GOMA - The stories here in eastern Congo are terrifying: large numbers of apes have begun attacking villagers. The main cause is the six-month-old war in the region, which forces the primates to leave their territory, and makes them see humans as a threat.
The stories from Tongo, a village 60 kilometers (37.2 miles) north of Goma in the North Kivu province, sound as if they are a movie script, but they are real. In the past few months, chimpanzees have killed ten people in Tongo and seriously wounded at least 17.
Last June, local media reported the story of a two year-old girl who was snatched from her mother's back and badly inured by five chimpanzees. The little girl was transferred to the hospital in Goma, but died two days later of her wounds. The story was only the beginning.
Tongo is near Virunga National Park, Africa’s oldest nature reserve. The last 12 miles of the road to Virunga go through jungle. There are so many armed rebels roaming in these forests that it is only safe to travel on the road on market days, Wednesdays and Saturdays, when it is guarded.
Baboons are visible all along the road. They do not attack humans. "They're not aggressive. They are happy to eat up our harvest, which is already being trampled by elephants. It’s the chimpanzees that cause problems, because they attack women and children," explains Manihiro Bakundakwabo, a cobbler and civic activist in Tongo. "There isn’t a month that goes by without someone being killed by a chimpanzee."
Real attacks and wild rumors
Proof of the chimpanzees' brutality can be seen on the local children. Many have scars, or have lost ears, fingers, or toes. "Three months ago, the chimpanzees hit me and pulled my child off my back. He was wounded and traumatized. Now he does not behave normally any more," laments one mother, whose child had to be sent away from the village to avoid being stigmatized.
Along with these accounts of attacks by the apes, there are rumor that they sometimes they rape women, though a veterinarian excludes that possibility. "It is practically impossible for a chimpanzee to rape a woman. However, their sense of smell is keen and they can detect a "female" in heat from a long way off. And they can certainly attack and wound someone."
None of the accounts by victims encountered by this reporter included rape. "I had gone to hoe the beans. A group of chimpanzees surrounded me and they ripped my child off my back. They slapped and kicked me," testifies one victim. "I screamed, and finally the apes left the child alone. He suffered a skull injury and still has a lot of scars."
Around certain villages, there are now large numbers of primates that have fled their original habitat, due to armed conflicts and deforestation. Most recently, fighting broke out last spring in the North Kivu region over disputes around the implementation of a 2009 peace agreement The United Nations esimates that the violence has displaced nearly half a million people since April.
But the fighting is just the latest disruption to the primates' habitats. "These animals have been attacked, killed, and eaten by soldiers for a long time. I think they are avenging themselves against humans for the atrocities they have suffered during the wars," says a village chief in Bwito. "They must consider humans as their enemies."
Arthur Kalonji of the Congolese Wildlife Authority (ICCN) says the attacks are part of a "human-animal conflict" going on right now in Tongo. "It is clear that we have to take this into consideration. There is a concentration of these animals around several villages near Virunga National Park,” he explains.
Some villagers wish that the ICCN were more involved in helping them find solutions. "We love our flora and fauna, they are our heritage, but the ICCN isn’t doing anything to help us. In fact, they ask us to do the impossible-- for example, to show them which chimpanzees are responsible for an attack! But on the other hand, if one of us throws a stone at a chimpanzee, he is sent to prison," says one of the villagers.
Only park rangers are allowed to kill the primates. "The ICCN should build schools and health centers for us and increase the number of park rangers keeping watch over the chimpanzees, to avoid dangerous encounters," says Bakundakwabo. "They owe us that, as compensation for our injuries."
The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.
LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.
Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.
Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.
The role of the nuclear pact
Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.
It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.
He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."
The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.
Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020commons.wikimedia.org
Riyadh's warming relations with Israel
Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."
The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."
Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."
Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.
For if nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.
Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.
Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.
For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.
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