The Human Shield

Mitchell Keiver March 6 2000

The Human Shield

Mitchell Keiver March 6 2000
One year ago, Mitchell Keiver, 25, a biologist from Three Hills, Alta. was working for an international wildlife agency to conserve Uganda's endangered mountain gorillas when he was abducted by Rwandan rebels.They brutally killed nine people and now, for the first time, Keiver recalls that terrifying experience.

“Aren’t you going to stay the night, Mitchie?”

That was the running joke from the park staff in the ecotourist town of Buhoma after I returned to Uganda last April, six weeks after my March 1, 1999, ordeal. I considered staying overnight many times. Then I remembered the last night I slept in Buhoma: I was robbed, shot at, assaulted and abducted, and my Jeep was torched. All in less than 12 hours.

Now, exactly a year has passed since Rwandan rebels seized me and 40 tourists and began to march us barefoot through the thick forest of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in southwestern Uganda. The rebels divided us into groups based on our nationalities—I was the only Canadian—and ultimately used six of us as human shields to guarantee their escape across the Congo border, about three kilometres away.

Our captors, some of whom were in their mid-teens, were a frightening bunch—members of the Interahamwe militia of Hutu extremists who are responsible for the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. They were unwelcome in Uganda, where the government supports the Tutsi-led Rwandan leadership. The Interahamwe, whose name means “those who attack together,” launched their terrorist assault on Buhoma at daybreak, killing the warden of law enforcement in the early fighting. By days end, the same rebels—who finally let their six white “shields” and a local man go unharmed—had slaughtered eight tourists, leaving their bodies on the forest floor.

A year later, I realize that I am fortunate to be alive to tell this tale and to contemplate its implications. I am also encouraged by the rebuilding of conservation efforts in the Bwindi National Park, a unique and beautiful forest that houses half the surviving mountain gorillas in Africa and predates the Pleistocene ice age of more than 25,000 years ago. The tragic murders left a mark on many of us. In Uganda, this incident decimated tourism to Bwindi, wiping out a crucial source of revenue for the local populace. As for me, my trauma and nightmares are receding, but never will I forget the events of March 1, 1999.

They began just after the morning sun was high enough to illuminate the valley. I was lying half-asleep in my banda, or mud-brick cabin, listening to the croaking of colobus monkeys and waiting for my shortwave to click on with the 7 a.m. news from the BBC World Service. In the chill mountain air, I secured my wool blanket around my neck and began to plan the hike that would get me back to my research camp in Bwindi s forest, on a slope above the Kashasha River. For the past eight months, I had been conducting ecological surveys and fallen in love with Bwindi—and had just been promoted to field officer for the International Gorilla Conservation Programme.

I awoke eagerly, anticipating the chance to get away from civilization, back to the simpler things in life, chimps and gorillas and my research associates. But my reverie was lost in an instant, with the sound of a single gunshot. Then, other shots echoed through the valley, and I could feel the thunderous booms of one large-calibre weapon. For some reason, I took the time to get dressed completely, including fumbling with the leather strap on my watch. I was putting on my socks when the alarm went off and the familiar BBC voice echoed out. I rushed across the room to shut it off, praying no one had heard the sounds. Once dressed, I hid underneath the bed, clutching my satchel with my passport and money inside.

By now, the shots were hitting the walls, but I could see out into the compound through the space under the door. At one point, someone ran past and I thought briefly about running for safety, too. But I stayed under the bed, rationalizing that I had no idea what was going on outside and later convincing myself to investigate cautiously as the shooting lessened. I crept to the door, cracking it slightly, expecting to see familiar faces. Instead, I saw a band of unrecognizable thugs attacking the town. I crawled back under the bed. It was not long before the sound of wooden cabin doors being smashed in replaced the pok pok of rifles. Up until the looting started, I thought the park staff and the soldiers stationed nearby would take care of things. Now, I knew I really was in trouble.

Legs came down the path and turned towards the adjacent banda. My door was next. In seconds, the attackers burst through it. The dozen Interahamwe shouted the word I hear all too often in East Africa: “Mzungu!”—“foreigner” or simply “whitey.” They yanked me to my feet and grabbed my belongings. First, they wanted my watch and, as I fumbled again with that strap, I thought of a machete slicing off my hand to expedite the process. “Are you American?” one asked in French. I started to reply but with my watch finally off, another rebel grabbed the back of my head and pushed me into the compound, where my shoes and socks were taken from me.

Barefoot, I watched as they dumped my life—my field notes and journals—in the dirt and divvied up my clothes. Again, the rebels demanded to know if I was American. When I said no, they asked if I was from South Africa. “Canadian,” I replied. “I am a tourist from Canada.” Lying seemed to make sense. I feared that if I told them I lived in Buhoma, they might have treated me worse.

I looked around, wondering where all the camp staff were. Where was Gongo, the camp ground manager? Where were the young men who had worked for me as porters? I prayed they had fled safely. The rebels marched me out of the parking lot and, for the first time, I saw other white faces on a road about 50 m from my banda. They were tourists gathered in single file.

In the morning chill, I was glad I had taken the time to put on my pants and a T-shirt. Some of the others wore nothing more than pajamas. I managed a smile for the man to my left, and it would not be long before we would consider ourselves to be among the lucky ones. But the events bring back vivid memories that are far from lucky: the feeling in my stomach when I remember one rebel putting a gun to the side of my head while asking me my nationality; the feeling of violation when I remember one rebel coming up behind me, grabbing my hips and doing a little dance against me. This same rebel later came to me and gave me, and only me, a candy.

