Update on the situation in Virunga National Park
from project leader Alison Mollon
(20 November 2012): Today Goma the provincial capital of the region has fallen into the hands of the M23 rebel group and the stability of the region, and possibly even the country is uncertain. I and some of my team are currently camped out in a UN base just north of Rumangabo, having been caught in between the latest fighting. We came up to Rumangabo last week to finalise some details before going ahead with building three new schools and three water tanks in the area, and according to all our reports the area was calm as it had been for the last few months.
In July there was a major offensive by the M23 movement to take the area to the north of the mountain gorilla sector of the park. Heavy fighting lasted several days and came right to the door of the ICCN HQ in Rumangabo. The result was that all territory north of the sector, from Bunagana on the eastern border with Uganda, to Rutshuru in the north and Rumangabo in the south, fell into M23 hands.
During August the situation on the ground was too tense to return to the field but we were nonetheless successful in lobbying the World Bank for much needed funding that enabled us to provide several months’ worth of salary supplements and rations to the rangers of the gorilla sector. During the months of fighting and unrest we remained in contact with the many community members we work with and by early September we deemed it possible to return to the field.
This time, the team comprising of myself, Jeff, Alexis, Gratien and Gato, arrived around lunch time on Wednesday 14th of November and in the evening started to receive reports of troop movements within the local area. If the reports could be confirmed in the morning we had decided to leave straight away but unfortunately at 08h00 on Thursday the 15th November we started to hear the first bombing, to the south towards the village of Kibumba, a site for one of our schools and all three water tanks. During the morning we were joined by Gato’s 6yr old daughter Baraka who was at school nearby when the fighting started, luckily her uncle was on hand to walk her up to Rumangabo and she has been safely with us ever since, making us a team of six.
We met directly with the ICCN ranger team stationed at Rumangabo who agreed we could move to their camp as it is slightly further in from the road and always better to be together in such times. I would like to extend my sincerest thanks to the rangers and the civilian team in Rumangabo who offered us wonderful hospitality and security for several days. During those days we spent many hours talking to community members about the current situation along with the German embassy and Goma based UN about how to get the team out safely.
On Saturday morning the German Embassy were able to organise an escort by the local Monusco (UN Peacekeeping) base to meet us at Rumangabo and escort us back up to their mobile operating base at Katale, about 8km to the north, and here we remain. The fighting continued for several days both to the south and to the north of our position. At times it moved closer, with one battle taking place at Kelengera about 10kms to the north of us. Reports were continuously conflicting, M23 were winning then FARDC were pushing back, territory was taken and lost again and UN helicopters were coming to pick us up and then cancelled. My bag has certainly never been packed and unpacked so many times. We remain on standby and hoping for a route out but at the same time understand that the reason we are not the priority is because there are urgencies elsewhere, and our thoughts are with those who are not so fortunate as to have peace, food, water and a roof over their heads tonight.
My thoughts also go to my team and their families who remain in Goma. During the last few days we have lost the telecom networks making it difficult to keep in touch with loved ones and to fully understand the fighting situation on the ground. To date we have still received no word from Gato’s wife or any neighbours, we know there was heavy fighting in their neighbourhood and can only hope that they are safe.
I also owe thanks to the Monusco unit here at Katale who have been so accommodating and are keeping us safe. We will remain here until there is a safe way to leave. My final thoughts go to all the people who have been affected by this war, the people here just want a chance to live in peace and I hope that it won’t be too long before they get it.
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