A holocaust has been going on under the radar of the world’s media and the canopies of the African rainforests. “Never again!” has become an empty cry as one genocidal massacre after another continues to pinball through our post-World War II history.
Little known is the on-going extermination, enslavement, and even cannibalism of the Pygmy people. Yes, you read that right. Cannibalism. While Pygmies have not risen in armed revolt against any government nor engage in combat against any armed faction in the Great African War, they are nevertheless hunted down like wild game animals, killed, and eaten. By other people.
Survivors are enslaved. Sometimes they might be paid in cigarettes. The common but sad response are heart-wrenching cries for help to the international community. Our United Nations does little or nothing. The wealthy nation-states of the G20 scurry off to debate “more important matters” than worry about a diminutive minority. The African Union seems to care less, as many nation-states don’t like ethnic groups that don’t fit in to even a post-colonial country.
Pygmies are people. They are human beings. Just as Homo sapiens as you and me and the rest of us Earthlings.While their genetic origins remain unclear they represent some of the oldest ethnic groups on Earth and predate many of the so-called Black, White, and Asian races. Yet in Africa many other humans including Native Black Africans consider their Pygmies brothers and sisters subhuman and “down there” with edible monkeys. In the morass of genocidal wars engulfing Central Africa including Congo and the Great Lakes region all the warring factions target Pygmies, some more so than others.
The Pygmies, however, have yet to resort to arms. Many find this lack of violent resistance astounding. Pygmies are a peaceful people, however, and prefer to live simply in the equatorial rain forests and mountains. Many of them still live as hunter-gatherers and subsistence farming. Much of their farming, however, is as for all practical purposes slaving away as indentured serfs on land owned by African neighbors of non-Pygmy tribes. It is their skill as hunters and trackers that make them valuable assets to the various guerrilla armies and bands roaming wild across the broken borders of Central Africa.
The name “Pygmy” is often considered a derogatory slur. It is still widely used; however, as no one better word has evolved to replace it. The Pygmies themselves speak different languages and prefer to identify with their own tribes within regional ethnic groups.
Some of the more well known Pygmy ethnic groups of Central Africa are the Mbenga Aka and the Mbenga Baka of the western Congo River basin, the Twa or Cwa of the Great Lakes Region, and the Mbuti of the Ituri and southern Congo rain forests. Other names for Pygmy tribes include the Batwa, Babongo, Mikaya, Baaka or Baka, Luma, and Gyeli. They live spread out across many countries of the region.
An estimated 600,000 Pygmies lived in Congo with about 200,000 concentrated in South Kivu. As no clear records were kept the exact number is not known. Nor is it known how many have been killed, although mass graves have been found. Many Pygmies have also been uprooted in never ending refugee migrations. The jungles of Central Africa are not empty; they are full of warring factions, bandits, and refugees.
Many of the tribal peoples of Central Africa have a fondness for killing and eating monkeys. This has been a contributing factor for many previously unknown viruses jumping into human population groups. HIV/AIDS and Ebola Hemorrhagic Fever are two of the most notorious diseases suspected to have been transmitted from monkeys to the humans who eat them.
Perhaps it was not much of a leap that during a time of extreme socio-political and economic breakdown for monkey-eaters to eat other primates considered “subhuman.” It is but one more monstrous step from the days of the Second World War when the European Nazis made soap and lampshades from the flesh of “subhuman” Jews.
The level of violence directed against the Pygmies is horrific. Early on in the so-called Second Congo War, London-based Minority Rights Group International (MRGI) presented evidence for war crimes and genocide to the ICC, the International Criminal Court, at The Hague in the Netherlands. War crimes included massacres, torture, cannibalism, and mass rapes. Mark Latimer, spokesperson for the MRGI, called on ICC Prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo to arrest the perpetuators and prosecute them. That is a daunting challenge considering the complex nature of the war with atrocities on all sides against Pygmies. The ICC declared its primary task is to prosecute war crimes in Congo, and that was all it did. The crimes continued unabated.
One witness for the MRGI claimed to have survived a late night assault on his village. The entire village population was massacred. The survivor claimed, “everyone was shot and hacked to death and the huts were burnt.”(1)
One of the primary groups identified by MRGI with the systematic extermination of the Pygmies was the MLC, the Movement for the Liberation of Congo, or Mouvement pour la Liberation du Congo. Headed by Jean-Pierra Bemba, the MLC was a rebel group that fought the Kabila regime or the Democratic Republic (DR) of Congo government forces throughout the Second Congo War. They control the northern and northwestern parts of Congo including portions of the provinces of Equateur, North Kivu, and Orientale. Bemba’s MLC were backed by Museveni’s Uganda, fought the DRC forces, and headed a campaign of extermination against Congolese Pygmies.
