Rolling Stone Edit
This has been distilled and adapted from the original report for the United Nations Foundation, and has benefited from deft editing by Rolling Stone’s Bill Tonelli.
Kahuzi Biega was supposed to be the safest of the parks on my itinerary. The last one, Virungas, was totally overrun by “negative forces,” as the various bands of psychotic killers who are roaming around eastern Congo are collectively called. I needed a military escort of two teenagers with Kalashnikovs from the rebel group that was in nominal contol just to get to the park headquarters at Rumangabo. Venturing deepe into the park, like going up to see the mountain gorillas on the upper slopes of Mikono volcano, was not a smart idea at the moment. Two of the four tourists kidnaped in the gorilla sector three years ago, the Dutchman and the Canadian, were still missing, and the guard post had just been attacked. One guard was killed, and the attackers had taken his Kalashnikov, one spurt of which could wipe out the entire gorilla population of the Parcque Nacional de Virungas. There are 230 here and 180 in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in adjacent Uganda, and that’s it for the mountain gorillas except for the ones in zoos.
Kahuzi Biega is home to the eastern lowland gorilla, another, much better-represented subspecies. In l995 a staggering 14,000 of these laid-back and mild-mannered apes were estimated to be roaming around in the frothing Afroalpine rainforest, a hundred miles south of Virungas park, where two dormant volcanos, Kahuzi and Biega, thrust up their massive cones. But since then there have been two civil wars. Zaire has disintegrated, to the extent that it was anything more than a fractious, anarchic collection of 450-some ethnic groups brought together by the Belgians for the purposes of exploiting, a “half-made country,” in V.S.Naipaul’s term, a shell state whose main purpose was to enrich whoever was in power. There were now four Congos, each backed by different neighboring countries whose soldiers who were helping themselves to the Congo basins abundant and untapped natural resources, particularly the minerals. Madeleine Albright has described the multi-sided conflict as “Africa’s first World War.” 3 million civilians have been killed since the second war began in l998, two million are currently uprooted, and no one knows how many unique and irreplaceable animals have been mowed down and roasted by the negative forces holed up in the parks. “The sheer level of human atrocity is like Sierra Leone six years ago, but it is largely invisible, because nobody can get in,” Johnny Carson (not who you think, but an African-American who was the American ambassador in Nairobi), told me. Congo had caught the new African virus, the one that makes you commit genocide, from Rwanda, its tiny neighbor to the east. A mini-genocide had broken out in Haut Congo between the Hema and the Lendu, who were ethnically similar to the Tutsi and the Hutu, and the outbreaks of genocide were happening hand-in-hand with genus- and species-cide. If the elephant surveys were any indication, the gorillas at Kahuzi Biega had probably been cut in half.
I had talked by mobile phone a few weeks earlier to Carlos Schuler, who administered the German aid that was keeping the park going. He said that 95% of the park was out of control, in the hands of the negative forces, but the highland sector was regularly patrolled and completely secure. “Everything will be ready for you to see the gorillas,” he assured me, his Swiss-accented English crackling over the airwaves. “You’re going to love them.”
That was at the beginning of the trip, twenty incredibly hairy and stressful days ago. Since that conversation I had visited the three other parks Virungas, Okapi, and Garamba that I had been contracted to do a report on for the United Foundations Foundation Ted Turner’s billion-dollar fund to support the UN’s programs. The wildlife in these parks is so extraordinary that they were declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and the UNF was contributed $2.8 to the heroic effort to keep them going during the anarchy and chaos. Most of it was going to keeping the guards paid and motivated to continue their anti-poaching patrols, which were only marginally effective because the poaching was so rampant and out of control. Forest elephants (which have amber tusks and are smaller than their cousins in the savanna), gorillas, and okapis (the secretive forest giraffe whose existence wasn’t confirmed by scientists until l902) were being slaughtered for food. Some of the crown jewels of the animal kingdom, the product of thousands of generations of exquisite and unrepeatable adaptation and evolutionary refinement, were threatened with the fate of the dodo and the passenger pigeon.
My job was to assess the condition of the parks, the status of the animals and extent of the poaching and the morale of the staff. Basically, the UNF wanted to be reassured that what it was doing was a good idea. Most environmental foundations bale out of countries that are engulfed in civil war. Was its project going to work, or was the balkanized Democratic Republic of Congo a lost cause ?
