One of the villains has surrendered in DRC.
Below, in the lower fields that stretch up the long valley that leads to the Mountain of the Moon are the refugee camps. We don’t stop at any of these because we want to see those that have been established at the higher, more precarious encampments, but we know they’re down there, full by the tens of thousands.
One day I sat down with one of the Virunga Park rangers, Paulin Ngobobo, and asked him to explain the situation in Congo’s east to me. “There is a profusion of armed groups here,” he said, “That’s the biggest problem. People thought something was going to work after the war, but the warlords around here were just rewarded with bigger posts in the Army, or they got paid off, and other people started to see that it was a good way to get ahead.” Paulin said the near constant insecurity about the political and military situation resulted in an ever-increasing pool of people who fed off the conflict – poachers, scavengers, hunters, Rwandan war criminals eager to seek revenge on their Tutsi enemies, Tutsi militias eager to finish off the Hutu Interahamwe who were still living in the forests by the thousands, Mai Mai rebels whose grievances dated back to colonial times and whose allegiance was constantly shifting.
Paulin was responsible for the southern end of the Virunga Park, where many of the militias were living, and fighting. “Sometimes we go out and nothing bad happens,” he said, “But there are parts of the park that we’ve totally lost control of. You get five guys with guns in the jungle and one of them declares himself a general and the government comes in and either promotes him or pays him off – that says a lot about the state of affairs we’ve got here.”
Laurent Nkunda was the general responsible for a lot of the conflict. It was complicated, but Nkunda bore a significant share of the blame for the chaos in the Kivus. He was a Tutsi and many people believed, and he had said as much in interviews with the press on various occasions, that his loyalty was to the Tutsi population that spanned the Congolese-Rwandan border, more than to the sovereign governments of either state. Tutsis were still being massacred on the Congolese side, he said, which was true. The Hutu Interahamwe that had fled Rwanda after the genocide had come here, to these hills, and most estimates put their numbers at around 10,000, and they were still out for Tutsi blood.
Nnkunda had fashioned himself as a sort of uber Tutsi protector, holing himself up in a jungle redoubt in North Kivu, and taking the righteous Tutsi war to anyone and everyone who dared to put his people in danger. Nkunda’s detractors said that his Tutsi soldiers were as responsible as anyone for the proliferation of rapes that were spreading through the little villages along those lush hillsides, that his righteous Tutsi anger meant that any Hutu had become a target, and they pointed to numerous cases of group executions, mass graves and roving bands of Tutsi thugs whose only aim seemed to be to spread mayhem and chaos and destabilize the Congolese government.
Nkunda was a murderous thug and a war criminal. Nkunda was a hero and savior. No one really knew the truth. But no one doubted that the killing was rampant, gruesome, and that ultimately nobody gave a damn. “Nkunda can kill all the innocent civilians he wants and nobody bats an eyelid,” said Emmanuel, one of the supervisors of Virunga’s park ranger program, and the one showing Brent and me around, “But as soon as a gorilla gets killed the whole world rises up in protest.”
Just north of the Kivus is a region called Iturri. This was one of the places Joseph Conrad visited when he came to the Congo during the murderous reign of King Leopold II, when hundreds of thousands of Congolese were being slaughtered to satisfy Leopold’s rapacious need for the rubber that was fueling his empire’s expansion. Again, after the Rwandan genocide, Iturri became a place of horror. Between 2001 and 2003 Tutsi sympathizers swept through plundering and murdering as they went. They had Rwandan government support. One day, Emmanuel tells me that he has a video of a gang of Tutsis who killed a woman and then made her children eat her. “It really is like Kurtz,” Emmanuel says, “Nkunda? Is he a saint? A sinner? This place makes those kinds of people possible.”
In Virunga, every time the militias emerge from the forest the people living in and around the park have to clear out. The regular army, on the heels of the militias, sweeps through and destroys the towns. They rape and pillage. They steal. The Congolese Army isn’t getting paid, or at least it wasn’t when I was there, and so they take what they can from the villagers instead.
One day I sat down with a villager, a woman named Nyira Machuri. She was 50 years old. She started to tell me about the fighting in 1996, right after the Rwandan genocide. “The Tutsi military came and said they wanted to liberate the Congo,” she said, “They brought their goats and killed my husband. After that they killed my son as well.” Ten years later, when the war with Laurent Nkunda was in full swing, Machuri got hit again. “They came again and stole all our vegetables, our goats, everything, and then took off for Mngongo. The military that is based around here don’t have any salaries so they stole all our food, they ate our dogs! It’s difficult.” A week before my visit, she told me, the military came again and killed her father. “The troops came and asked for food. They ate the food. Then they took my father to his room and asked for money. He said he didn’t have any. They beat him. Then they killed him.”
I met with another villager, Zabonimba Mbunyimbuga, 47, who related a similarly gruesome tale. “At night sometimes we think we won’t make it through. A month ago bandits came through here and hacked a guy to death with machetes. It’s mostly the Congolese military that comes through, they ask for money, anything, they take what they want. When there are problems we tell the officials but they don’t do anything. Even now the Interahamwe live close by. Right now they’re not doing anything but when they do, they’ll start killing people all over. The only way for us to have peace is to get these people out of here.”
I asked about the time when the bandits came and killed the guy with machetes. He seemed to have glossed over it. It had happened seventeen days earlier. A group of men came and started drinking some banana liquor called kassiksi.
“We welcomed them in,” Zabonimba told me, “One guy wanted to drink, so they all started. Then he said, ‘We’re eating now, but our wish is to kill the people in this house.’ So people started to run away when they heard that. The whole village panicked and fled, but that was when they killed the guy with machetes.”
Zabonimba said the whole village sleeps in the jungle now, so they can escape if they need to. It was on the edge of the park, an hour’s walk distant. A few nights earlier he had gone back to his village to see how things were. He stayed on the edge of the forest and peered over, but the huts were destroyed or burned, the animals were all gone, the stench of abandon had set in. That night he slept in the bananas and in the morning he returned to the forest.
– DR Congo, 2007