The Third Congo War is in full sway, with renewed MLC-DRC fighting breaking again in 2007 and 2008. Uganda supported Congolese Tutsis and Hema factions against DRC, Hutu, and Lendu factions. The MLC Congolese harbored religious beliefs that eating Pygmy flesh conferred magical powers upon whoever ate a Pygmy. The mass rapes were also justified by religious beliefs. These mass rapes grotesquely calls into question the designation “subhumans” as a justification by those who murder Pygmies for I’m not aware of people who eat monkeys raping them, too.
Pygmies are used as slave labor, as “human mules.”(2) Even the DRC authorities consider their Pygmy fellow citizens subhuman and do nothing to stop any one group of combatants from abusing and killing them. Another group notorious for torturing and slaughtering Pygmies along with all of their other enemies is the Mai-Mai or Mayi-Mayi militias in South Kivu and Katanga provinces.
The only distinction the Mai-Mai seems to make among their numerous enemies is that they also eat Pygmies. The Mai-Mai rape Pygmy women claiming sex with Pygmies cures a host of ailments such as low back pain. One Mai-Mai rebel chief proudly paraded about with a dried infant tied around his neck as a war fetish to bring him good juju.
Once organized by the DRC as community militias against the Rwandan, Burundian, and Ugandan invasions, the Mai-Mai turned on the DRC and almost everyone else except the Hutu militias. They continue to war with the Hutus against various Tutsi groups as well as the DRC. The Hema-Lendu war in the Ituri region of Congo led to both sides cannibalizing Pygmies.
Perhaps the worse are a rebel group known as Les Effacers or The Erasers. They seek to cleanse entire areas of all people and clear the land for mining and other forms of mineral exploitation without any concern for the rainforests with its wildlife, plants, and streams. The Erasers also hunt, kill, and eat Pygmies. They seem to revel in their cannibalism.
It keeps getting worse. Pygmies had their sexual organs cut off to be used as magical charms. Some of the various tribal militias and guerrilla bands had marauders draped in the amputated human genitalia of Pygmies. In 2003, and this is over five years ago now as of late 2008, at a United Nations Indigenous People’s Forum indignant Pygmies spoke out against the outrage and appealed for help.
Sinafasi Makelo of the Mbuti Pygmies claimed his people were hunted down and eaten. In his own words, he said, “In living memory, we have seen cruelty, massacres, and genocide, but we have never seen human beings hunted down as though they were game animals. Pygmies are being pursued in the forests. People have been eaten. This is nothing more, nothing less, than a crime against humanity.”(3)
Another Mbuti Pygmy, Amuzati Nzoli, recounts how MLC forces led by a rebel commander with the absurd title “King of the Imbeciles” blazed a path of destruction and horror through the Ituri region of Congo’s “Wild East.” Allegations of grotesque war crimes including mass rapes, mass maimings, and eating pygmies surfaced. Nzoli claimed MLC guerrillas killed his family, cut them up and grilled them over campfires, and “even sprinkled salt on the flesh they ate.”(4)
Nzoli and other survivors were captured, flown into Kinshasa and surrounded by hostile guards forced to deny their stories. Other Congolese scoffed at Nzoli and his fellow suddenly recanting such lurid tales, because as Pygmies are less than human they qualify as food. A human rights worker with MONUC claimed back in 2005, “Cannibalism here is both an ancient tribal practice and a modern instrument of terror. But the attacks singling out Pygmies are new.”(5)
The Pygmies, those that continue to survive, still await that help. I cannot imagine what it must be like for my family and me to be on the run, hunted by everyone with no one to turn to, terrified of cannibals catching and eating us. What seems to be the Third Congo War phase of this Great African World War is breaking out.
Fighting is rapidly spreading throughout the region once again. Ceasefires break down, warlords are on the march, governments wring their hands, the mainstream media focuses elsewhere, refugees swarm, and borders break down. And still the Pygmies endure. And they need help.
Only massive international intervention into the region will work. The rest of humanity is preoccupied with the global financial crisis and the Middle East, but the extreme violence in Central Africa forces itself upon the world stage. Will there be any Pygmies left by then?