I had taken the assignment not because I had a death wish or was a danger junkie. Twenty years ago, I had trekked across the Ituri Forest (most of which is in the Okapi Faunal Reserve, created in l991), dancing and smoking dope and eating wild mushrooms with pygmies days in from anything even approximating a road. Then I went down to Virungas and saw the great herds of ruminants grazing on the floor of the rift valley (the lake-studded western arm that runs up through eastern Congo and is drained by the Nile). It was like the first chapter of Genesis. Those two months I’d traveled around Zaire (as Congo was then called) had been my first trip to Africa and were transformative. Since then I’d been back many times to the Democratic Republic of Congo, which Zaire became in l997. I’d jammed with OK Jazz, the rumba orchestra of the Great Master Franco, searched in vain for the source of AIDS, covered the fall of Mobutu and his kleptocracy. I loved the people– if you can generalize about any group of people, let alone 450 of them. The Congolese I knew were wickedly funny, incredibly creative, and they possessed an irrepressible ebullience even though the history of the place is one of nonstop victimization going back to the Congo Free State, King Leopold of Belgium’s’s private fiefdom, which lasted from l888 to 1911, when eight million Congolese died collecting rubber and ivory for him. This was a place I cared deeply about, and I seemed to be one of the few people who did. Congo was going through some violent post-postcolonial birthpains, but it would be beyond tragic if the animals were wiped out in the process. So I told the UNF I’d go, as long as a million dollars of life insurance was part of the deal.
Kahuzi Biega was the last stop. I was looking forward to unwinding and communing with the gorillas. But this was not to be. The day before I got there, nine members of a commission that was mapping the park’s boundaries were massacred. It was the worst catastrophe in the park’s 32-year history, and that obviously changed everything. I couldn’t be arriving at a worse time, I mused as my plane touched down in Bukavu, the city at the southern end of Lake Kivu that abuts the park. Carlos Schuler had sent his Land Cruiser and a driver to pick me up.
“The problem is that there are some illegal farms in the park,” the driver told me as we drove through a volcanic landscape, women attacking the rich dark soil with hoes. “There is only a thin corridor of forest connecting the high and the lowland sectors, and it has been breached. The animals need to migrate between them at different time of years, to find food or mates, but this is no longer possible. So the farmers must be evicted. But before this could be done, the precise boundaries of the park had to be established.”
So the park had formed an impressive joint commission with the provincial government (which was one of the three rebel factions duking it out with the government in Kinshasa, the capital– the same faction that provided me with two teenagers with Kalashnikovs in Virungas Park). There were 82 people in all, including the chief warden of the park, two assistant wardens, several of the governor’s conseilliers d’ etat, and thirteen crack pygmy trackers. One of the survivors of the attack later told me what happened. He had managed to flee to safety, running barefoot through the forest for six hours until he reached one of the faction’s military outposts.
“We were all camped at Jhembe. We had been out for thirteen days, and this was the last day. Only 7.8 kilometers remained to be surveyed, then we were all going home. Everything had gone smoothly so far and we were all in a celebratory mood and maybe a little off guard. We figured that if we were going to have trouble with the negative forces, it would have happened by now.”
But at 5:30, half an hour before daybreak, the commission was suddenly attacked. 5 were shot dead in the first tent, including the surveyor and the governor’s video cameraman. The attackers were accompanied by women and children, who as the slaughter went on chanted and ululated and rattled calabashes and danced the mujegereze, which you see hefty Congolese women doing as they come up the road from a wedding, boogeying and clapping their hands. “Each time someone was killed, the women and children would send up a collective cri de joie,” the survivor continued. “We were attacked by four different types of warfare at once : “modern (bullets ), psychological (the chanting), traditional (clubs made from the rock-hard roots of a certain tree), and intifada (stones, like the ones Palestinians throw at Isaeli soldiers).”
Discipline or willingness to engage in combat not being a strong point of Congolese soldiers, the 32 attached to the commission immediately bolted into the forest with their weapons, leaving it at the attackers’ mercy. When the attack was over, one of the nine dead had his genitals hacked off. All the park’s bush equipment, including 6 radio phones and a gsm locator, 16 tents and 3 mattresses, was made off with, and the chief warden and the two assistants were missing, presumably taken hostage.
GTZ, the German aid agency that Carlos and his wife worked for, was renting an adorable chalet in the old Belgian quarter. I found him upstairs on a satellite phone, reporting to his superiors in Berlin. Neun tot und leuteren nicht gefunden, nine dead and others missing. A tall, dark-complected man in his late thirties, he seem to have snapped, ready to throw in the towel. Fifteen years of carefully building human resources, training dedicated Congolese conservationists, appeared to have just gone down the tubes. “These are people we worked with very well,” he said . “It is impossible to do anything in this complete absence of human rights.”
Ten years earlier, Carlos, a ski and windsurfing instructor in Switzerland, had been traveling around Africa when he came to Bukavu and met a stunning mulata named Christine de Schryver. Her father, a Belgian colonist named Adrian de Schryver, had fought with Mobutu for the creation of Kahuzi Biega. Her mother was a local Shi. Adrian de Schryver, whom you can see in old National Geographic documentaries about the gorillas, was poisoned in l989. Now Carlos and Christine had three kids, and he had become the one who was trying to save the gorillas.
