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Photo: Ethan Baron
By Ethan Baron
Virunga National Park, Africa’s oldest, straddles a diverse region of
jungles, savannahs and mountains of up to 5,000 metres. It also
makes up part of the troubled Democratic Republic of Congo, where
ongoing wars have killed over five million people, the deadliest
conflict since World War II. Yet life carries on. Ethan Baron reports
on Earth’s most dangerous park ranger job.
Nyamulagira is roaring, exploding in ﬁery molten splashes and bone-shaking,
deep-bass thumps, blasting lava a half kilometre into the air. A new cone is rising
several hundred metres from the volcano’s main vent. Waves of heat and
sulphurous fumes from a huge rent in the cone pour across the hardened lava ﬁeld
below. Crispy black cinders rain down. From within the eruption’s din comes a
slapping splatter of magma on the ever-growing cone: the sound of a mountain
Of Blood and Magma
A man with a machete passes a UN military convoy on a road next to Virunga National Park. The UN’s force of
20,000 in Democratic Republic of Congo, the largest peacekeeping operation in the world, has been unable to stop
the violence tearing apart the country’s east.
being born. It is January 2012.
Some day, maybe tomorrow, perhaps not for decades, Nyamulagira will fall silent.
Rain will erode the lava rock; soil will form. Grasses and shrubs will colonize the
cone’s steep ﬂanks. Banana shoots will sprout from cracks, jungle trees and vines
will grow, then birds will appear, along with snakes, monkeys, chimpanzees and
even mountain gorillas, if the volcano grows suﬃciently tall.
But this is eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, and evil ﬂows through this
beautiful land, horror distilled from genocide and war, from tyranny, greed, poverty
and hate, destroying nature, destroying people. In the villages, in the ﬁelds, along
the roadsides, trauma is written on nearly every face.
Some 200 of the world’s 720 remaining mountain gorillas live in Virunga.
IT IS 1982 and I’m lying in bed on a school day, burning with a mononucleosis fever,
while the outlandish, violent jungle scenes of the novel Congo are seething to a
hallucinatory intensity in my overheated teenaged brain: killer gorillas, laser-
sighted robo-guns, wicked plunderers of the earth, the burgeoning life force of the
jungle. I have no clue that in the country in which Michael Crichton’s tale takes
place, the US-backed colonel Joseph Mobutu has been busy transforming Congo’s
natural resources into a personal hoard worth billions and setting the stage for war.
I have no inkling that one day I will walk in the jungles where Crichton’s story is set,
in Africa’s oldest national park, the otherworldly and blood-soaked Virunga.
In eastern Congo, where the western arm of the Great African Rift cracks the
planet’s crust, equatorial life bursts riotously from the seam. More than 200 species
of mammal and 700 bird species dwell in the jungles, mountains and savannahs
within Virunga National Park, a wedge of land running 300 kilometres from north to
south within the rift, along the Uganda and Rwanda borders. Here, in one of the
largest and deepest biodiversity stores on earth, are mountain gorillas, lowland
gorillas, chimpanzees, lions, leopards, elephants and hippos. Here, too, is that other
ape, that species born along the very same rift, that bipedal hominid which
surpasses all creatures in the capacity to create and to destroy: Homo sapiens, the
beast called Man.
More than 200 species of mammal and 700 bird species dwell in the
jungles, mountains and savannahs within Virunga National Park.
Here, in one of the largest and deepest biodiversity stores on earth,
are mountain gorillas, lowland gorillas, chimpanzees, lions, leopards,
elephants and hippos.
Virunga National Park ranger Urbain Butsitsi is ﬁring his Kalashnikov into the forest.
He hears long bursts of gunshots from the attacking mai mai militiamen concealed
among the trees and undergrowth, sees glimpses of human shapes. An arrow
whispers past, and another. A mai mai machine gunner opens up.
It is October 2011, and Butsitsi, 25, has been a full-ﬂedged park ranger for three
weeks. Eight of his fourteen comrades now ﬁghting six dozen militiamen are
equally green. But special-forces training for rangers is a key component of his
warden’s crusade to regain control of the park. While the mai mai spray wild salvos
from their assault riﬂes, Butsitsi’s is switched to single-shot, and he is ﬁring with
care: “Bang, bang.” Slowly. “Bang, bang.” After ﬁve hours of ﬁghting, three mai mai
are dead and the militia retreats.
Eleven Virunga rangers died in gunﬁghts and ambushes in 2011 and another was
killed in May 2012; since 1995, nearly 150 have died. Along roads running through
and beside the park, militiamen murder several citizens a week during robberies.
