Category Archives: militias

Sadness and worry as Virungas head ranger is shot

Emmanuel-de-Merode

Hi, this is Henry,

Here in Goma, we’re used to bad news. Even the news that one of the brave rangers working to protect the Virunga National Park has been shot is something we have sadly come to expect now. After all, over the past 10 years, more than 150 rangers have been killed for just doing their jobs.

But still, the news that the head of the park, Emmanuel de Merode (above) was shot while driving back to the headquarters was greeted with great sadness and shock. Just one week ago, Emmanuel organised a really important conference where he explained his new vision for the region. His ‘Virungas Alliance’ will have the backing of both the European Union and Howard Buffet. Millions of dollars will be invested in building a new hydro-electric plant to provide power to tens of thousands of homes, and a new water system will be constructed close to the gorilla sector in order to supply local communities with clean water and reduce their reliance on the natural resources of the forest. After months and months of despair the mood was finally one of optimism – there was even talk of reopening the park to tourists!

Tourists taking pictures of one of the gorillas at the Virungas National Park

When will it be safe to welcome tourists back to see the Congo’s gorillas?

Thankfully Emmanuel has survived the attack and is doing fine. Now we have to hope that the attack won’t derail the wonderful work he has been doing over the years. We need investment in the Virungas and so we can only hope that acts of violence don’t jeopardise this.

People are so tired of all this instability here in DR Congo. We thought that, following the recent ceasefire it was time to get back to work. But as this latest tragic shooting shows, there are still serious conflicts of interest that means true peace is unlikely to come any time soon.

No summer tourism for the Virungas National Park

Tourists taking pictures of one of the gorillas at the Virungas National Park

Tourists taking pictures of one of the gorillas at the Virungas National Park

Hello, this is Tuver,

Unfortunately the situation at the Virungas National Park here in DR Congo still doesn’t look very good. As you might know, the last couple of months have been very difficult since a militia called M23 occupied the territory, threatening the security of the mountain gorillas living in the park.

The situation has degraded further now since the Mountain Gorilla Sector not only remains occupied by the rebels but also since last week the militia has been in control of the town of Bunagana, located at the border between Uganda and DR Congo. This place is one of the main entry points to the park so it makes the situation even more difficult.

All of these problems suggest the outlook for the rest of this summer is far from good and this is having a devastating impact on the fragile but precious tourism industry here. The authorities at the Virungas National Park have already cancelled all the trips for this month and for August and the situation will be reviewed until the 20th of July.

I will keep you posted regarding the decision the authorities take for the coming months. In the meantime, I can only hope the situation gets better, especially for our gorillas living in the park.

Tourists watching gorillas in the wild

Tourists watching gorillas in the wild

Paying a visit to the Nyakagenzi gorilla group…

Here I am, in the presence of the handsome blackback Rukundo

Hi, this is Tuver,

Despite the insecurity troubling this part of DR Congo, work has to go on as usual. Luckily for me, this meant a trip into the Volcano National Park in Rwanda to check up on the Nyakagezi gorilla group. Actually, I was on my way to Kasese, where I attended a regional meeting of the Greater Virunga Transboundary Collaboration, so, along with a fellow journalist from Uganda, I seized the opportunity to go and see these amazing gorillas.

As you can see from the pictures that I took, the group is doing well, especially the two youngsters, Marc and Fred, who were playing the whole time I visited – luckily, the silverback Bigingo was patient and didn’t get too annoyed by their antics. And, despite the fact that this groups is not that used to having visitors – it is not open to tourists but has been fully habituated – all the gorillas were completely at ease, meaning I could watch them eat, sleep and play. So, enjoy these pictures and let’s hope the Nyakagezi group continues to go from strength to strength!

Despite not being regularly visited by tourists, the gorillas weren't worried about my presence

 

The youngsters Marc and Fred were playing under the watchful eye of blackback Bigingo

And here's Bigingo on his own, looking really impressive these days!

 

Worrying times as fighting break out close to the gorilla sector..

Hi, this is Tuver,

Eastern DR Congo is rarely peaceful. However, insecurity in the region has not been as bad as it is right now for some time.

