Why were the Virunga National Park Rangers Killed?

Two Virunga National Park Rangers gaze upon the lava of Nyiragongo crater. MONUSCO/Abel Kavanagh

In the heart of the forest, Mikeno Lodge, and its spacious bungalows, is the most luxurious accommodation in the Virunga National Park, located in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Fireside drinks of Champagne are served in the evening. During the day, visitors can meet orphan chimpanzees, brought up by the park rangers, and visit mountain gorillas in their natural environment. Virunga Park is one of the few in the world to host this critically endangered emblematic species.

On the morning of April 24, however, the lodge was empty due to the new coronavirus pandemic and tourism had been at a standstill for several weeks. But another scourge was about to strike.

Towards 11 o’clock, combat weapon shots suddenly tore through the forest calm. A few hundred meters from the bungalows, three vehicles, including two belonging to the rangers, had fallen into an ambush in Mahura. Half an hour of crossfire later, the death toll was horrific: 12 rangers, their driver and four civilians were dead. The Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature (ICCN) had never suffered such a heavy attack in Virunga Park.

Its rangers, however, were used to such danger. From Mount Rwenzori, which is often used to shelter the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF, a Uganda-based Islamist rebellion), to the Nyiragongo Volcano, overlooking the city of Goma, the 7,800 km2 Virunga National Park is regularly used by armed groups as their battlefield, smuggling route, or source of raw materials for looting.

This dangerous environment justified an arms race in the 2010s which led to the creation of the ICCN Quick Reaction Force (QRF), a paramilitary unit, sometimes deployed offensively, comprising 270 elite rangers (in French).  In this way, and as noble as their nature conservation mission may be, the rangers have in effect become actors caught up in the conflicts in the Kivus. The Kivu Security Tracker (KST) has recorded 28 clashes involving ICCN rangers since it started logging such incidents in 2017. This figure most likely only represents part of the true total.

The rangers often cooperate with the Congolese army in attacks which can cause collateral civilian damage, such as against the Mai-Mai Mazembe on May 23, 2019. “The park believes, rightly, that rangers are not legitimate targets under international humanitarian law, but the specific status of the QRF and the nature of their operations places them in a gray zone,” says Christoph Vogel, a researcher at the University of Ghent (Belgium) and former member of the UN Group of Experts on the DRC.

Furthermore, a long and complex conflict on the limits of the park’s boundaries has pitted them against some local communities. The park covers a quarter of the territories of Beni, Lubero, Masisi, Nyiragongo, and Rutshuru and deprives some farmers of access to land on which they are used to farming. This conflict is particularly acute in the region of Nyamilima, although the ICCN has recently authorized harvesting on a temporary basis from April 27 to July 26 to allow them to better cope with food scarcity caused by the pandemic (in French).

ICCN rangers therefore do not lack for enemies, especially its most feared unit, the QRF, which was decimated in the attack. On the same day, park authorities were able to publish several highly detailed statements on the circumstances surrounding the attack.

The first states that in fact it was a civilian vehicle which was targeted by the ambush. According to our information, this was a white Toyota Prado TX which was attacked with RPG rocket launchers and PKM machine guns. According to the statement, the assailants were reported to be none other than Rwandan Hutu rebels of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR-Foca).  More specifically, the assailants appeared to be approximately sixty combatants from the Maccabé group, formerly known as the Commando de recherche et d’action en profondeur (CRAP), an FDLR commando unit.

ICCN rangers, who happened to be passing by on the drive back to their headquarters in Rumangabo, were reported to be only the collateral damage of the ambush and only targeted because they tried to assist some civilians. The second version slightly amended the first statement, which only stated that a civilian vehicle in close proximity had been attacked before the arrival of the rangers.

So why would the FDLR possibly have carried out an attack on a civilian vehicle with combat weapons? Several diplomatic, university, and ICCN sources outlined the scenario to KST. According to them, the FDLR is reported to have received information that FARDC Colonel Claude Rusimbi, deputy commander of intelligence operations of the 3409th Regiment, was going to use that road, between Goma and Rutshuru, on the same morning. It may well be that the FDLR mistook the rangers for his escort.

