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Old 08-18-2003, 06:02 AM
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Default Child Cannibal Killers Of The Congo ( WARNING... not for the squeamish )

Child Cannibal Killers
Of The Congo
The Mirror - UK

The 15-year-old boy bites into a packet of jelly babies as he tells me how he killed. First there were the mothers, after he'd raped them. Then their babies. Four of them. The eldest aged three.

He speaks softly, with great precision, about what he did. Then he wanders off, having thanked me for the sweets, to play marbles with the other killers.

He is the oldest of 39 boys in this dusty compound. Laughing, boisterous kids who have seen and exacted horror beyond imagining.

They assemble for a school photo, jostling for position. A barked order and they suddenly freeze. Attention. Awaiting command, soldiers again.

Frozen on film, the class of child soldiers who, according to their teachers, have murdered at least 106 people.

These boys, many recruited at the age of 10 and younger, are being demobbed. They are part of a Save the Children initiative set up in the lakeside town of Bukavu in South Kivu, part of the Great Lakes region of central Africa.

This is the area, eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, which has seen continuous fighting for the past five years. It is where four million people have died - the greatest human toll since the Second World War - and 10million people have been forced to flee their homes.

Last month 70 British Army engineers arrived as part of the international peace effort. Their duty is painfully brief: out by September 1. Out of a killing place whose scale makes Iraq seem like a playground war and Liberia a bar-room brawl.

But, for the West, this faraway country the size of Western Europe is a safe place.

In terms of self-interest, it has none of the reasons which fired the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan or the wars against Milosevic and Saddam. There are no terrorists plotting outrage in London or New York. No weapons of mass destruction, real or imagined.

Uganda and Rwanda, the neighbouring countries which sparked the conflict over one of the world's richest territories, have withdrawn, leaving local militias to fight a proxy war for them. And children with Kalashnikovs run amok.

It is those armed kids who form the front line. They are the weapons of mass destruction. Anisette Birindwa, the jelly-baby boy, is one among thousands. In Africa, children kill children in huge numbers and have done so for years. Many are orphans. Homeless, hungry. And so they become soldiers, because soldiers have guns and guns guarantee grabbed food, shelter.

In return, they are sent forward first, their battles appallingly fierce and bloody because children do not understand the consequences of their actions. And they are brainwashed.

Modern weapons, light, easy to use, are child's play. Bang, bang - you're dead. Two kids standing little more than an arm's length from each other, blowing themselves to pieces.

And so Anisette tells me his story. He was 12 when the soldiers came.

His home outside Bukavu was destroyed by troops from Rwanda, or maybe it was the Interahamwe - the escaping army which was responsible for the murder of 800,000 Tutsis before the new, post-genocidal Rwanda was formed nine years ago. Or maybe it was "just Tutsis".

Anisette isn't sure because they're all the same to him. Starving, parentless, he joined the M-40 militia which, he believed, was fighting for his homeland.

He says he trained as a nurse. But no ordinary nurse. He was taught magic remedies. His medicine could turn bullets into water and make his mates invincible. He was a big shot.

He tells me: "One day, we captured two women, the wives of the Interahamwe, and the commander told me to kill them. Six of us raped them. Then we stabbed them to death with machetes. It was cheaper than bullets.

"They begged us to spare them, but we laughed. We had orders.

"We cut out their hearts to take to the commander. Their babies were aged three months, a boy; a one-year-old girl; another boy, two; and the last aged three. We killed them and used their bodies to make medicine.

I BOILED their feet and arms to grind and put in bottles. The potion has the power to stop bullets. I burned the meat into ash which you sprinkle on your body to give extra strength.

"The heads of the children and their mothers we gave to the commander. We ate the hearts, kidneys and livers."

The comander's nickname was Fokamike. His real name is Kahasha, he says.

One day, perhaps this man will be tried for war crimes. One day, perhaps this 15-year- old boy will return to his three younger brothers and two sisters, and till the fields.

He has been delivered to the demob centre after being arrested by Rwandan-backed RCD soldiers. The social workers offer his community a grant to help rebuild their village in the hope this will make him accepted and stop him returning to war.

