RWINDI, Jan 11 – Until recently this outpost was a centre for watching the herds of elephants that lumber through the Virunga National Park in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo. But those days are over.
Rebel National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) forces led by renegade Tutsi general Laurent Nkunda have taken over the centre at Mabenga near Kiwanja, 80 kilometres (50 miles) north of Goma, as a forward post on the edge of the neutral zone that is supposed to separate them from the government-backed Mai-Mai militia.
Rebels and militia still trade fire in the area, as in an incident Friday that left six dead.
The zone, rich in wildlife, covers around 40 square kilometres (15 square miles) in the heart of the national park — a UNESCO World Heritage site — where antelope and buffalo browse on immense tracts of grassland.
The peace is occasionally broken by vans loaded with wood or charcoal that slalom between piles of elephant dung.
The frontier of the zone is a rusty iron bridge spanning the Rutshuru river, beyond which is big game territory — and Mai Mai infiltrators.
Positions once held by government army (FARDC) troops, with their thatched huts and tumbledown watchtowers, are now home to families of baboons. An unused and decaying road leads through high grass to a hotel, once the pride of the nation’s tourism industry.
The president of Zaire, as the country was then called, Mobutu Seke Seko, would hold lion-shooting parties there. Now it reeks of bat droppings, while filthy battle dress uniforms and abandoned boots litter the ground nearby, thrown away by fleeing government forces.
— ‘Our government does not help us’ —
Warning signs advise the visitor not to leave marked tracks, all the more relevant now that the so-called neutral zone seethes with more or less identifiable armed groups.
A motorcycle arrives and its teenage driver, visibly under the influence of cannabis, dismounts with difficulty, his Kalashnikov in his hand. But "Captain Kakato" is happy with a bit of money or a cigarette.
Around a corner militiamen, in rags but armed to the teeth, lie in wait for the rare vehicle. One holds a spear, another sports on his head a monkey skin. They declare they are patriot combatants.
The visitor is sprinkled with filthy stagnant water, an "anti-bullet potion that will protect for seven days," according to the group’s fetish chief.
"For peace or for resuming fighting, we are ready," according to the leader of the band, Pascal Kasereka, surrounded by his ragtag "general staff", in the middle of firing positions hidden in the bush.
"We try to patrol to make the zone safe," says Kasereka, a man in his 50s, pink shirt buttoned to the neck.
The looting experienced by local peasants has nothing to do with him, he says.
"A pure Mai Mai can not steal, it is the ill-disciplined FARDC troops that steal," he says.
Still, he insists, there is "good cooperation" with the government forces, camped on an escarpment several kilometres (miles) to the north.
"We only eat once day," complains Kasereka, many of whose fighters, sporting amulets or necklaces, are teenagers.
"Our government does not help us," he adds, swearing that his men do not poach in the park.
As for the rebels, "they massacre our people. We can no longer accept this damn ‘neutral zone’ in our own country."