Since the middle of last month, no outsider has been allowed down the six miles of jungle road that begin at a roadblock manned by soldiers at Kilometer 42 south of here.
But a growing number of accounts emerging from that zone suggest that some form of systematic killing of refugees and disposal of the evidence have been taking place there.
These accounts suggest - although they do not conclusively prove - that people have died in significant numbers in the jungle and that their remains, often in the form of ashes, are being disposed of en masse. Aid workers express a deepening conviction that the jungle astride the road, as it runs along a bend in the Congo River, has been turned into a killing camp.
The accounts come from refugees who have emerged from the jungle, from aid workers who deal with the victims, from Congolese who live nearby, from a disaffected Congolese soldier who says he worked in the zone and from aid workers who saw a military unit move into the area. All of the more than 25 people interviewed refused to be named or have their aid agencies identified for fear of retribution.
Among the things that cannot be documented are how many people may have died or are continuing to die. But with an estimated 40,000 refugees, mostly ethnic Hutus from neighboring Rwanda, still missing in the area, the refusal of the soldiers at the roadblock to admit outside observers has only darkened the suspicions about their role.
“They march them down the road - yes, children and mothers, too,” said a terrified 34-year-old man in the Biaro camp, just south of here, who said he has heard from other refugees what had happened. “They kill them, and then at Kilometer 52, they mix corpses together and make fire with them.”
Such revelations, if proved true, could be a major embarrassment for the new government of Congo, formerly Zaire, led by Laurent Kabila, who took power just recently after winning a seven-month rebel war.
The new justice minister, Mwenze Kongolo, said he knows nothing directly about what is happening near here.
The Hutu refugees “lie a lot,” he said. In denying that his government is in any way responsible for their deaths, he pointed to a separate group of refugees, many suspected of being former Rwandan Hutu militia members, that had emerged hundreds of miles away in the western town of Mbandaka.
“They were fighters,” he said. “If we’d been logical and consistent, we’d have killed them instead of treating them medically and bringing them near the airport. How can you put that together with accusations that we are killing them?”
It is impossible to say for certain if refugees have been killed by the order of top Congo officials or by local commanders and rogue units, perhaps with the cooperation of neighboring Rwanda.
But still, Congo government soldiers south of here will not let anyone past the roadblock to look.
Even diplomats with the personal permission of Kabila who have come thousands of miles to find out what happened to the refugees, have been barred from the area. Many accounts, all essentially consistent, suggest something deeply disturbing has gone on there, more disturbing even than the accusations last month by U.N. officials that the Hutu refugees had been condemned to a slow death from starvation and disease by Kabila’s forces.
One reason the accounts are emerging is that the soldiers operating in the zone have needed the help of local people to carry out their work. Local people say they have been dragooned to work south of Kilometer 42, carrying bodies, driving trucks, or digging graves.
Witnesses have reported the arrival of a well-drilled and heavily-armed military unit in the days before the jungle area was sealed off. Second-hand accounts report killings and funeral pyres deep in the rain forest, and soldiers carrying off bags of human ashes.
It is not clear how many of the soldiers from this unit remain in the area. But at least one former Zairian soldier who worked in the zone said about 30 refugees are still being killed each day as they emerge from hiding places in the forest.
Kabila’s forces, who this month won their war to end the 32-year reign of Mobutu Sese Seko, have from the start included large numbers of Tutsis, ethnic rivals of the Hutus in Congo and neighboring countries. The refugees are among some 1.2 million Hutus who fled neighboring Rwanda in the summer of 1994 after a Tutsi-led government came to power and ended a genocidal three-month campaign by Hutu leaders against Tutsis and moderate Hutus that killed half a million people.
From the start of Kabila’s rebellion last September, which began in the eastern area bordering Rwanda, Congolese rebels received assistance from the Rwandan government, diplomats now say. Once the fighting began, most of the Rwandan Hutu refugees who had lived in the border area for more than two years returned home, but tens of thousands fled deeper into Congo’s interior ahead of Kabila’s advancing forces.
Now, the suspicions swirling about the activities along the jungle road here include the possibility that a combat unit - which witnesses say is formed of Tutsis speaking the Rwandan dialect and perhaps from Rwanda itself - is conducting or completing a campaign of reprisal or pre-emptive killings against those Hutus who survived their exile and were preparing to be returned to Rwanda by the United Nations and other aid groups.
According to refugees and aid workers who have talked to survivors and to local Congolese soldiers who say they have helped bury the bodies, groups of refugees are being waylaid as they stumble up the road toward a U.N. airlift that would be their salvation. The men are tied up, made to kneel, and then strangled or hacked to death as others watch, they say. Sometimes women and children are killed too, and sometimes the children are released to go on up the road - this time alone, they say.
Beyond Kilometer 42, there are reports of burial pits from which the bodies from earlier killings are being dug up and burned. Soldiers and local Congolese civilians who have trucked in wood and gasoline say there is an open-air crematorium beside a quarry at Kilometer 52.
According to The Associated Press, a disaffected soldier from Kabila’s forces, who said he killed no one but helped remove bodies, described how the ashes of the burned bodies are shoveled into white bags and stored to be dumped into rivers later. The soldiers operating south of Kilometer 42 are under great pressure to hurry before outsiders gain access to the area, said the soldier, who said he had volunteered the information because he had grown disgusted with the killings.
“When the U.N. eventually comes to investigate, there will be no evidence left,” the AP quoted him as saying.
The soldier emerged from the area south of Kilometer 42 and told an AP reporter that 30 people were being killed each day, as of last week.
He told the AP that he had seen many killings himself and bodies burned and described scenes of a refugee pleading for his life with two soldiers before one killed him with a machete. He also told of a soldier digging a grave beside a body whose hands were bound, and of a soldier carrying a bag that contained cremated ashes.
He told the AP that he had recently seen 43 people hacked to death one by one.
The soldier also provided the AP with a detailed map of the 10-kilometer stretch, purporting to show where mass graves are, a cremation area where bodies are piled on gasoline-soaked wood and burned on pyres, and houses where the ashes are stored.
A New York Times and an AP reporter and a diplomat who followed the map into an area to which the United Nations has access, found one set of what appeared to be graves - seven earth-covered pits about 10 feet by 10 feet each with clothes and identity cards scattered nearby and a cross made of sticks wired together. The reporters and several other diplomats also tried to reach a house where the map said bags of crematorium ashes were stored but was stopped by the village chief, who said it was a military base and off limits.
There is no way to know how many people may have been killed. The United Nations estimates that 40,000 refugees are still missing in the area. They are part of an estimated 80,000 refugees who scattered into the forest from two camps, Biaro and Kasese, south of here, after being attacked by villagers and rebel soldiers on April 22.
Some presumably are still hiding in the jungle. About 6,000 who had been lying on the ground, too sick from cholera and diarrhea to walk, had simply vanished, relief workers said, after the workers were allowed back into the camps later in April.
Local Red Cross workers who said they had witnessed killings at Kasese on April 22 told a diplomat that Tutsi soldiers had buried bodies behind the abandoned camp with the help of a bulldozer that had been rented by the United Nations to smooth roads and dig latrines. But journalists and relief workers who tried to find that grave were stopped by the sound of gunshots.
For weeks, representatives of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees have been turned back at Checkpoint 42, the roadblock manned by Kabila’s soldiers just beyond the Biaro refugee camp.