The morning of the attack, I was driving down the road from Rutshuru towards Goma on my way home from an assignment. I stopped to buy some fruit from roadside vendors.
As I was buying oranges, a truck full of Virunga Park rangers drove past. I got back in my vehicle and a few minutes later we reached the village of Bivunga, where people on the road stopped us and told us there was an attack underway a few hundred meters ahead. I could hear gunfire so I grabbed my camera and started filming while trying to find out what was going on. I called an army officer who informed me there was an ambush, with civilians and rangers killed.
It turns out that the truck that passed me while I was buying fruit was on its way back to the park headquarters and, along with another Virunga Park truck, came to the defense of a civilian vehicle that had been ambushed by a militia group. The rangers also came under attack and 13 of them were killed, along with four civilians. Three other rangers were seriously wounded, with one in critical condition, according to a statement from the park. In the video, you can see the truck carrying the wounded rangers to hospital.
The attack was blamed on 60 fighters from the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a rebel group that has fought the Congolese government and rival militias for decades. The FDLR denied their involvement in the attack in a statement.
The incident was one of the deadliest in the history of Virunga Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site burrowed within the forest-covered volcanoes of central Africa. Virunga is the continent’s oldest national park and largest tropical rainforest reserve, covering 7,800 square kilometers, and home to over half the world’s population of mountain gorillas. The park has been repeatedly hit by violence, but still relies on tourism to help fund its conservation efforts. It was closed to visitors in March after experts warned gorillas might be vulnerable to catching Covid-19. This has had a huge impact on conservation efforts.
“We are on a timer. We only have about two months before our critical functions for protecting the park can no longer be sustained,” Virunga Park director Emmanuel de Merode told the BBC just after the ambush. “At the moment, we’re facing the greatest threat that we’ve had in a very long time. And so the future of the park is hanging on a thread. The entire tourist industry has ground to a halt. On top of that, movements are impaired, the economy has been very badly affected, and all of that gives an advantage to these very violent militias that are attacking the park and the community at large at the moment.”
Militias groups are drawn to the park’s natural resources, including charcoal, one of the major sources of revenue in the region. Illegal extraction of natural resources from the park was estimated at over $170 million in 2017, according to De Merode.
Once the fighting stopped, I was able to continue along the road to the scene of the ambush. A rocket-propelled grenade had hit the civilian vehicle, a jeep, and the bodies were burned and lying charred on the ground. The Virunga Park truck had been shot up, its tires were flat, and the doors swung open. The bodies of the rangers were lying on the ground and hanging over the side. It looked like they had been gunned down as they tried to get out of the vehicle.
I tried to film the scene, but some of the rangers who had survived were upset and an army colonel got angry and threatened me. It would have put me in danger to continue shooting. Instead, I watched as De Merode and the others got the body bags to remove the dead.
I found out afterwards that I knew one of the civilians killed that day. Her name was Dorcas Aboubacar and she was 25. She lived on my street and I know her mother well. I attended her funeral, but there was not much to bury, just some ashes.
The whole thing was quite shocking. I was in a rush to get home that morning, but I stopped to buy some oranges and the rangers went in front of me. If I had kept driving, I could have been killed like the four civilians.
The names of the 13 park rangers killed in the attack can be found at https://virunga.org