Muir, an Englishman who speaks fluent French (as did his mother), who has the guts of a gunner (his father was a colonel in the British military), whose first language was Cantonese, who passed his youth in Cyprus chasing butterflies and scorpions, who holds university degrees in ecology and anthropology, has been in Goma for four years. He spent the first three years trying to protect Virunga's rangers. Now he has turned his considerable passion to the charcoal trade. Just outside his office are 50 sacks of charcoal that he personally helped the rangers seize.
Muir explains the challenge: Nkunda's forces won't leave Virunga National Park until the Hutu guerrillas leave, and the Congolese army won't leave until they're both out. It's a stalemate no one really wants to end. Not when there's so much money to be made off charcoal. (Nkunda claims he has banned all tree felling in his regions of control. While that may be true for the Mikeno sector, he has reportedly taken over charcoal operations near Kirolirwe.) And if the charcoal production isn't stopped, the forest will be gone: no habitat, no gorillas. Muir understands that the removal of all military from the area—perhaps 15,000 Congolese soldiers, 4,000 Hutu (FDLR) guerrillas, and 4,000 Nkunda (CNDP) troops—is the ultimate answer, but given politics in Congo, the park itself could be gone by then.
"Nothing happens in meetings," Muir says. "You want to get something done, you go into the field. The FDLR has been controlling the forests, making charcoal, at the base of Nyiragongo. For six months no one has been able to get in there. The UN has agreed to lead a combat patrol. You're welcome to come along."
We hike in the next morning. Our force numbers almost 50, including 12 rangers and Muir. At its core are 18 Sikhs, all veteran fighters, commanded by Maj. Shalendra Puri. UN soldiers are typically called "blue helmets," but in this case they are the blue turbans. Hiking 11,385-foot Nyiragongo was once another major source of income for Virunga National Park. Tourists paid $175 to hike to the top, gaze into the abyss, and camp on the rim. The treks were halted in mid-2007 when the Hutu militias increased charcoal production. The rangers attempted to thwart the guerrillas several times, most recently two weeks ago, but were turned around by machine-gun fire.
Our column snakes up through jungle interspersed with open slopes of ropy black lava that burned through the forest during the 2002 eruption. It is raining, but the presence of the disciplined Sikhs quickens the hearts of the rangers. This is an emancipatory patrol, and they are inspired for the first time in months.
At the point where the rangers were forced to retreat last time, we come upon a bamboo cross—a warning. Major Puri is unimpressed. He instructs his Sikhs to fan out and move up the hill. They do so methodically, communicating via hand signals, fingers on their triggers. Major Puri has his sidearm drawn.
We can see blue smoke curling into the sky ahead. Major Puri directs five soldiers to investigate. Minutes later, some distance above us, we spot four armed Hutu rebels running across the talus. Another hundred yards uphill, and three more disappear into the jungle.
Not a shot is fired. After the Sikhs secure the area, Major Puri allows us to follow the footpath toward the smoke. We pass through a line of trees and enter a clear-cut several acres in size. In the middle is a smoldering dirt mound.
"My God, it's enormous," breathes Muir.
Perhaps 20 feet in diameter and 15 feet tall, packed with dirt on all sides, it looks like a smoking volcano itself.
"This is a charcoal kiln," says Muir exuberantly, "and this is the first charcoal kiln bust for a long, long time."