By Pete Jones
Early on a Sunday morning last summer, the villagers of Epulu awoke to the sounds of shots and screaming. In the eastern reaches of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, that can often mean another round of violence and ethnic murder is under way. In this case, however, something even more horrific was afoot.
The village was under attack from a feared militia. In this case, the gunmen were motivated not by tribal rivalry but by land, gold and ivory. The village is situated inside a nature reserve in the Ituri rainforest, an area covering 5,000 square miles that is supposed to be off limits to hunters and gold prospectors. The militia, led by a former elephant poacher called Paul Sadala, has terrorised communities inside the reserve since 2012, employing methods brutal even by the grisly standards of this part of the world.
"The attacks were absolutely terrifying," said Justin Oganda, a representative of the residents of Epulu who remain displaced in Mambasa, about 50 miles away. By the end of that day in June, the militiamen had murdered, raped, burned people alive and even eaten the flesh and heart of one of their victims. "To have killed so many people, to burn them alive, the cannibalism … Mentally they cannot be normal," Oganda added.
As ever with Congo, it is not just a simple tale of victims and villains. Sadala, who goes by the nom de guerre Morgan, and his "Mai Mai Morgan" gunmen are thought to have powerful supporters in the security forces who enable their lucrative illegal trade in ivory and smuggled gold. Some local people with an eye on the gold in the ground beneath their feet tacitly support Morgan, who improbably also likes to be called Chuck Norris.
"There is complicity between [Morgan] and certain elements within the army," said Jefferson Abdallah Pene Mbaka, the MP for Mambasa. "With the support of certain army authorities [Mai Mai Morgan] have increased their poaching activities. The sale of ivory is organised by these figures in the army." Many people in the region believe soldiers have orders not to arrest Morgan.
Morgan's principal targets are those who operate and police the Unesco-recognised world heritage site known as the Okapi wildlife reserve, or by its French acronym, RFO. The laws of the reserve forbid the hunting of endangered species, especially elephants and okapi, and the exploitation of its gold reserves. More....