KIBUMBA, Congo – Armed with just an old AK-47 assault rifle, 26-year-old Martin Kazerezi admits he’s ill-equipped to protect Africa’s oldest national park.
“There are so many enemies in the forest,” the ranger says, referring not to dangerous animals, but to the conflict raging within the boundaries of Virunga National Park which straddles the borders of eastern Congo, Rwanda and Uganda.
Home to looming volcanoes, pristine rainforests and the majestic mountain gorilla, Virunga was popularized by the film “Gorillas in the Mist,” about American researcher Dian Fossey, who was hacked to death there in 1985.
The World Heritage Site has grown more dangerous as a decade of violence ripped through the heart Africa, starting with the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
A five-year regional war in the Democratic Republic of Congo supposedly ended last year, but militias at the heart of the fighting still use the park as a base for bloody incursions into all three countries, which also keep armies in the forest.
“It’s a soup of militias and troops all doing the same thing, launching raids and attacking villagers,” said Robert Muir, project director for the Frankfurt Zoological Society’s conservation program, based in nearby Goma.
“Conservation in the park is not fun at the moment. People are being shot and killed. It’s more dangerous guarding the park now than during the war.”
Muir said 93 Congolese guards have been killed in eight years, an average of almost one month.
FOREST SLASHED AND BURNED
Tensions in the area flared again after Congo accused Rwanda – which has twice invaded its giant neighbor in the past eight years – of backing renegade troops who briefly seized an eastern Congolese town in early June.
Separately, thousands of Rwandans poured across the border in May and June, slashing and burning 6 square miles of forest, according to U.N. experts, conservationists and local residents.
Centuries-old forest has been reduced to splintered logs, charred black pits and mounds of tilled land abandoned by the squatters when they left. In the remaining forest, elephants, chimpanzees and buffalo roam, but the flattened bald scar stretching over hillsides offers only the buzz of insects and a few birds dipping between the clumps of trees left standing amid the destruction.
Virunga is only 164 square miles of habitat and 355 of the world’s 700 gorillas live in Congo, so losing even 6 square miles is huge.
Allegedly paid by Rwandan land speculators, the settlers were seen being trucked from Rwanda and ordered by Rwandan army commanders to cut down the forest in Congo’s Mikeno sector.
Rwanda, a tiny, denuded country and one of Africa’s most densely populated, insists it played no official role in leveling the forest, though observers say the destruction was intended to push marauding militias away from the border.
“Clear cutting of brush along one’s border is a common practice to repulse incursions, but the activities instigated by the Rwandan Defense Forces advanced considerably beyond any acceptable range,” said a report by U.N. experts.
The land was cultivated and cattle were introduced. Each person was paid the equivalent of $1 a day for the work, according to villagers and conservationists.
The forest clearance was halted in late June after Western diplomats and conservation groups pressured the Rwandan government to intervene. The settlers and cattle were driven out, but the damage had been done.
“It hit me hard when I saw this,” said Kazerezi, surveying a vast expanse of freshly hacked tree stumps and dusty earth at the foot of the smoking volcanoes towering above.
The U.N. experts investigating Congo’s accusations of cross-border meddling also said they had satellite imagery showing that Rwanda had fixed heavy weapon encasements in the Congolese section of the park.
“What could we do? They have big guns and they were many,” Kazerezi said, shaking his head.
RWANDA SAYS NOT TO BLAME
The Rwandan army says it has troops stationed in the forest, but only on its side of the border to protect against attacks by extremist Hutu Interahamwe militias who killed 800,000 Tutsis and Hutu moderates before fleeing into Congo’s wilds in 1994.
“It’s possible people crossed and cut trees down – we have the same problem everywhere here in Rwanda – but you can’t say it was deliberate or that we encouraged it,” said Col. Patrick Karegeya, the Rwandan army spokesman.
“Why would anyone buy or sell land if they are not there now? I don’t see the logic. Things have been politicized so everything that happens there is Rwanda’s fault,” he said.