What Happened in August? part 2.

2012_a mituku classroom
These Mituku children are the real losers. Boys are forced into Maimai gangs, schools close and villages empty.

This last July, the attack at Mayunga, in the eastern buffer zone, should have been the beginning of the end for the criminal Thoms Mesandu and all the worst of his gang: Mopao, Portugais, Machine, Reddi…  But then a politician and a cleric intervened. The whole violent mess was pushed back into the Lomami National Park.

Maimai controlled area mid-2018
The Mituku “roads” controlled by Thoms and his militias in mid-2018. Map made by Koko Bisimwa, UMI-TL2

What happened at Mayunga?

July 20th 2018 a military outpost at Mayunga was attacked. Maimai militia came in from all four roads. Colonel Thoms , himself, was there. The shootouts continued from 9h30 in the morning until 16h in the late afternoon. One soldier who refused to retreat used up his ammunition and then committed suicide rather than be caught and tortured.

2012_mituku woman tending drying peanuts afer harvest
A quiet Mituku village after peanut harvest before Thoms and his criminal band moved into the sector.

At least 5 maimai and one civilian were killed, right there in the village.
A week later 18 severely wounded had shown up in the nearest equipped dispensary, north of Muchaliko, at Masimango, more than 70 km of bicycle/foot path from the scene of the battle.

2012_Hunter on main path between Mituku villages
Hunter on the narrow “foot-path” roads between Mituku villages.

Thoms, himself, said that 41 of his men were killed.
Questioning afterwards : approximately 300 maimai participated in the attack.

2012 Mituku village meeting
In 2012 Crispin led TL2 outreach sessions among the Mituku; how many of these young men were in the battles – possibly forced in?

What was the lead-up to the Mayunga attack?

After the unrest of 2013 to 2015  it seemed that real progress was being made. Some of the principal Maimai actually agreed to meet with our outreach teams.

In 2016 Maurice (middle in yellow shirt) meets with Portugais (far left in matching shirt-pants) and Mopao (right in green shirt).

2017_in Bimbi discussions with MACHINE, on left
Machine, in hat, meets with ICCN team in 2017.

By September 2017, 85% of the population in Bimbi was in favor of collaboration; The chief and elders signed a document asking for a park patrol post in their village.

2017_Bimbi après sensibilisation copy
Celebrating in Bimbi after the village decides to build the patrol post and to send Mituku youth to become park guards.

But the remaining 15% joined Thoms in October 2017 when he returned to the Mituku sector. He came breathing fire. This was his fief how could any chief or any villagers accept the park, volunteer to become park guards, or be willing to have a patrol post in their village? He turned young men into bloody examples. One was tortured until bones were broken, fingers crushed. Others beaten and made to pay impossible fines.

Anx3_a1_lettre from chief Mituku Bamoya_pge1
A letter from the Sector Chief to the governor of the province tells the horrific story of maimai punishment under the direction of Thoms. He asks for help immediately — it takes months to come.

February 2018. An escaped slave  confirms rumors about Thoms’s large hunting camp in the Mituku forests of the upper tributaries of the Lilo, to the east of the park. Thoms ran the camp with an iron fist. AK47s were present. There were slaves for labor.

May 2018: Mitilia men tried to hold-up a barge, “Emmanuel”, going up the Lualaba river. The barge escapes, but villagers all along the river have abandoned their homes in fear.

By early June military have started moving into the area to stage an attack. By late June 115 military from Maniema were at Lowa (see map above).

June 28th the military advanced from Lowa towards Mayunga; there was no armed resistance; the militias moved back towards Muchaliko.

June 29th 76 military advance towards Bimbi leaving a back-post at Mayunga and another at the head of the path towards Yesse.

June 30th and July 1st shoot outs with the militias near the village of Baysiya. Two wounded military and more than 10 dead on the side of the maimai.
Military returned to Mayunga. Waiting for a resupply of ammunition.

Then – with the Military still waiting for more ammunition, on July 20th: the maimai attacked.

2012_Mituku women returning from gardens
These Mituku women along with the population of more than 20 villages fled to Maniema or to the Lualaba following the Mayunga violence.

How did authorities react to the Mayunga battle?

