Who is in charge here?

Warning some photos that follow may be disturbing.

On the 8th of October this satellite message came from Oluo: 

“At Benekamba- Debaba tortured and ear cut off by Fidel.  Aggressors left in dugout – direction Kakongo.”

There is no telephone, radio or Thuraya in Benekamba.  To get the news out, a bushmeat porter left Benekamba after dark on the 7th and ran/walked as fast as he could to Oluo.

Debaba's ear was cut off and sewn back locally
Debaba’s ear as it looked six days after the attack.

This is what we learned a few days later:  In the early afternoon of the 7th of October, Benekamba looked the same sleepy way it always looked.  Debaba was sitting alone at the chief’s baraza (open air veranda) that looks out across the Lomami River to the east bank and the Lomami National Park.  The village was particularly quiet as most of the men were at the nearby village of Avio playing or watching a game of soccer. 

baraza on right in balanga village
A typical Balanga West village with barraza on right. Most public activity occurs at the barraza.

As usual Debaba was waiting for the next loaded bushmeat porter ready to cross the park.   Debaba identifies the species and counts the number of animals, then gives the porter a voucher. The porter carries the voucher and meat across with him to Oluo, where the voucher is checked against his load. 

On the left two "jetonniers" at Oluo
The “jeton” sign in Oluo. On the left the persons who give and collect the vouchers.

This way people who need to sell their meat in the markets on the east side of the park can carry it across without being accused by park guards of hunting in the park.  This system has made the west bank an important source of bushmeat. BUT this post is not a discussion of hunting or its sustainability. 

There is a path from Benekamba to Oluo and from Kakongo to Bafundo. “Jetonniers” distribute and check vouchers at both ends of the path.

On the 7th of October at 14hr (2PM) it was hot and still in Benekamba.

Suddenly next to Debaba was a young man, Zumbe, from another isolated Balanga village, Ngombe.  He had a shotgun.  “Defend yourself,” he said.  Debaba did not react.  Then two more youths from other villages ducked under the thatch roof, Fidel and Mopepe.  Mopepe told Fidel, “This is Debaba, he is in charge of TL2 jetons (vouchers).” To Debaba he barked, “On the ground.” Debaba lay on the dirt floor of the baraza. Four others joined, for a total of seven assailants.

They tied Debaba’s elbows behind his back with nylon cord.  Fidel told his gang to flog him. Three took clubs and seriously beat Debaba.  Fidel said “cut off his ear.”  One of the seven, Bayo, took a knife and slashed off his upper left ear. 

Then they strung Debaba up so he was hanging from the roof of the veranda like a slaughtered goat. They beat him until he was unable to speak or cry out.  When they cut the cord, he fell like a sack of fresh bushmeat.

Photo of Fidel
Poor quality photo of Fidel taken by a local telephone.

A group of Djonga (Fidel’s tribal “brothers”) were calling from the side of the village. Fidel went to speak with them.

When he came back, he thrust a shotgun in Mopepe’s hands and told him to shoot Debaba.  Mopepe shot – but Debaba was not struck.  Fidel was furious – He accused Mopepe of an intentional miss. The assailants left in a dugout after dark, about 19hr, heading downstream.

Debaba 6 days after torture
Photo of Debaba – 6 days later – showing where his elbows were tied with cord and the deep bruises from the beatings.

The park has made Balanga West more prosperous.  It not only brings jobs, but it also makes bushmeat hunting more profitable as the park area is now off limits.  Forest animals abound in the remote 3000 km2 of Balanga West where the adult population is less than 1500 and scattered between widely separated villages.  Hunting is the main source of cash income.

With a voucher for your load, it is like selling certified bushmeat.

TL2 basecamp Balanga Ouest_February 2018
Project TL2’s Kakongo camp north of Benekamba (see map above).

Idris is in charge of distributing vouchers further north in Balanga West, at the Lomami crossing near the village of Kakongo.   He had shut off his Delorme (satellite communication) at 22hrs (10PM) the night of October 8th.  As the TL2-camp battery no longer holds charge from the solar panels, Idris must be careful with his rechargeable batteries.  He and the local guard/assistant, Pascal, were the only people in camp as JP was on patrol in the park with the rest of the team. 

Idris providing a Jeton or voucher at Kakongo for a bushmeat porter to cross park
In Kakongo, Idris writing and signing a voucher at his barraza after checking a porter’s load.

