Democratic Republic of Congo: Persecuted pygmies driven from forest home
by Update No. 213, Héritier Maila, Lubumbashi

Persecuted pygmies driven from forest home 

They are among the country's earliest inhabitants, but a combination of war, prejudice and marginalisation has forced the pygmies of the southeastern Katanga province onto the fringes of Congolese society. Known locally as Batembo, thousands of pygmies once lived in the forests of Katanga's Pweto territory - only 400-500 families remain today. Many others fled or were killed during the 2003-2006 destruction wrought by the militia leader Gédéon Kyungu Mutanga and his Mai Mai soldiers.

After a 19-month trial, a Katanga military court on March 5 found Mutanga guilty of crimes against humanity, insurgency, and terrorism in the so called "triangle of death" which includes Pweto. Twenty others were also convicted on similar charges. Mutanga, commonly known by his first name, and six of the defendants, were sentenced to death for the crimes committed in Pweto. Human rights groups described the trial as a landmark, pointing out that judges used the definition of crimes against humanity found in the International Criminal Court's Rome Statute.

Cannibalism was alleged to have been among the atrocities committed by the soldiers who believed it gave them strength, with the pygmies often vulnerable to such attacks, since they are regarded as particularly strong. "[Gédéon's troops] thought that eating a valiant heart enabled them to get power," said Fulgence Muteba, the Catholic bishop in Pweto and neighbouring Kilwa and Kasenga. "The pygmies of Pweto have been victims not only of killings but also mutilations, some of them still bearing the signs on their bodies today." Muteba recently travelled to the provincial capital Lubumbashi to raise awareness among journalists and politicians about their plight in his area.

Soldiers from ICC indictee Jean-Pierre Bemba's Movement for the Liberation of Congo, MLC, were also said to have abused pygmies in the northern Equateur province. Human rights groups called on the ICC to investigate the allegations which included cannibalism. Bemba was eventually arrested in 2008 for different crimes allegedly committed by the MLC in the neighbouring Central African Republic, CAR. He denies all the charges.

In Pweto, the turmoil forced many pygmies to abandon their forest homes and settle in the region's towns and villages, hoping for a better life with greater security. But the transition hasn't always been easy. Célestin Mahisha came from Moba to Lubumbashi. Like many pygmies, he found integration into city life difficult and suffered from prejudice and discrimination. At school, he was mocked because he was small, and later he found it hard to get a job for the same reasons. "I had to have patience and to endure humiliation in order to get my diploma," said Mahisha. "In finding employment I was rejected by everyone. My presence was undesirable because of my small size." He eventually got a job in a hardware store as a cashier and is now married with two children. "I have a tall woman, older than me," he said. "She respects me, and our children are healthy. They are not small, I can assure you."

The marginalisation and humiliation suffered by pygmies like Mahisha is common all around Congo where they are considered primitive and savage. Muteba told IWPR that pygmies in his area are used as scapegoats and are often blamed for the day-to-day problems that affect local villages. "Recently in Pweto a bush fire destroyed several fields of the village, one of them covered with hemp. Pygmies were accused [of] having caused the fire," he said. "In retaliation, the [local authorities] ordered that they be stripped of their belongings.. particularly humanitarian help that they had just received from the..[charity] Caritas. "All pygmies were beaten up, tortured, and above all commanded to leave the village for good. Some returned to the forest. Others have been looking for a place of refuge up to this day."

Human rights activist, Marc Yungwe, calls on the pygmies to stand up for themselves, to "denounce the perpetrators when they are abused, instead of returning to live in the forest". However, he acknowledges that the authorities must also play their part. "To exterminate pygmies is to try and erase part of our history," said Yungwe. "It is an act that deserves to be punished to the fullest." One solution to the discrimination and mistreatment, he believes, is to integrate pygmies into Congolese political life. "I ask the leaders of our country to take account of the representation of pygmies in their decision-making, as is the case with our Tutsi brothers from Kivu," he said. Mahisha has a simple request for his fellow Congolese, "Discrimination is not a good thing. Our brothers must understand that we are all Congolese. We must unite."

*Héritier Maila is an IWPR-trained reporter in Lubumbashi.