The military should have led the negotiations with Thoms – or at least been present as an armed force. BUT no…

A local politician rushed to Lowa as quickly as a motorized dugout could get him upstream from Ubundu. His name has long been associated with the maimai. Some say that as a deputy back in 2011, playing the ethnic card of local politics (he is Mituku), he helped Thoms escape from prison where he was condemned for 30 years after he and his band raped more than 130 Mbole women. Now this politican says he will bring peace, put an end to this war. That will maximize his political capital, without revealing past sins.

The local parish priest was appointed as a neutral person to go meet and negotiate with Thoms. He took 2000 USD from the politician to ease the deal.

1808_FARDC and church in negotiations
Second from left is Major Didier commanding the army troops at Lowa. Next to him, all in white, is the parish priest, Abbé Déon.

The parish priest, Abbé Déon, along with 5 respected elders of Lowa met a group of 12 maimai in Mayunga. The goal of the negotiators was to convince the maimai to give up their weapons and continue negotiations without arms. The words of the militia were that they too wanted to stop fighting; the number of dead and wounded and the lack of medical care was a heavy price.

But the terms of the agreement reached with the Abbé are at best only partially followed. Approaching the end of September, only 6 AK47 rifles (out of a probable 45 or 50) have been turned in.

Instead the agreement seems to have sent military arms and poachers into the Lomami National Park. Thoms even told an informant that he had sent his men into the park to get bushmeat.

What was the situation in the park in August?

Patrols during the latter half of August and early September had three shoot-outs with outlaws in the park.

Insecurity in Park in August 2018
The three shootouts (accrochages),from north to south, occured on 1st Sept, 24th Aug, 28th Aug. Map made by Junior Amboko, UMI-TL2.

The most sustained shoot-out was right near a “bai” frequented by elephants. A small research team led by Dieu Merci and accompanied by two military and two park guards was attacked in their camp on the 24th of August at 19h45 (7:45PM)

Dieu Merci's team in Obenge
Dieu Merci in orange shirt with GPSunit around his neck, poses with his team and a couple of colleagues before leaving Obenge for the Musumbuku “bai”.

During the day they had set out camera traps in and near the elephant opening. Some were already in their tent when the shooting started. The team managed to run for cover in the adjacent forest and exchanged fire regularly until 23h (11PM). By the number of shots seen and heard, the team reported 8 or 9 enemy AK47. During the midnight pause, DieuMerci and the guards crept back into camp to collect tents and food; they inched off without flashlights and were more than a km distant when shooting restarted near 1h30 in the morning. They did not answer fire and were able to move back to the Lomami River very early in the morning,

left by Mopao's maimai
When Mopao fled the Obenge clearing he left behind a few possessions including tags he had taken from trees on the botany plots.

The other two shoot outs happened when regular patrol teams encountered armed bands during their circuits. One team found maimai raiding the old gardens around the abandoned village of Obenge. Two TL2 team members actually saw the militiaman Mopao. Mopao and his men ran off after exchange of fire.

dugouts of poachers and criminals
Park guards destroy maimai and poachers’ dugouts found in the park.

And now what?

There seemed nevertheless to be hope as long as Major Didier and over 100 military from Maniema were present at Lowa and planned to patrol village to village and reinforce our teams in the park.

But a few days ago all the Maniema military were called back to Kindu. They have to move to the east; there’s a rebellion among the gold mines.

Is this hard-won success about to turn into little more than a brief respite for the Mituku and a time of high danger for the park. The latter at least is true.

What Happened in August? part 1.

August 2018 had its good side. It was all about capacity building, camaraderie and resetting our compasses.

Seven of us left Kindu and headed towards Nairobi. But first we spent a week in intense concentration on our porch in Kindu analyzing data, putting together talks.

sitting out the rain
This is not work on the porch but the step before: field work in Mpechi that figured in talks of both David (front in blue) and Junior (beside John in green hat).

We pulled together information about bonobo killing, the two TL2 red colobus species, and new sightings of the rare dryas species.

Lukuru’s president, Jo Thompson, and our colleague and professor from Florida Atlantic University (FAU), Kate Detwiler, organized a symposium on the primates of Lomami for the International Primate Society (IPS) Congress in Nairobi. Altogether we had eleven presentations.

With Jo at Hotel
Jo here with some of the Congo team. From left: Koko, Junior, David, Jo, Leon and Matthieu. Junior had not yet acclimated to Nairobi’s chill.

