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Bikozulu : There Were Birds, But They Didn’t Sing

What does human flesh taste like?

Everybody I tell this story thinks I should have asked her this question. At some point I began to think that maybe I should have asked her. But then how could I? How could anyone pick that seemingly little, insensitive, mundane and morbid detail out of the raw and painful macabreness of her story? Wouldn’t that information belittle her story and reduce her to a mere mascot of dark, human curiosity?

The story starts a kilometer from a goldmine in Masisi, a town in North Kivu Province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. This is where she wore a rented white wedding dress and said “I do” to her husband, Munire, a man she describes as a strong character with the presence of a wise man. This is also where one evening, the people she calls the Mai-Mai, a dreaded militia group believed to have supernatural powers, stormed their little house where they were hosting members of the church, and accused them of hosting “Banyamulenges”, minority ethnic Tutsis who the locals believed to be witches. This is also where the Mai-Mai dragged one of the two male pastors out of the house and shot him in the head as her three children screamed and her husband begged them to stop. This is also the place where they turned to her husband, called him a “snake” for hosting these Banyamulenges, dragged him out, made him kneel beside the body of the bleeding pastor, and shot him in the head.  The gunshots and the screams echoed in their small boma at the foot of a lush green hill. The sun was just setting in the hills beyond, and unbeknownst to her, it had also started setting on her life.

“They were around ten men,” she says. They beat her up. They beat up her children.

Then they took turns raping her. All of them. Her children watched. Her brother-in-law was amongst them. He too, raped her. Dusk fell quickly on this dark act. Bats and the sounds of darkness replaced the birds in the trees.

They bound the hands of her two kids to each other in the flickering light of her lantern. Her eldest was 7-years, her second was 5 and the youngest was a year old, still living on the milk of her bosom. She had moved from widow to prisoner in a matter of hours. Actually she hadn’t, she had become both.

Together with her two children and two pastors and carrying her one-year old on her back, they set off in a long file behind five or so Mai-Mai men into the expectant darkness of the looming forest. They headed East. The journey of hell had begun. They walked for a week, then two weeks, then a month. They walked until their shoes wore out and the soles of their feet got so bruised and sore that they had to tear strips of cloth from their clothes to wrap around their feet as shoes. The children cried.

The vast forests of Congo, she says, are like a parallel universe. You get in there and the forest claims you, turns you into its child. There are days they would walk without knowing if it was day or night because they couldn’t see the sun. The trees covering the sky were so tall they couldn’t see where they ended. “The forest has a roof,” she said, “and it’s made of trees.”  And it was very cold in that darkness of day. It rained often. They ate leaves and grass and soon her one year old couldn’t get any milk from her breasts. They drunk water from the clear springs that sprung from the earth. At night they slumped against tree trunks and passed out from exhaustion. They were beaten constantly.

After over a month of walking they got to a clearing in the forest. The sun was shining that day and she recalls how strange the sun on her face felt, like a mockery from God who was watching her suffer with her children. They were filthy and exhausted and scared. They were nearly naked because thorns had torn off most of their clothes. They were made to sit in a circle on the grass, their legs spread before them. There were birds, she remembers, but they didn’t sing. The men asked the pastor to confess that he was part of the Banyamulenges. He, weak from hunger, said he was a man of God. He wasn’t a Banyamulenges and didn’t even know anyone who was. They kept beating him to confess but he didn’t. He started saying a prayer. That made the men even angrier.

One of the men took out a knife and while the rest held the pastor’s arms and legs, cut off his head. He didn’t resist much because he was so weak already. Blood gushed out like from a burst pipe, bright red, like anger. The earth drunk it up; it was as if the earth was dying for his blood. A thirsty earth. Her children screamed and the men threatened to kill them as well.

“I thought they were going to kill my children too,” she says. We are sitting on plastic chairs in a hut-like gazebo in the compound of Lutheran World Federation – UNHCR’s implementing partner –  at Kakuma refugee camp in Turkana County. I’m doing some work for my host, UNHCR on a project. A very lanky Sudanese boy, as tall as a giraffe’s hind leg, leans on a pillar of the building before us, staring at the phone in his long hands. Behind us, some boys shoot pool under a shade. The tea and mandazi before me are ignored. So is her now warm Fanta. It rained the previous night and  I smell the warm moisture rise from the soil.

“They then cut open his chest and removed his heart,” she tells me.

I look at her. She says it casually like you would say, “they then spread butter on the bread.” The men, these men, then started fighting for the pastor’s heart. They eventually shared it amongst themselves. Eating the heart of their enemy, apparently, added to their powers, she tells me. The other pastor had passed out after the first blood spurted out of his colleague’s open neck. They laughed at him.

We don’t say anything for a while. Rather, I don’t ask her any question. I picture that scene; the men, these animals, sitting and eating another man’s heart, her children whimpering in terror. The sun shines. The birds don’t sing. Men eat another man. I’m reminded of a scene in Fury, Brad Pitt’s World War II movie where a greenhorn marine recruit is dropped in the middle of Nazi Germany at the height of the war, death, destruction and evil, and he -scared witless –  is told by one of his war-hardened colleagues, ”Wait till you see what a man can do to another man.”

“What kind of men were they?” I ask her. “Describe them.”

She doesn’t say anything for a while, doesn’t look at me, she never really looks at me, the only thing moving on her are her hands on her laps. They massage each other. This is how I will learn to read her emotions, through the motion of her hands, because her eyes don’t betray any emotion. There are no lights in those rooms.

“They were not men,” she says finally.

“Did you eat…what they were eating?” I ask, slightly embarrassed.

That question seems to stab her. She looks away. I watch her squeeze her hands, as if

wringing off that evil memory.

“They were going to kill me,” she mumbles.

 

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