At 5 o’clock Sunday morning, the 24th of June, at least 50 men, mostly naked and draped in leaves entered Epulu, the headquarters of the Okapi Faunal Reserve, a World Heritage Site in the Ituri Forest. They came out of the forest from the south, about four kilometers east of Epulu and were led by the elephant poacher called Morgan. They were armed with AK 47s and at least two PKM machine guns. These details are corroborated by several separate accounts.
For an entire day scenes of horror and panic ripped through Epulu. Many people fled into the forest, others were taken hostage to carry the loot of the attackers. Women were raped. Seven people were killed. Among the dead are two park guards and the wife of another. Two of these were burned. Some reported that Amisi’s wife was burned alive, perhaps caught in the chaos as the outlaws incinerated park infrastructure and guard homes. Others seemed shot almost at random: Two people on a truck passing through Epulu, two other Epulu residents. The administrative buildings of the Reserve were looted, then burned. Houses and stores in the village were pillaged. These facts are in the report of a mission urgently sent from Virunga National Park to assess the damage. Photos support the facts; only a few (taken by WCS staff) are shown here.
What is hard to understand : the shooting of the captive Okapi. These animals are emblematic of Congo’s natural wealth, endemic to its eastern forests, and here, Epulu, was the only place in the country where Congolese could come to see them. Fourteen were shot dead. And the last, the old female that survived, was so traumatized that local reports expect her to die. These animals had survived the civil war of the 1990s and early 21st century: occupation of Epulu by Mobutu’s fleeing army, followed by Maimai, followed by Ugandan troops and finally followed by Bemba’s troops (Bemba since sent to International Criminal Court in the Hague).
Why kill the Okapi now? Peace that is so lawless, should not be called peace.
Mid-day Monday, the day after the first shots, the last of the attackers returned on the same forest path, heading south, probably to cross the Ituri River, possibly to continue into the province of North Kivu.
Not until after the outlaws’ departure, did the army troops (FARDC), stationed near-by, enter Epulu. They continued the pillage, and then returned to their barracks. Not before Tuesday did UN soldiers and a different faction of the army, from the town of Bunia, arrive on the scene.
Is there any possibility of bringing Morgan to justice? If so, who considers it a priority?
And who is Morgan? An elephant poacher, thrice arrested by the park guards, taken to local courts and liberated. Originally he is from a village down the road from the Okapi Station, Epene.
And who makes up Morgan’s rogue army? A motley force of various ethnic groups, most come from within or near the RFO (Mbo, Ndaka, Bila….).
And where did they get their sophisticated weapons? Why didn’t the nearby Congolese Army react more quickly? Effectively?
There can only be Peace with law and order. Are we naïve to hope for law and order in Congo?
UPDATE 3 July 2012: From radio okapi news bulletin, 16 hostages taken by Morgan and his gang returned home yesterday without condition. They indicated, however, that there are still 12 hostages of whom 11 are women, and of those, nine are minors.
UPDATE 8 July 2012: Morgan’s men have attacked again, this time in the Okapi Reserve but west of Epulu. Friday night they attacked trucks along the road and took hostages. Waiting for more information.
Today, Sunday, it is two weeks since the attack. There has been no capture and no credible effort to capture the perpetrators. The military now stationed in Epulu says that it does not have the communication equipment necessary to enter the forest.