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Widows of War on Poaching Find a Living in DRC’s Virunga National Park

Inhabited by various rebel groups fighting the conflict in DRC, Virunga National Park is a dangerous place to work. As rangers risk their lives to protect the park’s animals, a local project helps provide support and financial security for the women left behind.

Written by Sruthi Gottipati Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
At the Widows Workshop run by Virunga National Park, women whose husbands have died protecting the park learn to sew and make an income. Sruthi Gottipati

VIRUNGA NATIONAL PARK, DRC – For years, Jeanette Aziza had been haunted by the fear that her husband would meet the same fate as her father.

Her father was working as a ranger at Virunga National Park when suspected Tutsi rebels from the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP), one of an alphabet soup of armed groups that have plagued the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) over the past 20 years, mistook his ranger’s uniform for military fatigues and dragged him into the bush.

“We didn’t see him again,” Aziza, now 36, says.

So when her husband, Gasusa Salvator, followed his own father’s footsteps to become a ranger, patrolling the park, protecting its rare mountain gorillas and trying to catch thieves looting charcoal – a lucrative business in this corner of Africa – Aziza was anxious.

“Every time he left the house, I was worried. I was never at peace until he came back,” she says.

“Many times I told him, ‘Please, you know my father was killed because he was a ranger. And now you’re a ranger. Can you leave this job and look for another?’”

His response always went something like this: “Our fathers were heroes who died protecting the park. We must continue to fulfill what they had started.”

Salvator died in 2007 on his way home from a field mission. He fell from the patrol car, Aziza says, and died from the injuries. He was 32 at the time. They had four children.

In the past 15 years, 153 rangers have lost their lives while protecting Virunga National Park.

Virunga, Africa’s oldest national park, is home to 200 of the 700 remaining mountain gorillas. (Sruthi Gottipati)

With its breathtaking wildlife – including 200 of the world’s remaining 700 mountain gorillas – the national park, Africa’s oldest, is a natural target for poachers. Because of its location bordering Rwanda and Uganda it has also been at the heart of an armed conflict that has been raging in DRC’s eastern region for more than two decades.

The job of protecting the park is down to the rangers, many of whom have been killed trying to save its animals. A Fallen Rangers fund uses contributions from the public, private donors and organizations such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to help care for the families they left behind, as well as rangers hurt in combat.

The widows are proud that the men in their families held jobs that protected wildlife and ensured a relatively comfortable life for their children in a country that routinely bottoms out on the Human Development Index.

“I was very happy with my husband’s job because we could feed and send our children to school,” says Sakina Salambongo, 37, who has six children.

But it came at a cost. Poachers killed her husband in 2011.

“I knew there was little chance that in a ranger’s job he’d grow old,” she says.

Yellow tape measure hangs from Salambongo’s neck as she sews a curtain at the Widows Workshop, a program started last September to help supplement the pension the park gives to the widows.

There are currently 16 women who sew there, says Julie Williams, director of tourism at Virunga National Park and head of the Widows Workshop.

“They’re feisty ladies, but they have to be,” Williams says. “They have to be tough.”

Salambongo holds a bobby pin in her teeth for a moment as she snips some thread and adjusts the position of the needle on her sewing machine. “I can’t be angry because I know my husband’s job was protecting animals.”

Williams is determined to help the rangers’ widows by finding ways for them to make a modest income after their husbands are killed. Besides the sewing workshop, Williams trains widows to make bracelets. She then buys the finished jewelry for a small sum and gives the bracelets as gifts to Virunga’s visitors. She’s also hoping to train a dozen older widows in wrapping soaps and drying vanilla.

When the widows first join the sewing workshop, some aren’t literate enough to read a tape measure, Williams says. Still, they learn to stitch together cloth handbags, table napkins, even a cheery decorative hippopotamus.

The women of the Widows Workshop make napkins, handbags and toy hippos. (Sruthi Gottipati)

One seamstress, Therese Sangira, 61, tells of how proud she was when her husband was promoted from the park’s administrative department to a ranger overseeing the gorillas, despite the danger.

But then came the Rwandan genocide in 1994, and soon after, Hutu extremists from the militant group Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) started appearing in Virunga.

“They started to kill animals, they started to cut trees for charcoal,” Sangira says, glasses propped on her forehead. “I was proud my husband was among the people who were in charge of stopping these men from destroying the park. The rangers were determined to protect the park until they died.”

At the time, the park didn’t have vehicles, so Sangira’s husband had to take a civilian bus to cross the area. In 2004, suspected FDLR militants ambushed the bus and demanded he get out.

Sangira’s voice trembles as she recalls that day. “They killed him on the spot.”

Over time, she says, she accepted that death is part of life. “Death is normal. You can’t choose it. You can be a teacher and die. You can be a driver and die. Death is not only for rangers.”

One of the rangers working at Virunga National Park. Over the past 15 years, 153 rangers have died protecting the park, many at the hands of warring rebels. (Sruthi Gottipati)

She says she is grateful that they got to have nine children before he died: six daughters and three sons. Her eldest child is now 41 and her youngest 21. They’ve tried to persuade her to move to Goma, in eastern DRC, but she refuses to go.

“They tell me, ‘Come to Goma, we’ll build a house for you in the town,’” Sangira says, but “I can’t live where there aren’t animals, where there aren’t trees. I want to die here.”

It’s a feeling shared by many of the rangers at Virunga and the wives who support their work with equal parts pride and fear. Jeanette Aziza, who spent so long worrying that her husband would meet the same fate as her father, and so long mourning him when he did, is now afraid for her children.

Her 17-year-old son Miracle is fiercely proud of his father, she says. And he longs to become a ranger, just like his dad.

Reporting for this story was supported by an Africa Great Lakes Reporting fellowship from the International Women’s Media Foundation.

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