Open-Air Justice for Mai-mai

Starting on the 19th of January 2021, there was a public trial in the town of Kindu, the nearest large town to the Lomami National Park.  On trial were six Mai-Mai insurgents – call them village terrorists – that had banded around two young war-lords, Fidel on the west side of the park and Bernard on the east side of the park.

Fidele Lofeno au milieu des acolytes_ligotés
At the trial: Fidel is in the middle with two others from his band on either side. Kindu watches from the street behind.

At first it seemed petty:  robbery at knife point, stealing a rifle from a park guard at night.  It quickly escalated (2019-2020) to torture, murder, ritual be-headings, cannibalism and live burials. The victims were from neighboring ethnic groups, but also much closer, even from clans that speak the same dialect.

La vidéo de l'enterrment de madame Honorine
On “stage” at the open-air trial

Defendants in green shirts on the left, witnesses seated in the back, the judges on the right. Here with video of the live-burial of Mama Honorine.

WHY did this horror happen? The Mai-Mai told victims, recruits and judges at the trial that they were protectors of their traditional forest.  They would make outsiders pay or leave; they would give back the park to their brothers.  But is that why you behead a shop-owner who hesitates to hand you all he has, or why you torture a fellow cultivator just down the road who says he is glad the military are after you?  Is that reason to bury alive a woman who says she knows nothing of secret forest treasures that you think she is hiding?  Your explanation does not explain why you gang-raped over a hundred married women and young girls in nearby villages.

Fidel was hand grabbed by the villagers themselves – they had had enough.  

Fidel_prisoner and being insulted by village
Fidel in captivity in Ohandja a village on the Pole-Pole road.

Villagers were tired of his extortion; they would no longer put up with his humiliation of women who were their sisters and cousins.  And also, they were given courage by an FZS-TL2 military sweep, on-going along the Lomami River.

mission leaves Polepole in TL2 dugout
The military, in an FZS-TL2 dugout, pull out from Pole-Pole where they had a shoot-out with Fidel’s band.

Bernard was caught by a military hit-squad.

Bernard captured
Bernard in captivity in Ichuku village before being transferred to Kindu.

He only spent a few days in Kindu before being flown to Kinshasa as informants believe he is supported by powerful people in Kindu.

After he was gone three of his band were caught, all with multiple accusations against them.  

What seemed strange to me is that at the trial itself, there were few witnesses. Enough to condemn them, though.  Three to life in prison, three to 20 years, one to 10 years.

Le  victime idrisa _FZS-TL2
Idris testifying.

Among the witnesses: Idris in white shirt, Katamoto in embroidered shirt and, next to him, Mama Marie from Ichuku.

We congratulate those witnesses who came forward at the open trial:

Katamoto – the leader of those who caught Fidel;
Idris – shot by Fidel’s gang, but survived;
Boji –  his nephew beaten, then shot and killed by Fidel;
Military — their own ambushed, shot and killed by Bernard’s gang;
Two married women – gang raped, stripped and made to walk through the village as their house was burned by Bernard’s gang.

Particularly damning was a video, made with a cheap phone, of Honorine’s live burial by Bernard and gang.  Unlike the middle ages, the executioners did not wear masks.  Totally visible  were the young men that beat her with sticks, the man who pulled her into the grave hole, and those that shoveled sandy clay over her last struggles.

Madame Marie Kafua témoigne contre Taye sur viol, torture et incendie de sa maison
Mama Marie from Ichuku testifies. The crowd has overflowed onto the “stage”.

Sitting on the bench below in the center is, Taye, one of the men that gang-raped her:

Simon Ndjate, Taye Ilungu au milieu et Patrice Sona (1)
Taye, center, with two others from Bernard’s band.

BUT where were the majority of the witnesses?

We were told repeatedly that tradition is stronger than government.  The legal system has little credibility in remote villages.  As before colonial time, the relations between adjacent groups and clans are modulated by pacts, blood bonding.  There are people you do not betray to the outside; you wait – or else far worse will happen. Let Tradition bring its own justice.

