Hello, this is Jean Claude. Please see below the heart-rending letter my colleague Henry Cirhuza from Goma has sent out to the world about the humanitarian crisis in eastern DR Congo.
I am writing to you from Goma, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, where once again the horror of war threatens to destroy our country and the conservation efforts that we have established to protect some of the world’s last remaining gorillas.
I am proud to be Congolese and I am proud of my country, but it breaks my heart to see war engulfing our lives and all that we have worked hard to achieve.
The situation in Goma deteriorated suddenly on Wednesday evening. Soldiers from the Congolese national army, who had been fighting rebels on the road to Kibumba, just north of the city, arrived in Goma and began firing bullets everywhere.
The soldiers were out of control, and mass panic broke out among the population of Goma who did not know what to do. After nightfall, the city remained at the mercy of uninhibited soldiers who began to loot homes and rape women throughout the city. It was a terrifying situation. All we could do was lock ourselves in our houses and hope for the best. I felt completely helpless.
On Thursday morning, we awoke with great reluctance. We did not know the extent of the damage done over night, nor who controlled the city. But we were at least thankful that we had made it through the hours of darkness without being harmed.
I later managed to speak with a neighbour, who has connections with the military. He reported that at the last minute, when the city was about to fall into the hands of rebels, negotiations were made and Laurent Nkunda, the rebel leader, had been forced to call a cease-fire.
Despite the supposed cease-fire, we continued to hide in our homes. We were still too terrified to leave the house in case the gunfire started again, and we listened to the radio in the hope of gaining information. I contacted family, friends and colleagues to make sure that no one had suffered from the attacks. The day before we had lost contact with some of our colleagues in Rutshuru, a town in the middle of rebel held territory. We feared the worse – and felt helpless to do anything, but thankfully they were all OK; after spending a fearful night in the forest they had returned to their homes. My two cousins sadly did not fare so well. Armed robbers had visited their homes, all their personal belongings were looted and their families were petrified – they lost everything.
The situation in Goma has turned in to a major humanitarian crisis. There are hundreds of thousands of people without homes, and the lack of food and water is becoming a major problem. All the markets and shops are deserted and since many of the roads surrounding Goma are controlled by rebels there is no way for food to get to the city. It will not be long at all before people start dying of hunger. My family only have enough food for one more day and then we too will start to get desperate.
Up until now we have been reluctant to leave Goma. For all of us the memories of the Nyirangogo volcano eruption, which destroyed much of Goma in 2002, is still fresh in our minds. During this time we became refugees and suffered theft, abuse, hunger and cold, and we are scared that if we leave we will be in this situation again. But as we run out of food I have realised that we can no longer stay here.
Myself and the rest of the Gorilla Organization team are also becoming increasingly concerned about the gorillas.
As food runs out and soldiers make life in the city hell, people are fleeing to the only place they can – to the gorillas’ forest. They will be searching for food, but my fear is that they will not find enough food in the national park either – the forest cannot support hundreds of thousands of people – and instead they will unintentionally be destroying the gorilla habitat. We can only hope that the gorillas will be wise enough to move deep into the forest, or maybe cross the border in to Rwanda. Having said that, as the forest becomes populated with refugees and soldiers there will be little place for them to hide.
The gorillas are now completely unprotected. Rebels raided the Congolese wildlife authority (ICCN’s) headquarters at Rumangabo earlier in the week, and the rangers were forced to flee. Many rangers are now suffering in squalid refugee camps, but some remain missing and we fear these guardians of the gorillas may not make it. While we believe that the gorillas are not a target of the unrest, it is surely only time before they get caught up in the conflict – and without ranger protection they are in serious danger.
If we can make it safely over the border to Rwanda, our colleagues there will be able to help us find food, water and shelter and we will be able to get back to our work of saving the gorillas. The Gorilla Organization is perfectly placed to help ease the pressure on the national park and support the rangers in protecting the gorillas. But for this we need your help.
Congo is in crisis. This is an emergency situation. We need funds to evacuate the Gorilla Organization’s staff and partners from eastern DR Congo and to help them survive away from home until it is safe for them to return. And we need funds to ensure that as soon as the area is safe we have the resources in place to protect the gorillas and their habitat as well as we possibly can.
Please help us and give whatever you can today.
DR Congo Programme Manager
The Gorilla Organization