The FDLR had cause to hold a personal grudge against Rusimbi. On April 13, one of their main strongholds in Kazahoro, a few kilometers from the attack, had been attacked in a major offensive by the Congolese army (in French). According to several military and diplomatic sources, Rwandan army (RDF) Special Forces had secretly participated in this attack. However, according to several military and university sources, Colonel Rusimbi is just one of the Congolese officers in charge of coordination with their Rwandan counterparts. The colonel was also aware that he was the target of the FDLR, according to a member of his entourage.

Whether it was targeted retaliation against Rusimbi or not, the responsibility of the FDLR seems highly probable. It fits with both the weapons used and the modus operandi of the armed group, as well as the area known for attacks by this group.

The attack against the Virunga Park Rangers (red star) is located in an area where the FDLR-Foca regularly carry out attacks (other colors: incidents in which they were implicated, since June 2017)

In addition to the ICCN, who holds the FDLR responsible for the ambush, President Paul Kagame also accused the armed group during a press conference on April 27 (37th minute).

The FDLR also had its own motivations for attacking the ICCN. These rebels regularly suspect the park rangers of collaborating with the Rwandan army to hunt them down. In addition, according to several reports by the UN Group of Experts on the DRC, one of their main sources of funding is the sale and taxation of “makala,” or charcoal, produced by illegally burning trees from within the park. This effectively places them in conflict with the ICCN, including the QRF.

The FDLR have, however, put forward their own theory: according to them, the Rwandan army is responsible for the attack (in French). But this scenario appears convoluted: the ICCN is alleged to have knowingly lied, by wrongly accusing the FDLR so as to demonize them and justify, after the fact, the presence of the RDF on Congolese soil. Such a plot, involving several different actors, appears difficult to put together.

“The FDLR statement is totally disconnected from the reality of the facts,” claims an expert on this group. “It was only released to respond to the Rwandan authorities in the war they are waging in the media.”

“Members of the FDLR admit in private that they are behind this attack,” indicates Christoph Vogel. “According to them, this was a ‘mistake’ and they claim that their target was Rusimbi.”

Congolese Army’s Optimism Undermined by New ADF Massacres

The town of Oïcha, located on the Beni-Eringeti trunk road, where several massacres have been committed since November (2019 World Bank/Vincent Tremeau)

It was January 10 of this year. After two and a half months of operations and massacres against civilians, the Congolese army (FARDC) announced that they had taken “Madina,” the headquarters of the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a Uganda-based Islamist group which has been killing Beni’s population for over six years. Better still, the FARDC announced that they had killed five of the ADF’s six heads. What followed was a period of relative calm and there was hope among the inhabitants of Beni territory that the killers had finally lost the war (in French).

However, since then, there has been a worrying upsurge in the number of massacres. 38 civilians were killed by stabbing in the villages of Manzingi and Mebundi on January 28, the deadliest day to date since the start of this recent wave of killings, which started in November 2019. In Beni territory, other significant massacres were committed on January 29, 30 and 31, and on February 11 and 17, with an additional 38 people killed in Ituri province, which had previously been spared such violence.

In total, more than 393 civilians have been killed since November in attacks attributed to the ADF in North Kivu and Ituri provinces, according to Kivu Security Tracker (KST) statistics. Such recent events contradict the optimism shown by the Congolese army, have caused turmoil within Beni’s population, and dealt a blow to Kinshasa’s credibility. In fact, President Félix Tshisekedi had announced his intention to “definitively exterminate” the ADF last October.

Yet this situation was sadly predictable. Doubts had already been raised on this blog, when we predicted that even if Madina were taken, this would not put an end to the conflict. One indicator in particular pointed to this: the relatively low number of ADF fighters and heads killed or arrested.

Since then, this number has barely risen. The Congolese army rarely communicates the results of its operations, and when it does, such as on January 11 (it had announced the death of 40 ADF combatants and 30 Congolese soldiers during its offensive against the “northern axis” towards Madina), its numbers are questioned by the vast majority of diplomatic and UN sources asked by KST. According to such sources, loss of life numbers are in fact reported to be lower for the ADF and much higher for the Congolese army. “The real numbers communicated to me are some 40 ADF killed, a dozen weapons recovered and nearly 300 deaths of our soldiers since the start of operations,” claimed a local Beni dignitary close to the Chiefs of Staff.

Whatever the case, ADF troop levels, estimated at between 790 and 1060 soldiers in 2019, probably remain high enough to continue to represent a long-term threat.

