Preparing the Abraham Ceremony this year was often too sad to bear. Last year we gave awards to the widows of eight park guards who died defending Congo’s parks; this year there were 10 deaths and it didn’t stop there. Rebels killed three more guards as we prepared the ceremony. Why in Virunga, the most exquisite and varied park in Africa? Why are there still gangs of rebels? When will this war end?
Even more incomprehensible: Two guards were ambushed and killed as they questioned elephant poachers in the Okapi Reserve; some of those poachers were Congolese military. Those military were never accused, never brought to justice.
This is a double mourning. We are not only mourning the deaths, but also mourning the tragic failure of the rule of law. How much longer will the guards put their lives at risk to protect what their fellow Congolese armed forces are plundering? It is too sad to bear.
These are the guards honored in memoriam and the date of each attack:
Augustin Kirikiyehigha, Patrice Bateterana and Vincent Kimbumbu — 24 January 2011 in Virunga National Park;
Muhindo Mburungani, Mastaki Rumama – 31 January 2011 in Virunga National Park;
Katchupa Changwi – 20 February 2011 in Virunga National Park;
Paluku Mayani – 6 March 2011 in Virunga National Park;
Magayane Bazirushaka – 8 April 2011 in Virunga National Park;
James Biangbale and Kambale Bemu – 23 December 2010 in the Okapi Wildlife Reserve.
It is not only park guards who stand up against armed men; it is unarmed citizens as well.
On the borders of the Bili Uele Reserve: Chief Kpilimbalo refused to cooperate with undisciplined elements of the Congolese armed forces who were intent on poaching elephants in his village’s forest. After reporting them to the authorities, he received death threats and fled with his entire village into the forest.
Chief Kpilimbalo’s courage gives hope. In fact all the remaining Abraham prizes show the grit and village level commitment that continues to hold-out for nature in DR Congo. The Abraham ceremony gathered eight of these heroes together in Kinshasa, together with diplomats, politicians, and conservationists. Thus their determination was honored and we, the audience, were reminded of what our priorities must be.
Along with Chief Kpilimbalo, there were two other traditional leaders who did what ICCN (Congolese parks authority) and international conservation organizations cannot do; they rallied a doubtful and divided population to the cause of conservation.
Mwami Saambili – worked with his people and Virunga Park staff, in an area of high incsecurity, to clarify park borders;
Ramazani Okota –convinced all the village chiefs in a critical zone to support the future Lomami National Park.
Particularly reassuring was the officer from the Congolese Armed Forces, who reminds us that even where institutions are weak, individual responsibility can make a huge difference. Major Guy Kolongo was honored not only for arresting poachers and for disciplining far-flung troops, but also for working close to the ground. He snuffed out the rogue ambitions of those who commandeered the environment for individual profit: a politicking “prophet”, an army lieutenant and an escaped convict.
Although the Abraham Foundation recognizes the courage of people who, otherwise, have no voice, in the case of the Minister of Agriculture, Norbert Kantitima, an important exception was made. He is now in President Joseph Kabila’s cabinet and pushing for fundamental development of his country, but he was involved in one incident, little talked about and that is only now finding resolution. It was during the war, in the year 2000, when Norbert was governor of South Kivu. Motivated by his childhood love for Kahuzi Biega National Park, he cancelled all war-time concessions in the narrow, but critical Nindja connecting corridor. He sent a mixed group of villagers and ICCN to mark the park limits. They were attacked pre-dawn; ten people were killed. Now, as the ICCN is again reclaiming the corridor, the Minister called the Nindja chief, who had been present at the massacre, to receive the prize by his side.
There were also three ICCN park guards, one of whom is a Park Director, who are recognized this year for exceptional and on-going commitment and courage:
Radar Nishuli is the director in Kahuzi Biega National Park. His background in community conservation allows him to mend together a war-torn and divided park;
Agare Kunguru is the leader of shock troops in Garamba. During one of many successful missions, he managed to recover a little girl kidnapped by the LRA;
Boketshi Bunda is a park guard in Salonga National park valued for the quickness and accuracy with which he mastered research skills. Despite this he has insisted on maintaining his basic patrol role even after spending several months in jail, wrongfully accused by poachers.