Marking the Border

The problem is there, on the map – if a map could speak, it would be screaming. It would point to its northeastern side and say, “Here there will be anger and divisiveness.”  Even if most of the poaching is in the south, even though the map was created as a collective effort, with back and forth between technicians, parks (ICCN), state administrators and chiefs, still, the northeast is not at rest:

Lomami National Park dugouts on the Lomami River.

In the southwest, the park border is clear before our eyes:  One river, Lomami, marks the park limit (see MAP 1 below);

In the southeast, the line is mostly obvious:  a single river, Loidjo, covers most of the distance.

Crossing the Loidjo bridge into the park at high water.

Even in the northwest, there is a series of rivers that are connected with only short empty lines (Annex 1), BUT in the northeast the rivers aren’t there; most flow the “wrong way”.  The only long north-south river, Lilo, is too far from the Lomami.  If it had become a border, villages would be included in the park and no one wanted that.

MAP 1: The Lomami National Park is fortunate to have many natural limits, but the straight lines (red) are certain to be problematic.

Result:  in the northeast the borders of the park are a series of points, immovable coordinates on the globe, connected by straight lines on the map (Annex 1 below).  These lines are invisible in the forest.  How do you explain to a hunter leaving with his gun and traps:  you can hunt there, but not there. 

A hunter from Mituku-Bamoya (northeast buffer zone) being arrested in the park.

From the beginning, we concentrated patrols and outreach in the south where there were bigger bushmeat markets and more poaching.  But once, after a community-conservation workshop at the patrol post of Bafundo, I was approached by the chief from Kalindula.  Was it in 2014?

Kalindula is a village farther north, in Mituku Basikate sector.  The chief had come more than 60km, walking inside and outside the park, following the one winding path that avoids flooded forest during high waters (at least half the year). 

Large areas of flooded forest are very difficult to move through.

He had important questions:

“How do our boys know where the park begins?  Our young hunters were arrested in the park and they did not even know they were in it. We want to work with you, but we need to know the park borders.”

MAP 2: The Lomami National Park is fortunate to have many river borders, but the borders that are not defined by a natural feature (red lines) were likely to become flashpoints.

Such an obvious request. But it had to be asked again before we would begin to respond and then the solution was far more complex than we imagined

marking Balanga border
A border marker in the southern Balanga sector set by community elders, TL2 staff and park guards.

The second time was when Maurice Emetshu, in 2015, completed border markings in the Balanga sector (A and B on the MAP 2 above).  This is north of where the Loidjo River dumps into the Lomami River.  He wrote this: 

“Hunters take off from the Bafundo-Kalindula path. The Balanga say we must finalize border marking there too.  Both Balanga and their Mituku neighbors hunt inside and outside the park, without knowing the difference.”  

Maurice joins singing and dancing in a Mituku village.

We sent Maurice up to the two Mituku sectors, Mituku Basikate and Mituku Bamoya, in July 2016.  It had been four years since there had been any TL2 presence in the northeast, so his first mission was “outreach”.  What do the villages know about the park?  Do they see how conservation is important to their lives as hunters and cultivators?

In Maurice’s month-long trip, he only visited one groupement (or cluster) of villages in one of the sectors, Bamoya.  People were receptive, but knew little about conservation or the park.  And they asked for more security because the very bandits that were chased from other parts of the park were now in their forests.  They had no policemen or other law enforcement authority in their sectors.  They also asked to know the limits of the park.

MAP 3. The villages in the northeast are connected by winding paths, some can be used by motorbike, others only by bicycle and some only on foot. The villagers identify as hunters.

We should not have been surprised by the lack of information about the park.  Ten years into the TL2 project there were 6 camp bases/patrol posts around the southern part of the park and only two in the north, neither of these was in the northeast.  Park bases become vibrant social and economic centers.  The posts buy food for patrols in the park and hire local guides and porters.  The posts are in the villages closest to the park, so there are constant exchanges about conservation, the park, and everything else.

Maurice explains his message and the Park to the sector chief of Mituku Bamoya.

