Congo rebels fund insurgency by taking tourists on gorilla treks

Rebels accused of atrocities take foreign tourists on gorilla treks and use the revenue to fund its insurgency in the DRC

PUBLISHED : Monday, 22 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 22 October, 2012, 5:39am

A Congolese rebel group accused of killings, mass rapes and other atrocities is taking groups of tourists on gorilla treks to the Virunga national park and using the proceeds to fund its insurgency.

Democratic Republic of Congo government authorities were forced to withdraw from parts of the park earlier this year because of the advance by M23 rebels, and now tourists wanting to see the rare mountain gorillas are being led by rangers who have defected to the militia.

A tour operator in Bunagana, a border town that has been held by the M23 since July, said international tourists were still coming to the park, at a cost of more than US$350 a day. "We had 39 visitors in August alone," said Laurent Ntawukiruwe, director of Shoushou Safari Tours.

"I have agents in many different countries that help to bring tourists in. We have had German and Italian visitors, and soon we will have some French coming." A group of British tourists were booked to visit on 29 October, but cancelled their reservation.

Ntawukiruwe said his tours were run by rangers who had defected to the M23, who are fighting an insurgency against the national government. "The four rangers … are now in collaboration with M23," he said.

In September a report by Human Rights Watch accused the M23 fighters of committing "widespread war crimes, including summary executions, rapes, and forced recruitment". The UN has accused neighbouring Rwanda of supporting the rebels.

The outbreak of hostilities between M23 and the Congolese army in May forced the Congolese National Park Authorities to shut down its tourism activity. Shoushou Safari Tours has no link to the legitimate park authorities, said Virunga park director Emmanuel de Merode.

"These tours have absolutely nothing to do with us," said De Merode. "This puts the gorillas and the visitors at risk. You need to have well-trained staff to lead these tours - handling mountain gorillas is an extremely sensitive issue. These expeditions are detrimental to the park and we condemn them in the strongest terms."

Vianney Harakandi in the Virunga park tourism office in Goma confirmed that a handful of rangers had defected to join M23. He criticised Shoushou Safari Tours for trying to suggest the expeditions were official, saying it was an attempt to disguise the fact that the tours were aiding M23. "Ultimately the money the tourists pay will just reinforce the capacity of this illegal armed group," he said.

Eugene Rwabuhihi, from the M23 department of tourism, environment and conservation, suggested that the rebels were planning to step up the operation. "We are preparing for tourism activities and securing the gorilla population," he said. "When tourists come they will pay to see the gorillas, and we will receive part of that money for providing their security."

Tourists pay US$300 for the permit to see the gorillas, US$50 for transportation and US$10 for the guides.

Tourists wanting to see the gorillas usually fly into the Ugandan capital Kampala before driving to the Congolese border and crossing into Bunagana, where they stay in the Mountain Gorilla hotel. The hotel has recently hosted meetings of high-ranking M23 military commanders.

As the border crossing is controlled by M23, tourists no longer have to buy a Congolese visa. "It is much simpler for me like this, because I don't have to pay for my visa, or organise all sorts of different permits and passes," said Abdel, a French tourist.