Category Archives: Political situation

At last, transboundary conservation is formalised with a Treaty!


Here are all the representatives of the three states who came together to sign this historic and important agreement


Hi, this is Tuver,

The Treaty on the Greater Virunga Transboundary Collaboration of the Wildlife Conservation and Wild Flora and Tourism Development was signed on September 22 in Kinshasa at the end of the meeting of the Council of Ministers of the large cross-border collaboration in the Virungas region, and I was there to witness this important development.

The signing of this treaty was reached after ten long years of negotiations! The idea of all three countries (Rwanda, Uganda and DR Congo) coming together was inspired by the Kwitonda group of mountain gorillas. For years, they have been wandering between Rwanda and Congo, as have the Nyangezi family and many other individuals. As Dr Muamba Tshibasu, Executive Secretary of the cross-border collaboration scheme explained at this meeting, the gorillas need no visas and will just go where they want, so shouldn’t our efforts to protect them be similarly free from national boundaries?

Also in attendance on the big day were the Ambassadors of the Netherlands and Norway. They watched as the Treaty, which formalises the collaborative conservation efforts that have we have been carrying out for many years now. The Treaty also formalises our ongoing efforts to share the benefits of tourism and to work together to attract new tourists to the region, not only to see the gorillas, but to enjoy everything else the Virungas has to offer.

François Kanimba, Minister of Trade and Industry of the Republic of Rwanda welcomed the outcome of the process of formalization of cross-border cooperation through the signing of the Treaty and stressed that it is an important instrument for regional integration, which will significantly contribute to safeguarding the common heritage to the people of three countries of the Greater Virunga.

Meanwhile, the governor of North Kivu, Julien Paluku Kahongya, in an interview to the press, welcomed the outcome of the process leading to this signing, while the Minister of Tourism of the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Honorable Minister of Commerce and Industry of the Republic of Rwanda today signed the Treaty on the Greater Virunga Transboundary Collaboration of the Wildlife Conservation and Wild Flora and Tourism Development, which will be sent through diplomatic channels to signing their counterpart Honorable Minister of Tourism, Wildlife, Wild Flora and Antiquities of the Republic of Uganda.


Everyone was so happy that, after all these years of negotiations, we have finally signed this important Treaty

So, what does the Treaty guarantee? Without going into too much detail, it:

Recognizes the need to conserve transboundary protected areas through collaborative management for the benefit of present and future generations of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Republic of Rwanda and the Republic of Uganda;

Is aware that the Central Albertine Rift which includes the Greater Virunga is one of the most biologically diverse ecological regions; precious and fragile the world, providing a healthy and safe except for rare and endangered wildlife and wild flora protection under national and international law

Affirms that States have sovereign rights over their wild flora and fauna and responsibility relating thereto retain and use those resources sustainably;

Reaffirms the need for cooperation among States in relation to the management of natural resources and development of tourism, information sharing on the conservation of fauna and flora, tourism and building national capacities

Additionally, the Transboundary Collaboration Framework Greater Virunga governed by this Treaty is based on the following guiding principles:

a) Respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of States Parties;

b) A status and equal treatment for all States Parties;

c) Poverty reduction and sustained improvements in living standards;

d) Sustainable development;

e) The participation of the community;

f) Decision-making based on surveys.

The objectives of the Greater Virunga Transboundary Collaboration are:

1) To promote and coordinate biodiversity conservation and other socio-cultural values ??within the network of protected areas of Greater Virunga mentioned in Article 3;

2) Developing strategies for transboundary management of biodiversity;

3) To promote and ensure harmonized planning as well as monitoring and evaluation of the implementation of cross-border programs of conservation and development;

4) Promote and coordinate tourism development programs in the Greater Virunga Landscape;

5) Ensuring sustainable financing for the management of the network of transboundary protected areas to promote the conservation of biodiversity and the development of tourism in the Greater Virunga Landscape;

6) Strengthen and harmonize the production and sharing of knowledge, experiences and best practices for good decision-making;

7) Promote and enhance natural resources and safety of tourists in the Greater Virunga Landscape;

8) Engaging in any other activity for achieving the objectives of the Treaty.