Maurice returned for a second outreach visit to different Mituku villages.  Like the first time he and a group of four others, including 3 Mituku moved around by toleka taxi: 5 bicycle peddlers (=taximen) and 5 passengers with rations and basic change of clothes. 

Toleka taxis or bicycle taxis are common in Kisangani (this photo), but are often the only way of moving “quickly” over distant rural “roads” and paths.

Alas!  Between two remote villages on an empty stretch of path they were hi-jacked by “highway” robbers at gun-point.  But it was more than just robbery…it was a thorough punishment by masked men, a “don’t come back” message.  They were tied with cords and then again with thorny lianas.  They were whipped and the bicycles were destroyed.  Everything was taken: shoes, telephones, their only computer, bicycle tires, food, and, of course, money.

It took a week for Maurice and his team to make it up to the TL2 Kisangani base where they could be treated. They were still wearing the same bloody clothes.

Maurice preferred to interpret it as a simple highway robbery.  After treatment in a hospital for internal hemorrhage and then recovery at home in Kisangani, he returned to finish his mission in Mituku, six months later.  It was without incident, but we learned that one of his trusted Mituku collaborators had engineered the robbery.  In fact, the stolen computer, a telephone and other stolen goods were in his possession. That added a confusing element, as this person, Portugai Mwinabi, was supposedly giving a conservation message. Who could we trust?

Portuguai was arrested in 2017.

Portugai was denounced, arrested in March 2017 and sent to Kisangani, where he was almost immediately released by a high-level Mituku politician (a national minister!) and returned, emboldened to Mituku Bamoya.

Robert Abani, a TL2 community-security agent, joined Maurice in December 2016 where they held a meeting with leaders at Mutchaliko village (see Map 3 above).  The spokesperson for the gathered chiefs said they needed more outreach, more representation of the Mituku at high-level meetings AND he insisted on the border markings.

Henry Boandja, in red shirt, with Robert Abani. Boandja was often the chosen spokesperson .

Maurice left the Mituku and went to the northwest of the park to help with a community-TL2 bridge building project .  Robert stayed to understand the different political and clannic tensions that seemed to seethe through the Mituku villages. He set out in July 2017 to negotiate land for building a TL2 base.  We decided that the village of Bimbi was centrally located and a good base for sending patrols into the park (MAP 3).  The main chief for that cluster of villages, Bantu Olambolambo, was favorable and the village agreed.

The village, with approval of surrounding villages, the cluster-chief and the sector-chief, officially ceded land to ICCN to put in a base/patrol post.
Robert, in white shirt, in the village of Bimbi after an agreement was reached to accord land to TL2 to build a base/patrol post.

But Thoms, a renowned elephant poacher/bandit, set up in the hinter lands of Mituku Bamoya, near the park border.  Thoms was furious about the presence of TL2 near-by.

[for information:  Thoms was not only an elephant poacher, he was a prison escapee having been imprisoned after his band enslaved the men and systematically gang-raped over 100 girls of the Mbole ethnic group (where Maurice was now putting in a bridge).  Thoms has committed many more atrocities than the ones recorded here.]

After Robert left, in September 2017, Thoms attacked the chief’s family in Bimbi, seriously tortured several people (breaking bones) and charged enormous fines saying that the chief’s family had sold the forest and would pay it back (although the money was taken personally by Thoms).

Thoms marked his presence in nearby forests, along regularly used paths.

Later Robert was told that the lesson the villages learned was: cooperate with the TL2 project and you will bring bandits and harm to the village.

We learned that Thoms’s rhetoric was simple: we were liars.  TL2, according to Thoms, was planning to stretch the park all the way to the Lualaba (Congo) River and all the Mituku villages would be forced to evacuate.  The youth heard and joined local Mai-Mai bands (see Annex 2 below) to protect their homes.  Thoms continued to recruit.  Portuguai and his group joined Thoms; Sembele and his group joined Thoms…and so forth through all the major villages.

Robert shows military officers the Mituku region on our TL2 map as good government maps of the region do not exist.

