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(Cheryl Carlin)

Guerrillas in Their Midst

Face to face with Congo's imperiled mountain gorillas

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The border crossing from Rwanda to Congo is an hour's drive to the west, and getting to it is like descending from an earthly paradise into the outer gates of hell. Mount Nyiragongo erupted in January 2002, spewing molten lava down onto the Congo town of Goma. Half a million people fled as the eruption destroyed 80 percent of Goma's commercial district, smothering it with a blanket of lava up to 15 feet deep.

"Goma should not be rebuilt where it is now," Naples University volcanologist Dario Tedesco declared after inspecting the devastation a few days after the disaster. "The next eruption could be much closer to the town, or even inside it." Despite his warning, most of Goma's residents returned—they had nowhere else to go—only to be forced to flee again last December when warlord Nkunda threatened to occupy the town. A counterattack by U.N. peacekeeping forces based in Goma sent the rebels back into the jungles.

The 4,000 U.N. troops, most of them from India, are led by Brig. Gen. Pramod Behl. At his barricaded headquarters, he tells me that the region remains unstable and dangerous and that Nkunda's troops are "still raping and pillaging." He also alerts me to the presence of Mai Mai rebels, fierce Ugandan dissidents holding out along the Rwanda-Congo border, and some 5,000 Interahamwe, who are unwilling to return to Rwanda for fear of imprisonment or worse. Clearly, he adds, the gorillas "need all the help they can get."

Back in town, my eyes sting and my nose clogs from the volcanic dust thrown up by a brisk wind and aid workers' SUVs. Grim-faced Congolese police patrol the streets in single file; three men allegedly killed a priest and a carpenter the night before, and the police had to rescue the men from a mob. "The authorities put on this show of force for fear the smoldering resentment will flare into violence," says Robert Muir, who has lived in Goma for four years as a conservationist for the Frankfurt Zoological Society.

On Goma's outskirts, shantytowns give way to green fields on either side of a potholed road that is patrolled by hundreds of Congolese soldiers with assault rifles. We pass the vast muddy fields where a million Hutu refugees lived in tents for years after fleeing the Tutsi army. Almost all of them have returned to their villages, and only a few scattered tents remain.

At a turnoff, our four-wheel-drive van heads up a track studded with lava rock, and we bounce around like pinballs. The hills are dotted with mud-hut villages, whose volcanic fields flourish with crops, mostly potatoes and corn. Looming over this deceptively peaceful landscape is Mikeno, the 14,557-foot volcano on whose cloudy slopes live Humba and his family—as well as other Congo mountain gorillas.

Two hours later, we reach our destination, the Bukima patrol post, a dilapidated weatherboard hut that is home to the rangers who accompany the gorilla trackers each day. Jean Marie Serundori, the post's chief ranger, has spent 17 years with the gorillas. "So many of our rangers have been killed by rebels and poachers in the park," he tells me as Newport translates. "Two months ago, hundreds of Nkunda's troops occupied this very spot and looted it, remaining until just two weeks ago. We fled at the time, and have only just returned. [The rebels] are still just a few miles from here." I ask him why he risks his life by returning. "The gorillas are our brothers," he responds. "I know them as well as my own family. If we don't check that they're safe every day, soldiers and poachers might harm them." Rangers sometimes name newborn gorillas after community leaders who have recently died.

Serundori leads us through terraced fields where villagers are turning over the rich soil with hoes. Serundori says that a big silverback named Senkekwe—but better known as Rugendo—is nearby with his family, 12 members in all. "The gorillas like to raid the fields, especially to eat the corn."

As we enter the park, the dense canopy casts the jungle into verdant gloom. I struggle to breathe as we climb a steep, rocky slope. Minutes later, Serundori utters the rasping call that he says the gorillas interpret as "peace." He points at the thickets ahead. "Le grand chef, the big chief, is in there."

Within moments, we hear the thock, thock, thock of a silverback beating his barrel chest, a thrilling sound that echoes through the jungle. I tense as the six-foot-tall Rugendo, weighing probably 450 pounds, bustles through the thicket, then relax as he heads past us into the jungle. He is followed by a young, imp-faced male named Noel, so called, Serundori whispers, "because he was born on Christmas Eve three years ago." Rangers can tell one gorilla from another by the shape of their noses.

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