Congo Warlord's Arrest Puts Gorillas' Future in Turmoil

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
January 23, 2009
The political future of the Democratic Republic of the Congo's Virunga National Park—home to about 200 of the world's roughly 680 mountain gorillas—was thrown into turmoil Thursday night with the arrest of Congolese rebel leader Laurent Nkunda.

Nkunda's rebel movement had held sway over much of the region in which Virunga is located since August 2007.

When the rebels—called the National Congress for the People's Defense (CNDP)—took over the park, the government rangers working to protect the gorillas were forced to evacuate the area. (See photos of the Virunga gorillas in National Geographic magazine.)

After a 15-month-long absence, the rangers were able to return in November 2008 after the park's director, Emmanuel de Merode, struck a deal directly with Nkunda to allow his rangers to resume their work.

It's unclear how that arrangement—and the protection of the gorillas—will be affected by Nkunda's arrest.

"We're being swept around by [political] events right now, but the national park has made a very concerted effort to remain apolitical," de Merode said Friday from the city of Goma, located outside Virunga.

"I'm reasonably confident that we'll be able to stay in the park."

(Related: "Inside the Gorilla Wars: Rangers on Risking It All" [June 16, 2008].)

Gorilla Protector?

Nkunda was arrested in neighboring Rwanda after he had fled a joint operation launched by the armies of Rwanda and Congo, according to the Associated Press.

Rwandan and Congolese troops converged Thursday on Nkunda's stronghold in the Congolese town of Bunagana near the Ugandan border. But Nkunda fled farther south, crossing the border into Rwanda where he was taken into custody, an account confirmed by the Rwandan army.

In an interview last month with National Geographic News in Bunagana, Nkunda talked extensively about his plans to safeguard the gorillas and develop Virunga National Park as a tourist destination.

Likening Virunga and its crowd-pleasing apes to natural resources, Nkunda said, "In other places they have petrol. We have the gorillas. The park is like our petrol; the gorillas are our fuel.

"These gorillas will remain and the national park will remain forever. We have to protect them."

Reversal of Fortune

The arrest marks a startling reversal of fortune for Nkunda, who had been considered the key power broker in the long-running conflict in eastern Congo.

A former general in the Congolese army, Nkunda, who is an ethnic Tutsi, took up arms several years ago against Congo's government, claiming it wasn't doing enough to protect minority Tutsis from the Hutu militias who had fled to Congo in the wake of Rwanda's 1994 genocide.

Late last year fighting between Nkunda's rebels and Congolese forces displaced more than 250,000 people.

But in recent weeks the rebel movement has suffered intense infighting. Nkunda has come under increasing criticism from his own deputies, some of whom accused him of being too authoritarian.

Nkunda was recently sidelined in a deal between the Rwandan and Congolese governments to jointly launch military operations to hunt down Hutu militia groups operating in Congo. This week about 4,000 Rwandan soldiers entered Congo as part of that campaign.

Congolese Information Minister Lambert Mende Omalanga told the BBC he welcomed Nkunda's arrest.

"I think it is a good achievement for peace and security in this area and this region of Great Lakes," he said.

Congo's government had issued an international warrant against Nkunda in 2005 for alleged war crimes and human rights abuses.

Shifting Territories

In recent days Congolese government troops and CNDP rebels have been seen together on the ground throughout the region.

"There's been a very dramatic shift over the last 48 hours … the Congolese government forces have established authority over [the area]," said de Merode, the Virunga park director.

Congolese government forces have been accused in the past of taking part in the illegal charcoal trade, which represents a major threat to the mountain gorillas and their habitat. Much of the charcoal is made from old-growth forest harvested inside Virunga National Park.

It is unclear exactly who is now in charge militarily in the Virunga region.

De Merode plans to travel Saturday to Rutshuru, a former rebel stronghold near the park, where he will meet with the traditional chief of the area.

"The chief asked me to accompany him to reassure the populations in the central part of the park," de Merode said.

It's been only two months since the rangers returned to the park, and de Merode says it's critically important for them to be able to continue their work.

"The thing about any national park is that it takes many years of hard work to build them up, to recover them, to reestablish them as healthy national parks, but it only takes a few days to destroy them," he said.

"So we have to be there all the time to avoid that happening. At the moment our work is completely uninterrupted by these political events.

But, he added, "the difficulties that we're facing are the same as the ones we'll be facing next week, next month, next year. We just have to keep going."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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