In Congo, with rebels now at bay, calm erupts
BUKIMA, Congo: Jean-Marie Serundori's eyes light up when he sees his old hulk of a friend Kabirizi.
War, displacement and bloodthirsty rebels had gotten between them.
But for the first time in years, this section of a venerated Congolese national park is rebel-free. Government wildlife rangers, like Serundori, are firmly in control ? for the moment. And Kabirizi, a 500-pound silverback gorilla with a head as big as an engine block, seems to be flourishing in his kingdom of leaves.
"Haa mmm," Serundori says, emitting a special gruntlike gorilla greeting that miraculously stops Kabirizi in midcharge. "Haa mmm."
If the endangered mountain gorillas are any sign, things may finally be looking up in eastern Congo. In the past several weeks, Congo and its disproportionately mighty neighbor, Rwanda, have teamed up to sweep this area clear of rebels who had been at the center of a vicious proxy battle between the nations.
The enmity of Congo and Rwanda has been one of the most stubborn drivers of the bloodshed here, which has claimed millions of lives in the past decade. But if these two countries continue to cooperate, it could represent a significant step toward ending one of Africa's most vexing wars.
"This is really good news, that there's a serious improvement in relations," said Koen Vlassenroot, a professor at Ghent University in Belgium who specializes in eastern Congo. "But it's still rather confusing."
Vlassenroot and other Congo hands are warning that all the years of cross-border meddling and intrigue as thick as the Congolese jungle make it extremely difficult to tell whether the new Rwanda-Congo relationship is a genuine and lasting change, or simply more maneuvering.
The joint military operation has been somewhat successful, at least by eastern Congo's depressingly low standards. The two former enemy armies fought side by side without massacring each other. They killed dozens of rebels, including some commanders, and exerted pressure on several hundred to leave the bush. They arrested Laurent Nkunda, the Congolese rebel leader and former general whose brutal tactics and Congo-size ambitions had threatened to plunge this entire region back into war.
But at least 100 villagers were killed, too, either in the cross-fire or by fleeing rebels bent on revenge. And there may be more bloodletting to come.
Over the past several years, most of Congo has wearily climbed out of war. Large tracts of the country, despite all the headlines, are peaceful. But it is these very hills along the Congo-Rwanda border that have remained a lush green killing field, with Rwanda supporting one rebel force and Congo supporting another.
The ensuing violence has sucked up so many of Congo's political and military resources that the so-called wild, wild east has been like an intractable weight around the entire country's neck.
Today, the hills are quiet, which has allowed the wildlife rangers back into Virunga National Park, home to 200 of the last 700 or so mountain gorillas on the planet. Thousands of villagers around the park have trudged home from displaced persons camps, another vote of tentative confidence.
"Business is picking up," said Bahati Banyele, who fixes radios in a little town called Kibumba, which had emptied out during last fall's fighting.
Nobody is celebrating yet.
People here remember all too well the Sun City peace treaty reached in South Africa in 2002, which was supposed to rein in marauding militias but did not.
They recall the democratic elections in 2006, which cost more than $500 million and raised hopes but did not end the war.
And they remember the countless cease-fires and conferences at fancy hotels that spelled more fighting even before the delegates jetted home.
One of the biggest points of uncertainty right now is Congo's president, Joseph Kabila, who has gone out on a limb by inviting in the Rwandans, in the hope that this could break the deadlock between the countries.
Several former allies of Kabila among top lawmakers in Kinshasa, Congo's capital, are now denouncing him as a traitor. They are demanding investigations.
Indeed, his precarious toehold on power could slip further if the Rwandan government, as many people here suspect, has not truly severed ties to the rebels.
The presence of Rwandan troops in eastern Congo makes a lot of Congolese nervous. The little country next door invaded Congo twice, in 1996 and 1998, ostensibly to secure its own borders, though human rights groups have accused Rwandan troops of plundering Congo's rich trove of minerals and massacring civilians.
Serundori, the wildlife ranger, who is 50, said Rwanda-backed troops killed his wife in 1997. She was mentally ill and did not flee town when the troops stormed in.
His life, like so many others around here, has been circumscribed by conflict. He started working as a wildlife ranger in 1989, when Congo was dysfunctional, famously corrupt but relatively stable.
"There were so many tourists who wanted to see the gorillas," he said. "Sometimes you had to wait a whole week."
But in 1994, all that changed. More than a million refugees from Rwanda's genocide poured into eastern Congo, which promptly exploded from many of the same tensions over ethnicity and land that tore Rwanda apart. The Congolese war dragged in a half-dozen other African countries, eager to settle their own scores and cart off Congo's tin, timber, diamonds and gold.
The gorilla park became a battlefield. And a poacher's paradise. Armed groups used their automatic weapons on hippos, chimps, gazelles, elephants and the gorillas.
Some of the rangers have been implicated in various criminal activities, most recently involving charcoal, which is illegally made from the rapidly disappearing hardwood trees in the park.
Serundori says he was never tempted, although his salary is only $35 a month.
"My culture is to respect the forest," he said. He has even called the gorillas his "cousins."
This past October, the fighting peaked. The Rwanda-backed rebels led by Nkunda smashed government troops and stormed army bases and the rangers' headquarters. Serundori and hundreds of other rangers were instantly homeless. In November, he was stuck with his 10 children in a camp of plastic sheeting where cockroaches nibbled on his dwindling pile of food.
But after Nkunda's surprise arrest in January, many of the rebels agreed to join government forces. The only sign these days of the once formidable rebel army in Virunga National Park is a trail of tin cans.
A new battle is raging in the jungle, though. The Kabirizi gorilla family has been trying to fight back the advances of the Humba gorilla family, and sometimes you can hear the screeches and hoots from miles away.
"It's over the usual stuff," Serundori explained. "Territory and females."