Idris opened the Delorme in the morning at 6hr30 on Oct 9th.  There was an SMS sent at 23hr the night before

“Be vigilant. Warn military.  Fidel and band coming north on Lomami from Benekamba.” 

He and Pascal headed up to the military camp next to the village of Kakongo.  Only four military were present as JP had taken two for patrolling the park.  All the military were sitting outside.  Idris informed the commander, Tcholilo, immediately. 

Just then another Delorme message came in from Omo, the TL2 coordinator in Kindu.

 “Why haven’t you answered?”  

Idris started to answer with the military Tutu Baba watching the process over his shoulder.  There was a sudden crackle of guns.  Tutu Baba and Idris both hit the ground.  The soldiers ran into the camp. Pascal helped Idris stumble into the wattle compound as well.  Tutu Baba lay dead on the ground.

The exchange of gunfire lasted two hours, until finally Fidel’s band retreated.

This story is not just about violence in remote areas, it is about the selfless giving of people in response to the evil of others.  If we were to just concentrate on the horror of what Fidel perpetrated, we would not understand the story or know how to rebuild. 

Idris arrived in Kindu
Idris at the end of his 2 1/2 day journey to Kindu. A military nurse helped a third of the way along and then a nurse sent by the TL2 project helped before the last third of the trip.

In Benekamba:

Even while Fidel was torturing Debaba, a group of young Djonga bushmeat buyers came forward to protest.  They addressed Fidel with respect, as a Brother.  Fidel disdainfully gave them three minutes. They said,
“We all need bushmeat for money.  We need it to get married, to go to school, to get medicine.  What you are doing will shut down vouchers.  How will we cross the park?”   
One young Djonga, Nestor Okandja, fell to his knees and clasped Fidel’s feet.  This enraged Fidel – an audacity.

As soon as Fidel and his gang left in the dugout Nestor went to Debaba where he had fallen.  Another bushmeat porter started the 60 km trek across the park to Oluo in order to send a message to Kindu.  A woman, Thérèse, who had come to buy bushmeat called to Nestor.  He carried Debaba into the house where she was staying.  Nestor had come to Benekamba to collect a bushmeat debt in order to pay for his nursing studies in Kindu.  He took a sewing needle and some thread that women use to tress their hair. He sewed Debaba’s ear back on using Lidocaine, which he had in his kit, to dull pain.  The woman heated water, washed and rubbed Debaba’s body.

surgeon's tools_women's hair-tressing thread and sewing needle
Nestor holding the “medical” equipment he used to sew on Debaba’s ear.

The evening of the 9th the TL2 dugout arrived from Katopa camp to take Debaba back to where (several days later) he could be taken by motorbike to Kindu.

Mama Théthé (Térèse) in Oluo_helped Debab
Thérèse, the bushmeat merchant who helped Debaba, a month later in Oluo.

In Kakongo: 

On the morning of the ninth, amidst gunfire, Pascal, the TL2 camp assistant pulled the body of Tutu Baba and his rifle into the soldier’s compound; he dug a shallow grave and buried him.  This is the picture he took on a poor-quality phone for the soldier’s family.

military TutuBaba killed in Kakongo shoot-out
Picture taken of Tutu Baba before his burial.

 At 10h, it was clear that Fidel had retreated.   The three military that remained, idris, and Pascal crossed the Lomami River and started the 54 km trek to Bafundo on the other side of the park (see map above).  Pascal carried the military packs. The commander often took Idris on his back when he just couldn’t continue.   The other 2 military carried the arms and were the protection.  They arrived at about 2hr (2 AM, dead of night) on the 10th of Oct.  

Back in Kakongo, one of our collaborators, Liboke, came forward and took everything that was valuable from the TL2 camp and stored it in his own village of Kondolo.  Fidel fears tradition.  Liboke, a wise man and manipulator of magic, is not someone with whom Fidel will mess.

at Mapon medical center with 12 caliber shot in body
Idris in the hospital in Kindu, several days after the attack.

Who is Fidel, where did this violent aggression come from? 

Fidel Lofeno is a sociopath and a criminal like his father, Thoms.  His father was put in Jail in 2008 for torture, murder and the rape of over 100 women.  Nevertheless, he escaped in 2011 and remains free.   Since his escape Thoms has been involved in tortures, murders and senseless insurrections.  

How do they get away with what they do? 

In all of Balanga West and many other buffer zone areas there are no Police, and no administrative representation of the government.  The only military are those the TL2 project “hired” to help with patrols until there are enough park guards.  Even if military were sent urgently from the capital of Maniema Province,Kindu, it would take at least a week for them to arrive in Balanga West.