These were not small crimes committed by Bernard’s Mai-Mai and Fidel’s Mai-Mai:

A teacher from Boyela was kidnapped and tortured over 12 days;
A shop-owner was tortured and his wife gang-raped; she miscarried their baby;
Another shop-owner tortured and robbed;
An influential villager beheaded, cut up and eaten, his bones used to make fetishes;
A bicycle vendor stabbed multiple times and his goods stolen;
A chief forced to torture himself;
An Ngo employee shot and beheaded (not FZS-TL2).

These crimes and many others had witnesses or survivors.  Some came all the way to Kindu to witness at the open trial, but then decided that they could not give testimony.  They were more afraid of Tradition, and possibly of those Mai-Mai not yet arrested, or the brothers and uncles of those arrested that might take revenge.

The judges
The President-Judge of the military tribunal addresses the defendants.

And there was abundant reason for fear: Who paid for the 8 defence lawyers? Who raised the 3,000 USD to lighten their sentences, that the President of the Military Court turned down?

Dead: One Bonobo and One Man

Bonobos of the Lomami National Park in a forest clearing called edo73

The bonobo was killed first.

It was 2018, on November 18th.  A patrol team, led by Elias Omana, was on surveillance in a forested part of the Lomami National Park near a point we call KK/4.   There was a scuffle of leaves.  Poachers were near.  The surveillance team ran, but the poachers were gone…they had dropped their loads.  One contained smoked bonobo.  One of the three poachers was seen enough to recognize him as someone from ChombeKilima.  But Elias did not know his name. 

2008_Burning bonobo bushmeat
Amboko, an IMU Leader, burns the bonobo bushmeat back in Katopa camp.

The bonobo was brought back to Katopa camp where it was burned.  We usually burn confiscated bushmeat right there in the forest to avoid accusations of reselling it for profit.  But the bonobo came back to camp.  A bonobo is different.  The hunter broke two laws: (1) hunting in the park and (2) killing a totally protected species.  Besides, the Katopa teams have all been involved in bonobo studies.  These hacked and singed arms and legs might have belonged to an individual they observed and one whose nest they counted again and again.

It was important to know who killed the bonobo and to hold him accountable.  Not easy with little evidence.

Informers from Chombe Kilima asked what hunters returned to the village soon after November 18th.   The probable hunter was Tonda Djeha, a hunter from Chombe Kilima, whose porters had come out of the forest on the 19th.  Tonda was caught hunting in the Park more than once before.

La maison de Junoir  au village Lokale copy
Junior, Tonda’s porter, in front of his small house in Lokale.

Of the two porters, one was Tonda’s son.  He would not be a good source of information.  The other, Junior, lived on the road around the south of the park.

Junoir et sa femme Henriette au salon de sa belle famille copy
Junior with his wife at in-laws

Junior, is young, newly married, but living with the in-laws.  He wants a better house of his own, which is why he was working for Tonda.  Junior knew that Bonobos were especially protected and did not tell our workers anything, but eventually an informer got a recording on his phone of Junior saying that Tonda had killed a bonobo in the Park when he was the porter.  This was enough proof to arrest Tonda.

But where was Tonda? A plainclothes policeman went to Chombe Kilima to make the arrest, but Tonda had fled the village through the forest.  He now moves between several villages. For two years he has avoided arrest.

Tonda with daughter_Chombe Kilima
Tonda in ChombeKilima with his daughter before he was on the run.

Chombe Kilima is a village of hunters.  They know hunting in the Park is forbidden and they know that bonobos are protected.  Early on we burned a hunter’s bonobo bushmeat in the center of the village.  Bonobo protection is one of TL2’s main village messages,  BUT no neighbor would turn Tonda in for hunting Bonobo in the park…it still is considered a minor misdemeanor, though dangerous because of TL2 and the Park guards.  

2019 meeting of reconciliation between two clans at Makoka
Tonda did show up at this meeting of two clans a couple months ago, but quickly disappeared afterwards. He is in the brown jacket, standing on the right.

But killing a person is different.  Now Tonda is in jail.

Nearly two years later, December 2020, Tonda was again hunting in the park.  This time with one other shotgun hunter and six porters, one of whom Osenga Alongo was his son in law.  He and Alongo took off to hunt at night by headlamp.  The others stayed in camp. 

