BY WAY OF INTRODUCTION : August (2015), John patrolled up the Lomami River in a motorized dugout. He traveled with a camera-trap team and a botanical team, but, as has been the case for the last three years, military need to be part of all missions. A group of criminal bandits, led by Thoms , is hiding in the park’s wilderness, supporting itself by poaching ivory and sending out raft loads of dried bushmeat. They have shot at our dugouts numerous times. The military accompany us partly as protection and eventually to uncurl the criminal grip on the Lomami.
JOHNS FIELD NOTES : August 4 We finally received authorization for a military escort. We are in our Obenge camp with the small military detachment stationed here since the trouble with col Thoms in 2013. Authorization came by Thuraya from Major Sammy, battalion commander in Kisangani. We are about to leave on a two week trip to the E15 block in PNL’s northern sector and from there further upstream to meet the Katopa-based dugout at Kakongo. Our first objective is to reach Biondo (map), establish a base camp, and then hike 15 km to the west to set up a field camp and lay out 20 camera traps in one of the most remote areas of the park.
After various delays and discussions with the Obenge commanding officer over the composition of the escort, the mission gets underway midday preceded by a parade at our landing.
Military presentation of the Marine detachment before Obenge departure. The captain assigns Lieutenant Alexie as commander of the escort (see top photo). He is seconded by a dreadlocked Premier Sergent sporting a necklace of wild boar incisors and manning a machine gun belt.
Premier Sergent takes position on dugout “deck”.
Seven additional soldiers armed with a bazooka and a range of small arms complete the escort. With our field team and boat staff we number 27 in total. Sharing a cup of Nescafe with me in the front of the dugout, shortly after we push off from Obenge, Alexie announces that we have now become a company of “marines” ; our motorized dugout is the Lomami “navy”.
Marines are fore and aft, but midship is the classroom/and study unit. As we move up river we stop and investigate old camp sites and suspected points where mai mai leader Col Thoms and his outlaws might cross the Lomami. The Kisangani command informed us via thuraya that Thoms’s gang is under pressure from a second army operation coming in from the Lualaba. The eastern force has retaken Yese (see map), one of the villages east of the park where Thoms is often based. Thoms and his band are expected to flee west toward Maniema and even Kasai. They will need to cross the Lomami. We must be on alert.
Goliath Heron on the river bank stepping through morning mist.
We search the river banks as we progress. We spot two makeshift rafts both long abandoned, but we stop to disassemble them.
Omo demonstrates that it is possible to cross the Lomami on a makeshift raft. We stop at the confluence of the Lifale, where Thoms’ gang shot at our dugout two years ago. The tiny clearing is overgrown. We harvest huge lemons from an abandoned tree – lemon trees remain for decades as sites get used and abandoned repeatedly. Army scouts locate four dugouts, hidden up a small tributary stream.
We find hidden dugouts up a tributary.
All but one are barely floatable. Our team completes the “decommissioning”, cutting the hastily made, light-weight crafts in half with machetes. The dugout that is still serviceable is lashed on the side of our big dugout and ferried along.
We stop at four camps sites along the 70 km of river. Only one is occupied ; two occupants flee, leaving everything behind: a small stash of manioc, a few deteriorated fishnets, a pot with water and bananas on the fire. Tellingly there are several joints of old dry-smoked bush pig. If it was a poachers camp there would be fresh meat over a fire; the fish nets would be strung for mending. We are suspicous. This camp is something else – a hideout – a relay point ?
A snarl of unused fish nets. Shortly upstream from this camp, our boatman points out a single piece of recently cut wood on an exposed sand bar. We pull up and the soldiers jump out following a barely visible track to a clearing 100 meters from the river. By chance we have stumbled on one of Thoms’s secret field bases that he reportedly boasted of over the last several years. This camp, that we call Likaka for the nearby tributary, appears to have been unoccupied for several weeks based on accumulated leaf fall and re-growth.
A “dormitory” at the hidden Likaka camp. The weedy regrowth suggests several weeks without active use.
It is a major hideout by local standards: 15 palm leaf dwellings, with about 20 pole beds. The site is surrounded with manioc and banana gardens. Nothing is visible from the river. The gang’s departure was not panicked, but was clearly accomplished quickly– they traveled light. Several chickens still roam and various stolen goods were left behind including a sewing machine, with the proprietor’s name, and jerry cans of palm oil. Among the loot are the remains of our TL2 thermarests and tents, full of holes, but still in use. These were stolen in 2013.
