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Saturday, 14 July, 2001, 11:58 GMT 12:58 UK
Guerrillas in the mist
mountain gorilla
The mountain gorillas are on the edge of extinction
By Andrew Harding in Rwanda

"It's perfectly safe," said the man with the gun. "One hundred percent - we guarantee it."

I looked around me. If it was so perfectly safe, why were there another 15 men with guns staring rather hard into the surrounding jungle?


Business isn't exactly booming. It's the artillery that's doing that

We were half way up a Rwandan volcano at the time - walled in by a thick curtain made of nettles and bamboo.

Somewhere in the distance, a local guide with a machete was busily chopping a path for us up a 45 degree slope.

Lone tourist

"They didn't tell me about the fighting," said Stephan - the lone tourist in our party.

Stephan was a Swedish designer who had taken a year off to drive round Africa on his own. He had stopped off in this lush corner of north western Rwanda to see the famous gorillas - the ones in the mist.

A decade ago, he would have had to queue for the privilege - and pay a small fortune. Something like 60,000 tourists trekked up the volcanoes every year.

Rwandan rebel forces
The Rwanda army frequently clashes with the rebels
Today, well, business isn't exactly booming. It's the artillery that's doing that.

The fighting that Stephan hadn't heard about was the clashes between the Rwandan army and several thousand fanatical rebels, attacking the country from their bases in neighbouring Congo.

The rebels are what is left of the force that led the 1994 Rwandan genocide. They were subsequently driven out of Rwanda, but have fought on ever since in the jungles. It is a guerrilla war in gorilla territory.

Jungle visitor

Suddenly we heard a sharp crack about a hundred yards ahead. Then lots of smaller cracks.

I've never been very good at spelling guerrillas and gorillas. Now I was wondering which version was about to come charging through the bamboo.

"Gorilla," whispered the guide. And sure enough, a giant black ball of fur and muscle swung round the corner with a smaller black ball clinging onto it's leg. We stared at each other.

I'd been invited up to see the gorillas by the Rwandan wildlife service. They were keen to show the lengths they were going to protect one of the world's rarest and most endangered species.


When there are only 359 of your species left in the entire world, losing two is a heavy blow

Those lengths now include posting an entire battalion of army troops up in the volcanoes to act as bodyguards for 140 rather shy animals, and for any tourists or scientists who want to visit them.

But the best bodyguards in the world can never guarantee 100% security. Last month, two gorillas stumbled into a rebel camp. One, a 14-year-old male was shot and eaten. The other, his 15-year-old friend, was also killed.

When there are only 359 of your species left in the entire world, losing two is a heavy blow.

News of the deaths came from an unusual source. One of the rebels in the group was apparently so upset by what his colleagues had done that he surrendered to the government forces and confessed.

He told his interrogators that if his comrades were prepared to eat such a precious animal, they might turn on him next.

Gunfire

After an hour with the gorillas, we slithered back down the volcano and were about to drive into the local town of Ruhengiri when we heard shooting down the valley.

Due to some deep psychological flaw, we journalists tend to run towards gunfire instead of away from it.

The next three hours passed in a blur of adrenaline and exhaustion. We found a large group of Rwandan army troops chasing about 60 rebels they had just intercepted.

A young general with a straight back, a mobile phone and a walkie talkie was busy barking orders.

We ran, through fields of maize, banana groves, and deserted villages. The rebels had split up and were trying to hide in small groups.

We were clambering over some rocks when the general called out: "Watch where you step."

I looked down - a broken red line snaked through the green grass. Fresh blood. We followed it for about five metres until we came to the body.

Skulls from the Rwandan genocide
The Rwandan genocide in 1994 left thousands dead
He was lying on his side, wearing dirty civilian clothes. His feet were bare. I couldn't see where he'd been shot. To be honest I didn't look very hard.

There were two more bodies nearby. The general came over and pronounced himself satisfied.

"They come down from the volcanoes to search for food," he said. "They're starving up there. So they dig up people's crops. But every time they come down, we catch a few of them. We've killed 2,000 since the beginning of May."

I imagined the gorillas, somewhere up on the volcano, looking down on the drama with their quiet, quizzical eyes.

See also:

07 Jun 01 | Africa
Rwanda: How the genocide happened
18 May 01 | Africa
Congo gorilla numbers halved
22 Nov 99 | Africa
Protecting gorillas in a war zone
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