email a friend iconprinter friendly iconMbuti Pygmies
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More than three million people died in Congo's six years of civil strife, an internal scramble for power that saw one president assassinated and laid Congo open to the invading armies of at least six of its neighbors. The dead consist mainly of civilians. They perished mostly from starvation and disease: the worst human calamity since World War II. Yet, inevitably, it is Congo's lurid tales of cannibalism, its sensational stories of human sacrifice, its ornamental killings, which end up bubbling into the news.

Magical violence makes it easy for journalists to reach for Joseph Conrad's bleak fable, Heart of Darkness, every time a Congo headline is required. This fixation on "unspeakable" rites in "darkest Africa" obscures the actual origins of the war: bitter ethnic grudges and endless squabbles over an immense storehouse of gold, diamonds, timber, and coltan—a mineral used in high-tech electronics.

Still, this much is true: The miasma of juju is inescapable in Congo. It is like swamp vapor. Invisible. Pervasive. Soccer teams hire sorcerers to hex their rivals. Prostitutes pay good money for charms that make them irresistible. And in the nation's Wild East, the magic becomes explosive, toxic, like the volcanic gases that are trapped at the bottom of one of its deepest lakes.

In late 2002 rebel forces—led in part by a commander nicknamed the "King of the Imbeciles"—launched a terrible offensive in the Ituri forest. Towns were sacked. Women and girls were raped. Villagers were executed. Yet it was the rumors of cannibalized Pygmies that scandalized the world.

An Mbuti named Amuzati Nzoli, widely quoted in the international press, claims that rebels attacked his jungle camp, cut up his family, grilled them over a campfire, and "even sprinkled salt on the flesh as they ate."

I search for Nzoli in eastern Congo. I never find him. He and other "cannibalism witnesses" have been rounded up in the forest by rebel operatives and flown to the capital. There, under tight guard, and in front of television crews hastily summoned to the lobby of a luxury hotel, a stuttering, wide-eyed Nzoli recants his story. Yet no one in Congo believes him. As several Congolese tell me—Pygmies are subhuman. So anyone can eat them.

"Cannibalism here is both an ancient tribal practice and a modern instrument of terror," says one human rights worker with the 16,000-strong United Nations peacekeeping force in Congo. "But the attacks singling out Pygmies are new. The prevailing theory holds that soldiers ate them to absorb their unique forest powers— good vision, tracking skills, whatever."

One night in Beni I stop by a lightless and crumbling hotel. I have come to visit Maj. Edison Mungilima. He is a senior officer with the Mayi-Mayi—a Congolese militia that has battled almost every other faction in eastern Congo, including the MLC. I am curious about his thinking on the issue of cannibalism.

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