A Eureka tent stolen from our Obenge camp hangs in tatters in Thoms’s camp at Likaka. We recover a horde of documents, many addressed to Col Thoms and some in his hand writing. They provide perspective on his network of relationships and operations over the last couple of years. His view on life and humanity is clear :
Misogynist note in Thoms’s handwriting. Translation from the Swahili:
Women are bad. Why call them human? Why do writings (scripture?) tell us that women amount to something?
A moldy brief case is discovered, probably belonging to Thoms himself. Among the fistful of letters and a stolen agenda book, is a plastic laminated sheet produced and distributed by the TL2 project in 2012 illustrating the totally protected flagship species of the Lomami Park.
The soldiers make quick work of lifting what is left from the camp and hurry back to the dugout. They are nervous to be here.
We push on into the early evening, the chatter in the boat gone quiet, and arrive at Biondo an hour and a half up stream from Likaka, half an hour before dark.
In Biondo camp the next morning. Loading the E15 GPS waypoints. 6 August. The morning is spent in a chaotic exercise organizing the next steps. The TL2 scientific team sits on the side while Lt. Alexie, smoking feverishly shouts orders. He divides his contingent, leaving two armed guards with Florent (our helmsman) and the dugouts. The remainder of the soldiers, all heavily armed, with Alexie leading, will accompany us to our field camp. We leave at noon, and within an hour all trace of human passage is gone. We are cutting our way across trackless forest. The heavily armed soldiers soon lag. Lt. Alexie quells one argument about who is to lug the ammo cases. The bazooka is frequently caught in lianes. By late afternoon it is clear the soldiers are unwilling to progress. We stop at a small stream and spend the night. By our GPS we still have over 9 km to go to reach our destination, an unnamed stream to the west. 7 August. A good meal and quiet night bring renewed vigor to the military and we break camp before 7 AM. The forest is glorious. No sign of human passage, the monkeys we encounter watch from the treetops as our expedition passes underneath. They show no sign of flight. The forest is criss-crossed with animal trails: pigs, duiker and the occasional buffalo and elephant.
Okapi feeding sign: The leaves are stripped from this Euphorbiaceous shrub.
By midday, the soldiers again are knackered. Mandjaka, leading the path breaking with the compass and GPS keeps spirits up by announcing our destination is not far. At 15H (3PM), the soldiers sit down and they don’t look like they will move. We still have a couple kms left, and may need to do some further work to locate a good site.
I suggest that the soldiers and our own staff carrying the heaviest loads sit tight while a lead team goes ahead and locates a suitable campsite. We stand to leave, and so does everyone else. An hour later we all arrive at the river and by chance at an excellent site for a camp. Everyone sheds loads and with renewed vigor open up a site that will be our base for the better part of the next week.
In E15 camp, Alex is yucking it up with “premier sergent” while Mandjaka takes notes at the field table. 8 August. Our first day on to the camera grid. By now it is clear that there is no danger of Thoms or any other bandits in the area. There is no sign anyone has been here for years.
Henri (at computer) and pablo check the new camera traps in Obenge before the trip.
In the relaxed atmosphere Lt. Alexie assigns two lightly armed soldiers to the field team. He and the others with the bazooka and ammo cases spend the day in camp. Our first day placing cameras confirms this little disturbed forest is full of wildlife. We find our first okapi tracks. The TL2 team is upbeat, despite heavy going to lay out cameras in trackless forest.
Henri (green hat, blue shirt) and Karsten (black hat, blue shirt) verify a newly placed camera trap. Military escort in background. Back in camp that evening we decide with Lt. Alexie that the real need for the military is back on the river, guarding the dugouts and our base camp at Biondo. We also will need more food from the dugout. We will operate with a reduced escort over the remaining days. 9 August. Lt Alexie, three soldiers with the ammo box and bazooka, accompanied by five field staff with compass and GPS and empty packs, leave Camp E15 early in the morning to return to the Biondo Base. The rest of us leave for the camera grid. We discover a small wet clearing (edo) with abundant wildlife sign, including recent visits by bonobos who fed on the sedges. Omo finds five recent bonobo nests nearby. This is our first evidence of bonobos in this closed forest whose understory is so shaded even herbaceous Marantaceae (a bonobo staple elsewhere) is not present. We wonder if these bonobos have ever seen humans before. But the big question is : how are these bonobos making a living where their usual foods are in such low supply? We have one extra camera trap and set it up to record comings and goings on one of the animal boulevards into the clearing.
