Christian’s team was first to be arrested. Exhausted after 12 days hiking the forest, they sank onto benches and stools when they reached base camp in the small village of Chombe Kilima. Almost immediately : a roar of motorbikes. One motorbike would be a surprise in this isolated village, but there were six. They surrounded Christian’s team. Guns were drawn, “Don’t move.”
Dino’s team came back to base camp a day later. They, too, had been recording bonobo nests and sign of other large mammals. The first I heard from Dino was a rapid SMS on his satellite thuraya from the trail. “Child from Chombe Kilima met us. Christian arrested. Not yet there”
Next I heard was an hour later. Dino whispered into his thuraya phone. It was broken. I didn’t understand. He punched in another SMS. “They let me come bathe at stream. It is ANR. They will search and take thuraya. They have Christian’s thuraya, GPS, camera, compasses.”
Note : the ANR is the Congo-equivalent of the FBI.
Then I heard no more from Dino until three days later. It was an SMS from Dino’s regular cell phone; obviously he was near a major town.
“We are 5 km outside of Kindu. I am arrested. Police and ANR on motorcycles in front and on motorcycles behind.”
Once in Kindu, and with the intercession of the ICCN-parks service and the Department of the Environment, all charges were dropped. But who accused us? Here are the accusations:
1. Mining diamonds
2. Buying forest illegally from the village chief
(those were the official accusations)
3. Digging up graves looking for gold
(that one was so far-fetched that they had the common sense not to write it down)
Who was worried we would restrict their access to the forest? Bushmeat traders?
Dino is about to return to Chombe Kilima with GPSs and cameras and compasses. I salute both Dino and Christian for their courage and fortitude to finish the job.
But the behavior of the ANR on this mission was inexcusable. Not because of us, because of the villagers. They basically used our presence as an excuse to steal from agriculturalists and hunters alike. Obviously the ANR and police don’t know the power of photographs, or had absolutely no sense of wrong-doing, as they let Dino take the pictures posted here, even as they seized bushmeat, chickens and a goat.
What will it take to make this administration into a government for the people?