We turned into tourists as soon as we crossed from Congo to Rwanda and definitely were dodging through a different climate and conditions once in Nairobi — where the IPS Congress was a big affair:

meeting friends from Arcus and USFWS
The Congo contingent met important people to the project previously only known by email (from left in center: Ken, Dirck and Annette).

no badge_no entry to IPS
Some interested observers just hung over the roof: No badge – No entry.

The talks went well — or well enough for a first group effort.

Last minutes concentration
Palpable tension just minutes before the symposium.

And afterward we took a couple more days at Lolldaiga Hills where we were definitely tourists. What we saw:

The Congo team was counting
The Congo team was counting as the behemoth moved through.

Taking it in
Something to see in all directions.

Red-billed oxpecker takes a ride
Close enough to see the oxpecker along for a ride and a snack.

TL2 collaborators
With our FAU colleagues, Kate and Daniele, at a Lolldaiga sundowner.

Let me show you what you saw
Let me show you what you saw.

superb starling_mascot Lolldaiga
Superb starling was our mascot for this superb visit.

But August was two faced. While in Kenya we followed the menacing messages from back home. They came quickly: delorme, thuraya, phone text : the northeast buffer zone of Lomami National Park was growing toxic. That is the next post.

For the photos: thankyou Daniele and also Jo and Koko.

Bonobo Mourners at a Bonobo Grave

David came as a volunteer to learn about the forests of central Congo. And he certainly learned a lot about bonobos. Soon after he arrived he accompanied John to dig up a bonobo skeleton.

bonobo skull in Mpechi grave
Picture of bonobo skull unearthed near the T4 transect.

Later David got the full story from the team that buried the bonobo two months earlier.

at the grave weeks later
John pointing out the skeleton; Junior is next to him and David behind him.

What David was told:
The 1709AN2 patrol team heard unmistakable bonobo clamor. It was 10AM, the 7th of October, and they were heading south on the T4 transect of their circuit of the Mpechi forest. There were eight team members, Amuri, Aiguille, Komba, Dilombe, Pierro, Abeli and Mooko, but they knew how to move quietly. They continued until they were under the group of noisy bonobo; six were clearly visible from the transect with recently built nests nearby (1st nest 7.7 meters from transect). Searching off transect for more nests, they stumbled on a bonobo corpse (it was 10:14 AM).

attendent bonobo
Bonobo watched from the branches above the corpse.

The bonobo group watched from the canopy. The team suspected the bonobos had cleared the area around the corpse as it looked as though twigs and branches had been brushed away. Talking with me (David), Amuri and Aiguille said they thought the bonobos seemed mournful.

corpse found on its side
The body was on its side.

discovered corpse
Turned on its back the lips were curled back, there were small maggots on the face and numerous flies buzzing over it. The body was not completely stiff.

The young female had probably died within the last 24 hours. There was no obvious cause of death although her body was emaciated. No signs of injury were evident. With un-developed breasts and small size she was likely a young adult. In bonobo communities this could mean two things: either she was a recent arrival to the group or a soon-to-depart daughter of a group member. Whichever, the group may have been present near the corpse for at least 8 possibly 12 or more hours.

team at grave
The 1709AN2 team at the grave, with the labelled flagging tape unfurled after the burial.

As best they could with a machete and sticks, the team dug a grave for the young female bonobo. The bonobos watched from the trees. Amuri slit a stick and fit it with another to make a cross. They wrote “Cimitière bonobo” (bonobo cemetery) on a strip of plastic flagging tape with a magic marker. When the patrol left, the bonobos were still there watching.

southern park with bonobo transects and cemetery copy
Map of the transects and grave site in the southern Lomami National Park.

new nest near grave nearly a month later
Nest found over the grave in November.

From late October and into December, we (David,John,Junior and other expert observers) conducted a nesting-site re-use study in the Mpechi Forest. When a team next returned (24th October) two recently built nests were found perched above the “cemetery”. Two weeks later two more new nests were in adjacent trees. The grave continued to have its sentinel mourners for over a month.

David_rest stop on Boha
David at a rest-stop. He has come back to the Lomami National Park, now to study the bonobo in another area, Luzaka, south of Mpechi.

Torture and Truth along the Lomami

Torture has two main purposes:

(1) Create fear and pain to bring out the truth (=encouragement)
(2) Create fear and pain to punish a crime committed (=dissuasion)

Which was the purpose in February 2018 along the Lomami? Kesonga was arrested, beaten, and repeatedly submerged in the Lomami with a sack over his head.

