Is this a wedding procession? joked a Congolese ranger about the casual speed of our overloaded pickup truck. It was a misty morning in July, and the abnormally slow pace was set by the presence of three foreign journalists. We had just left the rangers’ headquarters in the town of Epulu and were crawling along the road through the Okapi Wildlife Reserve in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. As the sun rose, I stood in the bed of the truck photographing the rangers and the villages we passed.
I never saw those images. The next time we drove that road together we were on our way to a funeral.
I was in northeastern Congo to document the lives and work of the Okapi Wildlife Reserve rangers, whose job it is to protect the UNESCO World Heritage site’s namesake giraffe-like animals and their forest habitat. We were visiting the site of the Bapela gold mine, which had been closed down by the rangers and cleared of illegal mining activities just a few months earlier.
I knew the trip was risky, but I hoped my photography could illustrate the rangers’ struggle for conservation and their conflict with local communities and militias over valuable resources like gold, timber, and wildlife.
We unloaded the truck and hiked ten miles through the forest to the abandoned Bapela gold mine and the permanent hilltop position that had been established to monitor the area. We accompanied six rangers, a couple of young porters, and a canoe guide who were sent to relieve those currently stationed at the outpost. When the mine was operational, we were told, it yielded 66 pounds of gold each week—worth over $1.2 million on the international market.
The following afternoon everyone in the camp seemed relaxed. The rangers had eaten lunch and were lounging by their makeshift tarpaulin tents. I had just taken off my sweaty gear after a morning of filming and photographing them patrolling the mine. I changed into flip-flops and set my camera down so I could cook lunch over the fire. Then the shooting started.
I ran, following rangers who were tossing themselves down the hill like stuntmen over the excavated piles of dirt from the mine. I paused to look back; I needed to see if there were dead or wounded, but the camp looked empty besides one gunman sprinting away.
By the time I turned back around, there were two more attackers to my right, firing their weapons. I jumped into a hole in the ground to escape the crossfire. I curled up on my left side at the bottom of the old mining shaft and nudged myself deeper toward the center of the hill. My every movement caused a small rockslide. The hole was just below where the rangers’ machine gun had been commandeered by the militia and at each sound I made, they opened fire. I had expected the attackers to leave when darkness came, but they didn’t. I stayed there, frozen, all night.
The next morning, I was desperate to escape. I could still hear the militia moving around the camp and feared they were there to reclaim the territory and the mine’s wealth. When silence came, I tried to stand and only then realized that the hole was at least twice my height. After spending nearly 20 hours motionless, I felt dizzy and stiff. I grabbed a tree root with both hands and walked my feet up the wall of the hole. I rolled onto the ground’s surface and scurried down the hill into the jungle.
I thought I knew which direction I was headed, but the paths soon became unrecognizable. I waded through rivers and bushwhacked between the trees, but as the sun began to set, I gave up on making it out of the jungle. I found the main trail to the gold mine, a place that I knew would be well trafficked, and hid nearby.
I was preparing to spend another night alone when I spotted a line of armed men walking along the trail. I stepped out with my hands raised. Luckily it was a joint military and ranger patrol, and they immediately brought me back to the outpost I had escaped 28 hours earlier.
The militia had disappeared, but the camp was a war zone. Bullets had torn through trees and tarps. The lunch I had started to cook still sat next to the fire. Then I saw what I most feared: the bodies of four motionless rangers and a young porter, placed under the tarp of a fallen tent.
When things go as planned, journalists are awarded for our bravery, however reckless our venture may be. Only when plans turn ugly is our preparedness and involvement scrutinized.
We later learned that an attack on the rangers’ outpost had likely been planned prior to our arrival. No one will ever know exactly if or how our presence altered the situation. The question will haunt us.
The purpose of my work in Congo was to photograph, but I had become part of the story. My experience was just an example of what the rangers face regularly, and a fragment of the struggle over valuable resources that consumes eastern Congo. Since the beginning of this year, fighting between militias has displaced an estimated 200,000 people from the region. Some 70,000 people have fled over the border and into Uganda.
Three days after the shooting, the rangers were buried beside the road we had driven on our way to the mine. I had lost all of my equipment, but I borrowed a colleague’s phone and consumed its remaining storage. There was nothing more that I could do.
This work was submitted by photographer Adriane Ohanesian as part of the World Press Photo JoopSwart Masterclass 2017.