Recently murdered, Kapere Molangi, is third from left in this picture taken at the beginning of the Abraham prize ceremony in 2010.
In August 2001, the isolated village of Obenge was the scene of a massacre: 10 people tied up and bludgeoned to death with sticks. Kapere Molangi discovered the bodies, or what remained after two weeks in the tropical heat and rain. The war had not yet ended. Somehow that excused “Dracula” (battle-name) his violent act of personal retribution.
In June 2013, Kapere, himself, was abducted from near his garden, less than a kilometer from Obenge. The way a witness told it: Thoms and some of his band stepped out from the trees, guns in hand. “ ‘We came to get you’, they said, and told the rest of us not to move or be killed.”
A week later a fisherman smelled decay; he followed the scent until close enough to recognize Kapere’s body by the clothes. He paddled back to Obenge to get help. Kapere Molangi had been tied to a tree and pummeled to death with sticks. Cut down, he was left to rot on the forest floor.
Kapere has worked for us since we first started along the Lomami in 2007. After he reunited Obenge in 2001, he served as village chief until the administrator in the distant territorial capital of Opala named a descendant of the village founder to become chief. Tension grew between two factions in the village, the supporters of chief Marie Longbengebenge and the supporters of Kapere Molangi . They had different visions for the future of the village.
In 2010 Kapere received the Abraham award (picture at top) in recognition for his efforts to protect the forest from outside market hunting. Unfortunately, the only products of Obenge that were profitable to send to market were bushmeat and ivory. Kapere thought the village should move closer to markets in order to sell farm produce. Chief Marie supported the bushmeat buyers and elephant poachers. The elephant poacher/outlaw, Thoms, took her as a concubine.
Why did Thom’s antipathy turn to murderous hate? Kapere helped a military battalion cross the Lomami River in February when it came to arrest military deserters suspected to have teamed up with Col Thoms. Kapere also helped the TL2 team escape when taken hostage by Col Thoms. According to Thoms’s logic that was a death sentence, perhaps the more so as Thoms is on the run now. His band has shot and killed two soldiers and a Mituku village chief. What mercy can he now expect from military?
How could this murder happen with a regiment camped in Obenge? Pursued by the military, and unbeknownst to them, Col Thoms’s band circled back from the east bank of the Lomami to the west bank and came right up to the outer gardens of Obenge.
When I visited Obenge at the end of June, the villagers were still traumatized and in mourning for Kapere Molangi. The military camped in the village were in a state of angry disbelief. How could Thoms have spent two days near Obenge without their being informed; who took his band food? They had to eat. And why did Chief Marie change the village communal work-day from Saturday to Friday? That is the day (14 June 2013) Kapere walked into the trap, when he and a group of village men went to cut a tree for a village dugout. Capt Simon believes Chief Marie was an accomplice. Vavis, Kapere’s eldest son, and village elders believe that chief Marie not only covered Thoms’s presence, but also carried out his wishes.
I struggled to find a positive way to understand this loss. After visiting Kapere’s grave we sat in a small group at the TL2 thatch baraza. These are some of the things we shared:
Perhaps this is the beginning of the end of Lomami’s lawlessness. We can’t be sure, but Thoms’s band is greatly reduced; they have only five AK47s and almost no ammunition. The ivory network that supplied ammunition has closed down to them. It is too dangerous to be associated with Thoms.
Obenge, what remains of the village, wants to move. Leave behind the sorrow. It was Kapere who was going to lead them to the new site of Litoko. In a sense he still will lead them and we will put a monument to his memory at the new village center.