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Outside magazine, April 1995
From the shadows thrown by Dian Fossey, Jose Kalpers emerged as the mountain gorillas’ next great hope. Then came a civil war that decimated a country, put the primates further at risk, and left the exiled savior in a free fall.
On a bright afternoon in early November, José Kalpers steers his Toyota Land Cruiser through the ruins of postwar Kigali. Ace of Base’s “Happy Nation,” the most popular song at Kigali’s newly reopened nightclubs, blares from the car speakers as we climb the verdant northern hills of the Rwandan
Kalpers, 34, is subdued and edgy–markedly different from the young zoologist I first met in Kigali in 1993 during a lull in Rwanda’s tribal conflict. Back then, the Rwanda-based gorilla conservationist and heir apparent to Dian Fossey cut a quixotic, self-confident figure, shuttling between African capitals and hacking deep into the Virunga Massif, the rainforest homeland of
One year later, however, Kalpers finds himself in a free fall. Plagued by nightmares from the recent genocide in which up to one million Tutsi and thousands of oppositionist Hutu died, recently split from his wife and three-year-old son, Kalpers now finds that even his raison d’être, the good health of 300 mountain gorillas, can seem insignificant, even absurd, in the
As dusk bruises the sky, we drive down into one of Kigali’s lush, green valleys and up a hill to Kalpers’s old neighborhood–a Hutu army stronghold until just days before Kigali fell last summer. Amid piles of rubble, cafés and shops have reopened, and the streets are filled with people. Rwandan Patriotic Army soldiers patrol the avenues, handing out traffic tickets.
The scene is a vast improvement over the wasteland that Kalpers encountered last August, when he made his first tentative trip back to Rwanda after his evacuation by United Nations troops in April. The faint smell of decomposing
Hunched over the steering wheel, Kalpers seems tentative, as if rediscovering a city he thought he knew. He is a lean, rangy man with an angular and handsomely Nordic face that might be bland if it weren’t for a wicked smile that illuminates his blue eyes. With round tortoiseshell glasses and a Byronic crop of brown hair swept back off his forehead, he could be a professor from
Eventually we pull up in front of a low-slung cement-block building, the National Parks and Tourism Department, where he once spent long days hammering out the conservation plan that has kept the mountain gorillas out of harm’s way. Kalpers greets the handful of clerks, Hutu and Tutsi, who’ve trickled back to work from refugee camps in Zaire, from relatives’ homes in other East
What’s most remarkable about this reunion is that there’s anyone here at all. During the four months of chaos, the place was ransacked, and half the staff went missing or dead. Everyone Kalpers knew seemed cast in the role of victim or killer. One colleague was thrown into Kigali Prison with 5,000 other alleged militiamen, awaiting trial and possible execution for his supposed
“When I first came back in August, I found my best friend in the office, a Tutsi biologist who’d survived,” he recalls. “He had just come back from Burundi, and he was putting some order in the mess. His family was put on line at a barricade, and militiamen came and said, ‘You and you and you.’ He and his son lived, and his wife and the other children were hacked to death. He
Back on the street, Kalpers draws in a deep breath of cool air, savors the smell of eucalyptus and the sane, murmuring sounds of a city on the mend. Exhaling, he slips back into the Land Cruiser and takes the wheel again, perpetually moving, it seems, to outrun the worst of his memories.
What does it mean to devote eight years of your life to a country–and then watch it go to hell in an instant? For José Kalpers (pronounced Joe-zay), the Rwandan holocaust meant not only the collapse of his personal life and his work, but also the crumbling of all easy assumptions about Africa. The mythic continent he had imagined in his youth, the land of Daktari and sleek carnivores shooting across the acacia-dotted savanna, transformed itself overnight into a tribal abattoir run by machete-wielding militiamen. Worse, for a man who professed color blindness, he was suddenly a very white conservationist in a place where the primary endangered species are Hutu and Tutsi. It reinforced the yawning abyss that
Yet when he first arrived in Africa, it was the consummation of his every childhood dream back in Gupille, in the German-speaking southeastern part of Belgium, where he grew up the son of a construction engineer and a housewife. Kalpers’s first encounter with anything wild was facilitated by a friendly forest ranger who took him along to study reindeer. Though Kalpers played
Even from the beginning, though, Africa revealed its harsh realities. What Kalpers remembers most about the bush is a lioness that was trapped around the belly by a poacher’s snare. “It was disgusting, because all the skin had been torn off,” he says, wincing at the memory. “I darted her, removed the snare, and she survived. She was seen a few months later, hunting.”
Away from the park, Kalpers took flying lessons at Kigali’s Aeroclub and received his license in 1989. The same year, he married Arlette Simonon, also a Belgian, who became head of the molecular biology department of an AIDS research program in Kigali.
