that Uganda funneled $60 million in gold out of eastern Congo, most of it bound for Switzerland. Rwanda and its proxy force were earning over a million each month in diamonds.
I'd arrived in Bunia in late April to cover another massacre in the hills north of town. There, around a village called Drodro, Lendu militia had butchered as many as one thousand Hema in less than three hours. (Six months earlier, in another town, the Hema had murdered eight hundred Lendu, then stuffed their mutilated bodies down the wells.)
I'd recently quit a magazine job in New York and moved to Nairobi, Kenya to be a freelance reporter. I'd flown to Bunia with the Ugandan army - who were based in town and still controlled the region - and covered the Drodro massacre, then returned the following week to get a more in-depth story. Under a peace deal brokered by the United Nations, the Ugandans were preparing to withdraw their seven thousand troops from Congo. Knowing this, the gunboy armies of the Hema and Lendu were gathering on the edge of town, waiting to fill the vacuum left by their sponsor. A small UN peacekeeping force of three hundred soldiers had arrived to replace the Ugandans, yet their mandate didn't allow them to protect civilians. Once in Bunia, it became clear another massacre would unfold right there in town.
The UN, trying to broker peace between the warring tribes, invited both armies into town for talks, yet didn't ask them to disarm. Soon we shared the streets with Lendu warriors, many of them children, who carried rusty Kalashnikovs, rocket-propelled grenades, and spears whittled to saw teeth. Magic charms hung from their bandoliers - voodoo they believed would shield them from bullets. Some dressed in fright masks and battle drag - blond wigs and long sequined gowns that dragged in the dirt. They tugged on joints and drank beer in the awning shade. At night they'd go wilding - killing and raping, often targeting Bunia's Hema residents.
For two weeks, I lay awake in my hotel and counted the gunshots, each night convinced they were creeping closer to my room. Mornings arrived with fresh destruction: the taximan hacked with machetes, the teenager hanging in a tree, the hospital filled with survivors of village attacks who'd stumbled in half alive (one was a three-year old boy with a necklace gash from a machete). I was mostly alone and inexperienced and never sure whether to stay or leave. I stayed, and paranoia soon had its way. I started changing hotels without telling people. At night, I packed my bags before dark and slept fully clothed. If I had to escape quickly, I wanted to be ready.
On May 6, the Ugandan army finally readied their last vehicle to roll out of Bunia and the rest of Ituri. I begged a ride on the Ugandan general's twin-engine Cessna, knowing fully well the UN couldn't protect me. Before boarding the plane, I said goodbye to my translator Johnny Ngure, who'd since become my close friend, and whose father had been killed the previous year in another militia raid. I was leaving, Johnny was not. When the plane took off and swung east toward Kampala, I could see the Lendu boys marching toward Bunia.
Little did we know, but the Ugandan commanders had left behind a cache of weapons as a parting gift to the Lendu: keep the gold safe, and keep it coming. Two hours after I left, gunboys hit the Catholic parish north of town and slaughtered the priest. By the next day, the town was awash in blood.
Over the next week, Hema civilians were pulled from their homes and executed, often in macabre and brutal fashion. Survivors who'd managed to hide watched as warriors cut out the warm hearts and livers of their dead - both as ceremony and cold intimidation - and ate them in the roads. Once the Hema militia managed to push their enemies from town, they simply started murdering Lendu civilians. The UN peacekeepers, rifles in hand, cowered in their base and watched it unfold, hamstrung by some invisible rule decided thousands of miles away.
When I returned on May 15 with a group of American missionaries, the town lay in ruins. Bodies of children rotted in the streets, half eaten by dogs. Shops were looted, and most of Bunia's population now huddled in camps around the airport and UN compound, which had been locked until residents crashed the gates. Johnny was alive and living in the camp under a dirty tarpaulin shelter. Everything he owned had been stolen in the raid. In total, over five hundred people had been murdered in town; no telling how many had died in the bush. The local Red Cross crews did their best to collect the bodies, but sometimes, even they didn't come back.
In the following months, the UN beefed up its mandate to protect civilians, and a European Union rapid-reaction force led by the French army managed to bring a modicum of security to the town. But attacks continued in the bush, and even after the arrival of thousands more UN peacekeepers, landmark presidential elections two years later, and a government drive to clean up armed groups, Ituri and the rest of eastern Congo remains dangerous and unstable.
With China and India's ravenous demand for natural resources only driving up the value of Congo's gold and copper, the Congolese continue to suffer the curse of their wealth. The newly-elected government of President Joseph Kabila (his father was assassinated in 2001) has committed to regulating the mining industry, but a majority of the minerals still leave the country illegally in shadowy deals with outside players, and in many cases, directly fuels the existence of armed groups. Just last week, the BBC reported that Indian and Pakistani peacekeepers had smuggled weapons to militia in eastern Congo in exchange for gold, ivory, and drugs. The UN says the practice was isolated, but still, it goes to prove that in Congo, even the good guys get greedy.
So what can you do? If you happen to be shopping for jewelry, just ask the dealer where his gold came from. Such pressure worked to slow the export of blood diamonds from war zones in Sierra Leone. You could also support groups such as Human Rights Watch, whose hard-biting exposes of international mining companies have raised enough hell to affect change. Or Doctors Without Borders, who routinely risk their lives to care for dying children in the bush because the government can't be bothered.
And sometime this week, please take a minute and join me in remembering Bunia and all the many people who've died in vain.