As six rangers armed with AK-47s climbed into the back of our truck, I finally understood the charge for a “Ranger Escort to Tongo”. Located in the southern sector of Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Tongo is a unique forest island situated on a vast lava flow from the Nyamulagira Volcano. Estimated to be 300 years old, Tongo is home to a small population of around 50 chimpanzees. In October 1987, the Frankfurt Zoological Society initiated an extensive project, building a comprehensive network of trails in which to locate and follow the chimps, gradually habituating them to the presence of humans over an intensive two-year period. At the time, Tongo was the only location where chimpanzees had been habituated for tourism without the use of artificial inducement (food, reproduced chimpanzee calls and other sounds) and initial efforts were very successful, providing important tourism revenue for park management and benefiting the small rural community of Tongo. Yet, in 1993, civil unrest in the DRC reached its peak, followed by a massive influx of refugees fleeing the Rwandan genocide in 1994. Throughout these times of crisis in the Congo, the ICCN rangers continued monitoring the chimpanzees, and thanks to their remarkable efforts, the chimpanzees remained unharmed.
With a return of relative peace and stability to the region, chimpanzee treks in Tongo were re-opened to the public in January 2012. We were excited to be among the most recent visitors to Tongo, though at the time we had not been informed why we needed a truck full of rifle-toting rangers to visit the area. We were both a little nervous as we started down a dusty, desolate stretch of road and I will admit I was especially worried when we passed a United Nations truck full of soldiers staring us down. The road crossed a wide, lava-covered valley and for the longest time the only people we saw were the occasional armed rangers crouching beneath homemade shelters. I found myself scanning the road ahead for potential ambushes, imagining myself acting bravely as bullets whizzed past our heads.
Arriving at the Tongo Ranger Station, we breathed a sigh of relief having survived this long, empty stretch of road where robberies have occurred in the past. Our escort was joined by several more armed rangers and we wondered again if we were in danger as we stood on the road surrounded by a dozen rangers who did not speak English, most of whom were armed with AK-47s. I was beginning to wonder if we were going to war or just to see the chimpanzees.
Fifteen minutes into the hike I knew I was in trouble. It was incredibly hot and I was pouring sweat with just one water bottle between us. By the time we reached the chimps after more than an hour walking, I was so tired and dehydrated, I could have cared less about the chimpanzees. I found a log, sat and rested while Rachel moved around the jungle spotting the chimps hanging out in the trees above. I could only try to rest and relax, worried that I might not be able to make the return trek. Without adequate food and water, I was in a precarious position and by the end of the hike I was vomiting and on the verge of passing out. It was incredibly uncomfortable and a bit scary with no one there to help me but a half dozen rangers who did not speak my language and Rachel begging someone to help. Eventually, we made it back to the road and began the drive back to park headquarters, feeling lucky just to be alive.
It had been a terribly exhausting start to our trip with far too many ups and downs coupled with almost no sleep or rest. Time and time again, Africa was kicking my ass and I could not have been happier to arrive at the Mikeno Lodge. My friend Sarah, who I met in Singapore five years prior, was there to greet us and welcome us into our luxurious accommodation. As the only tourists at the park, we had the place all to ourselves and we marveled at the level of comfort and service. From our private bungalow we had beautiful views across the park and the room was so outstanding that I knew we would hate to leave. We had just two nights before our trip to the Nyiragongo Volcano and we were going to need all the rest we could get.
We had been in Africa just a few short days, but already so much had happened in that time. My body was just exhausted and our days spent resting at the lodge could not have been better timed. Our plan was to just relax and enjoy our plush surroundings, but soon fate would deliver us another hand. Returning from a walk around the property, one of the employees rushed up to us in a frantic state and exclaimed, “We have to evacuate you!” There was not time for discussion or questions so we hurried to our bungalow and threw everything into our packs as quick as possible. Then, together with the rest of the foreign staff, we loaded into an immense transport vehicle and began our evacuation from the park. Led by a truck loaded with six armed rangers, our convoy raced away from headquarters down the bumpy dirt roads past villagers who just stared at the foreigners fleeing the scene. The feeling was surreal, not out of danger or fear, but the sense that we were abandoning the Congolese who would stay and weather whatever comes their way.
Down the rugged roads our convoy raced towards the border. The rangers led the way clutching their AK-47s in their hands. We could only sit back and watch the scene unfolding before us. Congolese locals were beginning to line the roadsides in a desperate attempt to evacuate themselves. With no vehicles to transport them, they grabbed whatever they could carry and they walked. It was more than 20 miles to the border at Goma and the entire distance refugees lined the roadsides. Necessary items were stuffed into bedrolls and mattresses and carried upon their heads. Everyone, including the elderly and children, carried massive loads having abandoned their homes and not knowing when they might return. The strength and resilience I had seen on their faces was now replaced by confusion and fear. And in my heart I only felt guilt as we raced to safety in a half empty truck which could have carried twenty more. Yet, I was painfully aware that there was nothing we could do to help them; they would have to take care of themselves just as they have done through decades of harsh and brutal war.