In 1990, partly on the strength of his pilot’s credentials, the World Wide Fund for Nature and the Frankfurt Zoological Society sent Kalpers to be their project leader in Garamba National Park in northeastern Zaire, near the Sudan border. Accessible only by air in the rainy season, the huge reserve teems with 6,000 elephants and the world’s only remaining population of northern
Kalpers flew to Kigali once a month to visit Arlette, who planned to join him in Garamba after a year. But in the spring of 1991 her contract was renewed, and she decided to remain in the capital. A son, Sam, was born that October, obliging Kalpers to change his plans. Luckily, the African Wildlife Foundation, the Flora and Fauna Preservation Society, and the World Wide Fund
That Kalpers readily accepted the position at a most difficult and crucial time for the endangered primates was not lost on the conservationists who praise his self-possession and grace under pressure.
“He’s a calm, cool guy, a guy who is open to any race, any character,” says Jean Pierre d’Huart, the World Wide Fund for Nature regional director who first hired Kalpers. In January 1991, five months before Kalpers took the job, the Rwandan Patriotic Front had invaded Rwanda through Parc National des Volcans–the straightest line between the rebel forces and the strategic
The cataclysm in Rwanda, however, brought all of Kalpers’s labor to a precipitous end.
“By the time I left Rwanda last April, I felt that I wouldn’t come back,” he admits. “After all of our work, I was so disgusted, seeing people I’d known–and the people of Rwanda as a whole–consumed by this horror.”
Yet if Kalpers’s story is about being a witness to the calamitous events that undid his world, it is also about exile and return, human fallibility, and a stab at redemption. It’s about the life of a loner zoologist most at home in the forest, abruptly forced down out of his gorilla dreams by a great human tragedy. And it’s the portrait of a man whose illusions were brutally
The next time Kalpers and I meet, it’s over dinner at Le Petit Kigali, an elegant, newly reopened French restaurant a few blocks from Kalpers’s trashed house. He has refused to show me his old place. It would be too painful, he admits. Within a half-mile of home, however, the ghosts are thick, clearly taking Kalpers back to what was once a copacetic expatriate existence: a
Between bottles of Primus beer, Kalpers also remembers that time for a baby female gorilla adopted by the family after Kigali airport officials found it smuggled in a crate. “We named her Amahoro, which is Kinyarwanda for ‘Peace,'” says Kalpers, glancing at the other patrons on the candlelit veranda, most of them foreign aid workers. “In the beginning Sam was very scared.
Shortly after Amahoro’s departure, Kalpers’s world began to unravel. Without warning, Arlette announced that she was leaving him. Kalpers won’t discuss much about the breakup, but it is clear that he is still shocked and anguished–and partly blames himself. On the road at least half of the year and forced to defuse a continuous string of crises–among them the looting of the
Just after the split with Arlette, Kalpers took up temporary residence at a Belgian friend’s house one mile away. Then, before dawn on April 7, Rwanda exploded. “At first I heard a lot of shooting and heard that the president had been killed,” Kalpers says, speaking in a subdued monotone. “I started networking by phone, trying to get any information I could.” The news grew
“My wife and son were at our house–which is opposite the president, next to his brother-in-law and all the big guys,” Kalpers says, as he pokes at his tomato salad, curiously detached from the nightmare he’s describing. “That block was really hot. The Presidential Guards were there patrolling. I couldn’t do anything for my wife. The UN troops were useless.”
Meanwhile, Arlette and Sam waited fearfully in their compound as the Hutu and militiamen began their murderous rampage, in some cases using fragmentation grenades at close range on people who had been herded together, or just hacking away at their bodies.
According to Arlette, who filled in the narrative later by phone from Belgium, the Presidential Guards came to the house and demanded money, at which point she gave them about $1,000. They returned, and she gave them the car. Then they came a third time, wanting beer. At one point they shot their guns in the air in front of Sam, and he pointed and said, “Bad men!”
The next morning she luckily saw a Rwandan acquaintance, the son of the president’s physician, patrolling with the Hutu militia outside her house. He offered her assistance on the condition that she give him a job at the AIDS lab after the war, and then escorted Arlette and Sam to the house where Kalpers was staying.
The reunited family spent a surreal, if awkward, three days inside the house, along with seven other Belgian expatriates and one Rwandan as mayhem raged outside. Thrown together unexpectedly with the wife who had just spurned him, Kalpers distracted himself by trying to arrange a rescue for the group. “Finally the Belgian blue helmets took us to a French school,” he says. “We
Snaking through the chaotic streets, the savage reality of Rwanda suddenly rose up to confront them. Everywhere Hutu militiamen were massacring Tutsi at barricades; Kalpers witnessed several people being butchered before his eyes. “We were terrified,” Kalpers remembers. “We were seeing all the tracers and mortars, smoke and bullets. Everybody had machetes, sticks, or grenades.”
In Nairobi, a shell-shocked Kalpers tried to salvage the gorilla project while his wife and son returned to Belgium. “I was in an urban habitat, surrounded by lots of journalists,” he says. “I was trying to get in touch with people, trying to raise funds, in the office at seven o’clock in the morning until seven in the evening. I was like a robot.” For weeks, Kalpers lived in
“He had the opportunity to take refuge in Belgium, but he didn’t,” says Rosalind Aveling of the African Wildlife Foundation. “His work helped him overcome the shock of what was happening in his life.”