LIBOKE with elders
Liboke, in white shirt, meeting with other elders in Balanga West.

But why don’t local people rise up against Fidel?

Neither Fidel nor his father are supported locally.  Many Balanga West chiefs have formally asked for military in their respective villages, but none come.   The villages of Balanga West, understandably, have little confidence in the provincial government and even less in the national government.  The government has built no roads (there are only footpaths), no schools, no health centers.  The social fabric is guided by complex beliefs of required loyalty and pacts between certain ethnic lines (between the Balanga and Djonga; between the Ngombe and Bakuti…).  These pacts were suited for a pre-colonial time when the strongest social units were competing clans – it was unthinkable that one would rise up against one’s own.  If there were disagreements between related people, they moved away from each other.  The superstitions of what happens if these traditional loyalties are broken protect sociopaths like Fidel and his father.

We know a bit of Fidel’s history:

Fidel first came to our attention when he tried to rob a group that came in June 2018 to help the Pygmies.

May 2019 – Fidel stole two pistols from an Ivory dealer with whom his father works. 

1 June 2019 — Fidel pursued a TL2 agent who was overseeing construction of a school in a Balanga village.  He stole all the possessions of the TL2 agent and $150 from the masons that accompanied him. The chief of the village intervened to help them flee.

4 June 2019- Fidel pursued and stole from two bushmeat merchants, wounding both, one seriously, in the process.

2 July 2019 – Fidel murdered a travelling (bicycle) merchant (with a knife) and stole all his merchandise.

July -August 2019 – Fidel held hostage two entire Balanga villages in Sankuru province, demanding money from each household.

During this period a Balanga woman was distressed to see her young daughter taken by Fidel as one of his “wives”; She pursued him into northern Sankuru province pleading that her daughter be released.  Fidel said that if she dared touch the daughter, he would cut off her head.  The woman returned home alone.

Fidel is NOT a person that is serving the local people, nor is his father Thoms. 

I cannot give the end of this story as Fidel is still on the loose, as is his father. 

But there is good news in that both Idris and Debaba are clearly on the road to recovery.  Debaba grins like a person who wrestled with death and won…  After a week in the hospital his fate was still not clear.  The doctors were worried about a swollen spleen, kidney malfunction and internal lesions.  But all has cleared.

Debaba with ear surgeon
Nestor on the left with Debaba, released from the hospital, on the right (red plaid shirt).

It was too dangerous to operate to remove the lead from Idris.  Lead from the shotgun entered his body in five different places including beside his ear.  But he has less pain now and is walking with confidence.

two victims well on the way to recovery
Debaba on left (striped shirt) and Idris on right early in December 2019.

We are trying one by one to find the people that spontaneously helped out our “jetonniers”. 

Pascal who helped at Kakongo actually suffered from a hernia after the long day and night walk to Bafundo during which he carried all the personal loads.  We met him in the TL2 camp of Katopa where he was a refugee after the Fidel attack.

We celebrated him (below) – gave him the first Lomami Park Prize ($100).   We also sent him to Kindu where he will soon have a hernia operation.

Pascal is celebrated by first Lomami Park Prize.

The year 2020 is here. The whole TL2 project is convinced that there is a way to move forward in this new year and we are doing so.  The people working together are many and we are strong.  What is right for the forest and its people is understood by almost all as a common good.

4 Comments

  1. Daniel Alempijevic
    Posted 2020-01-03 at 8:11 pm | Permalink

    Thank you Terese for publicizing the beauty and horror that occurs in these rural communities in TL2, and for explaining the cultural connections between ethnic groups that allow people like Thoms and Fidel to operate.What an incredibly resilient people. Glad Idris and Debaba are on their way to recovery.

  2. Conrad Aveling
    Posted 2020-01-13 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

    Bravo to Debaba and Idris, and to all the TL2 team, for the terrific work you are doing under the most difficult and dangerous circumstances. You are all conservation heroes; I am humbled by your courage and dedication.

  3. Terese Hart
    Posted 2020-03-10 at 9:22 pm | Permalink

    Hey, Fidel is in captivity. Actually now with military at our Katopa camp and tomorrow to Kindu. Hurray. A total of three prisoners.

  4. Daniel Alempijevic
    Posted 2020-03-13 at 7:30 pm | Permalink

    Excellent update.Hopefully he stays contained, one less threat to the people of TL2, and to the LNP!

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