Regarding Obligations of Member States, the Treaty states:

a) Keep the fauna and the flora and develop sustainable tourism in Transboundary Protected Areas in relation to the jurisdiction of each State Party;

b) Take care and be responsible for migratory species at the time of their presence in the jurisdiction of each State Party;

c) Share information for the conservation of wildlife and tourism development in the Transboundary Protected Areas;

d) Participate in annual fees in connection with financial and other resources required for the implementation of this Treaty;

e) To adopt, wherever possible, common positions in respect of treaties, conventions, and regional and international agreements and other protocols related to this Treaty;

f) To appoint representatives to national implementation of this Treaty;

g) Participate in joint marketing of tourism, research, monitoring of flora and fauna, conservation and development of tourism as well as wildlife management initiatives and flora and other activities required to achieve the objectives of this Treaty.

The treaty specifies the bodies of the GVTC, the funding of the latter and reserves, the effects on other international laws and obligations without omitting the modalities of accession of new members. It comes into force ninety (90) days after the deposit of instruments of ratification by all States Parties.

So, this may not be the most exciting blog post I’ve written for you, but, I can certainly say it’s one of the most important. Plus, given the importance of cooperation in conservation, it’s one of the most exciting for myself and my colleagues. Improved cooperation will help ensure we channel as much energy as possible into safeguarding flora and fauna, including, of course, our wonderful gorillas, and that the efforts and the rewards and divided up fairly.


Goma is quiet – but for how long?

Hi, this is Sam,

As I’m sure you know, the past couple of weeks have been very difficult indeed for everyone here at the Gorilla Organization, but especially for our colleagues in Goma. Here at the Kisoro Resource Centre in Uganda, we have seen a steady stream of refugees pass our windows as they flee the insecurity across the border.

But this is nothing compared to what our colleagues in DR Congo have seen and heard. They were quite literally scared for their lives – as well as for the lives of their families – when the M23 rebel group took Goma towards the end of last month. While the rebels captured the city (relatively) peacefully, there was still fighting, with rockets fired into the city from higher ground and soldiers from both sides out in force on the streets.

Now, though the M23 soldiers have left Goma itself, still the fear and uncertainty remains. How long will this fragile peace last? When will we be able to work free from fear? For now, we can do little more than wait and see how the situation develops. Fortunately, even at the Goma Resource Centre, our vital work is continuing, though, as I’m sure you can appreciate, not at full capacity. I look forward to writing to you again soon with better news.


YoG Epilogue, thoughts on Copenhagen, and more

This article was provided to us by YoG Ambassador Ian Redmond. Thank you Ian for your outstanding and exemplary efforts throughout the YoG!!

“A belated Happy New Year to all readers – in fact Happy New International Year of Biodiversity! (see

This year the UN has broadened its scope to raise awareness of all biodiversity – the millions of species of animals, plants, fungi and microorganisms with whom we share the planet. This is partly because the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) set targets for 2010 to reduce the loss of biodiversity. These 2010 targets (and how badly we have missed them) will be on the agenda at the 10th Conference of the Parties to the CBD in Japan this September (

Sliding smoothly from YoG to IYB (for some reason it was decided the Year of Biodiversity acronym wouldn’t follow the pattern of YoG…) is quite fitting, given that gorilla habitat is among the most bio-diverse on earth, and directly or indirectly many of the species therein are ecologically linked to gorillas.
I’ll return to this theme later, but first I must report on my visit to the Climate Conference in Copenhagen.

I was there for a week (10th – 16th December), but left before it was due to finish. Then the drama continued into Saturday 19th, the deal wasn’t sealed, and the Copenhagen Accord fell short of the world’s hopes and expectations. This was such an anti-climax and only now are assessments of the way forward beginning to appear (see and for the official view, and for independent comment, see for example, and

Copenhagen was closely followed by Christmas and New Year, and for me a chance to spend some time with my family (in India, where we saw some amazing cultural as well as biological diversity – but those experiences will appear elsewhere. There was one unexpected YoG outcome from India, which was bumping into Dave and Debs, a couple of Canadian bloggers, who wrote a nice piece about the encounter at: – thank you PlanetD).

Let me now take you back to mid-December and how it felt to be in the melée of Copenhagen:
The main event was the 15th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in the Bella Centre, but Copenhagen was filled with (according to some reports) more than 100,000 visitors attending film festivals, climate camps, demonstrations, business meetings and scientific seminars.

I escaped from the Conference on Saturday 12th to join some 40,000+ people on the Climate March, which for the most part had a carnival atmosphere, with floats, banners, kids and grannies. It was a great experience – civil society making a point peacefully (I missed the violence and arrests that grabbed the headlines – e.g.

Amongst all the people dressed as penguins and polar bears I did find one person in a gorilla costume – a German student who had come up on the train with friends – but until we met he didn’t know it was the Year of the Gorilla nor the role of gorillas in climate change mitigation (he does now!).”