Our initial band of hostages was taken to another part of town, where 30 innocent people were now gathered. At different stages of the attack, hostages were released; some right at the beginning, others later as we hiked towards the Congo border. I lack a clear memory of when certain people were set free, but I do remember that for the longest time I walked between an American and an Englishman, who both would be dead by the end of the day. I still remember very sadly the moment when we left them behind. The American, shirtless with a tattoo on his shoulder, and the Englishman, a young man my age clad only in boxers and a T-shirt, looked the definition of vulnerability. I sometimes wonder if they died because of the way they were dressed. Perhaps being clothed well enough to endure the hike, and later on the rain, saved my life.

Separated now and told that the others were returning to Buhoma, six of us marched on at gunpoint, with at least 100 rebels in front of and behind us. The hike took us through several kilometres of thickly forested terrain but, surprisingly, it was not a terribly difficult hike. We moved slowly and stopped frequently as the rebels cut the trail out of the forest. Our forced march ended in a freshly burned-out portion of a Congolese farm plot, a remnant of forest that was no longer.

‘Some were raped, bludgeoned to death with a rifle butt or hacked to death by machete’

In our bare feet, stepping around the still-burning embers of fallen logs, the six of us sat down, and for an hour or so we endured questions about our families and where our support lay in the Congo war. One rebel grabbed the hair of the only woman among us, a Swiss, trying to part her from our secure huddle. He no doubt wanted to take her home as a war prize. Breaking free, the woman reeled back into the arms of another hostage, claiming he was her husband, and breaking down in uncontrollable sobs.

Around 4 p.m., they finally said we could go back to Buhoma. The six of us, now joined by a local Ugandan whom the rebels had forced to cut the trail, turned around and made our way back to Buhoma as our captors continued on their way. It was not until we encountered Ugandan soldiers heading back that we learned nine people had been killed: eight tourists and the warden, who was shot and then thrown against a burning vehicle. I later heard that some of the tourists had been raped, bludgeoned to death with a rifle butt or hacked to death by machete. The soldiers wrapped the dead tourists in cloth and carried them out ahead of us. I am thankful that I never saw the bodies.

As I walked back into Buhoma, I remember seeing the skeleton shell of the community banda, torched and destroyed. The town I now walked through had none of the familiar resemblance of a place I used to think of as home. Farther along, the senior warden, who narrowly escaped with his life, came up and gave me a hug, saying the phrase I have since grown to love: “Well survived.” Indeed.

Seven days later, I was back in Calgary, reunited with my family, taking a break from work, and introducing my dog, Peppi, to Alberta winter. But after 5 V2 weeks of rest, I returned. My first nights back were filled with anxiety. Night after night, I would wake up to the sound of imaginary gunshots. With my heart racing, and aware of the slightest noise, I would again brace myself for the Interahamwe breaking in and relive the entire incident. I was going through post-traumatic stress, with all the classic signs: hyper-arousal, intrusive imagery and alienation.

Part of the healing process truly comes from keeping busy, and over time as Buhoma was rebuilt, so was my strength and confidence. My nightmares became less frequent, and the events of March 1 became more and more distant in my mind.

Before I even returned to Uganda, I was impressed to learn that many of the conservation partners were working together to help the park staff and the community. The Institute for Tropical Forest Conservation and CARE International lent much-needed vehicles. Other organizations provided field clothing and equipment, and my employer provided the funds to rebuild and replace much of the destroyed equipment as well as pushing forward plans to build a world-class visitor center. This co-operative effort from frequent rivals impressed me, and it made me think something good could ultimately come from this tragedy. But there is still no getting past the facts: nine people are dead. And for what, really?

In the effort to protect mountain gorillas through revenues gleaned from ecotourism, the people who died had been encouraged to visit Bwindi. Would they have come if they weren’t encouraged? Probably not, but then would there be any gorillas left in the world?

Organizations such as the International Gorilla Conservation Programme try to ensure that mountain gorillas and their habitat will exist for years to come. With civil unrest continuing and human populations on the rise, that’s a tall order. A protected area like Bwindi was for many years the premier site for tourists to go gorilla trekking. Nearly4,000 tourists spent more than $1 million visiting the gorillas in 1998 alone.

So for Uganda, Bwindi is not just an asset of beauty. In fact, until the Interahamwe raid, gorilla-based tourism paid for over half the Uganda Wildlife Authority’s operations budget. From this income, the IGCP implemented a revenue-sharing program, providing each of the 21 parishes surrounding Bwindi with $7,500. This is a phenomenal amount when you consider that my employees were paid just $750 per year.

To many people in the Third World, precious or endangered resources are only as valuable as the benefits they yield. Before the abduction and killings, the landowners adjacent to Bwindi benefited from tourist dollars, respected the park boundaries and practiced sustainable harvesting. Following the drop in tourists after the incident, illegal activities increased in the park, including poaching and timber cutting.

When I returned to Uganda, I first thought this was a failure in the system—that the years of conservation and the millions of dollars spent were all wasted. But I realized that the system did not fail. It took time, but with the tourists slowly returning to Bwindi and Mgahinga parks, the community and wildlife authority are once again benefiting.

That is the beauty, I think, of this particular conservation effort. It shows that the perseverance that has sustained the mountain gorilla and its habitat for so long is still there. For me, though, I am taking a break and looking for new challenges. I never did summon the courage to spend one more night in Buhoma. Maybe in future I will. It would be another demon to confront, but that will have to wait for time to fully heal the wounds left on that dark day in the jungle.