“All this is caused by the international community,” he seethed in French. “Ils s’en futent. They don’t give a fuck. The UN high commission for refugees and the humanitarian agencies nourished these killers in the camps for two years and then unleashed them on the Congo. You know what’s destroying Africa ? Capitalism. Who buys the diamonds, the gold, the minerals, the ivory and the baby gorillas ? And if you think I’m going to fall on my knees in gratitude to the UN Foundation for helping us… the money isn’t going to make a bit of difference in the lives of the local people. They are desperate now and they will still be.”
The women and children at Jhembe were chanting in Rwandese, which meant that the attackers were Interahamwe, fugitive militiamen of the Hutu ethnic group who carried out most of the genocide in Rwanda in l994 and then fled to Congo along with hundreds of thousands of other Hutu, fearing the revenge of the Tutsi they had massacred close to a million of. The UNHCR set up huge camps for the refugees, but never disarmed the ones with guns, even though the UN’s definition of a refugee is someone who has ceased to be a combatant and has turned in his weapon.. The Interahamwe continued to make raids into Rwanda from the camps until the fall of l996, when Tutsi soldiers of the Rwandan Patriotic Front, the guerilla group that took over Rwanda after the genocide, broke up the camps and went on a killing spree of their own, pursuing the Interahamwe to Kisangani (the city 1000 miles up the Congo River from Kinshasa that inspired Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and V.S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River) and slaughtering about a hundred thousand of them and their hostages and untold Congolese civilians in their path. But about 2000 Interahamwe, in 20 bands, were still hiding out in the park, living off the game and terrorizing the local villagers, and there were about ten times as many in Virungas Park.
The Interahamwe weren’t the only problem for the animals in Kahuzi Biega. There were also miners of a rare mineral called coltan. I first heard about about this substance from Terese Hart, a botanist I met in the Ituri Forest twenty years ago who was one of the co-designers of the UNF project. Coltan mining, she told me, was taking a huge toll on the elephants in the Okapi Reserve. There were about fifty mining camps in the park. “Be sure to visit one, and find out what you can about the coltan trade,” Terese urged. “This has to be exposed.” It was her opinion that what was really going on was a clandestine resource war in the guise of a civil war. Significant deposits of the mineral are only found in Congo and Australia. Most of the coltan seemed to be going to American companies whose boards bristled with old Republican stalwarts : George Bush, père, Howard Baker, the televangelist Pat Robertson. Coltan is an exceptionally stable metal, with a very high melting point. Among its numerous modern applications, it is used for the sheathing of satellites and ballistic missiles and shoulder-fired anti-tank rockets. Dubya is going to need tons of the stuff for his anti-missile shield (this was before Mr. Bin Laden demonstrated its utter worthlessness).
But the biggest market is for cellphones. If you were to hurl your cellphone against the wall, shattering it into many little pieces, one of them would be a little chip called a capacitor. The crucial component of capacitors is a thin strip of coltan. Every laptop, every car computer system, every Sony playstation, every solid-state electronic appliance, has a capacitor with a strip of coltan.. “The miracle mineral of the moment,” as the Washington Post has called it. “Whoever has the controls the 21st century, a Rwandan coltan dealer told me in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda where American buyers are in bidding wars with German and Red Chinese ones. It is as important as tungsten was after the invention of the light bulb, but not many people know about it.
My trip began when I crossed from Rwanda to Goma, the city at the northern end of Lake Kivu, which is the headquarters of the original faction of the Rassemblement Congolais pour la Démocratie, popularly known as RCD-Goma. These were the guys who were nominally in charge down in Bukavu and Kahuzi Biega. The main thing about this faction is that it is controlled by Rwanda. It is not at all popular with the local Congelese, who consider themselves to be under occupation by the Rwandans, or “les Nilotiques,” as they call them.
I had dinner with Dr. Vizima Karaha, RCD-Goma’s chief of security and intelligence. We had last seen each other in Kinshasa in May, l997, when Karaha marched in with the Alliance des Forces pour la Libération du Congo, and President Mobutu Sese Seko, in the last stages of prostate cancer, departed for Morocco in a helicopter, thus ending one of the most corrupt regimes in history and concluding the first civil war.
Laurent Kabila, the AFDL’s spokesperson, a bloated old Maoist with an appetite for diamonds and women, declared himself president and named Karaha his foreign minister. “I was only 32, the youngest foreign minister in the world,” Karaha told me proudly. But Karaha’s fame was short-lived. After seven months, while on a diplomatic mission in New York City, he suddenly went into convulsions and was taken to the emergency room of New York University Hospital, where his stomach was pumped in the nick of time.