Pablo and Henri set a camera trap in the natural forest opening to regard its use by bonobos and other wildlife.
Mandjaka and the porters return to E15 with food, but also with disconcerting news. When they arrived at the river they learned that the day after we left Biondo, the rear guard had encountered two men and a woman with loads coming into Biondo from the north. Biondo is a way stop on the path linking the Mituku settlements east of the Lomami including Yese (one of Thoms’s villages) with the scattered settlements of the Balanga west of the Lomami.
Two letters to us described the encounter: One from our boatman, Florent, who after first assuring us that he was “a little bit OK,” referred to an attack by Thom’s “militia fighters”. He described how after refusing the command of one of the soldiers to halt, the three travelers had fled back up the path, dumping their loads as they went while the soldier fired off 75 AK rounds after them.
Loads dumped by people on the Mitukut-Balanga path who fled when they saw the military. Lt Alexie’s more dispassionate missive described three “interlocuteurs”, but did not refer to them as rebels. The photos of the dumped loads seemed to bear out Alexie’s more cautious assessment: women’s clothing, cooking gear, a 25 liter jerry can of plam oil (palm oil is a primary item of commerce between the eastern palm groves and the Balanga forests). There were two identity cards: A Mituku woman with a Mulanga man. Likely as not husband and wife.
Our boatman, Florent, posing with bazooka in Biondo camp. He would love facebook if he knew about it.
The only possibly incriminating evidence, a small quantity of black gunpowder used to reload shotgun shells. In Florent’s account, this was a magical concoction retrieved from military grade ammunition and used by mai mai to protect themselves from gun-shots. So what local technology did Florent think was used to safely open military grade brass ammunition casings to retrieve the powder ? And why would milita fighters, whose primary trade focuses on arms and ammo, squander dozens of rounds for such a volume.
The only incriminating evidence. Probably gunpowder for reloading shotgun shells. The incident rattled our military escort and the team, but after a short discussion we decided to proceed with our planned program. 11-12 August.
Back in camp at the end of a long day on the E15 camera grid. Only Alex has a camera smile. Mandjaka could probably break trail a bit longer if he had to, but John and Karsten are beat.
Long days on the E15 camera trap grid. By the evening of the 12th we have 20 cameras placed on a grid.
Computer screen showing placement of camera traps (red dots) on grid. Inset shows grid relative to Biondo camp. Along side the camera-trap team, the botanical team laid out 20 plots, each 300 m2, to survey tree and understory composition. Our Premier Sergent who accompanied most of the outings, has become quite interested in the tree identifications, and stands near-by as Reddy Sutsha, our team forester confirms identifications with slashes. By the end of the day Premier Sergent is joining us in calling out tree names as they are identified, with a particular interest in the cola nut tree, Cola acuminata and its fallen fruits (often chewed and high in caffeine). The last day in camp we all refer to him as Premier Botaniste.
Reddi in white boots with plant press and the Premier Botaniste squatting in front.
We break camp at 8:10. In a five and a half hour march we reach Biondo along what is now a visible trail. We arrive to find camp Biondo in turmoil. A second “infiltrant” has been found, this time caught and captured while climbing one of the clearing’s palm trees. The captured man, barefoot and in tattered clothing tells us his name is Amisi and that he is from Kibombo, well south of the park, married to a woman from the left bank settlement of Ngombe. He has no ID card with him and changes his story at least once under questioning.
