BUNIA, Democratic Republic of Congo — The children and adults were bandaged and still in shock by the time I reached the Salama Clinic in Bunia, a big dusty town that is the capital of Ituri Province, in the northeastern corner of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
About 36 hours before, they had been attacked as they slept in tents in a vast camp that houses about 20,000 displaced people. They had fled to that particular camp, called Plaine Savo, most within the last month, thinking they would be protected from an anti-government militia by United Nations peacekeepers and Congolese army camps based only about one mile away.
In a brazen move, the militia attacked anyway on Tuesday night, firing guns and swinging machetes.
“There were shouts to stay inside our tents so we didn’t move at first,” said Janine Lotsove, who had been sheltering in the camp with her seven children. “But then we heard the rebels tearing open other tents nearby and starting to cut people with machetes. Those who stayed in their tents were being massacred, so we started to run with our kids and they shot at us.”
The assault was one of the biggest in almost a year in the country’s eastern region, which is plagued by violence, corruption and ethnic tensions. Nearly 5.6 million Congolese have been displaced from their homes, according to a count in November by the United Nations refugee agency. More than a million others have fled the country, which has a population of about 90 million, seeking refuge in places like the United States and Europe.
A commander of the U.N. forces in the area told me they had arrived at the Plaine Savo camp as fast as possible on the rutted roads. But in 20 minutes, the militia had slaughtered about 60 people and wounded at least 50, aid officials said.
Twenty-one of the most severely injured were airlifted by helicopter to the Salama Clinic, which is supported by Doctors Without Borders — one of the few medical charities still working on the front lines as the region has become less and less secure. There are as many as 120 different militias terrorizing this part of Congo.
Before the attack, I had just spent the previous two weeks documenting survivors of war crimes from two decades ago for the International Criminal Court. I didn’t want to be taking pictures of fresh attacks.
I have lived and worked in Congo off and on for the last 20 years, and for the last two years have run a collaborative project with a dozen Congolese photographers to illustrate the vibrancy of life here beyond the narrow scope of conflict. But from documenting war crimes past, I’ve learned the importance of gathering evidence of atrocities as they happen to try, as hard as it is, to hold perpetrators accountable.
The militia group everyone calls CODECO — the Cooperative for Development of Congo — was responsible for Tuesday’s assault, according to the government. It was one of the worst recent attacks, but the violence has escalated since May when the government declared martial law in the region: More than 800 deaths were recorded in Ituri in the last six months of 2021, according to Kivu Security Tracker, a human rights project.
At the clinic, working with an interpreter, we moved through the small cinder block rooms and found that most of the wounded were children, many unidentified, separated from their families in the chaotic scramble to airlift them for treatment. I counted three adults.
We asked them, “Do you want to tell your story about what happened? If so, I’m here to listen. If not, that’s ok.” But every adult wanted to speak and be photographed, and the adults gave consent for their children to be photographed. They wanted their stories heard.
Sitting side by side in silence on a bed, Rosinne Vive, about 7, had machete wounds on her head and neck, and Cecile Shukuru, 13, had gashes from machete blows on her shoulder.
Catherine, 11, Rosinne and Cecile’s cousin, drifted in and out of consciousness after coming out of surgery to repair a fistula caused by a bullet that had passed through her buttocks and genitals. Catherine and her mother, Ms. Lotsove, had both been shot while fleeing.
Several other children had wounds to their groins,including one girl under 10 who had been sexually assaulted during the attack.
“It looks as if they were targeting the girls and specifically trying to shoot them in the genital area,” said Dr. John Kakule Ngendo, the director of the clinic.
Ms. Lotsove, 33, said that all seven of her children managed to survive the attack. She was being treated for a bullet wound to her knee. But she said her brother and his two children had been killed with machetes.
The night of the attack, she said, “People were running in every direction. I hid in a nearby tent with my daughter and realized she had been shot too.” She said that they hid there until the U.N. forces arrived and drove the militia away.
Logo Lupka, 65, said he had been at the camp for only a week. He was shot through the hip.His six children survived, but his wife was killed after being struck by a bullet in the tent beside him.
“They will bury her today,” he said. “Only God can help me now.”
Logo Lonu, a 31-year-old farmer, from the Hema ethnic group, had been sheltering at the camp with his wife and five children for three weeks after fleeing attacks on his home village.
The attackers in the CODECO militia were from a different ethnic group, the Lendu. The Lendu, who tend to be farmers, have a longstanding rivalry with Hema pastoralists, dating back to colonial rule — which exacerbated ethnic divisions.
When they first heard the shooting in the camp, “We thought this can’t be Lendu coming for us,” Mr. Lonu said. “We are in a displaced camp and there is an army camp and a MONUSCO base nearby,” he added, referring to the U.N. peacekeepers.
“I went out to see and someone was outside the door and shot at me. The bullet missed and I went back inside, but then he fired into the tent and I was hit in the leg. My 13-year-old boy was also hit in the arm.”
The militia fired into the tents. In the one beside him, Mr. Lonu said, nine people were killed. “I had no way to defend myself, not even a machete,” he said, “I thought I would just die.”