“Sounds like the slow-acting venom of the viper of Idgwi,” I said, and Karaha nodded appreciatively. Idgwi is an island in Lake Kivu, and its viper venom was one of Mobutu’s favorite methods for disposing of problematic fellow-Congolese. He did away with several alarmingly capable ministers and the composer of the Independence Cha Cha with Igdwi venom.
The reason Kabila wanted to get rid of Karaha was that he had turned against his Rwandese and Congolese Tutsi allies (Karaha was one of the latter), who had made themselves very unpopular with all the innocent civilians they had killed and all the best villas and top government posts in Kinshasa they had taken over. In August, l998 Kabila declare a pogrom on all Nilotiques. Mobs seized Tutsi and threw them off the bridge in Kinshasa. At Garamba Park, a 20-year Tutsi employee of Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature, which runs the parks, so trusted that he was in charge of the weapons, was executed by his colleagues.
Thus began the second war. The Rwandese and their Congolese allies quickly regrouped in Goma and formed the RCD, whose goal was the immediate removal of Kabila. A bold sneak attack by plane near succeeded, but the insurgents were beaten back from the outskirts of Kinshasa by the Angolans, who came to Kabila’s rescue. Many more people and animals were killed as the new rebels swept west, many of them for the second time, eventually taking over the eastern half of the country.
But their alliance was fragile, and within six months there were two new factions : the RCD- ML (for Mouvement de la Liberation), based in Bunia, 200 miles north of Goma, and led by Wamba dia Wamba, one of Africa’s most prominent intellectuals; and the MLC (Mouvement de la Liberation du Congo) led by Jean-Pierre Bemba, the son of one of Mobutu’s richest cronies. (Any group of two or more people in this part of the world has to have a acronym if it expects to get anywhere.) These two factions occupied the northern half of eastern Congo and were controlled by Uganda. The line dividing the Ugandan and Rwandan zones ran right through Virungas park. Garamba and Okapi and the northern half of Virungas were in the Ugandan zone, and the southern half of Virungas and Kahuzi Biega were in the Rwandan zone. I.e., the resources of the former were flowing to Kampala, Uganda’s biggest city, and the latter’s were flowing to Kigali. There had been some embarrassing firefights between Ugandan and Rwanda soldiers last year over the rich diamond beds around Kisangani.
This January Kabila was gunned down by one of his bodyguards at a meeting of his inner circle in Kinshasa, and his son Joseph became president. According to the government inquest into the assassination, it was a rebel plot and one of the prime suspects is Vizima Karaha.
From Goma I flew up to Beni, which is in the Ugandan zone. (There is a local carrier called TMK that flies ancient propeller planes to the main cities in eastern Congo twice a week.) Overland travel, up through Virungas Park, was not a smart idea at the moment. A truck caravan had just been hit by the negative forces, probably Interahamwe, the drivers killed and the vehicles burned.
I searched the rift valley floor for hippos, but there were none to be seen. Twenty years ago Virunga’s hippo herd was 30,000 strong, the largest on earth. But when Mobutu’s unpaid soldiers mutinied in l991, they started to kill the hippos and the slaughter has been continued by whatever armed group was in the area. Now there are only 600. Many of the elephants in the park have fled the mayhem into Uganda. There are animal refugee flows in central Africa as well as human ones, and animal marauders, too : elephants fleeing the poachers in the Ituri Forest have been trampling and eating crops and generally making a nuisance of themselves in the villages around the Okapi reserve. A few months ago, a ravenous hyena fleeing Ethiopia’s drought-stricken Ogaden district into adjacent Somalia brazenly snatched a toddler from his grandmother’s arms.
In Beni I was was met by Kambale Kisuki, the RCD-ML’s assistant commissar of instructure. Why commissar ? I asked. “We are still in the struggle,” Kisuki explained. “When we get to Kinshasa, we will become ministers.” Kisuki had worked for the World Wildlife Fund and is a friend of conservation, one of the few Congolese who take the long-term view on the exploitation. The last I saw of him, a week later, he was being taken away by Ugandan soldiers. The latest rumor is that he has fled to Nairobi. Meanwhile the geopolitics around Beni are in transition. The MLC, on Uganda’s orders, has merged with RCD-ML and the two factions are now known as the FLC (The Front for the Liberation of Congo). Bemba is its leader, which naturally does not make Wamba happy. But Wamba is no longer a player. He is back in Dar Es Salaam, lecturing to the radical black caucus. The FLC’s efforts to secure Beni are being frustrated by the Mayi Mayi, and a local warlord is also giving it trouble.
The Mayi Mayi are probably the secondmost murderous of the negative forces, after the Interahamwe. They are descended from the Simbas, who publically eviscerated American missionaries and ate their entrails in Kisangani during the Mulele rebellion of l964-6. Ideologically, they are nationalistic and primordialistic. They want to drive out the foreign occupiers, the Ugandans and the Rwandans. Maji means water in Swahili, and the Mayi Mayi wear faucets around their necks and anoint themselves with magic water that they believe will render them invulnerable to bullets. Definitely not folks one wanted to run into. .
