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In January 2003, some Mbuti men announced that they had witnessed their relatives being killed and eaten by soldiers of one of the warring factions in the D.R. Congo. The allegations of cannibalism during the brutal civil war made headlines around the world. A recent anthropology journal article by Johan Pottier, Professor of Anthropology at the University of London, untangles the complexities of what really may have happened.

The charges began to surface in late December 2002. A pro-government daily paper on December 26 that year reported that a bishop had confirmed that soldiers of one of the armed forces in the eastern Congo, the army of the Mouvement pour la Libération du Congo (MLC) of Jean-Pierre Bemba, had definitely practiced cannibalism on the Mbuti people in the town of Mambasa.

Two days afterwards, Dr. Jackson Basikania, the co-coordinator of a Congolese NGO that helps the Mbuti, confirmed the reports: Bemba had given his soldiers the right to the spoils of war. The term “effacez le tableau,” or “erasing the board,” quickly became the signature activity in the international press for the warring parties. Basikania described how the soldiers “killed four of [the Mbuti]. They then dismembered one and forced the others to eat him uncooked.”

On January 6, 2003, Amuzati Ndjeto, a Mbuti man, testified publicly about the ordeals he and his people had been through at the hands of Bemba’s army. He explained how his mother, two wives, an older brother, a sister, and two children had been killed, butchered, and roasted for consumption by the troops. At the end of the month, he remembered he had seen the heart torn out of a child, roasted over a fire, and eaten by Bemba’s soldiers.

By mid-January, the Congo press began printing rebuttals to these stories. Bemba’s supporters claimed that the perpetrators of the accounts were liars. But the protests did no good: the United Nations bought into the story. On January 15, IRIN, the official press organ of the UN, stated that MONUC, the UN mission in Congo, “confirms cannibalism in Mambasa.” The information officer for MONUC reported to IRIN that “the rebels forced people to consume body parts of their family members.” The stories of Amuzati Ndjeto and Jackson Basikania became confirmed facts internationally—but the press in Congo was not convinced.

One paper was skeptical since one of the Mbuti witnesses indicated he could not remember the names of his relatives who had supposedly been eaten because he was so traumatized by watching them being killed and served on a skewer. “It smells of a set-up,” the paper suggested, something that a rival army or the government might have orchestrated. The paper suggested that cannibalism might have occurred, but it had to be seen within the context of incredible brutalities on all sides of the conflict.

The newspaper went on to speculate that the hysteria that greeted the cannibalism story in the Western media would only serve to exemplify the people of Congo as cannibals, straight out of nineteenth century European imaginings of a Heart of Darkness. Other commentators in Congo suspected that cannibalism may have occurred, but it was essential to not foster “hatred and revenge,” as one said. The eastern Congo needed truth and reconciliation, not revenge and sensationalism. By the end of January, the press in Congo had become quite skeptical of the story. On February 4, 2003, one paper suggested that Bemba had been the victim of a national and international media campaign against him.

During the same period, the European media, especially the British press, reported the issue as something that had been confirmed—which the United Nations had indeed done. In the summer of 2003, the Observer of London carried an article with the headline “Chaos and Cannibals under Congo’s Bloody Skies.”

However, a reporter for The Independent in March 2004, covering the cannibalism story once again, became somewhat suspicious. She noted that when she interviewed Amuzati, he backed away from portions of his story. He was not really certain of what had happened since he had been hiding in the forest and hadn’t seen anything. She speculated that he may have made up the whole account.

On September 13, 2004, Amuzati Ndjeto retracted his entire story. In the presence of Bemba himself, the Mbuti man declared that his account had been a lie, made up because he had been pressured to say what he did. The government had made him tell his stories to discredit Mr. Bemba, he asserted. Amuzati and the other indigenous people asked forgiveness from Bemba, from President Kabila, from the other Mbuti people, and from the public in general. A few media outlets in Europe mentioned briefly Amuzati’s recanting his story, though of course without the headlines that had accompanied the original claims.

Pottier, who is a specialist in the Central African Great Lakes region, analyzes the complex story in terms of several different forces. He argues that the Mbuti and the other indigenous people live in a state of “profound ambivalence.” In his search for an explanation of the cannibalism episode, the author indicates it is possible to view the Mbuti as pawns of powerful interests, as schemers hoping to gain rewards from high-profile individuals, or possibly as desperate people hoping that testifying to what they had supposedly seen would somehow prevent those horrors from actually happening. The author suggests that claims of cannibalism could also be seen within the context of fundamentalist Christian beliefs about witchcraft that pervade the region.

The article concludes that, while reasons for the accusations are speculative, the facts of the story are not. The press in the DR Congo was quick to question the obvious fallacies of the story, in contrast to the Western media and the United Nations.

Pottier, Johan. 2007. “Rights Violations, Rumour, and Rhetoric: Making Sense of Cannibalism in Mambasa, Ituri (Democratic Republic of Congo).” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 13: 825-843