Things have improved little even as many of the major warlords have been killed, captured, or bribed to switch sides. Violent anarchy with guerrilla warfare, rape camps, extortion, and corruption still rules much of the Democratic Republic of Congo, especially the provinces of its “Wild East.”
President Joseph Kabila won re-election early December 2011 in an ugly and riotous campaign declared fraudulent by the opposition as well as outsiders. His victory was, however, held up by his own Supreme Court. In Africa strongmen, even if elected under the illusion of free elections in these post-colonial fake democracies of perpetual warfare, are expected to stay in power as long as they can maintain control.
As late as November 2011 more official reports emerged from the DRC even as the last wars supposedly subside, Pygmy groups continue to be “treated like pets” and are viewed as “property” to be owned as one owned a dog or a goat. Pygmies were worked as slaves, and as their forest habitat had been erased in many cases, were forced to slave away on Congolese Bantu farms for food. As an ethnic group they remain “in danger of extinction.”(6)
Earlier that year in February, the DRC passed a new law protecting the rights of Pygmies and other indigenous tribes. Punishment including fines were established against any using Pygmies as slaves. The international community and the United Nations lauded this welcome development. DR Congo became the first African country to protect indigenous minority rights. To appropriately implement this new law, however, is and will likely remain a severe challenge in a region torn apart by incessant warfare with destruction of telecommunications, roads, bridges, farms, villages, and cities.
Even so Pygmies are turning back toward the forest to make a living. Sometimes it’s destructive, such as being paid to chop down their old-growth forest in dangerous conditions. At other times it’s learning to harvest the resources of the rain forest in a sustainable way including learning permaculture. International aid and religious groups work to provide education and health care. The poverty is extreme, disease rampant, and slavery still exists. Warfare continues to flare up in remote areas. Much work needs to be done to save the dwindling population of the Pygmy peoples of Central Africa.
Appel, Charles. “Congolese law on pygmies is welcomed by UN expert,” United Nations Radio. <http://www.unmultimedia.org/radio/english/detail/110883.html>.
Coglan, Andy. “New monkey virus jumps to humans,” New Scientist March 2004. <http://www.newscientist.com/article.ns?id=dn4798>.
“D.R. Congo: Mai Mai Warlord Must Face Justice: Katangan Warlord ‘Gédéon’ Should Be Charged and Tried for War Crimes,” Human Rights Watch. <http://www.hrw.org/english/docs/2006/05/17/congo13381.htm>.
“DR Congo Pygmies ‘Exterminated’,” The BBC World News. <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/3869489.stm>.
“DR Pygmies appeal to UN,” The BBC World News. <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/2933524.stm>.
“Mayi-Mayi Alliance pour la resistance democratique (ARD),” Global Security. <http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/para/mayi-mayi.htm>.
Mojica, Jason. “The Heart of Bleakness: Sifting Through the Wreckage of Congo’s Conflict Economy,” VICE News: The VICE Guide to Congo – Full Length. <http://www.vice.com/vice-news/the-vice-guide-to-congo-full-length>.
“Movement for the Liberation of Congo,” Wikipedia. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Movement_for_the_Liberation_of_Congo>.
“Pygmies in the Congo treated like ‘pets’: report,” Global Post. <http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/africa/111113/pygmy-pets-congo-pygmies-slavery-human-rights>.
“Pygmies struggle to survive in war zone where abuse is routine,” The Times. <http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/article402970.ece>.
“Pygmies,” Wikipedia. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pygmy>.
Salopek, Paul. “Mbuti Pygmies: Who Rules the Forest?” National Geographic. <http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/ngm/0509/feature5/index.html>.
“Second Congo War,” Wikipedia. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second_Congo_War>.
“Uganda in Eastern DRC – Summary,” Human Rights Watch. <http://www.hrw.org/reports/2001/drc/drc0301-03.htm>.
William Dudley Bass
7 November 2008
Revised and rewritten 18 December 2011
NOTE: This essay was originally published as “Remember the Pygmies” to one of my earlier blogs, At the Brink with William Dudley Bass at, http://atthebrinkwithwilliamdudleybass.blogspot.com/2008/11/remember-pygmies.html on 7 November 2008, and rewritten and reposted here this December 2011. Thank you.
Copyright © 2008, 2011, 2016 by William Dudley Bass. All Rights Reserved until we Humans establish Wise Stewardship of and for our Earth and Solarian Commons. Thank you.