In an Eastern Congo Oasis, Blood Amid the Greenery

(Stephanie Mccrummen - The Washington Post)
By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, July 22, 2007

VIRUNGA NATIONAL PARK, Congo -- They heard the gunshots around 3 p.m., at least two pops that echoed across the green mountains of this vast park tangled up in vines, fallen trees and years of war.

The park rangers knew immediately what it was, they said, and in their frayed uniforms and rubber boots, they began hacking their way with machetes into the jungle-like forest. This time, it was Rubiga.

The rare mountain gorilla had been shot execution-style -- once in the back of the head and a second time in the hand. When the rangers found her hulking, lifeless body, her 2-month-old baby, barely alive, was still clinging to her chest.

"Everyone just started crying," recalled Jean-Marie Serundori, who helped wrap the body in plastic sheeting and carry it down the steep mountainside on a wooden stretcher. "We love these gorillas."

The killing of Rubiga last month was only the most recent instance of carnage inside Africa's oldest national park, a place that displays to varying degrees all the chaos and hope that Congo has to offer.

Like everyone else in this troubled country, the rangers here are struggling day by day to establish some sort of order following one of the worst wars in modern history, a conflict that left an estimated 4 million people dead and already weak state institutions near total collapse.

Like thousands of government workers across Congo, they are doing so despite having not been paid in more than a decade. And like most living in this eastern region bordering Rwanda and Uganda, the rangers are carrying on amid a sordid mess of militias and other groups whose interest in Congo's minerals, timber and other natural resources are best served by perpetuating chaos.

Lately, the rangers say, the struggle has become especially daunting.

In what seem to be crudely imagined attempts to sabotage the rangers' work, two male silverback gorillas were killed here in January, including one whose dismembered body was dumped into a latrine. The rangers suspect that Rubiga was also killed to send a message that their work is not appreciated.

During three months last fall, militiamen wielding AK-47s slaughtered thousands of hippos in Lake Edward, whose waters for a while turned red from the blood. In that instance, rangers believe, the slaughter was for money, the meat from one hippo fetching $300 on the open market.

For years, the park rangers themselves have been targeted. More than 150 have been killed in the line of duty during a decade of fighting among armed groups that want to use the park as their base, or by poachers who sell baby gorillas and hippo meat. The rangers also suspect people associated with the country's $30 million charcoal industry who depend on the park's trees and would rather Virunga be unprotected.

One ranger was recently found wandering in the forest, close to death, after escaping from a militia group known as the Mai Mai that had held him hostage as a guide and interpreter for two years. Another ranger bears a scar around his neck from a near-beheading. Earlier this year, one of the park's chief wardens, Paulin Ngobobo, was abducted and beaten with a whip of the sort once used by Belgian colonial rulers to subdue Congolese slaves.

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