15th December 2009: “It is snowing here in Copenhagen. A freezing cold wind cuts through the long queue of people trying to enter the Bella Conference Centre, where it is warm and until now welcoming (security concerns surrounding the arrival of 100 heads of state and their entourages has led to increasingly severe restrictions on the number of civil society participants allowed into the building, causing frustration and long queues). Our Danish hosts have gone to great lengths to give space for conservation NGOs, governments and UN agencies to display their reports and present their data. Every day is filled with dozens of side events inside the Bella Centre, and dozens more at parallel events taking place at several locations around Copenhagen.

The amount of passion and creative energy, the amazing expression of science and art, is simply staggering – all to inform and to influence the negotiators who are working day and night to come up with text to which all 190 or signatories to the UN Climate Convention can agree. It is an historic moment (note: at this point we were still hopeful), and fitting that it should be in the closing month of the UN Year of the Gorilla.

All year we have been stressing that YoG is not just about gorillas. It is true they are an iconic animal for the Congo Basin forests, and that they symbolise efforts to protect the planet’s second green lung, but there is more to it than that – they are also keystone species in their habitat. This means that just as the removal of a keystone in a bridge or stone arch would cause it to collapse, so the removal of a keystone species will cause a cascade of other species extinctions. In the forests of the ten countries that have gorilla populations, the health of those forests is linked to the balance between thousands of inter-dependent species of animals, plants, fungi and micro-organisms – all part of the forest ecosystem.

Unfortunately, most people (and probably most climate negotiators) hear the word ‘forest’ and think of trees. In the context of climate change, where about a fifth of global, human-caused greenhouse gas emissions are caused by deforestation and forest degradation, the word forest is associated with carbon – hence the idea of REDD+ in the new climate treaty (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation – with the plus signifying the additional ‘co-benefits’ that would arise from saving forests, such as rainfall, poverty reduction in forest-dwelling communities and halting biodiversity loss).

With colleagues from the CMS ( ), CBD, CI and the Global Canopy Programme, I have been spreading the word here in Copenhagen too, on the importance of gorillas and other seed dispersal agents.

On 13th December, at Forest Day 3, in a panel discussion with scientists working out methods to estimate accurately the losses and gains in forest carbon, one commented that their job was to focus solely on how much carbon was in a forest one year, and whether it had gone up or down the next time it was measured. I pointed out that if you weigh a car, and then remove the cogs from the gearbox and weigh it again, the difference in weight will be tiny but the car will no longer function. Similarly, if we think of animals as the cogs of the forest, uncontrolled commercial hunting may not alter the amount of carbon by much in the short term, but in the medium to long term, instead of a functioning natural forest we are left with a collection of trees whose chances of leaving descendants is greatly reduced.

About 80 per cent of tropical tree species produce seeds that are dispersed by animals. Germination trials in many research sites have shown that more of these seeds germinate and have a higher seedling survival rate if they have passed through an animal’s digestive system and been deposited in a nice package of manure (dung) far from the parent plant. Small seeds may be eaten by birds and small mammals as well as apes and elephants, but the larger the seed, the larger the animal needed to swallow it whole.

Botanists have long noted that tree species with large seeds tend to have denser wood (which means more carbon per cubic metre) than those with small seeds. This is an important argument for protecting large animals. One of the big issues in the debate about forest carbon is the permanence (or not) of the carbon stored in forests. How long will the forest be there? When a tree falls naturally, it decomposes and its carbon returns to the atmosphere unless there are new trees growing in its place. A healthy forest has been found to continue sequestering and storing carbon.

Next time you visit a natural forest, ask yourself, “Who planted the trees?” In the tropics, the chances are high it was an elephant (in Africa and south Asia), a primate or a fruit-eating bird or bat. Think of each tree as the result of an ecological event – an animal once ate a seed – maybe centuries ago – and a few weeks later, a seedling grew from a pile of poo.

It follows then that to ensure permanence in forest carbon, we must ensure these ecological events keep happening. In my view, uncontrolled commercial hunting is just as important a form of forest degradation as any removal of wood or vegetation – it is the removal of an essential component of the forest ecosystem. Ergo, hunting must be controlled just as logging, charcoal making and clearance for agriculture must be controlled if a healthy forest is to endure.

Whilst the outcome from Copenhagen was disappointing, it is surely better to delay and get it right than force it and get a treaty full of flaws. The negotiations continue and a legally binding agreement seems possible this year – this gives every interested person (and I hope that means you, Gentle Reader) more time to make their views known to their governments. It is a long and complex process, but in the end we must ensure the ecosystem services provided by primates and their forest habitats are protected for the future of all life on Earth.”