Kisuki had arranged a motorycle taxi, locally known as a motambusi or pici pici, to take me to Epulu, the headquarters of the Okapi reserve. This was the part of my trip that I was least looking forward to. Eight hours through bandit- and deserter-infested jungle. My driver was a 21 year old named Patrique. We took off up the road to Mambasa, if you could call it a road. It was really was no more than a track with frequent enormous water-filled potholes. We passed a Mercedes truck that had been stuck in one of them for several days. Local girls had brought food as the crew was digging it out. The driver, in a cool white leisure suit, was dallying with one with one of the girls in the front seat. His contract specified that he didn’t have to dig.
We zipped through Mangina, where six weeks ago some Mayi Mayi attacked a Thai- Ugandan lumber operation and took 24 foreigners hostage. They said they were going to hold them until the last Ugandan and Rwandan soldier had departed Congo. But after the Thai government promised to build schools and clinics in their area, they released four, and on June 30 they traded the Swede for a Volvo truck. A son of Patrice Lumumba, the legendary leftist prime minister who was assassinated in l961 with the help of the CIA, was brought in to negotiate the release of the others; these Mayi Mayi were calling themselves La Résistance Lumumba. The son told them that since they were using his father’s name, they should act honorably and hand over the remaining 19 hostages without further demands, which they did.
I was full of admiration for Patrique’s dirtbiking skills. He kept the souped-up red Yamaha model to the floor, doing 50 on this slick, sometimes hardly visible track, all the while fending off the ground and fallen trees with his black rubber Wellingtons and skirting the cavernous potholes If peace ever comes to Congo, the Beni-Mambasa-Epulu road would make a world-class dirt-bike track.
Fifty years ago, when this was the Belgian Congo, these roads were magnificent. The pith-helmeted Flemish supervisor would drive them with a glass of water on his dashboard, and if a single drop spilled, he would cane the local chief . But Mobutu let the colonial road system go. He wanted to make it as hard as possible for anyone with the idea of overthrowing him to get to Kinshasa. This has slowed down the poaching somewhat and the lumbering almost completely, so in the end Mobutu was a great friend to the biodiversity of the Congo basin, although it was the last thing on his mind.
After four hours we topped a rise and had a view of a vast virgin rainforest spreading for miles to the west, with epic flat-crowned trees, some in lavendar bloom, well over a hundred and fifty feet high. The Samboko Forest. If we were going to have a run-in with the negative forces, this was where it was going to happen. Three vintages of deserters were in there : ex-FAZ (Mobutu’sg), ex-FAC (Kabila’s), and ex-RCD-ML (Wamba’s). A week ago, a woman had been abducted from the back of a motambusi. There was no news about her fate, and no one was expecting any. What a windfall I would be.
Patrique was totally nonchalant and philosophical about the situation, partly because the negative forces usually let the drivers and their bikes through, because they will bring more passengers. “If we meet les forces négatives,” he said, “ç’est l’horoscope,” he said. The passengers before me and after me were both hit. But our horoscope was propitious. The negative forces must not have been near the road, or they would have come running as soon as they heard the whine of our motambusi.
We made it to the Ituri River, passed pygmy women toting huge bunches of bananas with tumplines, black-and-white colobus monkeys streaming through the trees, little zones of full- throated birdsong and deafening insect din, fifty-yard stretches of delicious aroma. Scores of butterflies– big black tailless papilios with blue wingbars– rose up from puddles and scattered before us. We were entering the Ituri Forest, one of the most magical and cut-off places in the world.
“Ivory is being poached and coltan is being mined right in our faces, and there is nothing we can do about it,” Jean Joseph Mapilanga, the chief warden of the Okapi Reserve, told me when I presented myself at his office in Epulu. The park headquarters had been trashed and looted in l986 by Mobutu’s retreating soldiers, and again in l988 by Kabila’s retreating soldiers, and Mapilanga had had to hide in the forest for six months during the worst of it. So he was understandably a bit jumpy, and he tended to give orders at unnecessarily high decibels.. “We have only ten guns and forty guards, ten of whom are too old to go out on patrol,” he went on. “In the fourteen years I’ve been with the ICCP, the last has been the most impossible.” Ugandan soldiers and RCD-ML regulars were hunting elephants and selling the meat to the 50 coltan mining camps in the reserve and delivering the tusks to their commanding officers. Hart estimated that the mining is responsible for 30 to 50% of the poaching at Okapi, and 50 to 80% of the poaching in Kahuzi Biega. The carnage was slowed down for several months by a joint operation of park guards and RCD and Ugandan soldiers paid by the Florida-based Gilman International Conservation Foundation. Three major local poachers were busted, but there was no prison to keep them in, and nobody to pay somebody to guard them, so the poachers were released, and poaching has resumed and is back again at intolerable levels.