As you may have read in the news or heard on the radio, fighting recently broke out around the edges of the Virunga National Park. Rebels, some of them under the command of General Bosco Ntaganda – who you may know by his nickname ‘The Terminator’ – have been fighting against the Congolese army. While they had been brought into the regular army back in 2009, they have broken away again.

As I write, fighting between the army, who have the support of the UN, and the various militia of the rebels, is continuing just a few miles from the area of the park where the mountain gorillas live. According to our colleagues working in the Virunga National Park, missiles have been fired into the park in an attempt to flush the rebels out of the forest and tragically, one national park ranger was killed after his patrol was ambushed while carrying out their important work.

Unsurprisingly, this new insecurity has caused widespread panic among the communities living right alongside the park. Here in Goma, hundreds of people are arriving every day, fleeing from the fighting and seeking protection in the city. As a result of this rise in displaced peoples, I have seen the prices in the local markets go up over the past few days. Also, people are having to sleep in churches and even schools, meaning children’s education is being disrupted.

I can tell you that, so far, the mountain gorillas have been unharmed, though I’m sure they must have heard the gunfire. However, some of the rangers who usually protect the gorillas are unable to carry out their routine patrols, so it’s a very worrying time for us.

I’m sure you’ll understand that I don’t have any pictures to share with you as it’s just too dangerous to go near to where the fighting is right now. I’ll be sure to let you know if there are any major developments, but all we can do right now is sit tight and hope the fighting ends soon.

Rangers killed in Virungas

Hi this is Tuver,

I am really sorry to have to bring you some very bad news from the Virungas. Yesterday morning a vehicle belonging to the ICCN (the Congolese wildlife authority) was attacked. During the attack eight people were killed. Three of the victims were park rangers and five were members of the national army who were working with the rangers.

The car was traveling along the road between Mabenga and Rwindi through the middle of the park. It was deploying the men on board to help keep the road safe for local people as in recent weeks this area has been very insecure as a result of the presence of illegal armed groups. The early morning patrol car was attacked with a rocket-propelled grenade, the attackers fled the scene immediately on foot. We are not certain of who the perpetrators are or which rebel group they came from, however we do believe that they are from the FDLR Rwandan militia and the search continues to find the attackers.

This is the worst attack on ranger patrols in over a year. Our thoughts and sympathies go out to the families of these brave men who lost their lives.

UN envoy berates Nkunda for breaking ceasefire

Although the ICCN has been able to return to the Gorilla sector of the Virunga National Park and initiate a census of mountain gorillas, the political situation and humanitarian situation remains serious. Refugees are being moved by the UN Peace keeping force MONUC from Kibati camp to Mugunga camp west of Goma, moving them away from the conflict frontline for their own protection.

On the political front things seem to be deteriorating. The UN Special envoy, president of Nigerial Olegusun Obasanjo met for a second time with Nkunda yesterday but the visit had not provided any “clear answers” on how to move forward, said Bertrand Bisimwa, spokesman for Nkunda’s National Congress for the Defense of the People, or CNDP.

According to Bloomberg website, the former Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa, who is accompanying Obasanjo said that direct talks were unlikely. In response, the CNDP has reiterated a threat to directly confront the government and go to war if the government doesn’t agree to talks outside the so-called Amani program.  

Nkunda has publicly requested direct talks with the DRC president, Joseph Kabila but Kabila has insisted that any talks are held within the Amani process which Nkunda agreed to in January this year.  Amani, which means “peace” in Swahili, was set up by the government after a January cease-fire deal between the government and more than 20 armed groups, including the CNDP.

During the meeting on Saturday, Obasanjo apparently berated Nkunda for breaking the cease-fire last week when he initiated a new offensive along the border with Uganda which saw over 30,000 refugees cross at Ishasha.  In the last week Nkunda’s rebels captured two border posts and a town last week.

According to this article on Associated press Obasanjo is disappointed with Nkunda’s behaviour but Nkunda continues to insist that the cease-fire does not apply to foreign forces and said he will continue to protect ethnic Tutsis from Hutu fighters who fled to Congo from Rwanda after that country’s 1994 genocide.

