this week's UPI
So There I was... Getting my cards trumped.
I was leaving the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Traveling by people’s bus, without handlers or translators. I had been teaching trauma healing for a couple of days for a student of mine who is trying to set up a trauma-healing center. I was on my way back to Burundi via Kigali, Rwanda. I thought I was being brave.
Then a good-looking young blonde woman got on the bus. Her name was Ellen Brown and she worked for the Wildlife Conservation Society studying and protecting mountain gorillas in the Virunga National Forest of the Congo. She was traveling to Kigali to pick up a visitor.
A little compare and contrast is needed for American readers. In Central Africa there are areas designated as national forests. In Countries like Burundi, which is 97% deforested they may be the only forests. But they are nothing like an American National Forest. There are no picnic or camping areas, no walking trails. The rangers carry AK-47’s and use them on a regular basis. This is because various rebel groups have discovered that national forests make great hiding places.
Presently hiding out in the Virumga National Forest North and West of Goma, DRC, is the remnants of the Interhamwe, the fellows who instigated and perpetrated the Rwandan Genocide of 1994. Also nearby is the private army of General Nkunda, who claims to be protecting the local Tutsis, who are hated by the Interhamwe. The Congolese government army is ineffectively attempting to rout out both groups. Caught in the middle of all of this are a few families of the last mountain gorillas left on the planet. The Interhamwe has taken to shooting them for target practice. They do not even eat them, which by Congolese standards is a huge waste and insult.
Ellen told me that there were about 400 gorillas left in the region; many of them live on the Rwandan side of the border. Rwandan Gorillas have a better deal. We traveled that day through the town of Ruhengeri, Rwanda. It is surreal. There you are bouncing along on bad, back roads, washouts, views of consistent intense poverty and active volcanoes, and then you round a bend and the road is suddenly silky pavement, and there are streetlights, and a planted boulevard, and coffee shops, and white people sitting in the coffee shops.
Ellen informs me that the town is entirely fueled by Gorilla tourism. The tourists, mostly Europeans, are flown in directly to the town and never see the rest of the region. They are taken out into the forest to see the Gorillas for one hour a day. Each Gorilla family has their own ranger who calls in by satellite telephone to the tour guide who brings the tourists out for the visit. I was told that the Gorillas know tourist hour, like the Queen knows teatime. They expect it, understand the rules of it, sometimes enjoy it, and get impatient if it goes on too long.
I asked Ellen if this was good for the Gorillas. She said that if keeping them alive was good, then it was good for them. The Rwandan Gorilla population has risen by 10% in the last ten years. The government is very interested in keeping them alive and thriving.
The Congolese Gorillas do not have such a good deal. There are the bullets flying by. Rough on teatime, that.
Ellen told me with great sadness and disgust of finding a Gorilla matriarch shot in the head and dumped in a latrine. The Congolese Gorillas have their rangers too. But they are also dodging bullets. They are also tasked with arresting people chopping trees to make charcoal. The twenty million people in the Great Lakes region of Africa cook every meal over charcoal fires. Burundi is mostly deforested, Rwanda has made cutting trees illegal. So sneaking across the border into the Congo to cut and burn trees is a going concern. Good enough business that people are willing to try and evade three gun happy armies to try and get the wood.
I asked Ellen if she was afraid to be driving around Virunga.
She claimed she was not.
I have been thinking about Ellen this week. It was ten months ago that I met her on that bus. The BBC is reporting very intense fighting in that region this week. You can read about it here. A blog by two of the rangers that Ellen works with can be found here What heroes these fellows are!
I pray that Ellen and those rangers and all those Gorillas stay out of harms way.