Perhaps the most startling moment was when we neared the Nyiragongo Volcano, the area in which the rebels were hiding. Hundreds of people crowded in a field outside the area’s largest village. Trains of refugees departed in both directions, fleeing what could become the center of conflict. It was in this wide open field that the UN soldiers had gathered. There were large convoy vehicles, armored tanks, trucks fitted with machine guns, and even a helicopter, all displaying the unmistakable blue letters representing the United Nations. Other troops had set up a perimeter around the field, their blue helmets visible even as they crouched among high grasses. The military’s presence was alarming, for though we had seen UN soldiers in the area, their sheer numbers combined with the amount of heavy artillery suggested bad things were soon to come.
Thankfully, at that point, we were all acting in a precautionary manner. The violence was mostly centered around North Kivu, but the presence of 1,500 armed rebels in the area had everyone on high alert. We were being evacuated before nightfall when tensions might rise and our only road out could become closed. The United Nations operates three large bases around Goma and they were lending their efforts, though it was not their intention to fight. Of the 6,000 refugees, many were families who hoped to spare their children and elders from any harm or danger. And the road to Goma was packed with us all, believing this sprawling city on the shores of Lake Kivu would provide the safe haven we were seeking.
Even on a typcal day, Goma would be an unforgettable place. Situated on the border of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda, Goma had swelled from a small border town to a home for millions during the Rwandan genocide of 1994. During that time, 10,000-12,000 refugees crossed the border every hour. The massive influx of nearly one million refugees created a severe humanitarian crisis, as there was an acute lack of shelter, food and water. Many camps continue to exist and today Goma has one of the highest concentrations in the world of aid workers, UN personnel, NGOs and refugees. Even more surreal is the fact that Goma and its inhabitants are constantly threatened by the Nyiragongo Volcano, one of the world’s most active and dangerous volcanoes. In January 2002, an eruption destroyed 17% of the town, including part of the Goma airport where derelict planes still stand wrecked in an apocalyptic graveyard. Parts of the town still appear as moonscape after being covered under 6 feet of molten ash. With millions of residents living under threat from the smoldering volcano, Goma is sometimes called “the most dangerous city in the world”.
At first we were relieved to be in Goma. A few miles outside of town, our armed guards had turned around and bid us farewell as they returned to the park. Presumably, we were out of harm’s way. We placed our bags in a hotel and headed to a nearby bar for some dinner and drinks. Goma could be an intimidating place with its muddy roads, dirty slums, and camouflaged soldiers toting AK-47s and RPGs, but in the confines of our expat bar, there was little hint of the chaos outside.
Then we heard the gunshots. At first, it sounded like the pop of fireworks exploding, but the look on the faces around us spoke the truth. Even Cai, who had seemed totally unfazed by the evacuation, now showed signs of worry. This was very uncommon for Goma, he explained to us, as he dialed on his cell phone in hopes of getting some information. Another employee who had lived in Goma was on the verge of hysterics. She scolded Cai for having chosen a hotel situated near the home of notorious ex-warlord Bosco Ntaganda. Apparently, Bosco, known as “the Terminator”, is a well-known citizen of Goma, roaming the streets freely though he has been indicted by the International Criminal Court and charged with war crimes for enlisting and conscripting children under the age of fifteen and using them to participate actively in hostilities. It all seemed too surreal that we would be sipping drinks and nibbling pizza near the home of an African warlord while gunshots filled the air. Most of the foreigners seemed unconcerned so we tried to do the same. Cai explained that the border was so close we could literally walk and cross tonight; yet we saw no reason to take off running quite yet. If our friends were staying, we would do the same- just bring us another round.
It was agreed that the gunfire was too close to our hotel to bother returning that night. We would choose another hotel, just 500 meters from the border, and we would return tomorrow to pick up our bags. In a worst case scenario, we had our passports and the rest could be replaced, but thankfully that wouldn’t be the case. The next morning, UN trucks filled with soldiers stood outside the main hotels and the usual camouflaged teenagers patrolled the streets with AK-47s and RPGs. It seemed a typical day in Goma. Apparently, a drunken soldier had been firing into the air, but otherwise everything appeared normal for the Congo. There had been no violence in the park or surrounding villages and the park personnel were planning to return.
Our time in the Democratic Republic of the Congo was drawing to a close and though it had only been five days, it felt like so much more. We all joked and laughed about our ‘real’ African experience and how the rest of the trip would surely not compare with the Congo. We thanked the folks at Virunga for taking such good care of us and providing one unforgettable adventure after the next. Then we casually strolled to the border and once again we stepped from one world and into another. We were safely in Rwanda.