Tribal slaughter in hospital

2002-12-24 14:12

Oicha - Wearing crowns of leaves and screaming war cries, thousands of tribal fighters attacked a mission hospital in a lawless northeastern region of teh Democratic Republic of Congo, slaughtering patients in their beds, survivors of the massacre said.

Then attackers turned on the town of Nyankunde and over the next two weeks burned, shot and speared thousands to death, said some of the 1 200 survivors who made a nine-day trek to safety in Oicha.

Congo's government, four rebel groups and the political opposition signed a power-sharing agreement on December 16 to end a four-year civil war. But this region has been a killing field of tribal conflicts for decades, and bringing peace to the region will be a key test for any post-war government.

Information is only now emerging about the massacre in Nyankunde, which began on September 5.

The attackers used rifles, machetes, knives, spears and arrows, said Kakani, head nurse in the intensive care ward at the Evangelical Medical Centre.

He escaped the initial slaughter but then spent five harrowing days locked in a room with his family and 120 other people, some of whom were taken out in small groups and killed.

Kakani, who uses only one name, said he and his family were freed after one of the attackers' commanders discovered that Kakani's wife was a cousin of the commander's wife.

'Fortunate journey'

At the end of the first day, aid workers counted at least 650 dead in one neighbourhood of Nyankunde alone. Nyankune had about 18 000 residents. Most of those dead were from the Bira tribe, the largest in the region.

Survivors said the attackers were from the Ngiti and Lendu tribes, along with other allies. They killed people from the Bira, Hema and 16 other tribes living in Nyankunde, slaughtering men and women, young and old.

Among the dead was the mother of little Baraka Safari. She was killed just two days after giving birth to the boy, who was found crying beside his mother's body, survivors said. He was given a Kiswahili name that means "fortunate journey" by those who carried him the 150km to Oicha.

Ngiti tribe was barred access to hospital

Aid workers said the attack came several months after the Bira chief in Nyankunde barred the Ngiti from town, denying them access to treatment at the mission hospital, one of the largest in eastern Congo.

Medical workers from Nyankunde said the ban led to the death of a number of Ngiti pregnant women who suffer from a hereditary pelvic deformity that prevents them from giving birth safely, except by Caesarean section.

The modern, well-equipped hospital was left a burnt-out shell, stripped of everything, including window frames, survivors said.

A Hema attack on an Ngiti village in late August was "probably the last straw that broke the camel's back," said Dr Philip Wood, a Canadian who has been training physicians in eastern Congo for 30 years.

Radios seized, communication stopped

Survivors said fighters for the Union of Congolese Patriots, a rebel group led by the Hema tribe that controlled the town, fought the attackers only briefly before fleeing.

Troops of the rival rebel faction, the Congolese Rally for Democracy-Liberation Movement, which is allied to the attackers, made no attempt to stop the slaughter, the survivors said.

Survivors said the attackers kept word of the raid from getting out by seizing all the town's radios, the only means of communicating with other parts of the country.

The assailants initially barred missionary planes from landing in Nyankunde, then let them in, only to prevent them from taking off again. The foreign missionaries eventually were allowed to fly out after tense negotiations during which they promised not to speak to journalists about the attack.

The bloodshed occurred in Ituri province, a beautiful region nearly 1 770km northeast of the Congolese capital, Kinshasa. It is rich in gold, timber and other resources that tribes have fought over for decades. Violence worsened after the civil war broke out in August 1998 and the heavy weapons and ethnic-based militias proliferated.

Aid agencies estimate 50 000 people have been killed and more than a half million displaced by fighting in Ituri since 1999. All over Congo, more than 2.5 million people have died in the civil war, mainly from war-caused disease and hunger, aid groups say. - Sapa-AP