Just over a year ago, Andre Bauma and his adopted daughter Ndakasi huddled together as bombs, rockets and mortars rent the air. Bauma recalls holding Ndakasi and stroking her thick, dark hair. They were by no means the only ones afraid that day; tens of thousands of families either hunkered down or fled the onslaught. What made them unique was that Ndasaki, Bauma’s “daughter,” was one of around 800 mountain gorillas remaining in the world.
The thick forest canopy above the headquarters of the Virunga National Park at Rumangabo gives the impression that this natural paradise is somehow insulated from war. Tree tops part, revealing densely covered plains and, on a clear night, the red glow of Nyiaragongo volcano with the largest lava lake in the world. Birdsong and the occasional bark of a belligerent baboon are usually the only sounds. Until the fighting starts.
A few kilometers south of the park’s headquarters is the most important military base in the war-torn east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In July of last year, the rebel group M23 seized the sprawl of buildings with traditional Belgian facades. As the battle raged, tanks moved through Rumangabo village and heavy artillery was stationed at the school. Civilians turned up at the park’s headquarters bearing gunshot and shrapnel wounds, some carrying their dead.
Recalling that day in the forest enclosure of the gorilla orphanage, park ranger Bauma demonstrates a medium-pitched throaty growl, which he uses to signal calm. “You have to let the gorillas know that they’re not in danger,” he says. It’s just one utterance in Bauma’s extensive gorilla vocabulary. He lives with three young females at the Rumangabo orphanage, but only Ndakasi is convinced she is his child.
Bauma was born in Masisi in 1972, a time, he says, when life in North Kivu was good. Television images of gorillas consumed his youth, and he longed to see them in real life. Peace, he recalls, was shattered after horrifying ethnic discord led to the slaughter of nearly a million Rwandans in 1994 and numerous armed groups pouring into the country. The lack of alternative livelihoods and the prevalence of forced recruitment meant that many young men like Bauma ended up fighting. But in 1998, when the “Great War of Africa” began between 20 armed groups from nine countries, Bauma heard that the National Park was recruiting rangers. Three years after signing up he saw his first gorilla. “It was my greatest joy,” he says.
Today, Bauma’s bedroom, which abuts the gorilla’s quarters, is part veterinary clinic, part soldiers’ digs. A Kalashnikov is propped by his bed; human supplements and children’s medicines stock the shelves, a reminder of our genetic similarity to gorillas. Like all rangers, Bauma is militarily trained; there are always a handful of potentially hostile armed groups in the park. He is reluctant to speak of the occasions where he was forced to use his weapon, but more than 130 rangers have died defending the park since 1996.
Ndakasi was born in 2007 during a paroxysm of violence after elections promised, and failed, to bring peace. Regional stability collapsed as a rebellion gathered strength, one almost identical to the uprising today. Fighting reduces the rangers’ ability to patrol, and in the chaos at least 10 gorillas died that year. Bauma found Ndakasi when she was less than two months old, clinging to the back of her dead mother who was shot at close range in the back of her head. Ndakasi weighed five-and-a-half pounds and was eighteen inches long.
Bauma pried Ndakasi from her mother’s body and slept with her that night in a vegetation den on the forest floor. Bauma thought she would die, but during the night she started pinching his chest seeking milk. He drip-fed her with a spoon. “I’m her mother,” Bauma says today with a shrug.
Six weeks after Bauma found Ndakasi, there was a massacre of the critically endangered species. Images of the four slaughtered Rugendo family gorillas made headlines around the world. Victims of one of the Congo’s lesser-known resource wars, they were reportedly killed by a corrupt park official—the same who’d killed Ndakasi’s mother—who was trying to spite a warden for cracking down on the illegal charcoal trade. Later, an adolescent male was found with a baby clinging to his back—his sister whom he’d rescued. “Gorillas have something in their souls very close to humans,” Bauma says. “There is great love and affection between siblings.” Bauma brought Ndeze, the new orphan, to join Ndakasi, and they became “Andre’s girls.”
Bauma shared their bed for three years. Weaning was problematic. Ndakasi would beat her head against the floor if he tried to leave and cry whenever he did. To this day she is like a clingy toddler. He scolds her with a tap on the nose when she proffers a millipede in her prehensile lips.
Last month, the national army launched a helicopter gunship attack on the rebel-held training base. Once more, Bauma held Ndakasi as the sound of rockets ripped through the air. They missed, hitting the village instead, and, the rebels claim, a number of civilians.
The war in the east has become a nightmarish cycle of mutinies and shifting alliances between armed groups. Today, the park’s headquarters are still in rebel territory and the fighting reignited this week. The visitor center in Kibati was hit by a shell last month and is now occupied by bedraggled young fighters. The park staff is relieved that the headquarters have not been occupied as they were in 2008 by the CNDP, the pre-cursor to the M23 rebellion. But insecurity still reverberates: another ranger was killed in an ambush by an armed group last month. For civilians, the repercussions are immeasurable.
Bauma’s wife and “real” children live in Kiwanja, north of Rumangabo, which is still in M23 territory, where looting, beating, and summary executions have been documented in recent months. Until now they’re safe. With the rebellion on the back foot, the occupation may end soon, but it’s unclear if there is sufficient political will to end the violence.
For Bauma, offering support to Ndakasi becomes harder every year. “It’s my back,” he says, gesturing to his lower spine. She now weighs 50kg (110 pounds) and still insists on clinging to his back. Standing in the tranquil forest enclosure, Bauma dutifully braces himself as Ndakasi clambers up and closes her eyes in bliss. Her wide mouth nuzzles his neck. In the midst of the inhuman obscenities of this war, Bauma and his daughter offer some hope.