Batwa: Congo Vice-President accused of Batwa extermination
Mr Bemba is the leader of the ex-rebel MLC group, which still dominates the interior Equateur Province and parts of Ituri and Kivu. These forested provinces are also among the principal remaining lands inhabited by Central Africa's plagues Batwa people, commonly known as "the Pygmies". The Batwa for generations have been treated as second-class humans by other peoples of the region.
Evidence has surfaced during the last few years, indicating that a larger organised campaign to exterminate the Batwa may have gone on in the backwaters of the Congolese civil war. The UK-based group Minority Rights Group International (MRG) today submitted a dossier of such evidence to the Prosecutor at the ICC.
According to the group, the Bambuti tribe of the Batwa in the eastern Congo were "targeted for extermination" by forces controlled by Vice President Bemba. Attacks against the Batwa had "included mass killings, acts of cannibalism, systematic rape and the looting and destruction of villages," MRG said.
The British group had organised the first-ever research mission to take detailed testimony from Batwa villages in the forests of Ituri and Kivu. The compiled a dossier that includes shocking video testimonies from the victims of crimes carried out since 1 July 2002 - the date at which the ICC's jurisdiction over crimes committed in Congo Kinshasa began - and continuing up to the present.
One witness had described an orchestrated, night-time attack on a Batwa village: "Once they were sure the village was asleep, they attacked and started to shoot and kill ... they kept saying that we were animals and that we must be killed ... we will eat you, they said ... They captured the young children, gathered them and held them until daylight. Then they put some of them in a mortar and pounded them to death. They destroyed the huts and set them on fire."
The 14-year old survivor of a mass rape of 9 women and girls by 20 soldiers described: "The leader ordered the mass rape. The attack lasted hours. I was called a 'dirty Pygmy'." Another traumatised victim of rape described her experience: "They asked my husband several times to sleep with my mother. They beat him but he refused to do it ... then they raped my mother and me, one after the other, each by two of them."
The alleged perpetrators of these crimes include the former rebel group RCD-Goma, both before and after its integration into the Congo's armed forces; elements of Interahamwe rebels that participated in Rwanda's 1994 genocide; and combined forces of the MLC/RCD-N who conducted a military campaign in Ituri they called "Erasing the Board", which allegedly was the responsibility of current Vice-President Bemba.
- The crimes have been committed against a peaceful people who have never taken up arms, and yet are the silent victims of conflict and exploitation of natural resources, MRG said in a statement released today. The Bambuti Batwas' misfortune is to inhabit the deep forest territory such as the north-eastern district of Ituri, rich in resources and frequented by rebel or renegade forces.
According to MRG, the Batwas' unique knowledge and understanding of this inhospitable forest environment, and their hunting and tracking skills, have become a curse for which they are exploited, threatened and coerced. The testimonies had demonstrated that atrocities were often "committed by those who de-humanise the Bambuti and believe them to have 'powers', which can be acquired through acts of cannibalism and rape."
- Officially we are told the war is over, but on the ground it continues, said the Réseau des Associations Autochtones Pygmées du Congo. "The end of the war doesn't mark the end of the atrocities," the agency however added.
Mark Lattimer, Director of Minority Rights Group and member of the research team for this investigation now hopes that this may change. A durable peace in the Congo and the survival of the Bambuti Batwas depended on "ending the near complete impunity that exists for human rights abuses," says Mr Lattimer. "The perpetrators of these crimes should be pursued and punished - no matter how high their office," he adds.