Amisi is, the “infiltrant” who becomes the “détenu”. Alexie loses his calm and orders the prisoner to be bound hand and foot. The “détenu” is forced to the ground in the middle of camp where Alexie strides back and forth, interrogating him. One of the soldiers joins me on the sidelines and asks if I want the détenu’s throat slit. Perhaps only a threat, but despite the casual way the question was asked, I had the disturbing realization that it might indeed have happened if I nodded my head. Certainly torture would have been ramped up. Alexie now fears ambush, so we hastily break camp, load the dugout and proceed to the Lifongo River three hours upstream to pass the night. We arrive an hour before nightfall. I watch the moon rise sitting off from camp on a beautiful sand bar with a little swallow of Johnny Walker Red in my metal coffee mug. 14 August We are in the dugout and under way before 7 am. We spend all day navigating long, narrow hairpin curves. As we proceed south, we see occasional occupied fishing camps in the buffer zone on the west bank of the Lomami. In the south, the Park is only on one side of the Lomami (see map). None of the fishermen, many of whom know us and greet us with friendly shouts from the shore, report any suspicious activities. At one camp the people on shore call us over. It is Acteur, the chief of Kakongo, who is returning from a relative’s burial at on of the interior west bank Balanga villages. He is with his father, their families, and most the rest of the village of Kakongo, all in a single overloaded dugout. They are delighted to see us. There is a brief moment of panic when Lt Alexie grabs one of the young men in the party and throws him to the ground. “This is the escapee,” he shouts, as I hurry over to explain who the people are. Pulling out the ID card dropped by the couple fleeing Biondo, he points out that the hair cut on his captive looks the same as that in the photo.
ID with suspicious hair style.
Calm quickly returns, once he realizes that these are two different people, and no offence is taken. We tie the Kakongo dugout to our motorized dugout and continue up river arriving in Kakongo village in the late afternoon.
Kakongo, tiny as it was on my last visit in late 2013, just before it was attacked by Thoms’s gang, is even smaller now. There are just four active households, including Acteur who was absent when the attack occurred and that of his father who was tortured by the Thoms’s brother.
While traveling with us in our dugout, Acteur is able to confirm and clarify the identity of the “détenu”. He is indeed Amisi from Ngombe and Acteur announced that they had seen his wife at the burial and that she had just given birth to their sixth child. The détenu is immediately unbound and is roundly congratulated. Washi one of the field staff gives him a hair cut with a razor blade. When we arrive in Kakongo he cleans the boat, fetches water and fire wood. No hard feelings.
We spend the day in Kakongo with Matthieu and the Maniema contingent who arrived at 8 PM the night before from Katopa with an escort of four military. The two field teams, as well as the two military companies spend the day sharing news, washing cloths, downloading GPS and cameras and sleeping. I buy all the available chickens in Kakongo and have them prepared for a mid day meal.
Lt Alexie, inspects all the houses and seizes a grey parrot that was being kept by one villager hoping for a client to buy it.
I give Amisi, the former détenu, 4500FC for his help over the past day. Then Pablo, Henri, Omo, Reddi, Alex and I take our places in the Maniema dugout to continue on upstream to Katopa, two days travel. Karsten, starts his return to Obenge, also only two days going downstream. Before Amisi climbs in the dugout to be dropped off downstream at the Ngombe path «beach», he asked me if we could hire him fulltime. The parrot, Karsten informed us by thuraya, mysteriously died en route and was eaten by one of the military.
Postcript, 30 August.
Information from sources in the Balanga villages, report eighteen members of Thom’s gang fleeing to villages on the west bank of the Lomami. They are moving in small groups and have been reported from at least four villages where they are received with trepidation. They seem unarmed . These may be fleeing the continued pressure from the army in the Mituku villages where Thoms held sway.
Postscript, 4 september.
An informant from Mayunga brought out more information about the 23 August confrontation between the military and Thoms. A couple military were killed ; at least 5 of Thom’s band were killed ; importantly Thoms himself took two bullets, one in the leg and one somewhere in the torso. He is in the forest. In serious condition?
Postscript, 5 september.
Our own dugout on the Lomami, with Karsten on board, was shot at by Thoms men…was Thoms in the group ? Karsten was on his way to recheck the camera traps. No one was hurt. The military with Karsten fired back and now they are low on munitions.
Will this be the end of Col Thoms and his band of outlaws? Time will tell. Thoms escaped a life sentence in prison in 2010 and in the intervening time managed to be involved in the deaths of, among others, a local chief, a woman, and one of our employees. He is a major elephant poacher and thief. Despite this, he has set himself up in the remotest villages as a small-time chief , the sponsor of a local football team and sponsor of a patriotic independence day celebration. May his influence be shattered.