KAMPALA, Uganda, July 5, 2001 — Villagers have hacked to death about 200 suspected witches in rebel-held northeastern Congo since June 15, blaming them for diseases that have gone untreated since Congo's war broke out three years ago, a senior Ugandan army official said today.
Ugandan troops, which had withdrawn this year from the district near the border, were sent back to the area to stop the killings and make arrests, Brig. Henry Tumukunde said.
"Villagers were saying that some people had bewitched others, and they started lynching them. By the time we discovered this, 60 people had already been killed by early last week. About 200 people lost their lives," Tumukunde said.
Tumukunde refused to say how many people had been injured or arrested. It wasn't clear whether the witches were mainly men or women.
The killings began three weeks ago in Aru, 50 miles south of Sudan, but spread deep inside northeastern Congo, a country the size of Western Europe. The region of rolling savannas was once a rich agricultural area where wheat was grown and cattle raised, but a series of rebellions have left communities destroyed since the 1960s.
The war that began three years ago has only made matters worse. "The war forced people to move to other areas, and the internally displaced were the targets of local villagers, who accused them of witchcraft," Tumukunde said.
He said diseases endemic to the region were being blamed on witchcraft, noting that drugs to treat the diseases have not been available during the duration of the war. In much of the rebel-held 60 percent of the country, routes that would carry trade and aid back and forth are cut off. With no immunization programs or other health programs, measles and other diseases are killing people in large numbers. Plague has even made inroads. In the worst-hit areas, people are dying from a combination of disease and starvation.
Some charities have estimated an indirect wartime death toll of about 2 million out of a population of 50 million in the former Belgian colony.
In a report released jointly today by UNICEF and the World Health Organization, experts said after a recent 12-day visit to Congo that "every facet of society — whether human rights or economy, education or water and sanitation, housing or social care — has collapsed."
The 10-person mission blamed "decades of state and external looting of national resources" and war for pushing "Congolese households over the brink."
In Congo's countryside, there is hardly any running water or electricity. In the most devastated areas, people are desperate just for soap and salt.
Although Uganda had withdrawn troops this year from the Aru district, it still employs troops elsewhere in Congo.
Uganda and Rwanda joined forces in August 1998 in support of a rebellion seeking to oust President Laurent Kabila, whom they had backed in a previous, successful revolt that overthrew longtime President Mobutu Sese Seko of what was then Zaire in May 1997.
The senior Kabila's assassination in January and his son's ascension to the presidency appear to have cleared the hurdles blocking the implementation of a 1999 peace agreement signed by the Congolese government, the rebels and Uganda, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Angola and Namibia, who are all involved in the conflict.
Zimbabwe, Angola and Namibia have poured in thousands of troops and material in support of the Congolese government.