Dispatch #2 : A Report on the Wildlife of Eastern Congo, Page 2
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       ***

          My trip began when I crossed from Rwanda to Goma, the city at the northern end of Lake Kivu, which is the headquarters of the original faction of the Rassemblement Congolais pour la Démocratie, popularly known  as RCD-Goma. These were the guys who were nominally in charge down in Bukavu and Kahuzi Biega. The main thing about this faction is that it is controlled by Rwanda. It is not at all popular with the local Congelese, who consider themselves to be under occupation by the Rwandans, or "les Nilotiques," as they call them. 

          I had dinner with Dr. Vizima Karaha, RCD-Goma's chief of security and intelligence. We had last seen each other in Kinshasa in May, l997, when Karaha marched in with the Alliance des Forces pour la Libération du Congo, and President Mobutu Sese Seko, in the last stages of prostate cancer, departed for Morocco in a helicopter, thus ending one of the most corrupt regimes in  history and concluding the first civil war. 
 

          Laurent Kabila, the AFDL's spokesperson, a bloated old Maoist with an  appetite for diamonds and women, declared himself president and named Karaha his foreign minister. "I was only 32, the youngest foreign minister in the world," Karaha told me proudly. But Karaha's fame was short-lived. After seven months, while on a diplomatic mission in New York City, he suddenly went into convulsions and was taken to the emergency room of New York University Hospital, where his stomach was pumped in the nick of time. 

            "Sounds like the slow-acting venom of the viper of Idgwi," I said, and Karaha nodded appreciatively. Idgwi is an island in Lake Kivu, and its viper venom was one of Mobutu's favorite methods for disposing of problematic fellow-Congolese. He did away with several alarmingly capable ministers and the composer of the Independence Cha Cha with Igdwi venom.

          The reason Kabila wanted to get rid of Karaha was that he had turned against his Rwandese and Congolese Tutsi allies (Karaha was one of the latter), who had made themselves very unpopular with all the innocent civilians they had killed and all the best villas and top government posts in Kinshasa they had taken over. In August, l998 Kabila declare a pogrom on all Nilotiques. Mobs seized Tutsi and threw them off the bridge in  Kinshasa.  At Garamba Park, a 20-year Tutsi  employee of Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature, which runs the parks,   so trusted that he was in charge of the weapons, was executed by his colleagues. 

             Thus began the second war. The Rwandese and their Congolese allies quickly regrouped in Goma and formed the RCD, whose goal was the immediate  removal of Kabila. A bold sneak attack by plane near succeeded, but the insurgents were beaten back from the outskirts of Kinshasa by the Angolans, who came to Kabila's rescue.  Many more people and animals were killed as the new rebels swept west, many of them for the second time,  eventually taking over the eastern half of the country. 

             But their alliance was fragile, and within six months there were two new factions : the RCD- ML (for Mouvement de la Liberation), based in Bunia, 200 miles north of Goma,  and led by Wamba dia Wamba, one of Africa's most prominent intellectuals; and the MLC (Mouvement de la Liberation du Congo) led by Jean-Pierre Bemba, the son of one of  Mobutu's richest cronies. (Any group of two or more people in this part of the world  has to have a  acronym if it expects to get anywhere.)  These two factions   occupied the northern half of eastern Congo and were controlled by Uganda. The line dividing the Ugandan and Rwandan zones ran right through Virungas park. Garamba and Okapi and the northern half of Virungas were in the Ugandan zone, and the southern half of Virungas and Kahuzi Biega were in the Rwandan zone. I.e., the resources of the former were flowing to Kampala, Uganda's biggest city, and the latter's were flowing to Kigali. There had been some embarrassing firefights between Ugandan and Rwanda soldiers last year over  the rich diamond beds around Kisangani.

          This January Kabila was gunned down by one of his bodyguards at a meeting of his inner circle in Kinshasa, and his son Joseph became president. According to the government inquest into the assassination, it was a rebel plot and one of the prime suspects is Vizima Karaha. 

