Mountain Gorilla in Peril: Ntaganda Continues His War

20 May

It’s the third week in May, 2012 and Bosco Ntaganda, along with many of his former CNDP troops, was finally driven out of the Masisi highlands in the eastern Congo through a unified effort by soldiers from the Congolese Army. But he and his troops were not captured so were able to  move off into a section of The Virunga National Park presently occupied by the endangered Mountain Gorillas. The world’s remaining mountain gorillas live within four national parks in Central/East Africa, split in two territories that are about 28 miles apart. One group inhabits the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda where a 2006 census identified that about 302 gorillas lived there. The second group lives at a higher altitude in a mountainous region called the Virungas, which includes Mgahinga Gorilla National Park (Uganda), Volcanoes National Park (Rwanda) and Virunga National Park (Democratic Republic of Congo). A 2010 census revealed that about 480 gorillas live throughout this mountain range. The World Wildlife Federation has reported that a total of 23 adult mountain gorillas have been killed by rebel forces during the first and second Congo Wars that had been fought throughout this region. It is not known at this time how this new round of conflicts has impacted the daily lives of the gorilla groups. But in total, 782 are all that is presently left of the Mountain Gorillas in this region.

What’s more is that the latest Human Rights Report ( HRW:May, 2012) states that Ntaganda has started to conscript child soldiers again. This time he has taken about 149 boys and young men between the ages of 12 and 20, some  from their classrooms and is making them fight alongside his troops. Ntaganda has already been indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for recruiting children as a deputy commander in the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC), an armed political group that fought in the northeast Congo during the country’s second civil war.

The Virunga National Park was created in 1925 by the Belgian colonial government making it one of the first national parks created in East Africa and has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979. The park covers over 7,800 square kilometers in Democratic Republic of the Congo.  The park’s territory in the Democratic Republic of the Congo stretches between two mountain ranges: the Virunga ( Southern border) and the Rwenzori (Northern border). The Virunga National Park also abuts Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda and two national parks in Uganda: Rwenzori National Park and Queen Elisabeth National Park. This park is currently managed by the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN) as well as the British Africa Conservation Fund and receives most of its financial support from the European Union.

Mountain gorillas are large, powerful primates with long, muscular arms, massive chests, and broad hands and feet. They prefer colder climates and dwell in the higher latitudes up in the Virunga Mountains. Despite their enormous size and strength they are gentle, shy animals who have demonstrated close connections with other members of their primary group. A gorilla family can consist of anywhere between 2 and 40 gorillas, and the average number of gorillas within one family is about 11. Each family is led by a dominant male referred to as a “silverback” and named for the swath of silver hair present along the top of its back. Although strong and powerful, the leader will only fight to protect  members of his family and usually only attacks as a last resort. The leader decides all of the everyday affairs for the other members of the family, like when and where the family will eat or sleep. He also settles disputes between family members and protects the family from being stolen away by other dominant males or harmed by human predators. The total population of Mountain Gorillas in Virunga will not increase rapidly because females give birth only every three to five years and might have between 3 and 8 babies during their entire lifetime. This slow reproduction rate leaves the Mountain Gorilla groups very vulnerable and is the primary reason they have been placed on the endangered species list. These foraging herbivores are known to ingest more than 100 types of trees and shrubs. In one day an adult gorilla can consume about 40 pounds of plant material, so the  survival of the group depends on ensuring that a large territory of protected forests is reserved to meet their needs. The Mountain Gorilla of Central-East Africa has been placed on the International Union for Conservation and Natural Resources, Red List of Threatened Species( IUCN,2012).

Bosco Ntaganda’s situation seems to be steadily worsening though. Two days ago Moreno-Ocampo, chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Court in the Hague, Netherlands announced to the world press that he was adding the charges of murder, ethnic persecution, rape, and sexual slavery to the existing criminal indictments brought against General Ntaganda and is also issuing an arrest warrant for Sylvestre Mudacumura, military commander of the Forces Democratiques de Liberation du Rwanda (FDLR). This group composed of Hutu militia was forced out of Rwanda after its participation in the Rwandan genocide of 1994 where it fled into the Democratic Republic of the Congo and has been camping out in the region around the Virunga National Park ever since. Several of Ntaganda’s compatriots felt that he would have already been given asylum in Rwanda. Ntaganda, although a General in the Congoloese Army before his defection,  is actually Rwandan and a Tutsi. He has had very close ties in the not so distant past to Rwandan President Paul Kagame through his former leadership in the CNDP. Several Congolese Army officers currently involved in routing out Ntaganda and his old CNDP troops believe that Ntaganda is already receiving monetary support which he has used to continue the fighting in Masisi. When asked in public to comment upon Ntaganda’s actions, President Kagame coolly replied that Bosco’s mutiny was a “Congolese affair.” Yet the world community is aware that Rwanda has continued its relationship with the CNDP, a Rwandan rebel militia group living in the Kivu area, and still profits illegally from the sale of “conflict minerals” that have been mined in the DRC and shipped to Rwanda.