Ian Redmond’s State of the Gorilla journey is over – but there is still plenty more

Ian is back in the UK, catching up with himself and preparing for his next journey, this time to the concrete jungles of LA, San Diego etc. to fundraise for YoG through a lecture tour.

As the regular reader of this blog will remember, Ian did numerous video interviews and collected other video material. Unfortunately, the files were too large to upload as he went, but we are now receiving them.

One of Ian’s first visits in the Dem. Rep. of Congo was to the Kahuzi Biega National Park, where he interviewed Head Ranger Radar Nishuli on the ever-volatile situation there and on what he thinks of the YoG. Enjoy!

[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/-bwnqWvBH_Y" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

August 16th – Ex-Militiamen’s long way back to normality

 Posted on behalf of Ian Redmond.

16th – Gisenyi is a peaceful place for a holiday, with a golden sandy beach and luxury hotels.   Recently, Presidents Kabila and Kagame, of DRC and Rwanda, held a joint press conference on the border between the twin towns of Goma (DRC side) and Gisenyi (Rwanda side).   The event created a palpable sense of optimism that security and stability might soon return to the region.  

Part of that process involves trying to lure back the armed militias of Rwandan origin who have been living as outlaws, terrorising villagers, in the forests of eastern DRC since the genocide 15 years ago.  Today, the Network 7 crew had arranged to visit a nearby Demobilisation and Rehabilitation Centre to interview some of these ex-combatants who, in an extraordinary experiment, are being given the chance of a new life. 

The smooth tarmac of Rwanda’s roads wound upwards from the lake and we were soon pulling into a compound with several large corrugated iron buildings.  From one of them came the sound of singing and clapping – music is central to Rwandan culture – and after a short wait we entered the barn-like hall.   The 200 or so men had clearly been given a lecture, and among the Kinyarwandan words on the blackboard, one stood out – ‘jenocide’.   

The principle behind this scheme is that people show remorse for the suffering they have caused, and learn to live a normal life again.  Our driver Yahaya announced in Kinyarwanda what we hoped to do, and asked if any of those present had been involved with mining or bushmeat poaching.   Quite a few stood up and out of those prepared to talk to the camera, we selected three.  The most harrowing for me was the second, Emanuel, a fresh-faced, slender young man of 22.   Yes, he had killed people he said; he was five when he fled to Congo, and 12 when he first killed;  he had used guns, knives and machetes – whatever was to hand – and didn’t know how many people he had killed.  My heart went out to him as much as to those he had bereaved, because he was a victim too.  

Emanuel Hakizimana, former child soldier in DRC, now returned to Rwanda - Photo Ian Redmond.

The use of child soldiers to commit atrocities is one of the most chilling practices. We are social beings and when young, follow the example of those who care for us.   Children need role models, but if your role model is a murderer and heaps praise on you when you kill, you become trapped in a twisted parody of family life and then used as a tool to commit evil deeds.  I noticed he was wearing a crucifix, and he explained he had become a Christian since returning to Rwanda.  One can but hope that his new faith will help keep him on the right path.

The other two men, Samuel and Valence, were older and a little more guarded in their answers.   They had been adults in 1994 and when Grant Denyer, the Network 7 presenter, asked about whether they had killed simply said that when one shoots in a war, one cannot tell if your bullet hits someone.  As well as unknown numbers of people, all three also admitted to killing chimpanzees, elephant and, in Valence’s case, gorillas.  I asked whether it was a male or female gorilla, and he replied it was a silverback he had killed and butchered for meat.   “But Rwandans don’t eat gorillas,” I said, “Why did you do it?” “Because I was with Congolese soldiers who told me to.”  And I suppose that if he had refused, he might not be here today….

He insisted that he regretted his crimes and was grateful for the chance of a new start in life, but all three were worried about how they would make a living when they re-entered normal society.  As we pulled away and drove to Kigali, we were worried too – deep in thought about what we had heard and wondering whether their remorse was real and whether ‘normal society’ was ready to accept them, warts and all.

Read Ian’s previous post here.