Ian Redmond

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.

How losing gorillas and elephants changes an ecosystem – VIDEO

Here’s another of Ian Redmond’s YoG interviews, this time with John Kahekwa at the Kahuzi Biega National Park. The park has lost most of its gorillas and elephants to poaching related to coltan mining and the war which started in 1994, and the absence of their ‘gardening’ activities has led to profound changes in vegetation cover and other ecosystem features.

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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!

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Ian Redmond – On the Road to Lopé

Saturday 5th September                      

Gabon was resuming normal activities after the disputed elections and there was a football match in the afternoon. The only train to Lopé and Franceville had left the night before and the local travel agent said there were no flights to anywhere I needed to go.  

I had a morning meeting with the dynamic Michael Adande, Secretary General of the Ministry of Tourism and National Parks. Then we were joined by Omar Ntougou, who I’d last seen at the Entebbe workshop on ape health. He’d said he would help and he did by kindly offering to drive to Lopé with me in the afternoon.  

Given that most of the population was settling down to watch the big match, this seemed above and beyond the call of duty, but we made some preparations, bought a few supplies and set off, with the car radio tuned to the commentary.  Cameroon won 2:0, but that didn’t seem to dampen the spirits in the car, where Omar and Joel sang and played air guitar (and keyboards and brass section) to keep awake.  

Gabon is home to many Western Lowland Gorillas. Though still comparatively numerous, their decline has been sharp and they need protection, especially from poaching and Ebola. Pic Ian Redmond.

It was after midnight when we pulled up outside the warden’s house.  I would have quietly found our accommodation but Omar knocked on the door until the warden emerged rubbing his face sleepily.  “Do you know it is the UN Year of the Gorilla?” asked Omar enthusiastically.  “Yeah, I’ve seen the T-shirt!” came the laconic reply.

My host for the night was agronomist Michael Allan, who served us all a delicious midnight feast and chatted over a whiskey into the early hours.  He had been hired by ECOFAC, an EU-funded programme that is developing selected protected areas across Central Africa, and had been wrestling with the difficulties of keeping local road repairing contractors on schedule. Gabon’s National Park network is still in its infancy, having been created only in 2002, but Lopé has been receiving ECOFAC support and attracting visitors for years.

Read Ian’s last post here!

Ian Redmond – Another delay and a new fish

August 27th – The MONUC flight to Kinshasa was on an elderly Eastern-bloc plane but was straightforward, with a two-hour stop in Kisangani.   I was swapping gorilla stories with a lady who investigates allegations against MONUC soldiers when my phone rang – it was the Korean TV company with whom I had originally expected to be travelling west to Kinshasa and Brazzaville.   They still hope to make their documentary, but the chances of their timetable overlapping with mine were dwindling with each passing day.  I do hope they make it eventually.

The United Nations Environment Programme post-conflict unit has a new office in DRC, having been asked by the Minister of the Environment to assist with development of environmental policies in this critical period of national reconstruction.   The unit kindly sent a driver to meet me at Kinshasa airport and whisk me to the Angolan Embassy, arriving at 14.02.   I hoped the Embassy might just be opening after lunch but no – it closed at 14.00 hours, and the doorman wasn’t even able to give me a visa application form.  “Come back tomorrow at 9.00am,” he said.   Next door, the Congo Brazzaville Embassy was still open and much more welcoming; the Consul recalled my earlier visits years ago, and asked if I was still working for the apes.  I gave him a YoG sticker and he gave me a multiple entry visa (how’s that for a win-win).   If I couldn’t go to Angola next, at least I now had a second option.

Whilst in Kinshasa, I hoped to meet the Minister of Environment, Nature Conservation and Tourism, H.E. José Endundo Bononge.  It turned out he was expecting me thanks to the head of ICCN – the DRC parks department – Pasteur Cosma Wilungula, who gave a YoG interview from his perspective, then led me upstairs to the minister’s office.  As the man responsible for the largest proportion of the Congo Basin’s forests and watersheds, Minister Endundo holds one of the major keys to future climate stability in his hands.   He spoke movingly of his personal experiences meeting gorillas, when taking ambassadors from many nations to visit Virunga and Kahuzi-Biega National Parks, and of his hopes for the Climate Conference in Copenhagen this December.

DRC Environment Minister José Endundu Bononge welcomes Ian Redmond for YoG talks, Kinshasa. Photo Ian Redmond.