In the early morning Tonda came back alone with a small duiker in his basket.  He told the porters to quickly prepare food so that they could return to Chombe Kilima.  They asked where Alongo was.  Tonda said  “Park guards ambushed us.  We ran in different directions but Alongo knows the forest, we will find him back in Chombe Kilima.”  Even then there seemed something wrong because, if ambushed, you drop all baskets and backpacks. You just run to save yourself. But Tonda insisted.

It was several days later that the other shotgun hunter came to report his concern to the FZS team at ChombeKilima.  Tonda had come back to the village and taken off immediately for the town of Kindu.  Alongo never showed up, not in Chombe Kilima and not in his own village of Kakungu.    The local chief went to Kakungu to see what he could find out.  Tonda had stopped at his in-laws on his way to Kindu. He told them – Alongo is in Chombe Kilima, he will be coming soon by bicycle.  Tonda continued by motorcycle to Kindu.  

These villagers are hunters.  Hunting at night with head lamps is dangerous.  Everything pointed to an accidental killing of Alongo by his father-in-law, Tonda.  Alongo’s family was furious.

When he was arrested in Kindu, Tonda had already bought a boat ticket to Ubundu.  Now he is in jail.  

Tonda's house burned by villagers
Tonda’s house was burned by his son in law’s family.

We helped gather the information, and we will help prosecute, but it was villagers themselves that put Tonda in jail.

Whatever happens next will likely be long and slow.  The dead bonobo will be a bit player, or perhaps be totally sidelined as irrelevant evidence.  Family loyalties and kin outrage will continue to fester and explode.

Christmas 2020 on the Lomami River

We wanted the usual Christmas …as always, we planned to head back to family in the States.  We had our air tickets already in early November.

Christmas party 2020

Instead, our Christmas party was at Kakongo Camp on the Lomami River where John shared the smidgen of Johnnie Walker left in his single bottle.

BECAUSE the USA Covid numbers began to climb and kept climbing – in every state…we adjusted our calendar.

What was the point of returning to the States to be quarantined in upstate NY and not see our daughters and families, or possibly not be able to return to Congo?

John and I opted for Christmas along the Lomami River.  We would meet at Kakongo camp that is being rebuilt after destruction by the Mai-Mai leaders, Fidel and Bernard.

John came up river in a dugout after another round of teams left on the elephant census circuits in Tshopo.  I walked across from Bafundo, a 53 km-long trail redolent of history.  

Trail Bafundo-Kakongo

Along the ancient Kakongo trail, this old secondary forest was a village abandoned 80 years ago.

The trail is a patchwork of history… nearly disappeared openings that were hunting camps from the elephant slaughters of the 1970s and far older regrowth from the Bakuti ethnic migration…..

view of the camp Kakongo, Dec 2020

Kakongo camp is still being built, but felt very welcoming.

Kakongo is a new camp…the old camp was burned at the end of 2019 by Bernard’s Mai-Mai, it wasn’t until the second half of 2020 that we could again put a base camp in Balanga West .

Kakongo seat with a view

A lovely place to sit in the evening or any time in Kakongo camp.

The village up the hill welcomed us with a local version of Christmas carolling…. Not much mention of Christmas but lots of WELCOME.

carolling a welcome

Dancers from the tiny village of Kakongo, one of the fewer than 15 villages that make up Balanga West.

And there were other bits of Christmas.  During the night, Santa had hung an old sock stuffed with goodies from a forked stick outside our tent

Examining Santa's surprise

Reading : “For PapaZa from Santa Claus“.

John's Christmas stocking

The goodies inside:  chocolate, dried fruit, and anti-fungal cream.  A resourceful Santa

Taye in captivity at Kakongo

Taye was a top deputy of the Mai-Mai, Bernard.  He is arrested here the day before Christmas.

Unfortunately, there are still reminders of the Mai-Mai insurrection.  One of Bernard’s deputies had fled to relatives in Kakongo.  Taye was arrested and will be tried for atrocities that he committed: rape (including of elder women), murder (beheading), torture, and theft.  