So far they have received nearly 1,000 kids. It is a tiny, relative number.

I see boys with scars on their chests, gouged to ward off bullets. I listen to one, aged 12, saying how happy he was when he fired and "the big enemy man flopped".

And then there are the girls. Feza Mateso had her first period last month and is 13. M-40 soldiers took her away two years ago.

"Mummy pleaded, offering five goats instead," she says. "They took the goats as well. They made me the wife of a commander called Justin. He wanted sex too much. I was afraid, but after seven months I ran away, stealing a canoe to cross the river south of Bukavu.

"Another commander called Shakale found me and he started to use me. Then the RCD attacked and I was arrested, taken to Kavumu, north of the city, and raped and raped. There were five girls there.

"Three men took each of us. They used me up to seven times a day for two weeks. When I became sick they left me outside the hospital."

We walk to the lake and she is a child again, her face mesmerised by its tranquil beauty. She takes off her flip-flops and tries to catch the little fish nibbling at the edge.

Then she begins to cough, the rattle raking her skinny body. In Africa they still do not like to speak of HIV/Aids. These girl soldiers are not tested. It would be an intrusion. But Tarcile Kashale, Feza's counsellor, looks at me with sadness while the child stumbles round the corner to cough and cough and cough.

In Goma, the Congo town which saw the influx of one million Rwandans in 1994, I find Feza's friend Mashuruliko Mgoyi, also 13. She joined the militia when she was 10. Thenshe was captured by the RCD, whose commander, Gere Kola, used her as a wife.

"When he didn't use me, he put me in the front line. The first man I killed was militia. I was told to fire two bullets in the air and then two at his feet. Then I shot him in the chest.

"I had to do this because they said he had special powers and a single shot would not kill him. Then I had to cut off his head, make a fire and burn the body and head separately.

"I was glad they blindfolded the man before I killed him. He was crying, offering to tell us where his comrades were hiding, but they said kill him anyway. So I did. Then one day I was sent to fetch water. A soldier came the other way and ordered me into the long grass, where he raped me. When he finished, five of his friends had me. I was left lying there in terrible pain. I could feel the hurt in my womb. It was like wounds."

She was there three months. Doctors found she was suffering from a variety of sexually transmitted diseases. Last week they discovered she also had TB and maybe something worse. But they do not test for that.

DESPITE all this, "Mashy" is happy. She has just found her father, whom she last saw when she was five years old.

Save the Children had traced him and four of her brothers and sisters. He told her to stop being a soldier and come to live with him.

"I will never go back to the army," she says. "I want to get rid of those dreams. I close my eyes and see bad spirits, the face of that blindfolded man, the people I killed in battle, many of them.

"Was I frightened when I was fighting? No, we were used to bullets and I couldn't be afraid any more. When the shooting stopped, that's when I was frightened."

Once more, Mashy begins to cough. Hopefully she will be spared from Aids, but it is a slim chance.

A survey revealed last week that 24.2 per cent of the population in Shabunda, the area in which she fought, have the disease.

This compares to 2.8 per cent 12 years ago and suggests that conflict itself is a ravenous breeding ground. Particularly when rape is used as a weapon to batter the population into submission.

We fly further north to Bunia, epicentre of tragedy. More than 60,000 have died in the past year. Villages destroyed. Disease and starvation rife in a land among God's most fertile and beautiful.

Mangoes, bananas, star fruit, avocados the size of a man's shoes, bulging tomatoes, potatoes, greens, maize grow abundantly. Long-horned cattle graze the green hills. Tilapia and capitaine teem in the vast lake.

And, beneath the water, oil. Beneath the land, diamonds and coltan ( the mineral used in every mobile phone). Beneath those farawayhills, spreading an area as large as Belgium, gold. The biggest goldfield in the world.

The cause of so much suffering. The place where arms dealers and people from afar are making hidden fortunes. Where Rwanda and Uganda, recipents between them of more than ?100million worth of British government aid, fight their proxy war for profit.

I phone the Department for International Development and ask why we confer such generosity. Long-term development partnerships should not be used as levers to make governments behave, I am told.

