#2 : A Report on the Wildlife of Eastern Congo
Rolling Stone Edit
This has been distilled and adapted from the original report for the United Nations Foundation, and has benefited from deft editing by Rolling Stone’s Bill Tonelli.
Kahuzi Biega was supposed to be the safest of the parks on my itinerary. The last one, Virungas, was totally overrun by "negative forces," as the various bands of psychotic killers who are roaming around eastern Congo are collectively called. I needed a military escort of two teenagers with Kalashnikovs from the rebel group that was in nominal contol just to get to the park headquarters at Rumangabo. Venturing deepe into the park, like going up to see the mountain gorillas on the upper slopes of Mikono volcano, was not a smart idea at the moment. Two of the four tourists kidnaped in the gorilla sector three years ago, the Dutchman and the Canadian, were still missing, and the guard post had just been attacked. One guard was killed, and the attackers had taken his Kalashnikov, one spurt of which could wipe out the entire gorilla population of the Parcque Nacional de Virungas. There are 230 here and 180 in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in adjacent Uganda, and that's it for the mountain gorillas except for the ones in zoos.
Kahuzi Biega is home to the eastern lowland gorilla, another, much better-represented subspecies. In l995 a staggering 14,000 of these laid-back and mild-mannered apes were estimated to be roaming around in the frothing Afroalpine rainforest, a hundred miles south of Virungas park, where two dormant volcanos, Kahuzi and Biega, thrust up their massive cones. But since then there have been two civil wars. Zaire has disintegrated, to the extent that it was anything more than a fractious, anarchic collection of 450-some ethnic groups brought together by the Belgians for the purposes of exploiting, a "half-made country," in V.S.Naipaul's term, a shell state whose main purpose was to enrich whoever was in power. There were now four Congos, each backed by different neighboring countries whose soldiers who were helping themselves to the Congo basins abundant and untapped natural resources, particularly the minerals. Madeleine Albright has described the multi-sided conflict as "Africa's first World War." 3 million civilians have been killed since the second war began in l998, two million are currently uprooted, and no one knows how many unique and irreplaceable animals have been mowed down and roasted by the negative forces holed up in the parks. "The sheer level of human atrocity is like Sierra Leone six years ago, but it is largely invisible, because nobody can get in," Johnny Carson (not who you think, but an African-American who was the American ambassador in Nairobi), told me. Congo had caught the new African virus, the one that makes you commit genocide, from Rwanda, its tiny neighbor to the east. A mini-genocide had broken out in Haut Congo between the Hema and the Lendu, who were ethnically similar to the Tutsi and the Hutu, and the outbreaks of genocide were happening hand-in-hand with genus- and species-cide. If the elephant surveys were any indication, the gorillas at Kahuzi Biega had probably been cut in half.
I had talked by mobile phone a few weeks earlier to Carlos Schuler, who administered the German aid that was keeping the park going. He said that 95% of the park was out of control, in the hands of the negative forces, but the highland sector was regularly patrolled and completely secure. "Everything will be ready for you to see the gorillas," he assured me, his Swiss-accented English crackling over the airwaves. "You're going to love them."
That was at the beginning of the trip, twenty incredibly hairy and stressful days ago. Since that conversation I had visited the three other parks Virungas, Okapi, and Garamba that I had been contracted to do a report on for the United Foundations Foundation Ted Turner's billion-dollar fund to support the UN's programs. The wildlife in these parks is so extraordinary that they were declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and the UNF was contributed $2.8 to the heroic effort to keep them going during the anarchy and chaos. Most of it was going to keeping the guards paid and motivated to continue their anti-poaching patrols, which were only marginally effective because the poaching was so rampant and out of control. Forest elephants (which have amber tusks and are smaller than their cousins in the savanna), gorillas, and okapis (the secretive forest giraffe whose existence wasn't confirmed by scientists until l902) were being slaughtered for food. Some of the crown jewels of the animal kingdom, the product of thousands of generations of exquisite and unrepeatable adaptation and evolutionary refinement, were threatened with the fate of the dodo and the passenger pigeon.
My job was to assess the condition of the parks, the status of the animals and extent of the poaching and the morale of the staff. Basically, the UNF wanted to be reassured that what it was doing was a good idea. Most environmental foundations bale out of countries that are engulfed in civil war. Was its project going to work, or was the balkanized Democratic Republic of Congo a lost cause ?
