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Congolese remember violent executions

From Catherine Bond

Uruguyan U.N. soldiers make their way to camp in Bunia, Congo. A civil war has been ongoing since August 1998.

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The people of Bunia have been terrorized by fighters from the majority Lendu and by members of the Hema minority who drove the Lendu out. CNN's Catherine Bond reports
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BUNIA, Democratic Republic of the Congo (CNN) -- May was another brutal month for the residents of Bunia.

People were terrorized and slaughtered, first by fighters from the majority Lendu ethnic group and then by members of the Hema minority who drove the Lendu out.

"They beat the refugees, shot at them," said Florent, an eyewitness to some of the violence. "And then they picked out those who were Hema. They picked them all out. They took them with them, and they left."

The fighting, which has left 450 people dead and hundreds injured, followed the withdrawal of neighboring Ugandan troops on May 7. United Nations peacekeepers are in the region but do not have the political mandate or the weaponry to halt the fighting.

United Nations officials say they have never seen such "horrific" conditions as those in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Those who returned last week from the northeast part of the country said they had never witnessed such an appalling humanitarian crisis on such a large scale. (Full story)

"We've seen the most horrible things in Bunia. Women who've lost their arms and legs, child amputees, men chopped to bits, women raped," said U.N. official Carolyn McAskie, who visited the DRC.

The International Rescue Committee, a voluntary relief organization, estimates that more than 3 million people have died since 1998 as a result of the war. Most of the deaths, the IRC says, have been the result of a humanitarian aid crisis brought on by the war and the collapse of the country's economy and health care system.

Early in May, 16 people, including two priests, were executed on a single day amid fighting between the rival armed groups in this small northeastern town.

Parishioners still pay their respects to the two Catholic priests murdered on May 10, when Lendu fighters retreated through a neighborhood and turned the parish church into a genocidal killing ground. The targets of the Lendu were members of the minority Hema tribe.

Taking shelter in the parish compound were 200 civilians from four different tribes when Lendu fighters broke in, according to Florent, who is a priest in training. The priests killed were Hema, he says.

Himself a Hema, Florent says he escaped by giving a Lendu fighter 75 cents. Sixteen Hema men, women and children were slaughtered outside.

"Most were shot, some were stabbed, others were beheaded, or chopped to pieces," he says.

There's now a mass grave for the victims.

Marie-Therese was nearly a victim. She is a Hema, but her husband is a Mudande. She and the eight children with her escaped savage death.

Florent: "Most were shot, some were stabbed, others were beheaded, or chopped to pieces."

"One of them said, 'You are a Hema, I can tell by the way you look.' But another said, 'No she's not, she's from the Mudande tribe.' So they let us out," she said.

But Marie-Therese's 17-year-old daughter was abducted by a Lendu combatant and held for five days. She doesn't want to talk about what happened to her.

Another abductee, Bujuni, said she hasn't been able to sleep since witnessing Lendu fighters stabbing Hema civilians and mutilating their bodies.

"I saw the killing. I saw the way they removed the heart, the way they roasted it in a fire and then ate it," she said. "I saw it and it terrifies me."

Two days after the killings and abductions in the parish, an armed group dominated by the minority Hema, took back control of Bunia and its neighborhoods. But random and targeted killings of civilians continues.

Just days after the U.N. Security Council voted to deploy a force to help stabilize the conflict, more than two thirds of the Bunia population has already left.

The European Union also agreed this week to send 1,400 troops to help keep the peace, as approved earlier by the United Nations.

Officials believe more than 50,000 people have fled south, while 30,000 have been displaced inside the town.

Warring Congolese factions signed a political settlement in April to end several years of conflict.

War broke out in August 1998 when Rwanda and Uganda sent troops to back rebels seeking to oust then-President Laurent Kabila. They accused him of backing insurgents threatening regional security.

Kabila was assassinated in January 2001 and was succeeded by his son, Joseph.

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