Justice or Vengeance in the Heart of Africa?

Case from TL2: the disappearance of Bernard Botumba.

Michel blamed in disappearance of Bernard
Park guard Michel is blamed for the disappearance of Bernard.

Watch for these biases in the text:
(§§) local politics
(++) retribution for past wrongs
(‡‡) extortion

Who is Bernard? Bernard has disappeared. He is a cousin of the past chief of the Balanga (§§) who was removed from office for incompetence. Previously, Bernard tried to steal an AK47 rifle from a park guard (++). He tried to steal it from between the guard’s legs while he was sleeping, but the guard woke and Bernard slipped into the forest.

(§§): The current chief of the Balanga does not want to be accused of complicity by Bernard’s family.
(++) : Bernard does not want to experience “justice” at the hands of vengeful park guards.

Bernard's family at his home_36km
The wife, children and brother of Bernard live along the Balanga road.

How did Bernard disappear – or worse?? Bernard’s older brother accuses the ICCN park guards of having shot and killed Bernard. The only evidence is that Bernard did not return home after his poaching camp was raided by a TL2 monitoring team and park guards. At the scene: the only arms were with the park guards (military rifles) and the poachers (shotguns). Bernard’s brother filed the complaint two weeks after the poaching camp was raided.

2 shotguns
Two shotguns found in the poaching camp.

This is from the report of the two TL2 team leaders.

Two teams, led by JP and Assani, patrolled the Balanga sector of the park during the second half of March and early April. JP was with the ICCN park guard, Michel, and Assani was with the park guard Dedieu. The two teams were to meet on the 6th of April then return to base camp together.

elephant print
Elephant track photographed by Assani on this March-April trip. Assani was investigating reports that elephants are returning to the Balanga forest – BEWARE OF POACHERS!!

On the 3rd of April JP’s team still had a lot of GPS points to cover so they divided in two: the guard Michel went west toward the Lomami and JP went east toward the Luidjo. On the 4th of April, Michel was moving quietly along a poacher’s trail expecting it to lead to a camp.

Also on the 4th of April, Assani had left his GIS-mapped track because he found a snare path that he followed dismantling traps as he went.

a snare in the forest
Assani took this photograph, one of many, to document the removal of snares on this trip.

Over 200 snares so far removed, then he heard the camp with poachers just ahead. He was with the guard Dedieu ; the team took position, then rushed the camp. Assani grabbed one poacher by the hand and yelled “don’t move – don’t move.”

Michel approaching the camp stealthily from the other side thought someone was yelling at him and he fired his rifle in the air. He fired it five times.

In the camp: instantaneous pandemonium, helter-skelter into the forest. Dedieu, running, answered fire into the air. A half-minute later Assani, suspecting friendly fire, yelled the password. Michel answered. Everyone agreed Michel should have shouted the password before ever using his rifle.

poachers camp "Merci Jesus"
The camp ‘Merci Jésus’ after the poachers fled.

Asani’s team returned to the poaching camp. They later found out the camp’s name was “Merci Jésus , or Thanks Jesus.” Not all was lost. The poachers had run off, but they left two shotguns, bushmeat, and unused snare cables and nylon.

unused metal snares
Unused snares found in ‘Merci Jésus’.

Michel found one of the poachers crouched in the mud. His name was Mandela, he was non-local, and afraid to run into the forest and get lost. All the local poachers had scattered. They were Balanga and knew their way home.

bay duiker_all should have been burned
Bay duiker smoked and waiting to be carried out from ‘Merci Jésus’.

They interrogated Mandela. He gave the names of his companions. The head of the camp was Bernard Botumba. A “wanted” man.

Two days later, continuing the patrol, the TL2 teams came across Amisi, the poacher Assani had grabbed by the hand. Also a non-local, he had made his way to the well-known pigeon opening . He was interrogated and gave the same information as Mandela.

questioning Amisi
Interrogating Amisi.

Michel, contrary to TL2 policy had kept some of the poachers’ bushmeat and sold it in the pigeon camp on the edge of the park.

8 April. Assani and JP’s monitoring patrols were complete; they turned north to the Bafundo base camp. Michel refused to come with them – he said he was going to the Balanga road to find Bernard (++). He and Dedieu went east.

9 April. Michel and Dedieu came out on the Balanga road, but Bernard had not yet arrived in his home village. They found two people from the camp, though, PDG and Ninja. Before leaving the Balanga village the park guards acquired 15000 congolese francs (about 17 dollars), 5 basins of freshly harvested rice, and one duck (‡‡).

(‡‡): All this is “paid” by Bernard’s family to the park guards “personally.”

This is what I learned from the territorial administrator and the current chief of the Balanga.

I was on the Balanga road this past week going to our Bafundo camp. On the way, I stopped to greet the Chief of the Balanga Sector at his village, Kimiakimia. He was with the Territorial Administrator, who had been sent by the Provincial Minister of the Interior to investigate the disappearance of Bernard.

Bushiri's accusation
The Deputy Bushiri took Bernard’s brother’s accusation to the assembly and the ministry of the environment (§§), asking the minister what he did about the “cruel assassination of a peaceful citizen?”

The Administrator had already been waiting in Kimiakimia two weeks. Apparently the Ministry of the Interior was supposed to join with its own investigation, but they had not yet received funds to do so.

The administrator told me he couldn’t wait any longer. He was going to hike out to “Thanks Jesus” to see if there were remains of Bernard, clothes, bones, anything. He told me to send Assani to lead them in.

chef des balanga
Chief of the Balanga.

Once in Bafundo Assani told me that Ninja, who was one of the poachers, had returned to “Camp Jesus” in April, soon after the raid, presumably to look for some clothes he thought would still be hidden in the forest. The chief himself had questioned Ninja afterwards. Twice Ninja said there was no sign of Bernard in the camp. The Balanga chief had apparently not informed the Administrator of this(§§).

(§§). The chief did not want to appear to favor ICCN (and TL2) or he would, himself get blamed for Bernard’s disappearance. As he, too, is Mulanga, he would probably be accused of sorcery.

When I left Bafundo, Assani came to join the administrator and chief. He came with rations and a full team to do a monitoring patrol while acting as guide and escort.

They are in the forest now.

So what will they find? Here are three possibilities:

RESULT 1 : Human bones and tattered blood-stained clothes are found. The justice process will continue.

RESULT 2: Nothing is found. I expect the case will be dropped for lack of evidence. Nevertheless, Bernard’s family has “won.” Michel and Dedieu have already done more than a month in prison. Although they are there as suspects in the murder of Bernard, consider it punishment for extortion along the Balanga road.

RESULT 3 : Bernard, himself, could walk down the Balanga road, back to his village. But he won’t. He will stay with his cousins on the other side of the Lomami, or in the northern forest as a new lawless acolyte of Colonel Thoms. He will lie low for at least a year. Then I expect no one will accuse him of anything when he returns. “Yes we thought Bernard disappeared, but he was only visiting relatives.”

15 june- night – thuraya message from ‘Merci Jésus’.  Nothing was found.  “Aucune trace de Bernard.”  The team starts the hike back to the Balanga road tomorrow.

burning snares_meat too shouldhave burned
The snares should burn! Here in Camp ‘Merci Jésus’ in the center of the Lomami Park.

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