I had taken the assignment not because I had a death wish or was a danger junkie. Twenty years ago, I had trekked across the Ituri Forest (most of which is in the Okapi Faunal Reserve, created in l991), dancing and smoking dope and eating wild mushrooms with pygmies days in from anything even approximating a road. Then I went down to Virungas and saw the great herds of ruminants grazing on the floor of the rift valley (the lake-studded western arm that runs up through eastern Congo and is drained by the Nile). It was like the first chapter of Genesis. Those two months I'd traveled around Zaire (as Congo was then called) had been my first trip to Africa and were transformative. Since then I'd been back many times to the Democratic Republic of Congo, which Zaire became in l997. I'd jammed with OK Jazz, the rumba orchestra of the Great Master Franco, searched in vain for the source of AIDS, covered the fall of Mobutu and his kleptocracy. I loved the people-- if you can generalize about any group of people, let alone 450 of them. The Congolese I knew were wickedly funny, incredibly creative, and they possessed an irrepressible ebullience even though the history of the place is one of nonstop victimization going back to the Congo Free State, King Leopold of Belgium's's private fiefdom, which lasted from l888 to 1911, when eight million Congolese died collecting rubber and ivory for him. This was a place I cared deeply about, and I seemed to be one of the few people who did. Congo was going through some violent post-postcolonial birthpains, but it would be beyond tragic if the animals were wiped out in the process. So I told the UNF I'd go, as long as a million dollars of life insurance was part of the deal.
Kahuzi Biega was the last stop. I was looking forward to unwinding and communing with the gorillas. But this was not to be. The day before I got there, nine members of a commission that was mapping the park's boundaries were massacred. It was the worst catastrophe in the park's 32-year history, and that obviously changed everything. I couldn't be arriving at a worse time, I mused as my plane touched down in Bukavu, the city at the southern end of Lake Kivu that abuts the park. Carlos Schuler had sent his Land Cruiser and a driver to pick me up.
"The problem is that there are some illegal farms in the park," the driver told me as we drove through a volcanic landscape, women attacking the rich dark soil with hoes. "There is only a thin corridor of forest connecting the high and the lowland sectors, and it has been breached. The animals need to migrate between them at different time of years, to find food or mates, but this is no longer possible. So the farmers must be evicted. But before this could be done, the precise boundaries of the park had to be established."
So the park had formed an impressive joint commission with the provincial government (which was one of the three rebel factions duking it out with the government in Kinshasa, the capital-- the same faction that provided me with two teenagers with Kalashnikovs in Virungas Park). There were 82 people in all, including the chief warden of the park, two assistant wardens, several of the governor's conseilliers d' etat, and thirteen crack pygmy trackers. One of the survivors of the attack later told me what happened. He had managed to flee to safety, running barefoot through the forest for six hours until he reached one of the faction's military outposts.
"We were all camped at Jhembe. We had been out for thirteen days, and this was the last day. Only 7.8 kilometers remained to be surveyed, then we were all going home. Everything had gone smoothly so far and we were all in a celebratory mood and maybe a little off guard. We figured that if we were going to have trouble with the negative forces, it would have happened by now."
But at 5:30, half an hour before daybreak, the commission was suddenly attacked. 5 were shot dead in the first tent, including the surveyor and the governor's video cameraman. The attackers were accompanied by women and children, who as the slaughter went on chanted and ululated and rattled calabashes and danced the mujegereze, which you see hefty Congolese women doing as they come up the road from a wedding, boogeying and clapping their hands. "Each time someone was killed, the women and children would send up a collective cri de joie," the survivor continued. "We were attacked by four different types of warfare at once : "modern (bullets ), psychological (the chanting), traditional (clubs made from the rock-hard roots of a certain tree), and intifada (stones, like the ones Palestinians throw at Isaeli soldiers)."
Discipline or willingness to engage in combat not being a strong point of Congolese soldiers, the 32 attached to the commission immediately bolted into the forest with their weapons, leaving it at the attackers' mercy. When the attack was over, one of the nine dead had his genitals hacked off. All the park's bush equipment, including 6 radio phones and a gsm locator, 16 tents and 3 mattresses, was made off with, and the chief warden and the two assistants were missing, presumably taken hostage.
