Mambasa was once the most peaceful territory in Province Orientale in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. Over the last nine months, however, a simmering land conflict has resulted in a brutal militia carrying out attacks of astonishing inhumanity, targeting the local community and the park rangers who patrol the vast Ituri rainforest tracking poachers.
The militia is known as Mai Mai Morgan after its leader, a former poacher possessed of a burning hatred for the rangers who arrested him in the past. Morgan and his men have committed murder, mass rape, torture, cannibalism, kidnaps and have burned their enemies alive.
Their fight, they say, is for the land that they claim is rightfully theirs. Morgan hates the restrictions imposed by the laws governing the vast nature reserve in the Ituri rainforest known as the Okapi Fauna Reserve. The reserve covers 13,000 sq km and prevents local communities hunting endangered animals or digging for minerals.
The park rangers are backed by international conservation organisations, including the Wildlife Conservation Society, Worldwide Fund for Nature and USAID. They claim Morgan is simply a lunatic. Locals, however, say he has a point, and they want greater freedoms on their land. Meanwhile, the state’s only reaction is to send in its undisciplined and underpaid soldiers, who harass locals, poach animals and dig for minerals in the reserve.
While a few voices call for dialogue, the danger is that the local communities and the reserve authorities are growing increasingly antagonistic. The result is a volatile mix of resentment and misunderstanding, creating an environment in which armed groups like Mai Mai Morgan continue to profit and wreak havoc.