Kesonga climbing from cell in Opala
Kesonga climbs out of his prison cell in Opala

Around the Lomami National Park, there are many stories of torture used for Punishment. Ask any park guard, military or worker for our TL2 project.

When Thoms gang raped 135 women and enslaved their husbands, brothers and sons (Mbole villagers) for two weeks in Lieke Lesole (July – August 2007), it was punishment. It was punishment for resisting domination by Thoms and to assure that the villagers provided the food he needed while elephant poaching.

When William Kapere (TL2 staff) was tied to a tree and beaten to death by Thoms and his acolytes on the 14th June 2013, it was punishment. It was punishment and a warning to the village of Obenge and the TL2 project. Warning: no more collaboration with military and no refusing Thoms’s domination of the northern park.

When women were raped and the village chief’s father whipped in Kakongo (Balanga villagers) by Thoms’s brother and 10 others of his gang on 27 January 2017, it was punishment. And dissuasion. No more helping ICCN and the TL2 project, not even to allow them to camp in the village while their dugout passes on the Lomami.

Assessing damage at destroyed Lohumunuku camp
Our base camp at Lohumunuku was burned down the same night that Shindano and Fiston were tortured. Here a first trip to assess the damage.

When Shindano and Fiston (TL2 staff) were beaten and poked with red hot machetes the night of 18 February 2014 at Lohumunuku, by members of Thoms’s gang , it was punishment. It was a lesson to the TL2 project and ICCN for trying to put an end to elephant poaching.

When Maurice and four other members of his outreach team were taken from their bicycles, stripped, tied with lianes and whipped with thorny vines (September 24th, 2016) that was punishment for bringing outreach to the Mituku territory controlled by Thoms and his maimai. Message: get lost and don’t come back.

Maurice after attack
Maurice just back to Kisangani, 6 days after attack, shows where his arms were bound.

Thoms captured and beat 6 villagers (29 September 2017) one of whom suffered factured arms and crushed fingers. This was punishment for having agreed to allow the TL2 project to build a base near Bimbi. Message: accept Thom’s domination and no other.

And then of course there were shootouts when the FARDC marched numerous times to push Thoms from the forests he was terrorizing. Many were the young boys pressed into service for Thoms that were killed. At least seven military have died in these operations.

after first shootout with Thoms
Picture Fardc after first shootout with Thoms gang. Local villagers killed.

Given the above it is not hard to imagine that locally there is a strong desire to capture, expel from these forests or eliminate Thoms. Nowhere is it felt more strongly than among rank and file military, park guards and TL2 staff – most of the latter two are from local villages.

The mood was particularly tense in February at the guard post, Bangaliwa. At the beginning of the month a normal surveillance patrol had been attacked, the assailants had 4 AK47s. Two eco-guards and two military were with the patrol. They fought back, the assailants retreated and there were no injuries. But this was evidence: Thoms had rearmed and he was back in the elephant zone. There would be more attacks…no doubt.

So Kesonga was entering a nervous territory alert for maimai, bandits, terrorists. The following is not surprising.

11 February, arrest :

The eco-guard, Washi, was on a routine check in village of Chekecheke near Bangaliwa (see map). A stranger was in the village. He had no identification; no one knew him. The village chief questioned him, but he and Washi decided he was suspect; he should return with Washi to Bangaliwa

12 february at 1 in the morning, Washi brought Kesonga to Bangaliwa, Lomami National Park base-camp, in a dugout.

12 February Morning in Bangaliwa : The military question Kesonga
12 February Afternoon in Bangaliwa: the eco-guards and TL2 question Kesonga.

Map_Kesonga enslaved by maimai then liberated
Map showing Kesonga’s movements during those unfortunate months of January and February 2018.

This is the first story Kesonga told:
I am a Musongola (ethnic affiliation) from Pembeliba (map). For cash I sell medicines. I was carrying antibiotics, malaria cures, and other pills to sell in Balanga West. Eight armed men blocked the trail; they kidnapped me and the two women with me. We walked for two days, we crossed the river Okopo, we arrived in Thoms camp where they took everything we had: medicines, machete, food. I became a porter of Thoms for three weeks, before I could escape. I was with one of three hunting groups – the one led by Samy. I accompanied hunting trips to carry back the take to Thoms’s camp. It was when we were hunting near the Obiyo River. They left me alone with the little dugout. I took off downstream, dragging the dugout around where the river was filled with fallen trees. When I reached the Lomami, I did not have the energy to go upriver. Downriver I came to an abandoned village (Obenge). In old gardens, I dug up manioc, but had no fire to cook it. I continued downstream, it was night. I saw many flashlights and fire (Bangaliwa). I was afraid it must be one of Thoms’s camps. I stayed close to the other shore. In the morning I came into Chekecheke.