I bushwhacked to the nearest coltan camp, several hours into the forest from Epulu, with a pygmy named Asani, who took off at a lope, threading a maze of fresh elephant trails. We passed some amazing mushrooms, 14″ tall, with white, star-shaped caps. I asked Asani if they were edible and he said, grimacing, “Pas du tout. They’ll make you tongue hang out.” Further along, near an abandoned banana grove with 13 chimp nests, were picked and later ate some fluted apricot-colored mushrooms that were visually indistinguishable from the chantrelles I pick and eat back home in the Adirondacks. They were scrumptious.
At last we reached a pole barrier. After several hours we reached a barrier. Asani whooped and smacked a stick against the huge, flaring buttress of an Eko julbernardia tree to announce our arrival. Several teenagers with carved wooden replicas of Kalashnikovs– the camp’s militia– came running and after frisking us led us down to a smokey, rectangular plaza of bare swept earth, surrounded by thatched mangungu- leaf shanties. A dozen women, most of them young and sultry, were cooking beans and dried fish on open fires. Most of the men were off in the forest, digging coltan in a nearby streambed. The chief was passed out from drink, but his spokesman told me that the camp was called Bomalibala, which means in Lingala, Congo’s lingua franca, the camp that causes divorce, because “any woman who comes here puts her hearth in danger.” There were about 150 people in the camp, according to the spokesman. The miners were mostly local Babira.The girls came from all over Bafwsende, Banande, Babudu, Babale, Balese, Bandaka. They brought sacks of food for the miners which they cooked up for them and partied with them for a day or two and then departed with little plastic bags of coltan. The spokesman showed me what the stuff looked like : nuggets and flakes of irridescent-black metal. It went for $25 or $30 dollars a kilo in Epulu.. “We don’t know where it goes or what it is for,” he told me. “We are mining it because there is no more gold in the forest.
“This is not a village of family ties, but of mutual interest,” he went on.. “We have an established order, a commandant and our own police. Thieves and sorcerers are expelled. We don’t accept the killing of elephants or okapis, but sometimes soldiers come with meat, and we are obliged to give them our coltan for it.”
The miners get nothing for their efforts except a good time and maybe AIDS, and the girls sell the coltan to the kumba kumba, guys who push bicycles laden with goods and produce for days along the ruined colonial roads until they get to Bunia or Beni, where they sell it to middlemen, if they aren’t robbed along the way. These days the probability of making it to Beni in one piece was significantly better than to Bunia, even though the Samboko forest was a total crapshoot, so most of it goes to Beni, where since Bemba’s soldiers have come to town, the big buyer is a well- known Tadjik Russian arms dealer named Commandante Viktor, who was active in Bosnia a few years ago and just appeared one day last spring. Commandante Viktor moves the coltan through Bemba’s soldiers to Kampala, and from there, after the Ugandan high command has taken its cut, most of it is flown up to Antwerp or Rotterdam, where the big-time dealers are, by commercial airlines like Sabena (which was recently exposed and announced that it was out of the coltan business). So there was no choice to take another motambusi back down to Beni. Again the horoscope was propitious. The only incident was with an RCD officer who siphoned off most of our gas. From Beni I flew on TMK up to Bunia. There I had a four-hour one-on-one with Wamba dia Wamba, a brilliant man whose heart was in the right place, a man of towering moral and intellectual stature, but an academic, not a politician. He would make a great rector of the university in Kinshasa. I told Wamba what Al Gore had said about Africa when I was doing a profile of him during his inept and ill-fated presidential campaign. Gore described the violent anarchy in central Africa as a process of “creative destruction” that was not unlike Prirogin’s law of thermodynamics. Prirogin’s law, for which he won the Nobel prize, pertains to open systems (in which the energy flows in and out). When the energy becomes more than the system can handle, it breaks down, but simultaneously a new, more complex and accomodating system develops. This was happening in the atmosphere, where excess CO2 was wreaking havoc with existing weather systems, Gore maintained, and new ones were forming. It had happened during the Renaissance, when Galilean science replaced the old Ptolemaic scheme, and in Congo “the state,” an invention and an imposition of the Europeans, was breaking back down into smaller historically and cultural more meaningful tribal units.
