WORLD

'Grateful to walk out alive'

March 15 1999
WORLD

'Grateful to walk out alive'

March 15 1999

'Grateful to walk out alive'

WORLD

UGANDA

The tangled jungle foliage is so dense in southern Uganda that even on those rare days when the clouds part and the rain stops, sunlight barely penetrates to the forest floor. Mitch Keiver, 24, a soft-spoken research scientist from Three Hills, Alta., has spent the past three years working to save the region’s chimpanzees and giant mountain gorillas, made famous in the 1988 movie Gorillas in the Mist. The dangers he faced in the jungle never dampened the thrill he felt whenever he caught a glimpse of the apes. Wellheeled ecotourists from around the world also paid up to $6,000 to see the gorillas—and last week it cost eight of them their lives.

At a camp in Buhoma, a tourist centre in Uganda’s Bwindi National Park,

Keiver and 13 tourists were rounded up by about 150 Rwandan rebels and marched off into the forest after a firefight with armed park officers. Six, including Keiver, were set free, while the remaining eight died terribly—their skulls crushed and their bodies hacked by repeated machete blows. Four were British, two American and two New Zealanders. In notes left on the bodies, the rebels said: “Americans and British, we don’t want you on our land. You support our enemy.” Aware of the severe blow to Uganda’s tourist industry, President Yoweri Museveni vowed to hunt down and kill the Interahamwe fighters—a violent rump group from the Hutu forces that led the massacre of up to 800,000 minority Tutsis and Hutu moderates in neighbouring Rwanda in 1994. The rebels also handed Keiver and the surviving tourists a written message for Museveni, warning him to end his support of the current Tutsi-led Rwanda government. Three days after the kidnappings, a Rwandan army unit embroiled in neighbouring Congo’s civil war killed 15 of the rebels after Ugandan forces chased them over the border.

As he rested in Kampala, Uganda’s capital, Keiver recounted his harrowing brush with death to Maclean’s Senior Writer Tom Fennell. Keiver’s story:

We knew the Interahamwe had been in the area since December, but most of the incursions had been farther to the south of us— never where we were. Then, last Sunday, I was awakened by gunfire at about 6:50 a.m. I doubt if the rebels were more than 10 m from the building I was sleeping in. But the entire campground and little town were hit at the

A Canadian survivor recounts an escape from a massacre

same time—everyone was right in the middle of the gunfire.

I didn’t try to run out into the compound and I am very glad I didn’t. Instead, I tried to shelter myself as much as I could inside my cabin, which was made of cement and bricks. But the rebels saw me as soon as they kicked the door in, and they dragged me outside. They looted all my things—my shoes and watch, everything like that.

Previous Interahamwe incursions have been relatively small—30 or 40 people, not 150 heavily armed rebels. They had machine guns and two or three guns mounted on tripods, as well as hand grenades, knives, machetes and things. There were an awful lot of them and they had the cohesion, firepower and determination to carry out what they wanted to do.

They forced us to line up on the road, separated us and put us in different groupings—

American, Canadian, British, Danish, New Zealanders—and they marched us into the jungle. We moved very slowly, constantly stopping and starting, because they were carrying four of the rebels who had been wounded in the firefight. It was go a bit, sit down, go a bit, sit down.

There was no rhyme or reason really to whom the rebels chose to release: some were picked to stay behind, and the six of us—away we went. But all six of us had a different nationality, which seemed pretty arbitrary. They gave us the letter for the Ugandan government. We all looked at it, but it was written in atrocious French. It wasn’t very readable, even by the one person in our group who spoke French quite fluently.

It was very easy to find our way back because 100-plus rebels and the rest of us had walked up the trail—it was very beaten down. On the way back we met the Ugandan army near the eight tourists who had been slaughtered. We stayed back while the soldiers removed the bodies—there was no need for us to see them at that point.

I think all of us felt extremely fortunate and grateful to walk out alive after what we had been through that day. It does frighten me that the rebels are still out there, but I will be returning to the same project I was working on because there is still a lot to be done. I’m a firm believer that running away from things is not a good solution to anything. □