Massacre at Nyankunde

At 8:30 in the morning on Tuesday, September 5th, 2002, Mr. Kakani, the head nurse in the intensive care ward at Nyankunde Christian Hospital, had just finished early morning rounds. He was preparing to go to morning worship service when he heard sporadic gunfire and screaming. Looking out the open window, he saw dozens of women and children running towards the mission compound from the fields where they had been working since daybreak.

Pursuing the field workers and heading directly towards the mission were an estimated 7000 soldiers, rebel militiamen from the neighboring Ngiti tribe. As Mr. Kakani watched in horror, the militiamen, with painted faces and rings of leaves on their head, brandishing rifles, bayonets, machetes and knives, started indiscriminately killing anyone in their path; women, children and the elderly.

Mr. Kakani had further reason for alarm. He knew that these ethnic militiamen from the Ngiti tribe had long scorned the Nyankunde Christian hospital which has a history of treating people of all faiths and ethnic background, including their rival Hema tribe. Worse, a significant number of the hospital and church staff were Hemas, including Mr. Kakani and his young family. Rather than running home to protect his wife and children; he remained with his ward full of patients; closing the windows, barricading both doors to the ward and hiding patients; under beds, in the rafters, etc.

The contingent of government soldiers who had been sent to protect the Christian Hospital from the long standing ethnic conflicts between Hemas and Ngiti fled at the first sight of fighting. It is estimated that a thousand people died during the first few hours of onslaught; most brutally killed with machetes and knives. While Mr. Kakani and his patients were barricaded in the intensive care ward; scores of rebel soldiers went through the 250-bed teaching hospital killing any patient who  resembled a Hema literally in the beds where they lay; children, adults, the elderly, women in labor and those with newborn babies.

Those from the hospital staff, who were able to escape, fled to their nearby homes. After the massacre at the hospital, soldiers then went from house to house looking for anyone of Hema descent; often slitting their throats and throwing their bodies outside on the ground; women and children alike.  Their homes were then pillaged and later burnt to the ground. These were the events which took place that first day of September 5th, 2002. 

The next wave came the following day when soldiers awoke from the carnage and started anew. This time all homes belonging to a non-Hema ethnic group were pillaged. Ethnic militiamen would go from house to house; force the occupants outside, and systematically pillage their house room-by-room emptying it of furniture, belongings, food, kitchenware etc. They would often beat family members asking them where they “hid their money”.  After the houses were emptied out, the occupants were ordered back in and told to leave the door open. A closed door would mean the house would be “visited again”.

The missionary families who were in Nyankunde at the time were caught up in this second wave of pillaging. As missionary wives and children were held at gunpoint and told to bring forth cash and valuables, their homes were systematically emptied and pillaged one after the other.

Bodies of Hema tribes people who were slain the previous day remained on the ground in the hot sun. No one was allowed to touch them. Those few, who were wounded and still alive, were left on the ground to die; to come to their rescue would be death for anyone who dared.

During the day any remaining Hema man, woman or child, found hiding in houses or in the hospital were rounded up. They were stripped of their clothes, had their elbows tied behind their back and marched to a large house in the middle of the compound and then shut in. Over a hundred and twenty were imprisoned that day. For them there would be neither escape, nor food or water…only a slow and agonizing death.

On the afternoon of this second day; the ethnic militiamen broke the door down to the intensive care ward; decapitating Hema patients found in bed and engorging others. They then rounded up any remaining hospital staff from the Hema tribe including Nurse Kakani. Mr Kakani in fact recognized amongst the assailants, a young Ngiti man, who he had once “fed and nursed to health” in that very hospital a few years earlier.

