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Long memories

Marta Barosso / imOctober 4, 2012

For fifteen years civil war raged in Mozambique until a peace deal was signed in October 1992. Among those who remember the dark days of war are some inhabitants of the Gorongosa national park.

Image: Marta Barroso

The civil war pitched the Soviet-backed Marxist FRELIMO (Front for the Liberation of Mozambique) government against the RENAMO (Mozambique Resistance Movement) anti-communists who were supported by what was then Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, and by apartheid South Africa. The rebels had their bases in Mozambique's most important national park, the Parque Nacional da Gorongosa.

Twenty years after the signing of a peace deal on October 4,1992, the consequences of the war are still visible.

Today there are only antelopes in the national park. No elephants, no rhinoceroses, no buffalos, no lions and no leopards. These days there is not much that guides can show visitors. 'Big five' game, as safari guides call it, just isn't there or rather it is only seen very rarely.

Ruins of the former reception hut at Gorongosa park. Photo: Marta Barroso zugelifert von: Marta Barroso
RENAMO turned Gorongosa park into its headquartersImage: Marta Barroso

Before the civil war things were different. And during colonial times, elephants, rhinoceroses, buffalos, lions and leopards often put in an appearance. But now, 20 years after the peace deal, the elephants in the national park are shy and timid.

“The elephants are traumatised. They were forced to witness how other elephants were attacked," said safari guide Moutinho.” When they see a motor vehicle, they associate it with danger and run away. A few of the elephants are adapting slowly, but by no means all of them.”

Elephants can live to the ripe old age of 70. And they have good memories.The elephants in Gorogosa remember how their parents or siblings were slaughtered.

National park was rebel base

The Mozambique Resistance Movement (RENAMO) had its central command post in the park in the 1970s. Strategically it was an ideal choice. It was located in the center of Mozambique, but was virtually inaccessible and situated far enough away from the big cities that were in government hands.

An antelope in Gorongosa National park Photo: Marta Barroso
Antelopes are still seen frequently in the national park.Image: Marta Barroso

After the rebels arrived, there was a huge increase in poaching. Elephants were slaughtered and their ivory was exchanged for weapons and food. But the rebels weren't the only culprits.

Government troops also killed the majestic beasts. A shortage of food compounded the problem. What the poachers didn't take was eaten by the fighters and the local population.

Just a few years into the civil war, 90 percent of all the animals had disappeared. Areas that were once teeming with life were strangely empty. Now, 20 years after the end of the war, animal life has returned to the park. Poaching is a problem once again, claiming 6,000 animals a year. 120 rangers do what they can to contain it.

Poacher turned cook

When darkness falls, everybody congregates in the bar of the camping site in Chitengo. 43 year-old Tatu Alexandre Jorge is the chief cook.

Tatu Alexandre Photo: Marta Barroso
Tatu abandoned poaching and is now chief cook at Chitengo camping siteImage: Marta Barroso

"I was a well known poacher both during and after the civil war," he told DW. "When the war ended, we had to hand in our weapons and we continued to hunt game with traps. One of two of the poachers refused to hand in their weapons, but I thought that would be too dangerous so soon after the war. I could have ended up in prison."

In the meantime, Tatu has given up poaching. Until recently he had to feed fifteen children. Eight children of his own, four belonging to one brother and three belonging to a second brother.

Both brothers fell in the war. One fought for RENAMO, the other for FRELIMO. Tatu's poaching activities ironically helped him to get his current job in the national park. He now has a regular income and doesn't need to go poaching any more.

Tatu is employed by the Carr Foundation, a private organisation which is committed to protecting the park. It signed a deal with the Mozambican government in 2008, under which it agreed to manage the park for the next twenty years.

The past is not important

The Carr Foundation was founded by Gregory Carr, a 53 year-old US businessman from Idaho, who made his money in telecommunications. The foundation has so far invested 40 million dollars (30 million euros) in the park to help heal the wounds of war.

It also helps to fight poverty in the region, removing one of the incentives for poaching. The foundation has built schools and health care centers in the villages and created 350 jobs for local people. Gregory Carr is pleased with what he has achieved.

Gregory Carr seated Photo: Marta Barroso zugelifert von: Marta Barroso
Gregory Carr's goal is to bring wildlife back to GorongosaImage: Marta Barroso

"Ninety eight percent of the employees in this park are Mozambican, it's their park, they're talented and they all work together and I'm proud of the fact that our team is unified . I'm proud that I do believe we are succeeding and I think that our goal is to make this a magnificent national park."

It is unimportant these days whether the park employees once fought for FRELIMO or RENAMO. What matters is that the tourists return and that they can see big five game on their safaris.