But in a region infamous for brutal conﬂicts, a bright spot is spreading. Virunga
warden Emmanuel de Merode, a Belgian prince with a Ph.D. in biological
anthropology, is asserting control over broad swathes of the park, regions crawling
with militias either operating or protecting networks of poaching, illegal tree-
cutting and ﬁshing, all while robbing, raping and killing at will. Against the armed
groups, de Merode has arrayed his new, slimmed-down, trained-up ranger army:
280 men, 84 of them aged 19 to 25 and hired in 2011. De Merode estimates he’s
taken back 80 per cent of the park, including large areas — and the park
headquarters — overrun by rebels in late 2008. Progress is bumpy. Until recently,
Virunga was at the epicentre of war for more than 15 years.
Under Mobutu, the park, founded in 1925, initially prospered. The dictator enjoyed
hosting heads of state amid Virunga’s beauty and wildlife. But Mobutu’s greed and
government corruption were drawing Congo toward collapse. Rebellions, then
wars, would devastate ﬂora and fauna. Hippo populations plunged from 23,000 in
1989 to 11,000 in 1994. After the 1994 genocide by Hutus of Tutsis next door in
Rwanda, 700,000 Hutus ﬂed a vengeful Tutsi army into Congo, spawning massive
refugee camps on the border of Virunga. Refugees cut up to a thousand tons of
timber daily in the park while poachers laid waste to wildlife for bush meat. The
animal biomass in the park’s savannah areas, once four times greater than in the
Serengeti, would plummet 90 per cent as conﬂicts continued. In the camps, the
Hutu génocidaires were reorganizing and rearming into the Forces Démocratiques
de Libération du Rwanda (FDLR).
IT IS 1996, and I’m standing with one foot in Uganda and the other in Congo, after
slogging six hours up the Uganda side of the 3,645-metre extinct Sabinyo volcano
at the junction of the Uganda, Congo and Rwanda borders. I am ﬁlthy, tired and
sweaty from climbing through montane forest, then scaling pitch after pitch of
rickety nailed branch ladders that reach upward through a fantasyland of freakish
giant lobelia spears and towering leafy-headed groundsels.
Thirty or so FDLR are now blasting at the outnumbered rangers.
After 40 minutes of heavy fighting, the militiamen vanish into the
jungle. The rangers have won the battle, but Badirushaka, a married
father of five, is dead.
From the rolling countryside of Rwanda to the south comes the distant sound of
artillery and a heavy machine gun, as Tutsi government troops battle Hutu ﬁghters
bent on retaking the country. But it is westward toward Congo that I mostly gaze.
Below me lies the jungle of those waking mono-fever dreams. By now I know
Congo’s violence makes Crichton’s book look tame. And beneath the jungle canopy,
the First Congo War is about to begin. I’m on my ﬁrst journalism trip overseas. I’m
not ready for war. Still, I feel Congo’s pull.
Fifteen Virunga rangers are deep in the jungle searching for a charcoal-making
operation. It is April 2011. In a region where nearly all cooking and heating is fuelled
by trees, the FDLR-run charcoal trade is worth tens of millions of dollars — $30
million in nearby Goma alone, de Merode estimates. Virunga Park supplies most of
Rwanda’s charcoal as well. As the ranger patrol climbs a hill, a voice shouts, “Who
are you?” and a Kalashnikov begins to ﬁre. Ranger Magayane Badirushaka takes a
copper-jacketed slug in a buttock that tears into his abdomen. Ranger patrol
leader Sekibibi Bareke dispatches four men to carry Badirushaka away and try to
stop his bleeding. Of the 30 or so FDLR now blasting at the outnumbered rangers,
Bareke can see only three, but the direction of incoming ﬁre shows the gunmen are
trying to surround them. After 40 minutes of heavy ﬁghting, the militiamen vanish
into the jungle. The rangers have won the battle, but Badirushaka, a married father
of ﬁve, is dead.
After Rwanda’s new Tutsi government kicked off the First Congo War by invading
Congo in 1996, Rwandan soldiers and allied Congolese militias chased hundreds of
thousands of Hutu refugees from the camps and are alleged by the UN to have
Children in a squalid, cholera-ridden internal refugee camp in Rutshuru. Four months after this photo was taken,
rebels burned the camp to the ground and drove the refugees into the jungle.
slaughtered tens of thousands, génocidaires and innocents alike. Mobutu was
overthrown in 1997 and Congolese rebel leader Laurent Kabila installed as
president. A year later, the Second Congo War erupted, a savage six-nation
squabble over the country’s vast mineral and timber wealth. Some ﬁve million
people died through violence, disease and starvation. Kabila was assassinated in
2001; his son Joseph took his place. Conﬂict waned in 2003, but Virunga continued
to suffer the depredations of armed groups and refugees who carried on
widespread poaching and forest-clearing. By 2005, only 900 hippos remained in
the park. Nineteen mountain gorillas were killed in ﬁve separate incidents in 2007.
In 2008, the forces of Congolese Tutsi warlord Laurent Nkunda swept through the
region. After overrunning the Congolese army base at Rumangabo, Nkunda’s
troops attacked the adjacent Virunga Park headquarters. Rangers ﬂed into the
jungle. Nkunda was captured in early 2009. Renegade Congolese army general
Bosco Ntaganda replaced him. Fighting between Ntaganda’s militia and
Congolese troops led warden de Merode to evacuate non-Congolese
headquarters staff for a week in March 2012, and shut two ranger posts near the
mountain-gorilla sector two months later.