Mr. Kakani was marched to the makeshift “prison” along with his nine family members; his wife, four daughters, infant son and in-laws…all without clothes, weeping, and fearful of what would come.  Mr Kakani described to me later, the horror in the house where he spent the next 3 days. Ngiti soldiers would not allow any food or water to come in. At night soldiers would enter and mock the crowd who were pleading for water. They were given empty cups to drink their own urine. Many were beaten and tortured included Mr. Kakani. The soldiers told the imprisoned that “this was their death chamber and they were to suffer a slow and agonizing death, but surely all would die”.

At night, when the heat dissipated and the soldiers left, the people would gather for prayer. Two pastors were among the group and encouraged them nightly in psalm and praises. Mr. Kakani told me how these pastors encouraged the group, recounting the story about “Daniel and the lion’s den” and how God saved His servants, Shadrack, Meschach and Abendego in the face of adversity.  The people prayed constantly throughout the night and were encouraged the next morning. By the end of the third day however, agonizing of thirst and severely dehydrated, many started to die; first and foremost the children; 2 in the morning, 2 in the afternoon, more in the evening, etc. Soldiers would periodically enter the building to gather corpses and then drag them outside where they were thrown down an open latrine in sight of all. When the latrines were full the bodies were burnt outside the building.showing the others what their fate would be. In their horror, despair,and deprivation.many began to lose hope. The pastors continued to encourage the group. Departing from the story of Daniel, they told stories of how God would comfort them. “The God who calmed the storm on the Sea of Galilee” they said “will calm and soothe our spirits”. Mr Kakani recounted that during those evening-long times of prayer and teaching, “as unbearable as their suffering was, they felt the presence of God in that prison”.

During this time the remaining members of the non-Hema population; medical and church staff, which numbered in the hundreds, were moved to a house on the far side of the mission station and told to remain there. Over the next five days, they watched as one after another of their houses were emptied of belongings which were carried on the heads of Ngiti militiamen, across the hills to their distant villages. One said that the line of people carrying away their belongings was like “a stream of ants going across the valley and over the hill”. The hospital was similarly disassembled, piece-by-piece; doors, windows, tables, chairs, equipment, all carried away. Books from the nursing school and records from the hospital were thrown into a large fire. Hundreds of corpses were gathered during that 4th and 5th day and added to the flames. 

On that fifth day, soldiers came into the prison and called out Mr. Kakani and his family. Many of his children including his infant son were lapsing in and out of consciousness from dehydration and were carried in his arms.  It appears that someone discovered that Mr Kakani’s wife was the cousin of a Ngiti military leader’s wife and the family was released from the prison. They were told to join the rest of the mission and hospital staff in the larger house across the mission station. The staff weepingly received their colleague and family; putting clothes on their back, slowly pouring cool water through parched lips, and showering them with hugs and tears. Later they listened in horror as Mr. Kakani related conditions in the “makeshift prison” on the other side of the Nyankunde mission station.

That 7th day the remaining staff knew they had to leave. In the early morning of September 12th; in the pouring rain, while soldiers were sleeping or still looting distant homes, over 1200 Nyankunde Hospital staff and mission personnel quietly departed.. (The missionary families had been allowed to leave earlier, during the second day of carnage, in a rescue flight by MAF and AIM, worked out with the ethnic militiamen after intense negotiations.) As the large group set out; their goal was Oicha Hospital, an AIM sister mission hospital over 150 km away!

Over the next 9 days, this distraught yet determined group marched through rainforest through swamps and rivers to their destination. As they passed through neighboring villages they were joined by others who had been hiding in the forest, their homes having been burnt or neighbors killed by the same Ngiti militiamen. Along the way, they came across a slain woman, lying on the side of the road with an infant child moaning weakly on her chest. Soldiers had apparently massacred the women a day or two earlier and left the child to die. A couple from the mission station, Socrates and Angelique, picked up the child and carried it with them, nursing it back to health along the way.