 ***

            From Goma I flew up to Beni, which is in the Ugandan zone. (There is a local carrier called TMK that flies ancient propeller planes to the main cities in eastern Congo twice a  week.)  Overland travel, up through Virungas Park, was not a smart idea at the moment. A truck caravan had just been hit by the negative forces, probably Interahamwe, the drivers killed and the vehicles burned. 
I searched the rift valley floor for hippos, but there were none to be seen. Twenty years ago Virunga's hippo herd was 30,000 strong, the largest on earth. But when Mobutu's unpaid soldiers mutinied in l991, they started to kill the hippos and the slaughter has been continued by   whatever armed group was in the area. Now there are only 600. Many of the elephants in the park  have fled the mayhem  into Uganda. There are animal refugee flows in central Africa as well as human ones, and animal marauders, too : elephants fleeing the poachers in the Ituri Forest have been trampling and eating crops and generally making a nuisance of themselves in the villages around the Okapi reserve. A few months ago, a ravenous hyena fleeing Ethiopia's drought-stricken Ogaden district into adjacent Somalia brazenly snatched a toddler from his grandmother's arms. 

             In Beni I was was met by Kambale Kisuki, the RCD-ML's assistant commissar of instructure.  Why commissar ? I asked. "We are still in the struggle," Kisuki explained. "When we get to Kinshasa, we will become ministers." Kisuki had worked for the World Wildlife Fund and is a  friend of  conservation, one of the few Congolese who take the long-term view on the exploitation. The last I saw of him, a week later,  he was being taken away by Ugandan soldiers. The latest rumor is that he has fled to Nairobi. Meanwhile the geopolitics around Beni are in transition. The MLC, on Uganda's orders, has merged with RCD-ML and the two factions are now known as the FLC (The Front for the Liberation of Congo). Bemba is its leader, which naturally does not make Wamba happy. But Wamba is no longer a player. He is back in Dar Es Salaam, lecturing to the radical black caucus. The FLC's efforts to secure Beni are being frustrated by the Mayi Mayi, and a local warlord is also giving it trouble. 

          The Mayi Mayi are probably the secondmost murderous of the negative forces, after the Interahamwe. They are descended from the Simbas, who publically eviscerated American missionaries and ate their entrails in Kisangani during the Mulele rebellion of l964-6. Ideologically, they are nationalistic and primordialistic. They want to drive  out the foreign occupiers,  the Ugandans and the Rwandans. Maji means water in Swahili, and the Mayi Mayi  wear faucets around their necks and anoint themselves with magic water  that they believe will render  them invulnerable to bullets. Definitely not folks one wanted to run into. .

            Kisuki had arranged a motorycle taxi, locally known as a motambusi or pici pici, to take me to Epulu, the headquarters of the Okapi reserve. This was the part of my trip that I was least looking forward to. Eight hours through bandit- and deserter-infested jungle. My driver was a 21 year old named Patrique. We took off up the road to Mambasa, if you could call it a road. It was really was no more than a track with frequent enormous water-filled potholes. We passed   a Mercedes truck that had been stuck in one of them for several days. Local girls had brought food as the crew was digging it out. The driver, in a cool white leisure suit, was dallying with one with one of the girls in the front seat. His contract specified that he didn't have to dig. 

            We zipped through Mangina, where six weeks ago some Mayi Mayi attacked a Thai- Ugandan lumber operation and took 24 foreigners hostage. They said  they were going to hold them until the last Ugandan and Rwandan soldier had departed Congo. But   after the Thai government promised to build schools and clinics in their area, they released four, and on June 30 they traded the Swede for a Volvo truck. A son of  Patrice Lumumba, the legendary leftist prime minister who was assassinated in l961 with the help of the CIA, was brought in to negotiate the release of the others; these Mayi Mayi were calling themselves La Résistance Lumumba. The son told them that since they were using his father’s name, they should act honorably and hand over the remaining 19 hostages without further demands, which they did. 
I was full of admiration for Patrique's dirtbiking skills.  He kept the souped-up red Yamaha model  to the floor, doing  50 on this  slick, sometimes hardly visible track, all the while fending off the ground and fallen trees with his black rubber Wellingtons and skirting the cavernous potholes  If peace ever comes to Congo, the Beni-Mambasa-Epulu road would make a world-class dirt-bike track.