After the Bimbi attack by Thoms, military arrived to do a sweep through the sectors and create a “law and order” presence in Lowa.  A first armed confrontation between military and Maimai happened in Bimbi on the 13 March 2018: 2 military killed and at least 18 Mai-Mai.  In July 2018, Thoms attacked a military outpost at Mayunga with 300 Mai-Mai:  1 military  and 41 Mai-Mai are killed, but many more Mai-Mai were wounded and may have died later.

The village of Mayunga as it usually looks.
Milling Mai-Mai in Mayunga after the confrontation of July 2018. This photo shows the savagery of such battles. An off-camera Mai-Mai is holding cut-off hand of dead military.

Official efforts to bring peace were remarkably light handed.  The Mituku minister for education who had freed Portuguai, came to Lowa and seemed to sympathize with the Mai-Mai.  The Catholic church sent a delegation to Mayunga, but came back with very few arms and no clear agreement.   Thoms insisted the state should pay the families of those killed, even though it was he who sent them to battle!  The Mai-Mai continued to control a large block of Mituku Bamoya.

Photo from August 2018, second from right is Abbé Déon who represented the Catholic church in Mayunga. The other three are military concerned with controlling Mituku uprisings.

There was no peace and no dialogue.  With agreement from the military and the Catholic Church, Robert called a meeting of chiefs at Lowa (December 2018) including Mai-Mai leaders (but Thoms did not come).  The Mai-Mai said they were ready to seek a reconciliation with TL2 and with the military.  Robert tentatively set a date for a ceremony at the end of January.

Robert (gesticulating) was accompanied by military for almost all peace-seeking missions as the military had to agree to the conditions.

Unfortunately, an internal, bloody struggle for power among the Bamoya (that had nothing to do with the park), started at the end of 2018; it led to various attacks against the military who only regained control after another battle with severe loss of life among the Mai-Mai.  On 28 March 2019, a letter was brought to the military commander in Lowa, by two women saying that the Mai-Mai want to surrender and turn over their arms to the military.

Letter signed by seven Mai-Mai leaders saying that they not only want peace, they also want to work for ICCN and its partners.

Mai-Mai groups surrendered independently, each group representing different villages or groups of villages.

The first Mai-Mai leaders to surrender, each representing a village and a following of young men.

Here, events started to turn around and we also saw a clear division in the Mai-Mai.  The Mai-Mai who did not surrender were Thoms’s group and some from Mituku Bamoya, Portuguai and Alpha, who, like Thoms, were responsible for human rights abuses and atrocities.  Between them: tortures including of the TL2 team, killing of military, organizing ambushes… 

But finally, Portuguai and Alpha (not Thoms) did surrender on 29 June 2019, which again allowed Bimbi to be considered for the next base camp.

The Mai-Mai troops that Alpha and Portuguai brought before the military when they surrendered.

But over the next year, there was still no peace among the Mituku Bamoya, there were still inter-family power battles.  By mid 2020, we decided that the first base camp should be in the least roiled sector, Mituku Basikate.

Maurice’s return among the Basikate was seen as the beginning of peace and progress.

By November 2020 Maurice rejoined the Mituku TL2 teams again.  He worked on several fronts: overseeing road clearance, putting in small bridges and opening up the new site for construction.

Construction of a new permanent Base Camp/patrol post in Mbolose (Mituku Basikate) was underway as of December 2021.

Each village along the path contributed to opening the path from Mayunga to Mbolose and beyond.
Making window frames in front of one of two partially completed houses at Mbolose Base.

As happened other places around the bufferzone, when the advantages of a patrol post become obvious (employment, local market) other villages and sectors ask for one.  Not only Kalindula, but Yesse and Chef Vingt of Mituku Bamoya, all requested a patrol post.

One of two houses completed at the Mbolose base and patrol post.

At the end of 2021, Henri Silegowa, a TL2 technician, came to Lowa to oversee the border marking.  A major multi-sector meeting at Mayunga launched the operation which started with the Mituku Basikate and the Lengola Lowa park borders. 

At the Mayunga meeting that preceded border marking all the northeastern sectors, even the Balanga were invited.