And as if this situation was not confusing enough there is a second group of soldiers who are not allied with Ntaganda but did leave the Congolese army at the same time Ntaganda’s men deserted their camps in eastern Congo in April 2102. These other soldiers are led by Colonel Sultani Makenga, another Congolese army officer who launched a separate mutiny on May 3, 2012. Colonel Makenga has made it clear that his men do not fight for Ntaganda. About 300 of these former Congolese soldiers mutinied because of grievances they had with low salaries, lack of promotions in the Congolese Army, and concerns about the mistreatment of members of the Tutsi community in Eastern Kivu by soldiers in the Congolese Army. This second group of soldiers are Tutsi and also served in the CNDP during the second Congo War. They call themselves “M23” in reference to the March 23, 2009 peace agreement between the CNDP and the Congolese government. Ntaganda and Makenga are also Tutsi and served together during the second war in the Congo in the Rwanda-backed CNDP rebel militia but are not aligned together at the moment. The Congolese army is now also battling these “M23” deserters in Rutshuru territory, North Kivu as well. President Kagame of Rwanda has urged President Kabila of the DRC to investigate “M23’s” claim that Tutsi civilians are being harassed and attacked by members of the Congolese army. The Rwandan president stated that “ this is why the Tutsi community have left the eastern Congo region and are now fleeing into Rwanda.”

This new series of conflicts between Ntagnda and the Congolese Army have caused fear and mistrust to move through the area again. Tens of thousands of Congolese citizens have fled their homes for refugee camps in the neighboring countries of Rwanda and Uganda. Some 30,000 Congolese have entered Uganda in order to escape the fighting that began on May 10, 2012 and more than 8,000 Congolese refugees have been registered in the Rwanda camps since April 27th.

This is the most recent blog posted by Park Ranger Emanuel on May 18, 2012: “It has, once again, been a long week, with the sounds of war in the distance.  We are still trying to understand the conflict on our doorstep, and much of our information suggests that it will get worse before it gets better.  There was heavy shelling again this morning towards Bikenge on the edge of the forest.  This is where the Rugendo and Lulengo gorilla families tend to live, so we are very worried about them.  It is also hard on our staff, as the fighting in 2008 and the attack on Rumangabo is still fresh in their memories.”(ICCN, 2012)

Gorilla ACDBlog:  http://gorillacd.org/blog/

Some 400 very loyal and courageous park rangers protect Virunga National Park. Two previous civil wars in the Congo have taken their toll on the Park Ranger Corps and around 160 rangers have died as a result of poachers’ bullets or from conflict-related crimes in the past ten years.  In January of last year, three rangers and five Congolese soldiers were killed when their car was hit by a rocket-launched missile while patrolling the main road that runs directly through the Virunga National Park. Their attackers were members of the Forces Democratiques de Liberation du Rwanda (FDLR) Hutu militia who had taken up residence in the park after they had been expelled from Rwanda because of their participation in the genocide in 1994. Officials confirmed that the attack was in retaliation for the destruction of  the Hutus’ camps by park rangers the previous year. It was reported that around 700 Hutu rebels had been living in the park where they were burning sections of the park’s tropical forest in order to make charcoal which they then sold in the local markets for money. According to the rangers, four different armed militia groups have been camped out in the park since May 2012. While these rebels may not deliberately seek to harm the gorillas around them,who knows what the consequences of the fighting will be on the two gorilla families? Remember that in the two previous civil wars male gorillas had been deliberately killed and sometimes eaten by rebel forces.

Despite the two wars and by the use of effective park management techniques the rangers have actually helped the gorilla population in the DRC to increase. At the very end of the war in 2006 there were only about 300 Mountain Gorillas left in the world, but by 2011 the population was  estimated to be closer to 800. But now at least two gorilla families have been caught up in the middle of the conflict and are in peril as the Congolese Army has begun to launch  land missiles towards the rebel troops. Park officials have only been able to monitor the situation from planes because it has become too dangerous for the rangers to complete their ground patrols. We can only pray that the gorillas will sense that they are in real danger and move higher up into the mountains to avoid being killed during the fighting.

It will be interesting to learn if Bosco Ntaganda has remained with his men during this most recent encounter with the Congoloese Army or if he has already been transported to a safe location by one or more of the sympathetic governments he has so graciously helped out in the past. Will Ntaganda be arrested and sent to the Hague to stand trial for his war crimes against the Congolese people or will he be made to stand trial in the Democratic Republic of the Congo instead? Or in the end, will General Bosco Ntaganda suddenly and totally up and disappear saving all parties involved a lot of  embarrassing publicity? Who knows what the “korongo” will bring forth next? 

Kat Nickerson   Kingston, RI   USA

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