Colin Turnbull’s The Forest People describes the Ituri Forest and the Mbuti who live there. But how well has the forest protected them during the recent wars in Eastern Congo?

This question should haunt anyone fascinated by the forest-dwelling peoples that Turnbull portrayed over 40 years ago in his international best seller, plus his other, more scholarly, ethnographic writings. But up-to-date information has been scarce over the past eight years, as Eastern Congo has seen nearly continuous warfare.

A report on the conditions endured recently by the Mbuti has just come out from Minority Rights Group International. An investigative team visited numerous Mbuti communities in January and February 2004, interviewing over 80 victims and witnesses to murder, rape, torture, and related crimes. The report, “’Erasing the Board,’ Report of the International Research Mission into Crimes under International Law Committed against the Bambuti Pygmies in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo,” released in July but made available in local libraries at the beginning of December, is not exactly pleasant reading. However, it does answer the question.

While other forest-dwelling societies portrayed in this website, such as the Paliyans and the Batek, withdraw to safety in the forests to avoid troubles with outsiders, this approach is evidently not always successful with the Mbuti, who are often not able to escape undetected. The various, heavily armed, bands of armies, militias, and thugs that roam through the forests as well as along the roads of Northeast Congo pray on the Mbuti when they encounter them. In some instances, other local peoples betray the locations of forest villages to the marauders. The style of the report is dry and factual. It provides a relatively neutral description of violent incident, piled upon violent incident, to build a horrifying edifice of massive human rights abuses against the Mbuti.

With The Forest People in one hand and this new report in the other, the reader can learn about Mbuti communities from the anthropologist, then read about contemporary atrocities in the same places. Page after page of summaries of testimony, and selective quotes from the victims of the atrocities, portray soldiers who seem to enjoy killing and maiming in order to achieve their objectives. A couple of the less appalling quotes:

“They kept saying that we were animals and that we must be killed. They also said that our fat tasted very nice. You animals, we will eat you, they said.”

“They came because they had been informed it was a Pygmy village and they held a grudge against us…. They said that they ought to kill us so that we could no longer kill the animals. They destroyed our huts, they looted everything….”

Many of the quotes are much more graphic and horrifying.

Arrays of Rwandan and Ugandan proxy armies, interspersed with local militia groups, have coursed back and forth through the roads in the region. The Report describes the different major armed groups and the reasons for their involvement in the country.

Gold and diamond production in the eastern Congo is only part of the reason for so much interest by outsiders. The metal tantalum is extracted from the mineral Colombo tantalite, or coltan, found in eastern Congo, to make components for laptop computers and cell phones. The value of this metal has risen dramatically over the past five years.

Spurred on by significant economic incentives to control the resources of the region, the marauding armies and bands of men support themselves by plundering local farms and food supplies. The mission of one of the armies was “Effacer le tableau” (“Erasing the Board”), a motto worn on the shirts of some of the soldiers that suggests not only plundering but also eliminating the civilian population. It is one way for an army to control territory.

The various plundering gangs of violent men appear to target the Mbuti especially. Since many of the Mbuti are still forest dwellers, the outsiders view them with intense suspicion—their abilities in the forest give them special powers. In addition, they know the paths through the forest and have the ability to hunt for wild animals, so the marauders can force them to be hunters and guides. Then the next gang will slaughter them as cooperators with the enemy. Mbuti men are tortured and murdered; women are raped, tortured, and murdered. The report indicates that the Mbuti have not taken up arms to defend themselves, though they have been murdered by the thousands.

The Minority Rights Group report indicates that appeals for justice by the victims or their families are generally ignored since the same factions that commit the atrocities control the authorities in the region.

The report concludes with several recommendations to the governments of Rwanda, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and to the international community in general. Monitor the illegal exploitation of minerals from Congo; stop funding and arming the various rogue armies; disarm rebel groups; provide assistance and justice to the Mbuti communities; charge the UN Mission in Congo specifically to protect the Mbuti population from violence, and so on.

The question, from the armchair enthusiast of Turnbull’s writings, can no longer be, “what has happened to the Mbuti?” The question now must be, “what can be done to help them survive?” This report provides detailed information and some good answers.

The report is available in some libraries and it is for sale through the MRG website. It also can be downloaded in PDF format from the website.