Wamba considered the analogy, and replied : “One has to consider what form this law expresses itself in society,” he argued. “Mobutu’s notion of geopolitics was that each group can gather its fruits, and nature, which gives the fruit, will deal with the maintenance. But here an open system needs feedback and maintenance. In places where there is not enough space or resources for everybody, the notion of who was there first becomes the ruling principle, and the ‘Nilotics” become the cause of everything. But the tribal units Gore is thinking of may not exist.” Wamba was not from Haut Congo. He was a Mukongo from Bas Congo, on the Atlantic coast, so he did not have local support. Twice two local warlords had tried to take him out, and the Ugandans had come to his rescue. Wamba’s entourage was mainly from the diaspora, like Thomas Lusaka, a law professor who had taken a leave of absence from the University of Paris II to become Wamba’s commissar of defense. We talked about the upcoming joint operation to clean up the poaching in Okapi. Lusaka understood that the animals were a big-button issue for the international community. “The replacement of my corrupt officers must be accompanied by a big campaign of sensibilization of the population,” he said. “They don’t understand that the okapis constitute a great treasure for them. Kenya, Egypt, and Turkey exist in great part thanks to money from tourism, and if we have peace, the tourists will return to Epulu. We had 8000 tourists as recently as 1991. I feel privileged to be a Congolese because I will leave to my children an inheritance neither Rockefeller nor Onassis nor Picasso left theirs : okapis, white rhinos, and mountain gorillas. It’s inestimable as a heritage. If I can make these animals multiply, I will be proud of my life.” Lusuka was the most sensitive African defense minister I had ever met, by far. The kind of person who gives you hope for Congo. I wonder what has happened to him. He has probably gone back to Paris, with the departure of Wamba.
As I drove out to the airport, two tanks came screaming out of a hangar next to the arrivals building. Ultracool Ugandans, wearing aviator shades and dangling cigarettes from their lips, were perched in the cockpits. “Trouble in the barracks,” my driver told me. A third putsch attempt by the two local warlords was just getting underway. A good time to be getting out of Dodge . I watched a single-engine plane come in for a landing. Frazer and Kes Smith, right on time from Nairobi. Frazer was a short, stocky South African and Kes was a reserved but intense red-haired Englishwoman without an ounce of body fat , a real-life Katherine Hepburn, while the down-to- earth, supremely practical Frazer was her Spenser Tracy. Kes had designed the UNF project with Terese Hart was going to be its coordinator. She had been fighting since l983 to keep the northern white rhino from going extinct. The last 26 on earth were in Garamba Park, an hour north of Bunia, on the Sudan border.
Garamba was an island of tall-grass savanna in an ocean of forest, swarming with elephants, buffalo, hartebeest, kob, warthogs, and roan which were recovering nicely from being halved by Kabila’s retreating soldiers in l998. Kes spotted four new rhinos from the air, bringing the total up to 30. There were also 144-plus northern savanna giraffes, which are geographically closest to the Nubian giraffe and resemble them closely except for having very white legs. The giraffes were holding their own, being somewhat protected by a local belief that eating their meat gives you leprosy.
Up here there were no negative forces up here and no coltan, and thanks to the tsetse fly, very few people at all. But there was gold. There had been an outbreak of the lethal Marhberg virus in one of the mining camps. And the poaching was still intense. Every month the guards were getting into a firefight with deserters from the SPLA, (the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army, which has been waging a civil war against Khartoum for the last nineteen years), who had sneaked over the border in search of bushmeat. The guards were well armed and trained, paramilitary anti- poaching bush tactics being one of Frazer’s areas of expertise. If three warning shots in the air didn’t work, they shot to kill. Since l987 six of the guards at Garamba have been killed and 13 wounded in shootouts with poachers, six have been killed and six wounded by attacking animals. We met with the SPLA’s political consultant, a coal-black, bearded man named Hassan, to discuss a second joint operation to capture the deserters. The first “oppression,” as Hassan pronounced it, had been successful except that some of the SPLA regulars had stayed on and were harrassing and living off the local villagers. Most of the local Azande were nominally Christian or Muslim, but the old animistic beliefs persist, such as that certain sorcerers known as Bugulu, who sound not unlike Navajo chindi or skinwalkers, can turn into lions after they die, or even before. In fact one of the guards was thought to have been killed by a Bugulu who had slipped into lion mode. It was probably here that I was bitten by an Anopheles mosquito that transmitted the resistant falciparum malaria that I came down with a week after my return to the States. My lariam tablets did nothing for it, but it was quickly knocked out by a cocktail of three fancidar tablets and two different antibiotics, kotexin and doxycyline which a friend of the Smiths had luckily turned me on to. Falciparum malaria is nothing to mess around with. I nearly died of blackwater fever, one of its complications, in the Amazon in l976. Another complication is cerebral malaria. If you get that, you’re done for.
