Amuzati Nzoli, the world’s most famous pygmy, sits on a rock and crosses his diminutive arms. Despite the Congolese heat, he’s wearing a red balaclava. We are in his village of Luemba. It’s basically a clearing of stumps in the 20,000-square-mile Ituri Forest. Less than 4 feet tall, with a penchant for tie-dye and pink nail polish, Amuzati refuses to tell his story unless he’s paid. To reach him, I’ve spent two maddening days and nights stuck in the ruts of a logging road from the nearest town of Beni. I’m sick and filthy, and my skull has smacked for two days straight against the frame of a Toyota Hi-Lux. I’ve just about had it with Amuzati, and we haven’t even spoken yet.
Amuzati’s story, as I’ve heard it, is that he watched a group of rebel soldiers cook and eat his family before Christmas of 2002. “They even sprinkled salt on the flesh as they ate, as if cannibalism was all very natural to them,” Nzoli told the Associated Press last spring in a clipping I’m carrying in my bag. His account—and the sensation surrounding it—helped to mobilize the international community. As a result, the U.N. Security Council denounced the “cannibal rebels” and mobilized a peacekeeping force of almost 5,000 soldiers. Although they are stationed only about 100 miles from here, they may as well be on the moon.
Walled in white trumpet lilies, the road between us is still deceptively lethal. Here, the uneasy peace that’s reached much of the country after five years of civil war is largely a myth. This corner of northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo is about twice the size of New York State. It has had no functioning government since the Congo became independent in 1960. The only real law is the business end of an AK-47. During and after neighboring Rwanda’s genocide, this forest and surrounding towns became a haven for war criminals. They are just one of the many gangs of killers still here.
DRC’s rebels are a rag-tag bunch. In the fall of 2002, two of its strongest groups began a campaign of systematic looting, rape, and murder throughout the Ituri Forest. The soldiers fanned out for miles and burned everything in their wake. As a reward, officers were promised four days of unbridled looting and rape, including the rape of children. The bodies of “traitors” were left in public squares. Soldiers even wore T-shirts emblazoned with the operation’s name, “Effacer le Tableau,” or “Clean the Slate.” As a result, the pygmies fled the Ituri Forest for the first time in history.
Amuzati and his clan have only recently returned to the woods. Now, they prefer to live close to the road near other, non-pygmy ethnic groups, most commonly known as Bantu. The pygmies gather around us as Amuzati and I begin to bargain. After weeks of glowering 11-year-olds demanding a million dollars or a metal detector to cross their string-in-the-road checkpoints, Congolese hardball is easy to learn.
“We’re leaving,” I say. Marcus, the photographer, hands the last of his cigarettes to the pygmies. They are a group of about 45, plus the numerous children wearing Rugrats twin sets. I have to count them, because they don’t keep track of numbers, such as how many are in the clan or how old they are. We stand up to go, and Amuzati backs down instantly. His story is free, he says, but photographs will cost. Apparently, another photographer made Amuzati pose for hours with his bow and arrow as an army of fire ants marched over his body. He isn’t going through that again without being paid for it.
First, he decides, the village will take us hunting. There is virtually no wildlife left in this patch of Ituri. Deforestation has driven most of the animals out of the pygmies’ reach. The pygmies survive by bartering with their neighbors for cassava , a starchy root, or they mine gold. “It’s easy to cheat them,” a local miner told me. Pygmies are excellent hunters and haven’t yet learned the value of meat. They’ll trade 10 gazelles for one T-shirt.
We leave camp and head into the underbrush for the hunt. The women, wearing black and red negligee tops—teddies, really—giggle and whoop as they pretend to chase the absent animals toward the men’s nets. The men cock their arrows at empty trees. Before long, all of us are bored. The women return to the village. The men take turns shooting practice arrows at a tree. I ask Amuzati exactly what he saw in the clearing the day his family was massacred.
“They were cutting them the way they cut meat,” he tells me. Amuzati watched as his mother, Mutandi, his younger sister, Salam, his older brother, Mangbulu, and his nephew, 5- or 6-year-old Zipoa, were dismembered by rebel soldiers aligned with Jean-Pierre Bemba, who is now one of Congo’s vice presidents. Amuzati says he never saw anyone eaten, although he’s certain that’s what happened after he ran off into the jungle.
Every time his account is repeated by other people, activists, and the press, he says, the story gets more lurid. He has been caught up in a giant game of telephone.
For pygmies, who occupy the lowest rung on DRC’s social scale, Amuzati has become a hero. Thanks to his newfound fame, Amuzati was flown to the capital of Kinshasa to meet President Joseph Kabila after his story hit the press. He loved the city; people outnumbered trees. He fell in with a group of prostitutes he calls his girlfriends. As soon as he mentions these women, the men stop their target practice to listen. They made him use condoms, Amuzati says, which he hated. His favorite part of the trip was the plane ride.
“If you could climb onto a plane and return to your old life of isolation in the deep forest, would you do it?” I ask the men around us. The question, once translated, produces a series of enthusiastic nods.
“You’d better make sure that’s not just for that plane ride,” Marcus says. I ask again, no airplane. No one wants to return to the forest or to traditional life. Thanks to the war, deforestation, and visitors like me, their nomadic days are over. It occurs to me that, like everyone else in the forest, Amuzati and his clansmen might want guns to protect themselves. Amuzati looks at me aghast when I suggest this. “It would be a big mistake to give us guns—the Bantu would definitely kill us if they thought that we could kill them,” he says, eyeing me as if I might have a couple of crates of light arms in the Hi-Lux.
Guns are about the only thing Amuzati doesn’t want. He keeps asking for a white suit he can wear at his upcoming baptism. (He’s become a Christian.) I ask the other pygmies if they care as much about clothes. “We never used to wear clothes, but we want to be like everyone else, and this is the modern world,” one man says. Their chief, Kabila, who happens to share the same name as Joseph Kabila, the president of the DRC, says, “By the next generation, the kind of pygmies who don’t wear clothes in the bush will be gone.”
Amuzati will have none of their nostalgia. “If I find them in the bush naked, I’ll beat them.”
The pygmies lean against their bows and laugh.