By the end of the first day there were over 1700 refugees from Nyankunde, on the road, determined to reach the safety and shelter of Oicha Christian Hospital. A missionary from Nyankunde, Maryen

Baisley who had remained with her people during the ordeal, accompanied them on this long voyage to Oicha.  The group reached their destination on September 22nd, worn and fatigued from their long journey and famished after living off rainwater and sugarcane. This was the group that MAF pilot Garth Pederson, Congolese Christian doctor Joe Lusi, and I, flew in to meet a week later with relief supplies: food, clothing, medicine and words of encouragement from our supporting organizations: MAF, International Ministries, SANRU, PCUSA, and Interchurch Medical Assistance. 

I remained behind to talk with the refugees and Oicha hospital staff.  Beyond the physical scars from deprivation, hunger and exhaustion; are emotional ones as the Nyankunde refugees recall horrendous events of the past two weeks. I spoke with a woman, Kavira, who tearfully recounted how her 4-year old son had run out the back door in fear when soldiers approached their home looking for Hema tribes’ people. The rebel soldiers caught the young boy, dragged him back to the house and brutally killed him in front of his mother; a message to what would happen to all who resist their search and interrogation. Words cannot describe the brutality or tales that we heard over and over that day. Others we met simply could not talk. As difficult as it is to elicit and record such events; these are stories which need to be told; not only to our Christian churches, but to the world; tales of tribal conflict, anarchy and inhumane conditions in parts of Eastern Congo. Mrs. Kasito, Mrs. Mawazo, the Bolinza family, nurse Kakani.all have stories which need to be heard. 

When I asked what we should pray for; many asked for “peace in their land and the end of fighting and anarchy” which fuels tribal conflict. Others asked for “God to comfort them and bring healing to their hearts”, particularly those who lost children and loved ones. The few who asked for anything physical, asked for simple items such as “tarps for shelter, plastic jugs to collect water, clothes for their children and pots in which to cook”.  Interchurch Medical Assistance, International Ministries and others provided funds and material for this initial relief effort. We flew in that day, over 700 kg of medicine, blankets, food products etc. We anticipate launching an appeal for help amongst our churches in the very near future.

The most critical needs are food for over 1500 persons, shelter material, clothing and medical care, for those who are currently sleeping outdoors or in classrooms, hallways and porches at the Christian hospital in Oicha.

We have been asked to help provide basic household goods for 70 families on the Oicha compound and funds if possible to hire and integrate some of the Nyankunde nurses, technicians and doctors, who have asked to work, into the Oicha hospital staff. Even if this doubling of staff is not needed; many have expressed a desire to work and render care, and to give testimony about their God who still abides with them. This was Mr. Kakani’s appeal during the close of our interview.

We do not know the fate of the 120 locked in a building and dying of thirst and exposure, but suspect they are surely dead. I believe that the “calm and peace” they so fervently prayed for, is theirs, and the Lord did not forsake them.

How do we now respond to the physical and emotional needs of the survivors, children who have lost parents; parents who have lost children? 

The story of a baby picked up off the breathless chest of her mother by Socrates and Angelique and carried through the rain forest to start a new life is a point of depart. I am awed that those who lived through such horror, loss of loved ones, loss of home and livelihood can still offer compassion to an orphaned child..and others. May that example of enduring compassion in the wake of horror and genocide motivate and inspire us all.

I recall the image of Christ, brutally treated and dying on a cross, yet compassionate and forgiving to the very end. May the risen Savior who offers eternal life to those who call on His name, who calmed the hearts of those imprisoned and doomed in a locked building in Nyankunde, and who instilled compassion in the hearts of survivors…..beckon us to respond with prayer, compassion and determination.

With hope, from Eastern Congo,


Dr William Clemmer

American Baptist Missionary

IMA Representative to SANRU III

Oicah Hospital, Eastern Congo

September 30th, 2002

Note: The Ngiti tribe is a sub group of the larger Lendu tribe, long at odds with the Hema tribe in this part of Africa. At last report, Oct. 15, 2002, the Ngiti were headed towards Oicha.  Please pray.

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