But the military and the guards were not satisfied – did this really make sense? Was this Kesonga a spy? Thoms must be planning an attack.

Kesonga during questioning at Bangaliwa.

Kesonga was bound and whipped.
This is Kesonga’s second story:

I went to find my daughter at Ngombe (Thoms home area) because by daughter was kidnapped by the Maimai. I was afraid of the Maimai and I ran away (abandoning daughter). The chief of Mukwara showed me the path. I came out on the Lomami at the Lofuma river where I found the small dugout and came downstream. And, yes, I have a military rifle, an AK47.

This story was even more mixed up. He was whipped some more, he was held under water.
This is Kesonga’s third story:

Everything I said is false. This is the truth: I am an elephant poacher. I have been poaching elephants for a long time. I come down the Lomami to Isangi where I meet my ivory buyers who come from Kisangani.

The military whipped him more.

Kesonga continues: I have 18 tusks cut up into pieces. Because I saw a big dugout on the Lomami, I turned around and hid them at Katondo. Please, I will go with a small team, in just a little dugout to recuperate the ivory at Katondo.

In retrospect I imagine Kesonga was just trying to get some reprieve, any reprieve from the torture.

A very large expedition took off with Kesonga the next day up to Katondo. He showed where the ivory was in the river and insisted on being the one to dive to get it. Nothing was found. Three park guards also dove for the ivory. Nothing was found.

At the end of the day they returned and certainly Kesonga was no better off. No other story was offered.

fractured finger_Kesonga
Kesonga’s finger wound after torture.

Finally, Henri Silegowa, TL2 leader at Bangaliwa wrote the following evaluation:
–There is no coherence between Kesonga’s different stories;
–Yet he seems mentally stable;
–He has a good understanding of the forest and villages near Thoms main camp;
–It is possible that he is a spy sent by Thoms, because Thoms wants to advance towards the north.
–All that we could discover in his possession though were a few manioc tubers.

22 February, when our large dugout came down to Opala to stock up on food they brought Kesonga for more questioning.

Face wound healing well
Kesonga’s friction burn on face from torture.

Leon, from the TL2 project, and Firmin, from ICCN, took over. They used a different method. Reassuring Kesonga, they posed as lawyers, paid by the UN to defend him.

They got back the first story…no mention of being an elephant poacher or in possession of either a rifle or ivory.

They got more information. Kesonga is the father of 7 children, his wife Bitsho is waiting for him in Pembeliba, she must be desperate for information as to what happened to him.

Kesonga by cell after first care
Kesonga treated and at ease in Opala beside his cell.

In Thom’s camp, he was one of over 30 porter-slaves. There were more than 70 militia men with 40+ AK47s as well as shotguns. In camp Kesonga and the other porters were closely guarded, to the point of being accompanied even when they bathed or relieved themselves. Thoms’s mud house is raised on a platform so that he can watch over the camp. Thoms has six wives in the camp and is always surrounded by 14 bodyguards.

Unlike Bangaliwa, in Opala there is a phone network. Leon made phone calls, checked Kesonga’s contacts and double-checked through his own contacts. The first story was the true story.

If the torture had been to get the truth, it failed. The more torture the more desperate the lies.

Leon and Firmin took Kesonga to Kisangani where he spoke with military information services, they gave him new clothes and paid his way back to Pembeliba on a dugout.

Kesonga says whenever Leon and Firmin come to Pembeliba, there are gifts of hogs and chickens waiting.

N.B We post this as the US Senate considers Gina Haspel as Trump’s nominee to lead the CIA. The Senate will grill her regarding then-legal interrogation methods at the CIA “black site” she oversaw. Prisoners were water boarded and slammed against walls. We are all glad these are no longer legal, quite possibly Ms Hagel is as well. She is recommended by many in the intelligence community as non-political, respected by the rank and file, smart, capable…. important qualities.