Moreover, KST was unable to verify the deaths of the five “generals” the FARDC claim to have killed. Contrary to custom when there is a death of a head of an armed group in eastern DRC, very few photos of the bodies of the ADF leaders have been shared on messaging platforms or social media networks. Photos of just one corpse, presented by the Congolese army as that of “Mwee wa Kazi,” appear to correspond to a known ADF head: Nasser Abdu Hamid Diiru, the deputy commander of one of their camps. However, this death has also not been confirmed by independent sources of the Congolese army.

Nasser Abdu Hamid Diiru is the only ADF head whose death has been confirmed by photographs (organigram from the Congo Research Group report “Inside the ADF” of November 2018)

“The offensive was very badly prepared,” said Muhindo Nzangi, an opposition politician from North Kivu. “The FARDC launched a classic operation, to retake ADF bases. But the ADF had anticipated this: they did not fight, except on two occasions, at Lahé and Madina, and only then to slow down the FARDC’s progress and to give their members time to leave. On their side, the ADF carried out deadly ambushes on our soldiers.”

“The hilly, densely-forested terrain is ideal to move around without being seen,” added the French General, Jean Baillaud, who was deputy commander of the UN Stabilization Mission in the DRC (MONUSCO) from 2013 to 2016. “Against such adversaries, occupying static positions is not very useful. If they are weak, they are a target and can be attacked, in which case they become a supply of weapons and ammunition for the enemy. If they are strong, they can easily be bypassed.”

Should we therefore conclude that the operations to date – which have mobilized 22,000 men and 19 generals, according to a UN source – have proved ineffective? Not necessarily. Several signs suggest that the ADF has had to adapt its methods. First, since November 26, they have committed many fewer massacres in urban areas along the Beni-Eringeti trunk road and even less in more remote regional areas.

However, it is these urban attacks which have had the greatest impact. This was particularly visible on November 20, with the attack in Boikene neighborhood, in Beni town, which led to protests against MONUSCO. Google search statistics also show that the November massacres generated much more interest than those of January, even if these led to a similar death toll.

The number of civilians killed in massacres attributed to the ADF remained very high from November to January

But interest in this matter declined substantially (number of searches for the words “Beni Congo” on Google since October 1 – source: Google trends)

Second, there has been food pillaging during several recent massacres. For the ADF, this is rarely their modus operandi. This suggests that their supply lines have been disturbed by FARDC operations.

Finally, recent killings have occurred to the west of National Route 4, in an area located far away from FARDC operations. This gives rise to several, not necessarily mutually exclusive, assumptions. Either the ADF has allied itself with other armed groups in the area, to whom they have “outsourced” the killings. Or some of them, at least, have managed to bypass the enemy to then move around in this area, less covered by security forces. Until the beginning of February, the FARDC had only one platoon in the town of Mangina and MONUSCO had none: its closest base is in Biakato, in Ituri province.

Regardless, the FARDC have inferred that the relocation of the killings to the west of Beni territory is a diversionary attempt by the ADF. “They want to force us to send troops there so that we leave the triangle of death to allow them to retake their bases,” an officer told KST. Nonetheless, according to another military source, a FARDC company was sent to reinforce Mangina at the start of February.

Despite President Félix Tshisekedi’s commitment, the current FARDC offensive could, like its predecessors, fail to defeat the ADF. In January 2014, the FARDC had already launched a major attack against the ADF, with the support of MONUSCO. After four months, they announced that they had retaken “Madina.” Then, in October, large-scale civilian massacres had occurred: 345 people had been killed within a period of three months.

The FARDC ended up leaving the forest, and the ADF was more or less been able to retake their former positions. “With hindsight, I realize that we had an overly binary approach to the conflict,” admits Jean Baillaud today. “We thought that the ADF were a clearly identified enemy whom we could defeat in a military operation. In reality, and today it’s clear, it’s not only an armed group, it’s also a network which controls large swathes of the local economy and enjoys a lot of support.”

To defeat this enemy, there might well be a need to implement a more holistic strategy, which leverages the Congolese intelligence services, justice system and diplomatic corps, and which targets not only the ADF themselves but also their financing, recruitment, and support networks both in the DRC and the region. Failing that, purely military offensives appear to be doomed to fail.