email a friend iconprinter friendly iconMbuti Pygmies
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"They are easy to cheat," a roadside merchant says of the Pygmies along the way. "Like children."

In effect, the Mbuti are gaining their independence—which in Congo's feral east means they are free to lose everything to the tatterdemalion parade of pilgrims, many in far worse straits, who trod the dying remnants of the trans-African highways built by the colonial Belgians: the child soldiers in baggy new uniforms supplied by Russian gunrunners; the whores in blood-red ball gowns, bouncing atop toleka men's bicycles; the hollow-eyed refugees seeking sons, daughters, and parents long since vanished into the smoke of civil war; a rabble of small-time loggers, miners, and peddlers; and the howling, genocidal militias daubed with human blood and toothpaste (toothpaste sticks despite the rain and sweat).

I depart the frontier town of Beni at dawn on the back of a motorbike. The driver's name is Willy. He is a stoic in sunglasses. His reflexes—his balance—are things of rare beauty. For 11 brutal hours we penetrate the Ituri. We pass columns of traders who slog head down, sweating, through clouds of butterflies. Stinking bogs the size of swimming pools block the way. It is the worst road in the world.

"Ah, if only Isabella Rossellini knew our situation," an Italian priest says at a mission where I pause to rest. The padre, a veteran of Congo's chaos, explains that Rossellini, the glamorous international film star and daughter of Ingrid Bergman, donates to African conservation and philanthropic projects.

I am too exhausted to speak. Sore-assed, I can barely sit at the priest's dining table.

"Rossellini could help fix our road," he persists, "if only she knew about it." But his eyes betray him. He stares wistfully into his pasta. Because, of course, she doesn't know.

The "King of the Imbeciles"

Perusing a copy of Echoes of the Pygmies, a foreign-funded Congolese human rights quarterly, I notice the following headline: "THE MLC TRIES TO ERASE PROOF OF ITS CANNIBALISM OF PYGMIES IN THE ITURI."

MLC stands for the Movement for the Liberation of Congo, perhaps the strongest rebel group in the country. Its leader is a pudgy businessman named Jean-Pierre Bemba. In accordance with Congo's 2002 peace agreement, he has joined a weak transitional government as one of four vice presidents. He wants to be president. And he has an image problem: His soldiers are known primarily for eating Pygmies.

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