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Muir explains that the oven is loaded with old-growth hardwood but fueled with soft woods. This kiln would have produced 50 to 100 sacks of charcoal. Muir calls in the rangers, who attack the kiln with years of pent-up frustration, tearing it apart with sticks and shovels.

The rest of the hike is a breeze. Everyone is in high spirits. The Sikhs have accomplished their mission, and the rangers have, at least for the moment, regained some measure of self-respect.

We reach the rim by dusk and erect our tents, then stand on the edge and stare down into the crater. Far below, as if we were looking into Hades itself, is a circular pool of boiling, orange stone. The lava lake spurts and bubbles, appears to harden into a black carapace, then fractures and is swallowed anew by explosions of molten lava—a constant, mesmerizing metamorphosis.

That night in a torrential thunderstorm, Major Puri and Robert Muir squeeze into our two-man tent for a celebratory dinner. Muir pulls two bottles of champagne from his raincoat. Buzzing from the success of the bust, he shoots the top off the first bottle.

"This is just the first step. The charcoal mafia can be stopped! We can do it together."

At the Kibati patrol post at the southern entrance to the park, a dozen armed rangers man a checkpoint, searching for illegal charcoal. The ubiquitous white NGO Land Cruisers, the UN peacekeepers in armored trucks, and the matatus—Toyota Hiace vans loaded with as many as two dozen people—are quickly waved through the roadblock, which consists of nothing more than a bamboo pole across the road. Trucks are what the rangers stop and search—"about 20 vehicles a day," says John Iyamorenye, 35, a well-spoken ranger. "Two to four of those are carrying large loads of charcoal."

His uniform is ragged and his boots split. I notice that the barrel of his rifle is rusted shut.

"We only get $30 a month," Iyamorenye says, responding to my unspoken observations, "and this is paid by NGOs, not by the government. We don't have radios, we don't have support from the ICCN, we don't have enough money to feed our families."

Another truck is stopped. Congolese soldiers recline as languorously as cats on top of the load. They start shouting and leap to the ground, pointing their machine guns at the rangers. Undaunted, the rangers haul themselves up onto the truck and discover sacks of charcoal hidden beneath a layer of firewood. The soldiers wave their machine guns and scream at the rangers to get down.

Unbelievably, the rangers ignore the threats. They begin rolling the heavy sacks off the truck, the bags bursting open when they hit the ground. Nearby waits the serendipitous source of their courage: a UN vehicle with a dozen well-armed, flak-jacketed Sikh soldiers.

"Usually we can never stop the Congolese military," says Iyamorenye. "They," he nods imperceptibly at the incensed Congolese soldiers, "they may kill us."

In operations like this, the rangers have captured more than a thousand sacks to date, handing them over to the UN to help support the refugees. But the seizures have hardly altered the trade. That night, right after dark, a convoy of four military trucks loaded to the gills with charcoal blasts straight through the roadblock.

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