NIANGARA, Congo — The young woman with the hacked-off lips and stitches where one ear used to be shakes her head when asked why rebels did this to her, then whispers that the attackers who came from across the river were angry because she kept crying for mercy and calling on God for help.
Cornelia Yekpalile, a 23-year-old mother of four children, was mutilated 18 days ago when she went to the fields near her village of Kpizimbi, set in dense forest in northeast Congo, to collect spinach-like pondu leaves to cook for lunch.
It’s an area so difficult to reach that U.N. officials on Saturday announced a previously unreported massacre that occurred two months ago: up to 100 people were killed when the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army attacked a village.
U.N. humanitarian chief John Holmes said he learned of the killings on Saturday when he visited Niangara, the nearest town which he reached by helicopter, and met with local officials and victims who escaped. U.N. investigators said they have spoken with witnesses but so far have been unable to reach the remote scene in the Haut-Uele district of Congo’s Oriental province.
It comes two months after one of the worst massacres recently committed by the LRA, the killings of more than 300 civilians in the area in the second week of December. Rebels also kidnapped more than 250 people including 80 children, according to the U.N.
“In this district, the Lord’s Resistance Army has continued to commit horrific atrocities against civilians, who are now displaced with no prospect of going back home any time soon”, Holmes said Saturday, on the third day of a four-day tour from his New York headquarters.
The latest attacks highlight the need for the continued presence in Congo of the U.N. military mission, Holmes said. Congo’s government wants MONUC — the largest U.N. peacekeeping mission with some 20,000 troops — to leave before September 2011.
“We are worried by the prospect of a premature withdrawal because MONUC is very important to our humanitarian activities,” Holmes said in an interview with The Associated Press on Saturday. “If you withdraw that element of stability that is MONUC then other conflicts contained by the presence of MONUC may get out of control and you could find yourself in a much more dangerous situation.”
Earlier, Holmes visited eastern Congo, where Rwandan rebels who helped perpetrate their countries 1994 genocide and fled across the border continue to attack civilians, killing, burning homes and driving some 1.4 million from their homes.
Villages in eastern Congo are routinely looted and burned by the Rwandan rebels and a host of tribal militiamen as well as ordinary armed criminals.
Sexual violence has become a weapon of war and the U.N. reports at least 8,300 rapes were committed against women in eastern Congo last year, averaging 160 rapes a week.
When Holmes visited the village of Mwenga on Friday, he was met by women singing a poignant song. “We are the living dead. They rape us! There’s no life without women. There can be no Congo without women,” they sang. Tears ran down the faces of some of the chanting women.
On Sunday, Holmes visits Mbandaka in northwest Congo, where a new rebellion has erupted. Enyele militiamen this month attacked U.N. peacekeepers guarding the airport, killing a Ghanaian peacekeeper and a South African pilot along with some 20 civilians.
That rebellion, in Equateur province, began between tribesmen fighting over farming and fishing rights. But the Enyele militiamen, in an Easter Sunday attack, targeted strategic and government locations. It took Congolese troops and U.N. peacekeepers two days’ fighting to retake the airport.
The U.N. peacekeepers “provide stability, they provide security for humanitarians (workers) they provide protection for civilians,” Holmes said.
But the U.N. forces are stretched thinly across this vast Central African nation the size of Western Europe and challenged logistically in a country that has few paved roads and is covered by near-impenetrable forest where fighters take refuge.
At Niangara Hospital, where she is being cared for by Doctors Without Borders from Belgium, Yekpalile said she would not be going home when her wounds mend.
“There’s no security in the villages,” she said. “Here there are soldiers.”
She said she had no idea why the rebels hacked off her lips and her right ear. “I was crying for mercy and crying ‘Oh my God, oh my God, help me.’ They said they would kill me if I carried on making a noise and then they did this,” she said, pressing a bandage to a mouth covered in plaster.
Mattia Novella, field coordinator for Doctors Without Borders, said they see few wounded patients. “As I understand it, they do not wound, they kill, that’s why we don’t received many injured people.”
The LRA launched its attacks in northern Uganda more than 20 years ago, saying its aim was to uphold the 10 commandments. Uganda’s army drove out but did not defeat the rebels, who crossed the border and also have attacked villagers in neighboring Sudan and Central African Republic.
The Ugandan rebels have no known agenda except killing and kidnapping mainly children to swell their ranks. Leader Joseph Kony has several times agreed to surrender and then reneged, apparently fearing trial at the International Court in The Hague, where he is wanted for crimes against humanity.