Amuzati Returns to the Scene of the Massacre

Long isolated in central Africa's dense jungles, pygmies are susceptible to disease in urban environments
Long isolated in central Africa’s dense jungles, pygmies are susceptible to disease in urban environments

Today, Amuzati reluctantly agrees to take me, Marcus the photographer, and Orib, our translator, to the massacre site. He hasn’t returned to the jungle village of Difoho since the attack. We set off with a dozen or so pygmies in the back of our truck. Pygmies love to ride, I am told. It’s both a status symbol and a novelty for them. If you don’t insist they get down after a few hours, they’ll let you drive them days away from home. As we drive past a group of Bantus, they call out teasing, “Oh look, here comes the project for short people!” The truck we’ve rented belongs to an NGO: Programme Assistance Pygmées de Beni. People call pygmies goats or monkeys—they’re less than human here.

After several hours, we stop at a gold-mining village called 26. It’s 26 kilometers south of the town of Mambasa, where Operation Effacer Le Tableau reached its bloodiest apex. Like the pygmies, the Bantus here have recently come back to the forest. The road is pitted with chest-deep holes where they have begun mining gold again. The miners stare at us: Two Muzungus—white people—led by a natty pygmy (he’s now in gold-rimmed sunglasses) as well as Amuzati’s wife and his bodyguards armed with bows and arrows trailing behind us.

When we leave the road, Amuzati takes off his sport coat and pants and leaves them at the foot of a tree in a duffel bag. He wears only shorts and flip-flops into the jungle. From 26, it’s a two-hour hike to the abandoned clearing of Difoho. During the attack, Amuzati says over his shoulder as I struggle to follow, these woods were overrun with soldiers. Pygmies move startlingly fast. Above us, there’s the sound of bed sheets being ripped to rags—it’s the wings of an unseen bird lifting above the forest canopy.

Finally, we reach the clearing of Difoho. A piece of string, a charm, has been tied to a wild tomato plant to show that someone owns it and to warn other people away from the site. In the middle of the clearing, Amuzati points to a two-room mud and stick house he says belonged to his mother. In the hut, we find the remnants of a large fire. Amuzati picks up a small red canister from the ashes, which, he says, was his sister Salam’s. She used it for lotion. But that’s all he can find to link his family to the site. We search the latrine and a couple of holes behind the hut for remains. It is the summer of 2003, about eight months after the attack, and we find nothing. If there’s any evidence to find besides the remnants of several large fires and two empty bags of salt, it eludes us. I look around the clearing as the pygmies solemnly poke at loose earth; we are woefully unskilled in forensics.

Then, a man arrives and asks what we were doing. Amuzati hides in a shed. This house, the man says, belongs to his brother, a farmer—not a group of pygmies. For a moment, I think Amuzati made the whole thing up.

“Is any of this true?” I turn to him and ask. Saying nothing, Amuzati points to the edge of the clearing. There, hidden in the brush are two pygmy houses, which look like igloos made of leaves. A child-sized pair of rotting blue jeans hang from the roof. They belonged to his brother, Amuzati says. Here’s where his family actually lived, next to the Bantu farmer. Amuzati’s family sharecropped for the farmer. For pygmies and Bantus, it’s a common form of feudal exchange. Pygmies farm, collect honey, or clean Bantu houses in exchange for the right to live on the land. Amuzati is embarrassed; he hates the implied subservience. He also hates the fact that his daughter, Masika, works as a prostitute. Sex work, like any other labor, falls under the feudal arrangement.

Amuzati takes us several steps away and points back through the trees. This is where he hid and watched the soldiers in the clearing cut up the bodies of his family. There are several theories as to why the rebel soldiers attacked pygmies. First, the pygmies were forced to work as forest guides for their enemies, so it was revenge. Second, because their flesh is supposedly magical. Third, because an army headed through a jungle with no food might eat whatever they come across, and pygmies are seen as the closest thing to animals. It’s only 3 in the afternoon, and there are several hours of daylight left, but suddenly Amuzati wants to leave the jungle. He’s afraid of getting caught here at night. We fight our way back through the undergrowth to the village.

In the car on the way home, we talk about Amuzati’s dreams in which his mother comes to him, demanding to know why he hasn’t paid for a proper funeral. When Amuzati was younger, pygmies left their dead under a pile of sticks and simply moved villages when someone died. “The elders didn’t know any better,” he says. Now, thanks to the influence of neighboring tribes, pygmies bury their dead and no longer move on.

At first, after the massacre, Amuzati, already a drinker, passed out to forget what he’d seen. Much to the delight of his wife, Amuzati has recently sobered up and become a Christian. “Now I’ve seen Kinshasa and I’ve seen many places—my life is better because I get a lot of favors,” he tells me.

“He’s changed completely now,” his wife Mabisito says. “He used to beat me when he was drunk. Now I tell him every day to stay a man of God.”

I ask Amuzati if the massacre is directly responsible for his newfound Christianity. “God would have found me anyway,” he says, reaching for the CB radio to call the local pygmy NGO again. He wants a white suit that fits, he stresses, for his upcoming baptism. The NGO has failed him on everything, he says, no corrugated tin for his new roof, no money for his mother’s funeral. The least they can give him is this one white suit.