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"I Took My Children and Fled."
October 1, 2003
The following stories were told to MSF by people living in Bunia, the city in the Ituri Province of Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) that was the epicenter of brutal violence this past May. Tunkamanyize Lotsove's and Yvonne Penge's (not their real names) stories are not exceptions. Nearly 70,000 people living in and around Bunia had similar experiences of extreme violence, panicked flight, and sudden death. Many have been severely wounded or have been displaced several times, often living in deprived conditions for years. Many count family and friends among the estimated 50,000 people murdered or killed in the terror unleashed in Ituri over the last 6 years of brutal conflict.
Tunkamanyize Lotsove, a 34-year old father of 5, has deep wrinkles lining his face. Three of his children are with him in Bunia, while the oldest two, 12 and 14-years old, were separated from him in the forest 50 miles to the south. His wife was killed in Badia.
He had no coat, no blanket. "This shirt was given to me by somebody here in the feeding center," he said. "In the forest I only had these pants. We shared a piece of plastic when it rained. We were living like animals."
Mr. Lotsove, his parents, two sisters, and many other relatives, had lived in the forest for weeks when violence broke out in Bunia in May. They had actually been displaced to Bunia a year earlier, from the village of Kunda. From May to July 2002, the whole family fled militia violence time and time again. They first went to the small town of Irumu. "We had no means to live there, and no income. We slept in the open air, like many others," he said.
The family moved to Komanda, further to the west. Some weeks later they had to find refuge in Badia, where they had distant relatives. But Badia was not spared from the violence.
"One Friday morning, at around 7, militias attacked the village," he said. Mr. Lotsove was at work in the fields. When he heard the attack, he hid in the bushes and waited until he was sure the rebels had left. When he returned, there were corpses strewn around the house. Among the many dead were his father, an aunt, his sisters, and his wife.
"People had been killed - many children, one young girl - with rifles, lances, and machetes," Mr. Lotsove said. Militia men unexpectedly returned to the village. "I pleaded for my life and explained to them that I'm not Hema. They believed me."
He and many others from Badia remained in the forest with virtually nothing.
"We had some fruits, or we took maize from the fields of others who had also fled. Many people got sick, there was no assistance whatsoever. Many people died."
Mr. Lotsove and his five children all managed to survive, but he was separated from his oldest two children, and the youngest became seriously malnourished and weak. "I had to bring them to Bunia and look for help," he said. Mr. Lotsove himself had serious skin-rashes treated at the MSF hospital, while his three youngest boys were treated at the MSF feeding center. He can't stop worrying about where his two oldest children might be, somewhere in the thick forest around Bunia.
"Maybe the group [the children were in] had to move away for some reason, maybe they had to flee," he said. He is intent on finding them.
Yvonne Penge's husband was killed two years ago when ethnic militias raided the village of Mwangalu, in northern Ituri. Rumors of an imminent attack led Ms. Penge and her two siblings to leave the village some days earlier. They joined her parents who lived in the village of Nizi. Her husband, a farmer, insisted on staying to finish harvesting his fields - a delay that proved fatal.
This grim history repeated itself Sunday July 20, 2003. Around 9 a.m., militia fighters attacked Nizi.
"I was in the house and heard gun shots. I took my children and some belongings, and fled to Nizi Barriere," a little more than a mile away. Later Ms. Penge heard what had happened. "A group of militia men had attacked villagers with rifles and machetes. Many people died."
The next day, a spokesman for the European intervention force in Bunia announced that people were killed in Nizi, mostly women, children and elderly villagers. Most of them had awful machete wounds. Ms. Penge has not been able to establish what happened to her parents, who lived just a few streets away.
After one night in Nizi Barriere, Ms. Penge and her young children walked for two days to Bunia, where they easily found their way to the camp for displaced people near the airfield.
Ms. Penge and her children spent three days with almost no food. Since fleeing their home, she had twice been able to buy some food from peddlers by the side of the road. That first evening in Bunia, she bought another roadside meal from those who now crowd along the growing campsite.
When the family arrived at the camp in Bunia, she discovered, to her disappointment, that the international aid organizations had run out of plastic sheeting. This sheeting is a bare essential for the newly arrived displaced, who have no other way of building shelter for themselves. An acquaintance in the camp gave her a blanket, and the small family spent their first night out in the open. Fortunately it did not rain.
The next day was pretty much the same: blanket as a house and buying whatever food she could. Aid organizations handed out food rations only once every four weeks, and it eventually took Ms. Penge four days to get any form of housing. It took ten days for her to receive her first food ration.
The Penge's are still living in the camp in Bunia, finding shelter in a tent with the same fundamental uncertainties and worries that hover over the lives of tens of thousands of people in Bunia.