John and I returned to Kindu together where, via What’s App, we too enjoyed the Christmas celebrations of children and grandchildren.

guests arrive for new year's supper

And we had our own New Year’s feast at our Kindu base…including potatoes cooked in tripe.

The advent of 2021 is hardly smooth in terms of public health, democracy, personal and institutional safety.   But we stay optimistic …. All we are able to do is what we are convinced is right and for the common good.  We are all in this year together.  

A Look into the Future

In December, the Lomami National Park is already sodden, breeding and heavy as it roles through its four month rainy season:  flooded rivers, flowing prairies, submerged bridges.  Not the best time to visit.

wet departure from CK

A wet morning start on the path from the post at Chombekilima towards the park.

But there were just two weeks open in otherwise tight schedules for Ed Sayer, FZS Project Leader in North Luangwa, Zambia and for Kurt Steiner, of Wildcat foundation, a foundation that funds security operations in both Luangwa and Lomami.   

Loidjo back water

Here, our visitor Kurt is about 500 meters inside park limits.

Their mission: to assess security issues.  For that purpose, now was a good time to visit.  Bushmeat hunting is particularly high because of increased demand for year-end celebrations.  Also, John is deep into the elephant census (every 4th year), but shadowed by the always present threat from Mai-Mai leaders fleeing into the Park’s wilderness. Over the next few years bushmeat hunting and Mai-Mai insurgencies will continue as principal challenges.

Kurt, CdS and Mungbere at Kakongo

Kurt and the head warden meet with Lt. Mungbere at Kakongo Post. Lt Mungbere has been critical in Western Balanga where he has helped establish peace and disarm Fidel’s Mai-Mai militia.

For John and I, this trip was more than a security review; it was a first effort to peer towards the future.  We rarely consider our age; we do what needs doing and what we love to do.  But there is no denying that John turned 70 this year and I turned 69.  To make sure that what needs doing keeps getting done, and by people who love to do it and do it well, — it is time to plan.

gift goat in Benekamba

John and I receive gifts for the project in the village Benekamba during this trip; obviously, we’re “not spring chickens”, as my Mother-in-law used to candidly refer to herself and her husband. 

Here is the mission in a series of photos:

delegation route end Nov early Dec

Above is the path we followed on motorbike, foot and dugout….

Kurt gives helping hand

On the road: Kurt helps an overloaded bicycle transporter.

Kurt offers a hand to cross flooded log bridge

On the road: Kurt offers a hand, after the motorbikes gunned over the flooded log bridge one by one.

Flooded bridge 1_Nyama tende

On the path: the first bridge was submerged.

crossing Loidjo (stream 3)

On the path: The second bridge was submerged

ED about to step off bridge

On the path: All bridges were submerged.

We meet up with John and some of the rest of the team at Katopa camp and start the dugout trip downstream on the Lomami River.

At a small fishing camp on the west side of the Lomami (in an area that’s not National Park) John makes an impromptu snack for all, from the abundance of fresh first-night smoked fish, lemons shaken from a tree and rock salt.  

John prepares snacks at fishing camp
John's fresh lemon, salt and moto moya

John is excellent at turning a doubtful bare-subsistence trove into an epicurean wilderness feast.

Bit crowded at Biondo

We left the southern team and joined the northern team at the temporary camp of Biondo where we all spent the night together on the banks of the Lomami.

All along the way possible Future Paths for Lomami National Park were discussed, lined up, shaken-out, refolded and then discussed a bit more.   the underlying theme —  When the Harts move out, several more people need to move in:

  1. A security advisor – to build the infrastructure and train guards needed to tame the threats – someone ready to commit  for several years.
  2. A replacement for the Hart couple — Ideally another couple with French language , love of vast forest wilderness, conservation experience and an eagerness to embrace unknowable conservation challenges.

On arrival back in Kinshasa, Karen Laurenson the Africa Regional Director of FZS arrived and got us right down to business.  All sorts of business:  financial management, Job descriptions ….

Karen walking dogs

Kinshasa: Karen accompanied me on the dog walk along the mother river – the Congo – with Argos and Penelope.