Back at the UNEP offices, I was delighted to meet up with Ed Wilson, one of the founding fathers of the International Gorilla Conservation Programme (IGCP) as he was preparing to leave.  Our paths had last crossed some 20 years ago, and we resolved not to leave it so long until our next meeting. Among the group enjoying a farewell drink with Ed was Dr Melanie Stiassny, curator of fish at the American Museum of Natural History, who was in Kinshasa working with a group of students on the extraordinary diversity of fish in the River Congo.  There was space at the house they were using, and so I found myself waking up the next day beside the Kinsuka Rapids.

Fish and gorillas: coming up soon…

Read Ian’s previous post here!

Ian Redmond – Kampala to Kinshasa

Posted on behalf of Ian Redmond.

August 25th – Have you ever tried packing while a curious young mind wants to know what each of your belongings is for?  Gladys’ son Ndhego was fascinated by the contents of my rucksack and camera-bag, and I was happy to explain but simultaneously had to convert myself into some semblance of an Ambassador for a Ministerial meeting.

My (ever so slightly crumpled..) suit and safari boots had to replace my usual shorts and sandals, but Ndhego was stomping around in my boots. We achieved a truce when I presented him with a YoG sticker and my old gilet (now replaced by the one from Park National Kahuzi Biega, courtesy of the warden).  And to further lighten my load, I gave Gladys the page proofs of Planet Ape for her conservation education work and accepted a lift to the British High Commission.  

The area in which Mountain Gorillas live has one of the densest human populations worldwide, Picture Ian Redmond.

The British High Commission had fixed up a meeting with Hon Serapio Rukundo MP, Minister of State for Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities, and he was his usual ebullient self, giving a great YoG interview on Uganda’s forest policy and plans for reforestation projects as well as the central role that gorillas play in the nation’s economy thanks to tourism.

Ian Redmond meets Hon S. Rukundo, Minister for Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities, Kampala, Uganda. Photo Ian Redmond.

After shopping for an external hard drive on which to back-up all these interviews, I was dropped at the bustling bus station.  Seeking the fastest bus to Kisoro, there was some discussion and I climbed aboard an earlier bus to Kabale rather than wait three hours for a late bus direct to Kisoro which wouldn’t arrive until 2.00am.  Crowds of people carrying all manner of luggage were jostling between the colourful buses; every so often a bus would shunt back and forth, belching black fumes in an umpteen-point turn, and yet amazingly no-one was squashed (and there were no fist-fights today!).  

Some time later than promised, our bus began the delicate manoeuvring towards the totally crowded exit and – inches at a time – we slowly escaped into the equally crowded street.  The conductor had placed me near the front, and just before we left, a young man sat next to me.  As we picked up speed leaving the traffic jams of Kampala behind, we introduced each other and I asked if he knew this was the UN Year of the Gorilla. He did! 

Brian Ahimbisibwe, student on bus. Picture Ian Redmond.

Brian explained he had heard it on the radio (in fact in a report from my press briefing the night before the Great Ape Health Workshop, which I attended for UNEP/GRASP, the Great Apes Survival Partnership) and at first had found it difficult to believe, “It was as if someone had woken up one day and announced that this is the International Day of the Hen!” he grinned.  I asked if he’d say that again on camera, and he gave a great YoG interview, going on to say how on reflection he saw that it was a good idea, and that gorillas need the attention such campaigns bring.  

Though not an accomplished flute-player yet, this Mountain Gorilla needs all the attention he can get, Picture Ian Redmond.

Over the next few hours, we got to know each other quite well and bit by bit he revealed his story. He had just finished high school and won a place at University to train as a social worker. His father had died when he was two weeks old, and his mother died a few years later.  He had been brought up by first one aunt then another, but none of his relatives could afford the fees (about £1,000 per year for three years).  His ambition is to work with children orphaned by disease, because he knows what they are going through – and something about his quietly determined manner makes me think that somehow, he will succeed….

It was getting dark as we sped along, and somehow this transformed the ‘Express’ bus into a giant Matatu (the shared taxis in East Africa that stop and pick up and drop off passengers anywhere).  It was nice of the driver to drop people off near their homes but as a result, it was nearly 11.30pm when we pulled into Kabale. My laptop battery was flat and my own batteries were flagging a bit, so I checked into the Skyline Hotel for a princely 15,000 USh (about $7) – with electricity, a clean bed, en suite shower and a loo that flushes – can’t be bad!

Read Ian’s previous post here!

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.