Inclusivity was the only way to operate.  Our lesson-learned is that the Mituku are extremely independent in their separate villages and families, in a way that makes standard “democratic representation” problematic.  What seems representative one day, has lost legitimacy in most everyone’s eyes the next.  Furthermore, with low literacy, no internet and no national/regional radio, the far-flung communities are susceptible to rumor and to false interpretations of events. 

Therefore:

Solution for the Lomami National Park —  Create a permanent presence of the Park in the Mituku sectors that is always visible, available and listening to everyone ;

Solution for border marking — include everyone, all Mituku villages, whether their land abuts the park or not.

Henri trains two ex- Mai-Mai, Edingwe and Evariste, in the use of a compass.

Because of problematic “democratic representation”, before moving out on the ground, Henri trained influential people of many Mituku villages, mainly ex-Mai-Mai in the use of the GPS device and the compass.  We wanted them to understand the non-arbitrariness of the marking.  Also, for that reason, the first team that moved out to open a border path and put-up placards included 127 people even though they had to walk three days just to reach the park border.

The border-marking team walking through the last village.
The border-marking team crossing a flooded stream. The team included security and elders and chiefs from five sectors even though the border of only two sectors were marked. Every concerned village had representatives on the team.
Signs were placed at every path, no matter how small, that crossed into the park.
A three metre wide transect was cut along the border to assure that no one can enter the park without realizing it. Unfortunately patrols must regularly reopen the transect.

Flooded forest kept the teams from completing the Basikate-Lengola segment. The operation was taken up again during the dry season of May-June 2022, this time with “only” 57 people on the border-marking team.

Flooded forest made progress impossible after a point.
Henri completed segments 1 and 2 covering the straight line border in Mituku Basikate and Lengola Lowa. The next area proposed was immediately north, “3”, in Mituku Bamoya.

But we were not done with the difficulty of “democratic representation”;  the third border segment in the Mituku Bamoya forest failed. 

The process seemed inclusive.  An inclusive meeting with representation from all the Mituku Bamoya chiefs, as well as representation from Basikate and Lengola groups, occurred in November.   The first danger sign was that a couple of the Mituku Bamoya ex-Mai-Mai did not attend.  Afterwards, the chiefs agreed to return to their villages with the explanation of the process and to select the persons to represent the village on the border-marking team.  BUT, the new chief from the Bimbi groupement did not return to Bimbi.  Henri was waiting at Yesse with a group that already numbered fifty, but the Bimbi group did not join them. Finally, Henri sent a delegation of six to go to Bimbi and retrieve the Bimbi team.  The delegation included four Mituku that either came from Bimbi or had in-laws in Bimbi. 

Henri waiting with an already gathered delegation in the village of Yesse for the representatives of Bimbi to arrive.

The very night the delegation arrived in Bimbi, they were attacked in the dark, their telephones stolen, and they were beaten.  One Mai-Mai leader and a group of young boys were responsible.  Families of the delegation and another ex-Mai-Mai intervened.  The delegation sent by Henri was escorted to safety and sent on its way, traumatized, limping and without money.  They were fed by sympathetic villagers several km away.  But the continuation of border marking in Mituku Bamoya was called off.

The decision was made to skip Mituku Basikate and move the border-marking to “4” (above) , in the Lengola Bira Sector.

Henri will now skip Mituku Bamoya and move north to Lengola Bira; but, Henri, Maurice and Robert realize that they must come back.  The requests for a clearly marked park border for Mituku Bamoya are real and they come from people with important backing:  the  new sector chief Baondja, the past sector-chief Vingt, the local ex Mai-Mai Machine and from the chiefs of almost every village.  Those who continue to undermine have allegiance to illegality and many are wanted by the law: Thoms, Portuguai and Alpha.

The concerned village chiefs and leaders all signed their agreement to the marked borders after the first two missions.

This was a long post- thank you for reading it through. I include here two annexes to help explain a couple of terms:

Annex One concerns an explanation of straight lines on the map.

Annex Two is a definition of Mai-Mai.

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