GTZ, the German aid agency that Carlos and his wife worked for, was renting an adorable chalet in the old Belgian quarter. I found him upstairs on a satellite phone, reporting to his superiors in Berlin. Neun tot und leuteren nicht gefunden, nine dead and others missing. A tall, dark-complected man in his late thirties, he seem to have snapped, ready to throw in the towel. Fifteen years of carefully building human resources, training dedicated Congolese conservationists, appeared to have just gone down the tubes. "These are people we worked with very well," he said . "It is impossible to do anything in this complete absence of human rights."
Ten years earlier, Carlos, a ski and windsurfing instructor in Switzerland, had been traveling around Africa when he came to Bukavu and met a stunning mulata named Christine de Schryver. Her father, a Belgian colonist named Adrian de Schryver, had fought with Mobutu for the creation of Kahuzi Biega. Her mother was a local Shi. Adrian de Schryver, whom you can see in old National Geographic documentaries about the gorillas, was poisoned in l989. Now Carlos and Christine had three kids, and he had become the one who was trying to save the gorillas.
"All this is caused by the international community," he seethed in French. "Ils s'en futent. They don't give a fuck. The UN high commission for refugees and the humanitarian agencies nourished these killers in the camps for two years and then unleashed them on the Congo. You know what's destroying Africa ? Capitalism. Who buys the diamonds, the gold, the minerals, the ivory and the baby gorillas ? And if you think I'm going to fall on my knees in gratitude to the UN Foundation for helping us... the money isn't going to make a bit of difference in the lives of the local people. They are desperate now and they will still be."
The women and children at Jhembe were chanting in Rwandese, which meant that the attackers were Interahamwe, fugitive militiamen of the Hutu ethnic group who carried out most of the genocide in Rwanda in l994 and then fled to Congo along with hundreds of thousands of other Hutu, fearing the revenge of the Tutsi they had massacred close to a million of. The UNHCR set up huge camps for the refugees, but never disarmed the ones with guns, even though the UN's definition of a refugee is someone who has ceased to be a combatant and has turned in his weapon.. The Interahamwe continued to make raids into Rwanda from the camps until the fall of l996, when Tutsi soldiers of the Rwandan Patriotic Front, the guerilla group that took over Rwanda after the genocide, broke up the camps and went on a killing spree of their own, pursuing the Interahamwe to Kisangani (the city 1000 miles up the Congo River from Kinshasa that inspired Conrad's Heart of Darkness and V.S. Naipaul's A Bend in the River) and slaughtering about a hundred thousand of them and their hostages and untold Congolese civilians in their path. But about 2000 Interahamwe, in 20 bands, were still hiding out in the park, living off the game and terrorizing the local villagers, and there were about ten times as many in Virungas Park.
The Interahamwe weren't the only problem for the animals in Kahuzi Biega. There were also miners of a rare mineral called coltan. I first heard about about this substance from Terese Hart, a botanist I met in the Ituri Forest twenty years ago who was one of the co-designers of the UNF project. Coltan mining, she told me, was taking a huge toll on the elephants in the Okapi Reserve. There were about fifty mining camps in the park. "Be sure to visit one, and find out what you can about the coltan trade," Terese urged. "This has to be exposed." It was her opinion that what was really going on was a clandestine resource war in the guise of a civil war. Significant deposits of the mineral are only found in Congo and Australia. Most of the coltan seemed to be going to American companies whose boards bristled with old Republican stalwarts : George Bush, père, Howard Baker, the televangelist Pat Robertson. Coltan is an exceptionally stable metal, with a very high melting point. Among its numerous modern applications, it is used for the sheathing of satellites and ballistic missiles and shoulder-fired anti-tank rockets. Dubya is going to need tons of the stuff for his anti-missile shield (this was before Mr. Bin Laden demonstrated its utter worthlessness).
But the biggest market is for cellphones. If you were to hurl your cellphone
against the wall, shattering it into many little pieces, one of them would
be a little chip called a capacitor. The crucial component of capacitors
is a thin strip of coltan. Every laptop, every car computer system, every
Sony playstation, every solid-state electronic appliance,
has a capacitor with a strip of coltan.. "The miracle mineral of the moment,"
as the Washington Post has called it. "Whoever has the controls the 21st
century, a Rwandan coltan dealer told me in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda
where American buyers are in bidding wars with German and Red Chinese ones.
It is as important as tungsten was after the invention of the light bulb,
but not many people know about it.