(HRW) – Unidentified assailants killed 25-year-old park ranger Rachel Masika Baraka and kidnapped two British tourists and their Congolese driver in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo’s Virunga National Park on Friday.
They were part of an organized tourist trip to the UNESCO World Heritage Site, home to stunning volcanos and incredible biodiversity, including the critically endangered mountain gorillas. The three were released on Sunday. No information was made public on whether ransoms were paid.
The incident highlights the increasing dangers in Virunga and the surrounding areas.
Eight Virunga rangers have been killed since the start of 2018, bringing the total number of rangers killed to 176 over the past 20 years. On April 9, a militia group killed five rangers and a staff driver, wounding another ranger, in the deadliest single attack on rangers in recent years. The park’s director, Emmanuel de Merode, survived an attack on his life in April 2014. The rangers are a government law enforcement agency that carries out military operations alongside the national army against the many armed groups active in the park.
The kidnapping of tourists is the latest means by armed groups and criminal organizations to try to make money through ransom payments. According to the Kivu Security Tracker, a joint project of Human Rights Watch and the Congo Research Group, a total of 535 people have been kidnapped for ransom in eastern Congo’s North and South Kivu provinces since May 2017. This includes at least 164 people kidnapped in 78 different incidents in Rutshuru, Nyiragongo, and Goma – the areas surrounding Virunga park. Kidnappings in the region first skyrocketed in 2015.
The kidnappers typically follow a pattern: beating, whipping, or threatening to kill their hostages, while demanding that they phone their relatives or employers, begging them to pay for the person’s release. Kidnappers have demanded between US$200 and US$30,000 per hostage, though the amounts paid are often much lower. Kidnappers have also targeted national and international aid workers, curtailing humanitarian work in the poverty-stricken region.
Numerous armed groups have been responsible for kidnappings in the region, including the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), the Nyatura, and various Mai-Mai militia groups. In some cases, the perpetrators have been former soldiers, former armed group members, or bandits who reportedly work in collaboration with Congolese army or police personnel.
While some kidnappers have been arrested and prosecuted, Congolese authorities could and should do much more to show they are serious about ending the kidnapping scourge and protecting those who live near or travel to Virunga National Park.