I just returned a few weeks ago from Goma, DRC, where the conflict has ramped up significantly since May. This fresh bout of violence has resulted in hundreds of thousands of people in the area being displaced and politicians are scrambling for peaceable solutions. The M23 militia has been roving around North Kivu and making trouble in Rutshuru, very near the place where I was raised. To get there you have to go through Virunga Park from Goma, which has long been a favorite drive of mine. After all, as I've shared on this site before, my view from the back yard into the Virunga park looked like this:
So, it can be quite beautiful. I have to admit that haven't been paying attention to Virunga as a park much lately. When I wasn't able to travel up north I thought about it a bit, but I've been so worried about the local populations that I haven't paused to consider what it's been like for those tasked with protecting the Virunga park as a national resource. It was only on my return to the US that I ran across the video below that's just recently been produced. It focuses on how recent unrest is affecting Virunga through the lens of resource protection and preservation:
What strikes me most in the video is something I've admired often in Congo: the tenacity and bravery of local professionals who are working under extremely difficult conditions to accomplish a job that a lot of people may not even appreciate. This is the story of people who don't automatically pick up and run when the danger arrives at their doorstep, because their job is to ward off that danger the best they can. In an area where news stories about the war often include death tallies in the thousands, the 130 Virunga rangers who have been killed in the last 20 years won't make headlines, so I'm pleased to see someone telling their story and acknowledging the work they do. While I was in Congo I was struck by another form of acknowledgement that is worth mentioning, too.
As I share it with you, I also wish I could tell the rangers about it. During my recent visit to the New Hope Center, founder Anita Paden recreated a scene that the children made during free play. The children have a sand box where they have many items that they use to recreate scenes in the process of healing from loss--usually the death of one or several family members, often a parent. New Hope is a center where children go to talk about what's happened to them and their families, where they go to grieve and connect to other children who have similar hurts. During free play the kids do whatever they like. Often, they choose to recreate scenes of death and funerals as a way to process their feelings, so they have toys that enable them to do this, including quite a few toy guns and a coffin. These are mixed in with other toys suitable to happier themes so that they have a wide choice of possibilities in storytelling. In the story that Anita recreated, the children chose to depict the death of a Virunga ranger. They explained that all of the animals gathered to mourn his death, and that they were terribly sad. "See how the animals are weeping because their protector has died," the children said. "They loved him."
This is what I would like to say to the Virunga rangers:
I am surprised and happy to see how these children think of you. The toy they've used to represent a fallen ranger is a soldier: a man in a uniform with a gun. I didn't expect to see him as a victim, since this toy usually plays the "bad guy" in the children's recreations. A large percentage of these children have seen violence at the hand of soldiers (see some of the childrens' drawings here, here and here showing soldier attacks). In general, civilians have experienced extreme violence at the hands of armed men in Congo, and these children's lives have been shaped irrevocably by that ugly dynamic. It is because of people like you that these kids can imagine a Congolese man in uniform with affection, as a person fighting to protect and care rather than exploit and harm and conquer. Your job is important for more reasons that you may know. The deaths of your colleagues have not gone unmourned and you are a powerful symbol of care for these grieving children. Your story is helping them heal.