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"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..." - Sinafasi Makelo, a representative of Mbuti pygmies

The war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo that was fought mostly between 1998 and 2004 and is as we speak restarting has killed more people than any other war since World War II. 5.4 million souls, which is over a tenth of the country's population, have perished as armed groups and neighbouring militaries fought over the resources of this enormous country. They have then proceeded to sell the spoils - diamonds, copper, gold, and coltan, a vital ingredient in advanced computer chips - to western corporations. The war had political origins but is now sustained by economics; the militias came for the ethnic conflict, but they stayed for the riches.

If anyone were to devise a method whereby we might measure the amount of human suffering that one land had witnessed, and apply it to every country in the world, Congo would have one of the highest ratings. King Leopold II of the Belgians declared it his own private property - a uniquely capricious act out of a very capricious process of European colonization - and his rule led to some ten million Congolese dying. Later on, the country suffered dictators and fighting between its 200 unique ethnic groups.

After the Rwandan genocide, many of the perpetrators fled across the border from Rwanda into Congo, where they promptly recruited local members of the Hutu ethnic group to which they themselves belonged and began to wage war against their Tutsi enemies in Rwanda and Congo. The country's president supported the extremists and did nothing, causing Rwanda and Uganda to intervene and install their own leader in Congo's capital. This man, Laurent Kabila, then promptly decided to turn on his erstwhile masters and order all foreign forces out of the country. The country instead erupted into an orgy of violence over which no-one had any control, and soon eight different foreign armies and countless native militias were involved.

Amid all this, the world's most diminutive ethnic group struggle to survive.

* * *

Some 600,000 pygmies are said to live in the massive forests that coat Congo, but no-one really knows because no-one has cared to count. "Pygmies" is a controversial word but no other one has been devised that encompasses all the members of these groups, who are often four feet tall. In the forest, this small height helps. The pygmies comprise a variety of ethnic groups and mostly exist by hunting and gathering and trading with neighbouring peoples. They live as their ancestors have lived for thousands of years, except where they collide with the modern world in the form of an AK-47 wielded by a rebel fighter or a logging vehicle.

Pygmies are at the bottom of the social scale in Congo. They are considered subhuman by many of the other groups and many of them live as slaves, especially to the Bantu. A people that do not even have a fixed abode could take no real part in the political process even if one existed, and the fact that politics has been replaced by violence does not help them either as they have no organization or weaponry. They are forced to act as guides through the forest and hunters for the various factions in the war, and their lives are taken without a second thought. As if all this wasn't enough, in 2002 reports started to creep out of the country that something even more sinister was going on: factions in the country's civil war were eating pygmies.

Ritual and magic are pervasive in Congo, and the result is often comic. Earlier this year, riots broke out after allegations of magical penis theft (honestly, it's noded; the lucky were merely shrunk) swept the country's capital. Over a dozen highly dangerous sorcerers were arrested before they could steal another manhood. But for the pygmies, the primitive superstitions - often called juju in West Africa - could be much more horrific. In the north east of the country, reports emerged of fighters forcing pygmies to eat one another, and of eating them themselves. The United Nations investigated and found the allegations to be true.

Some say that the fighters eat the pygmies because they believe that they will absorb the traits for which the pygmy people are known - their expert vision at night and ability to track prey through the forest. Such acts happen elsewhere in Africa. Lurid details and innuendo are inevitably added to each story as it winds its away across a continent known for conspiracy and embellishment before landing on a Western newsdesk. Allegations and reports of cannibalism are no doubt much more common than the act itself, and those who rightly want to attract attention to the plight of the country are apt to focus on the most sensationalist story. But the practice has occurred in the country before, just as it was repeatedly observed during famines in Russia for centuries. There seems little doubt it is occurring again.

* * *

Realizing that things such as this - a human being enslaved and arbitrarily killed by another human being, and even eaten by him - happen elsewhere in the world is a process that our brain is typically repelled from. Generations of westerners have stared at Africa with horror before averting their gaze, for ever. Because we are not racists and recognize the human beings there as human beings just like this, this process is hardest for our generation, if we do it honestly. For we realize that the only thing that stopped us being the cannibal or the cannibalized was the circumstance of our birth, the values that our society imbued us with, and its ability to transmit these values from generation to generation. It makes us realize that the blank slate of the human soul can be inscribed with the deepest depravity, and that it is done so daily now all around the world.

But our common humanity will not save them. It does not spur us to action; it embarrasses us. Congo will eventually recollapse into violence. And the West will not help. Even if Barack Obama does make Samantha Power, a leading scholar of genocide, his national security advisor, nothing will be done and our "never again" will still ring hollow around the world. Just ask Congo's pygmies - or what's left of them.

Sources

"Pygmies beg UN for aid to save them from Congo cannibals", http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/article1135111.ece

"UN condemns DR Congo cannibalism", http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/2661365.stm

"Congolese Pygmies say they are being hunted by cannibals", http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/africa/congolese-pygmies-say-they-are-being-hunted-by-cannibals-538909.html

"On the Trail of the Congo's 'Cannibal Rebels'", http://www.slate.com/id/2097314/entry/2097322/

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