Virunga National Park rangers travel on high alert through an area frequented by murderous perpetrators of the
Rwandan genocide. In spring 2012, heavy fighting erupted once again between government and rebel troops. By
July, the park was closed to the public, temporarily, it is hoped.
In spring 2012, de Merode deployed his newest weapon against poachers and
militias. After a year of training, Virunga’s man-tracking bloodhounds went
operational in March, trailing poachers from an elephant killed for ivory. The
pursuit led to a ﬁreﬁght and seizure of four riﬂes left by the ﬂeeing suspects. The
dog unit’s ﬁve hounds — two of them from Ontario — and the ranger dog team
have been trained by Marlene Zähner of Switzerland, arguably the world’s best
bloodhound trainer. Zähner, 52, spends two weeks every two months in the park,
honing the skills of rangers and hounds.
“Here it’s so dangerous that you really have to have everything perfect,” Zähner
says. Dogs and handlers are trained to ﬁnd their quarry, then back off and let their
heavily armed ranger colleagues attempt capture. The hounds face signiﬁcant risk,
and de Merode admits some may die. The dogs’ lives, like those of the rangers, are
on the line in the service of a critical conservation effort, the warden argues.
An alcove has been hollowed out of the embankment above a potholed dirt road
running north to Lake Edward. It is June 2011. The three rangers riding in a park
truck don’t see the FDLR until a gunman in the hollow opens ﬁre. One ranger
escapes, one is shot in the head and left by the militia for dead. The third ranger
lies wounded in the road. Within minutes, a UN military patrol arrives at the scene.
The FDLR are gone. The ranger in the road has had his head cut off.
I see Kalashnikovs, another machine gun and a rocket-propelled
grenade launcher. I raise my camera toward the man. Then I look
into his eyes and see hatred so fierce I am instantly certain if I shoot
him he’ll shoot me. I lower the camera.
It is 2008, and I am in the passenger seat of a hired Land Cruiser, driving slowly
past a dreadlocked FDLR génocidaire draped in bullets and holding a machine
gun. He stands under a huge spreading tree by this dirt road on the edge of
Virunga. I have come up from Goma, a city sprawling over lava ﬁelds, where a
young woman in hospital has told me of being gang-raped and sexually mutilated
by men just like this one. Congo’s two multi-nation wars are over, but the east
remains a violent maelstrom, as FDLR, the Congo army, mai mai and Nkunda’s
rebels ﬁght for dominance.
I’m riding in the middle of a four-jeep UN military convoy carrying sixteen Indian
Army soldiers armed with assault riﬂes and two mounted machine guns. Behind the
militiamen a half dozen ﬁghters sit in the shade on the buttress roots of the tree. I
see Kalashnikovs, another machine gun, and a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.
I raise my camera toward the man beside the road. Then I look into his eyes, and
see hatred so ﬁerce I am instantly certain if I shoot him he’ll shoot me. I lower the
On an early evening in February 2011, a truck carrying 15 rangers in the park’s
central region drives into a storm of bullets. Outgunned by the 30 or so attackers,
the rangers — three of them wounded — ﬂee into the bush. A ranger search team
arrives after dark. They ﬁnd all their comrades but one: Katchupa Changwi, a 40-
year-old married father of three. Changwi is seen leaping from the truck amid the
gunﬁre. He is found the next day. Shot in the calf, he had hobbled from the ambush
and bled to death overnight.
Mai mai are formidable and familiar with the terrain in which they operate, says
Gilbert Dilis, 52, a former Belgian parachute commando who served in Rwanda
during the genocide. But the FDLR, numbering up to 700 in and around the park
and with leaders from the pre-genocide Rwandan army, pose the greatest threat,
he says. “They have military training. They are in the jungles since 1994. They are
specialists of the guerrilla warfare. Every day and every time is dangerous here.”
IT IS 2012 and I am remembering Nyamulagira, and desolation in an old man’s
eyes; young gorillas spinning round on jungle vines, a gang-raped girl with her
bladder burst by a mai mai’s hand; liquid-gold sunrise on a swimming hippo’s
back, and the deadly promise in a gunman’s stare. I am remembering Virunga and
the people risking their lives to preserve it: Zähner, with the hounds; de Merode, the
prince obsessed; Dilis, who saw too much but still came back for more; and
especially the rangers, working, and dying, for $160 a month.
Maybe some day, not tomorrow, perhaps not for decades, the evil will be gone.
Share ‘Of Blood and Magma’
Ethan Baron is a Vancouver-based journalist and photojournalist, recently departed from a
daily-newspaper job to devote more time to work in foreign climes. Of Blood and Magma was
published in the Winter 2012/13 edition of Kootenay Mountain Culture Magazine, the Radical