        Fifty years ago, when this was the Belgian Congo, these roads were magnificent. The pith-helmeted Flemish supervisor would drive them with a glass of water on his dashboard, and if a single drop  spilled, he would cane the local chief .  But Mobutu let the colonial road system go. He wanted to make it as hard as possible for anyone with the idea of overthrowing him to get to Kinshasa. This has slowed down the poaching somewhat and  the lumbering almost completely, so in the end Mobutu was a great friend to the biodiversity of the Congo basin, although it was the last thing on his mind. 

          After four hours we topped a rise and had a view of a vast virgin rainforest spreading for miles to the west, with epic flat-crowned trees, some in lavendar bloom,  well over a hundred and fifty feet high. The Samboko Forest. If we were going to have a run-in with the negative forces, this was where it was going to happen. Three vintages of deserters were in there : ex-FAZ (Mobutu'sg), ex-FAC (Kabila's), and ex-RCD-ML (Wamba's). A week ago, a woman had been abducted from the back of a motambusi. There was no news about her fate, and no one was expecting any. What a windfall I would be. 

            Patrique was totally nonchalant and philosophical about the situation, partly because the negative forces usually let the drivers and their bikes through, because they will bring more passengers.  "If we meet les forces négatives," he said, "ç'est l'horoscope," he said. The passengers before me and after me were both hit. But our horoscope was propitious. The negative forces must not have been near the road, or they would have come running as soon as they heard the whine of our motambusi. 

          We made it to the Ituri River, passed pygmy women toting huge bunches of bananas with tumplines, black-and-white colobus monkeys streaming through the trees, little zones of full- throated birdsong and deafening insect din, fifty-yard stretches of delicious aroma.  Scores of butterflies--  big black tailless papilios with  blue wingbars--   rose up from puddles and  scattered before us.  We were entering the Ituri Forest,  one of the most magical and cut-off places in the world. 

***

      "Ivory is being poached and coltan is being mined right in our faces, and there is nothing we can do about it," Jean Joseph Mapilanga, the chief warden of the Okapi Reserve, told me when I presented myself at his office in Epulu. The park headquarters had been trashed and looted in l986 by Mobutu's retreating soldiers, and again in l988 by Kabila's retreating soldiers, and Mapilanga had had to hide in the forest for six months during the worst of it.  So he was understandably a bit jumpy, and he tended to give orders at unnecessarily high decibels..  "We have only ten guns and forty guards, ten of whom are too old to go out on patrol," he went on. "In the fourteen years I've been with the ICCP, the last has been the most impossible."   Ugandan soldiers and RCD-ML regulars were hunting elephants and selling the meat to the 50 coltan mining camps in the reserve and delivering the tusks to their commanding officers. Hart estimated that the mining is responsible for 30 to 50% of the poaching at Okapi, and 50 to 80% of the poaching in Kahuzi Biega.   The carnage was  slowed down for several months by a joint operation of park guards and RCD and Ugandan soldiers paid by the Florida-based Gilman International Conservation Foundation. Three major local poachers were busted, but there was no prison to keep them in, and nobody to pay somebody to guard them, so the poachers were released, and poaching has resumed and is back again at intolerable levels. 

        I bushwhacked to the nearest coltan camp, several hours into the forest from Epulu, with a pygmy  named Asani,  who took off at a lope,  threading  a maze of fresh elephant trails. We passed some amazing mushrooms, 14" tall, with white, star-shaped caps. I asked Asani if they were edible and he said, grimacing, “Pas du tout. They’ll make you tongue hang out.” Further along, near an abandoned banana grove with 13 chimp nests,   were picked and later ate some fluted apricot-colored mushrooms that were visually indistinguishable from the chantrelles I pick and eat back home in the Adirondacks.  They were scrumptious.
 
 
 
 
 
 

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