Named a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1979, Virunga National Park has also been a fixture on the UN's list of the most endangered places. Why? Because, for all its biotic diversity, Virunga also happens to lie at the epicenter of the greatest diversity of man's inhumanity toward man in recent memory: the 1994 genocide in nearby Rwanda—the killing of more than 800,000 Tutsi people—and two wars in Congo, in 1996-97 and 1998-2003, which left over five million people dead, more than any conflict since World War II. Given the scale of devastation, it's a wonder Virunga National Park still exists at all. Credit goes to the ineffable determination of the park's 650 ICCN rangers. In the past decade more than 110 park rangers have been killed in the line of duty—the majority shot not by poachers, but by militias.
After the Rwanda genocide, the perpetrators, largely Hutu fighters and Rwandan soldiers, fled west into the Congo and made alliances with the distempered Congolese army. Over the years, these exiles reorganized themselves into the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, better known as the FDLR. By seizing and exploiting the region's rich resources—mining gold, tin, and other minerals with forced labor and cutting old-growth forests to produce charcoal—the Hutu militias were able to rearm, indoctrinate a new generation into their ideology of ethnic hatred, and continue to prey on Tutsi, this time in eastern Congo.
In response to the collusion between the Hutu and the Congolese army, a Congolese Tutsi general, Laurent Nkunda, formed his own rebel force, called the National Congress for the People's Defense, or CNDP. Nkunda's soldiers, with tacit support from Rwanda, have been fighting the Hutu forces for years, transmogrifying the southern half of Virunga National Park into a blood-pooled battlefield. The Congolese army, depending on which way the political wind is blowing and which way the money is flowing, sometimes fights with Nkunda's forces, and at other times joins ranks with the FDLR.
All three forces have committed unspeakable atrocities upon the civilian population in the province of North Kivu. Gangs of barely paid soldiers armed with machine guns (grotesquely referred to as the "AK credit card") have taken whatever they want, whenever they want, from whomever they want. Tens of thousands of women and girls as young as five have been raped, some gang-raped by Congolese or FDLR soldiers and then, when their village was retaken by Nkunda's soldiers, raped again. Scores of innocent people have been tortured, hundreds of civilians shot to death, and more than 800,000 people forced to flee their homes, only to become starving refugees in their own country. North Kivu is a Hieronymus Bosch painting come alive.