In Bukavu, it being impossible to see the gorillas because of the attack on the mapping commission, I continued my investigation of the coltan trade. Most of the coltan seems to come from in and around Bahuzi Biega Park. There are half a dozen airstrips in the forest where “a collection of wheeling and dealing Rwandan officers,” I was told, pick the stuff up in helicopters or small planes and fly it directly to Kigali. Some very impressive villas are being built, and some very fancy cars are being driven in Rwanda’s capital. There are rumors that the coltan is being used to finance Rwanda’s heavy-handed presence southeast Congo. A few months back, President Paul Kagame reportedly sent a thousand suspected génocidaires who have been awaiting trial for seven years in their prison uniforms, which look like pink pajamas, to expedite the effort to get as much of the coltan as possible before Rwanda has to pull out of Congo, which it is under mounting international pressure to do. The Rwandans, in collaboration with the RCD, are moving about a hundred tons a month to Kigali. They control the bulk of the traffic. The biggest dealer in Bukavu is Madame Gulimali, a Pakistani woman who owns the Supermatch cigarette factory. She sends 15 drums every two days down to Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi. Another big dealer is a rich Indian businessman named Ramnik Kotecha. He moves 25 tons a month. Then there a dozen smaller dealers who often go in together and charter a plane to take them the forest and get what the Rwandans miss. In one of Bukavu’s shantytowns I found three comptoirs, shacks reminiscent of the California gold rush where people were cashing in their little plastic bags of coltan. Some American dealers are buying directly in Bukavu and Goma (where there is also a lot of coltan in the vicinity, outside of Virungas Park), but the real action is in Kigali. Kigali, the end of the road for me, was crawling with Belgian, German, Russian, American, and Chinese buyers. My driver had been conned by a woman from Arkansas who had arrived a year ago and put the word out that she wanted to buy a million dollars’ worth of coltan. She showed my driver her $50,000 machine for assaying the ore and rented his car for a year on credit then skipped town without paying him and sold the machine to Madame Gulimali. The Swiss Embassy was said to be buying, and the American Embassy wasn’t forthcoming about what it was doing. “Coltan is a very sensitive subject,” the economic officer told me. “If you want to talk to me, the UN will have to get permission from the State Department.” But I wormed it out of another of our diplomats that the biggest buyer of coltan in the world is an outfit called Cabot High-Performance Materials, based in Boyerstown, Pa.. The next biggest is H.C. Stark, a German Company, despite its recent denial that it had anything to do with the mineral, then the Red Chinese company, Ningxia. Barrick, the huge Canadian mining conglomerate, is getting tons from the Uganda Zone. Its board of directors include Papa Bush (who with Howard Baker and the televangelist Pat Robertson are also involved in joint venture between Carlisle and some Camerounians) and ex-Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney.
Back in the States, I called Cabot and spoke with Paul Rutter, one of the company’s buyers. He said he did most of his buying in Anterwerp and Rotterdam, where top-grade, 30% pure, still unrefined ore fetches $80 or $90 a kilo. He said there was no way of telling whether it came from Australia or Congo, “but most of our coltan comes from Australia. We only buy a small percentage in Kigali. I’d guess that 10% of our stuff is from Congo.” I asked what the Congo’s total production was, and Rutter said, “any figure would have to have a huge error bar, but I wouldn’t faint if I had to throw a dart at $25 million a year. But I think there is the potential for some serious business in Congo. These are just artesanal mines scratching the surface.” Just what I wanted to hear. Cabot refines the ore, separating the tantalite from the columbite (also known as niobium), which is used in high-temperature alloys) and impurities like iron, titanium, and silicon. It sells half a million pounds of pure tantalite powder, $100 million worth, mainly to capacitor companies around the world. There is obviously major investigative work to be done on the full fleshing out of the sordid snookering of Congo’s coltan, and maybe a Pulitzer prize, a best-seller, or even a movie, for whoever does it. But it ain’t going to be me. The UN has appointed a commission to investigate the illegal foreign harvesting of resources in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Its preliminary report, which came out this spring, concluded that a lot of coltan is leaving Congo and that this is deplorable, but whether the commission, whose mandate has been renewed, will produce anything besides the usual hand-wringing remains to be seen. Somebody managed to keep all the American companies out the report. But Cabot and a number of other companies have been shamed with the help of photographs of butchered gorilla carcasses to close down their Congo operations.
Life hasn’t been the same since I found all this out. Now every time I go on line or slip the key into the ignition or flip the lid of my cellphone or watch my son catching Pokemons on his Game Boy, I wonder whether a gorilla or an okapi was sacrificed so these high-tech marvels could be at our disposal. . It’s the same uneasiness I feel when I pop an M & M and remember the child slaves in the cacao plantations in Ivory Coast, or when my boys start kicking around their soccer ball, which was probably stitched by Vietnamese kids their age working 14 hour shifts. But I suppose it is better to know the terrible cost of being one of the lucky few who enjoys the fully accessoried modern life-style. As a Rwandan dealer told me in Kigali he was talking about “the Americans” as if they were all the same, failing to differentiate between the benevolent and the rapacious faces of capitalism, “Isn’t it ironic that the same people who are protecting these parks are the ones who are destroying it ?”