Britain is Rwanda's largest donor. We like the fact that its military rulers have "pro-poor" policies. Just like Uganda. And who knows what that may bring for Britain long-term?

Meanwhile we travel on dirt roads to the Bunia front line which Uganda and Rwanda helped create. Frenchsoldiers, the majority of a 1,400-strong fighting force, have secured the town. For now.

But here at the very edge, where you can buy a Kalashnikov for ?12, we find dire warning. Burnt-out villages, the earth carpeted with spent cartridges, crying families. In Ndele, they are living off mangoes and little else.

A WOMAN struggles to carry a huge bundle of timber on her head. She has ripped it from the remains of her home. She will sell it for 55p.

It is her only crop. After this, nothing. Sixty people died here three weeks ago in fighting between the rival Hema and Lendu militia.

For Hema read Rwanda and for Lendu read Uganda. Sometimes they change sides. Sometimes they fight among themselves. They both rely on child soldiers, and indirectly our government helps pay them.

Sembo Mateso is 17, the obvious top cat among the 11 boys being demobbed by SC-UK. He misses the ganja his commander Thomas Lubanga fed them. "Yes, I killed," he says. "I cut off limbs and ate body parts. We were hungry and we had orders." He and his friend were arrested and handed over by the French, who found them carrying a hand grenade and a mobile phone.

At the same time they put Mr Lubanga under house arrest but allowed him 30 armed bodyguards. For now, he is happy to sit in his house, using his mobile phone to speak with his concealed army. A man biding his time until the spotlight fades and the killing begins again.

The United Nations could arrest him. There is evidence enough of war crimes. Instead it sends a token force and keeps its fingers crossed. Spectating. After all, who really gives a damn?

There are 20,000 refugees in the two camps. Kids run laughing towards us, amid the noise of their "gunfire". It is made by rattling a tin can, stretching its curved base with a string. Mimicking a fatal sound.

The Medecins Sans Frontieres hospital set up in a warehouse sees 175 people daily. There is no other functioning medical centre for a town of 350,000.

There are children whose arms have been cut off. Women with internal injuries. Young men, soldiers pretending to be civilians, with bullet wounds. And next door there are the young orphans covered in scabies, such as three-year- old Patience, who was found, half-dead, under her mother's corpse.

OTHERS, on the far side of the front line, are left to their fate. The proxy armies are there. The children with guns, scavenging and killing and maiming and cannibalising to order.

One, at least, wears the testicles of a UN soldier they captured, brandishing them as a talisman. Another remembers the taste of his liver. A third has tied another UN soldier's penis to his wrist. Others simply stubbed their ganja butts on the mutilated bodies.

And at the airport Major Simon Higgens of 42 Field Squadron Royal Engineers sweats under his tent and talks about the "citadel of security" he and his men are creating.

As ever, these British troops are chock-full of confidence. They have cleared away the filth and human bones and worked miracles on the woeful runway. They talk of the aid planes that have been under fire, but prefer to say how sappers can "turn a pigsty into a palace".

"My men know that every shovel they dig into the ground protects a life," Simon adds. But for how long, and how many lives?

When George Bush defended the decision to invade Iraq, he used Rwanda as an example. The Security Council was wrong not to act there, he said. If it were true for Rwanda, it is doubly true for this place, where so many millions have died already.

Mr Bush was in Africa a few weeks ago, brimming smiles, frowning concern. He did not set foot in the Congo.

Two years ago, fresh from intervening in Sierra Leone, Tony Blair called for international action to save the Congo. Two years in which Afghanistan and Iraq made the headlines while the dying here went unheard.

It is now little more than a fortnight before the French and British pull out, under- equipped Bangladeshis move in and a man with 30 bodyguards bides his time.

A fortnight only in which the likes of Bush and Blair must push warm words aside to ensure the militias demobilise and the arms dealers and foreign looters are stopped.

Two weeks to ensure the new power-sharing government has the international, on-the- ground muscle it needs.

Two weeks in which to bring some light to the desperate, darkest heart of Africa.

? owned by or licensed to Trinity Mirror Digital Media Limited 2001.
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