26 December: Epulu Ranger Station, Democratic Republic of Congo.
But for the early arrival of the pygmies from yesterday, the morning would have started unremarkably. Yesterday’s thunderstorm delayed the trade in Ituri forest crafts, but this morning, they arrived with scores of necklaces made from forest nuts, small seeds and bark rope. Plus a musical instrument made from two large, hollow nuts connected by bark-rope. And a pair of bows and arrows.
I bought a bow for my brother. He has a fascination with weaponry, and there can be no doubt whatsoever that the bows here carry a pedigree. Right down to the grass string and the leaf fletching on the shafts of the arrows, the whole set is as much of an authentic Congolese hunting souvenir as it is possible to find.
Afterwards, we sit and interview two of the leaders of yesterday’s hunting expedition on camera as an exercise in subverting documentary cliches. Very rarely have I seen portrayals of groups like the pygmies which allow them to speak about their lives for themselves. Too often a documentary on something like pygmy hunting practices is narrated entirely by a Westerner on behalf of the local people. If I can do my bit to imagine telling such stories differently, then I’m pleased to do so.
June 28 2012: Email update on the situation in Epulu
Following the attack on Sunday morning by Mai Mai Simba rebels on the Institute in the Congo for Conservation of Nature (ICCN) headquarters and Okapi Conservation Project base of operations in Epulu it was 48 hours later on Tuesday morning when the Congolese Army (FARDC) and Monusco (UN) troops finally took control of the area around the town of Epulu. Security is being extended along the road in order to allow residents to return to their homes in Epulu. The tragic outcome of the attack on the Epulu Station and Okapi Wildlife Reserve Headquarters has now been verified by ICCN and OCP personnel on site in Epulu.
The rest of the morning is spent sitting in the shade by the wide brown expanse of the Epulu river catching up on journalling, and discussing fragments of thoughts we’ve been having.
I am having a hard time feeling the specialness of the situation. Trying to appreciate how far we are from anything I am familiar with and that we are, in fact, in the middle of the world’s second-largest rainforest is impossible to fully grasp. Everything just seems so very normal. Rangers go by on scooters, ICCN conservation 4x4s occasionally depart on some forestry-related business. And I get to drink a beer by the riverside and carry right on writing. It’s a beautiful and relaxing place, yet I can’t help feeling as if I am failing to appreciate the strangeness of its context.
Claire wonders out loud about returning to this place. How unlikely it is, and how strange to imagine knowing – almost for for sure – that you will never set foot in a place again. In this life, these moments are it.
Returning to Uganda was strange in that way initially, but the deja-vu of return wears thin and soon evaporates as the days go on. Because return is more than simply revisiting a place. It’s the manufacture of a specific experience. Even in the same place, with different people you will find a diferent experience. A new play executed on an old stage. So, in a way, I guess we never return. Never return to moments, feelings, and experiences.
The Buddhists, perhaps, had it right. In the end, nothing lasts forever. The world keeps on moving, and we keep on changing.
The destruction rendered by the rebels is far worse than anyone could have imagined.
Casualties and damage from the attack include:
- 6 people were killed – 2 ICCN rangers, the wife of one of the rangers, an immigration worker, and 2 residents of Epulu.
- 14 okapi were killed.
- All ICCN buildings were damaged or burned.
- All OCP buildings and offices damaged or burned.
- Motorized equipment stolen, damaged.
- All food stores looted and storage containers destroyed.
- All computers and printers stolen or burned.
- Satellite phones stolen.
- All medical supplies taken from Dispensary.
- Shops and homes in the town of Epulu were looted and damaged.
The destruction of ICCN and OCP facilities is extensive and there seems to be not one thing of value left. There is no food left in town so there is nothing to eat for those coming out of the forest. We are feeding the families that escaped to Mambassa until they can go back to Epulu. There is a meeting today of our staff in Mambassa to organize supplies and basic shelter needs to take with them when they return to Epulu. The OCP will be sending funds to DR Congo to finance the purchase of food, supplies and medicines so that ICCN and OCP staff can set up a base of operations in Epulu.
Last night, and again this afternoon, I can’t help thinking about what comes next. I have work to get back to, but beyond that, this year will be the most changeable of my life so far. If I’m going to make the leap from occasional writing/photography to someone who plants both feet more firmly in the direction of new places, then that leap must happen soon. The life of things known grows old. If I am to become wiser, to live more, then I need to strike out into new directions, into the roads that can carry me to wherever it is my heart leads.
I will be sad at much that I will leave behind, but excited at the new experiences – imagined and probable, that lie ahead.
That’s how you know it’s time to go.
After a thorough assessment of the damage to project facilities and equipment in Epulu we will define a rebuilding strategy and budget and we will be reaching out to our friends and supporters for help in returning the programs back to full operation. Meanwhile the OCP will continue to provide funds to the ICCN so that it can carry out anti poaching activities that protect okapi, and all the wildlife of the Ituri Forest.
All of our thoughts are with the people of Epulu and the families that lost loved ones. We thank our friends for their concern during this tragic time and know that with your support the Okapi Conservation Project and ICCN will again be working together to safeguard the forest home of the okapi.
The Wildlife Conservation Network has offered to collect contributions for the emergency fund while we focus our efforts on rebuilding the Station and keeping programs operating that aid the local communities.
Please make your contribution to: www.WildNet.org/support/ click on okapi on the pull down menu.