Still, it was not an easy decision. As disillusioned as he was with Rwanda’s savagery, as powerful was the urge to turn his back on the country, he felt an equally strong need to return. There was his concern for the members of his staff who were still patrolling the sanctuary, and there were the gorillas. Above all, Kalpers found himself returning as if on a pilgrimage to
Unable to enter the park region, which was still in the hands of the Hutu government, Kalpers flew to Goma and arranged to meet his rangers periodically along the mountainous border in Zaire. Deep in the forest, he delivered them radios and cash, and they kept him updated on conditions inside the reserve. In July, Kalpers watched with a mixture of relief and trepidation as the
In August, Kalpers returned to Kigali and discovered that the warden of Nyungwe Forest in southwest Rwanda, a longtime colleague, had been murdered in an ambush in June while driving from the park headquarters to the Zaire border. Two good friends, both Tutsi receptionists at the Akagera Hotel, had been butchered by the Hutu militia. For four days he searched all over town for
Kalpers invited the traumatized woman to recuperate at the home that he rented across the border in Kabale, Uganda. The invitation startled those who knew him best. “It was amazing,” says Jean Pierre d’Huart. “It was a gesture that might not have occurred to Kalpers before. This concern for the lives of individual Rwandans was something new.”
Other intimates agree that the war brought out a new depth of sensitivity in Kalpers. “When you are confronted by atrocity, everything around you looks different,” says Arlette. “Before, he was very solitary, somewhat distant. We didn’t have a lot of profound contact with Rwandans. He had professional friendships, but they were superficial. This experience has opened him up.
The Virunga massif is a gloomy and magical place, a cluster of 14,000-foot volcanoes that hug the densely jungled borders of Rwanda, Zaire, and Uganda. On a humid morning in December, I meet Kalpers in the border town of Goma, Zaire, to observe the damage done to the gorilla habitat by Hutu refugees encamped on the edge of and in the Parc National des Virunga. I’ve caught him
At a bend in the road a few miles north of Goma, Kalpers suddenly grows quiet. “Every time I pass this turn, I think about a colleague of mine,” he says. “The regional director of the gorilla project, a Zairois named Joseph Makabuza Kabirizi, was killed in a road accident here. He died on this very spot. He had done so much.” Kalpers shakes his head. “After he died, we proposed
At the Zaire-Rwanda border we pass Lake Kivu, gleaming in the sun, and then thread our way through the usual contingent of surly Zairean soldiers and immigration officials. A barefoot young border guard at the last barricade between Zaire and Rwanda plaintively approaches the car, his hand extended. “Please, papa,” he tells Kalpers in French. “I have four children to feed. I
My instinct is to cough up a wad of near-worthless Zairean currency to speed our departure; but Kalpers restrains me. For several minutes he listens to the man’s supplications, all the while good-naturedly shaking his head. “I have nothing for you today,” he says with a shrug. “Maybe next time, all right?”
Finally the official gives up and lifts the barricade. We cross into Rwanda. “I have to deal with this petty corruption all the time,” Kalpers says. “I never give them anything. You should never give them the impression you think it’s normal to pay bribes. It just perpetuates a terrible system.” The attitude reflects a rigorous sense of morality, a discipline that shapes
Sometime later, we’re on yet another twisting road, headed now for Parc National des Volcans, which was overrun by tens of thousands of refugees in July as the Hutu fled Rwanda. Enveloped in heavy mist, terraced fields of maize, bananas, and beans hug the steep hillsides, a patchwork profusion of deep reds and greens. Slowly, Rwandans carry what’s left of their
Beneath the majestic cone of Mount Sabyinyo, we arrive at the war-shattered village of Kinigi, a clutch of looted, windowless one-story buildings around a muddy square. We come to a stop before the decrepit municipal hall. “Biscuit? Biscuit?” pleads a cluster of children. Kalpers embraces a half-dozen shabbily dressed men on the porch. They’re the bedraggled remnants of the
“Have courage,” Kalpers tells them, shaking each by the hand. “Work with all the energy you can.” As with any reunion in the wake of such ruin, there is something poignant about this one, though Kalpers moves efficiently, hardly betraying emotion, except when he presses his lips tightly together and pats one member of his staff on the back.
Inside the park, however, it’s as if time has stood still. In the rain, we bushwhack through a primeval thicket of ferns, bamboo, and stinging nettles. Kalpers, toting a backpack stuffed with cameras and baguettes from his favorite Kigali bakery, leads the way up 12,000-foot Mount Sabyinyo. With us is the new warden, Aloys Musonera, a Tutsi primatologist who fled Rwanda during
In the heavy rains, the trail has turned into a quagmire; I sink to my ankles in the mud and then bounce across a soggy cushion of thick vegetation. Suddenly the forest explodes in a cacophony of screams and hoots, and a 400-pound monster lurches in front of us, protecting a nearby female gorilla and her six-month-old infant. The silverback bares his fangs, thumps his
Just behind me, the three soldiers fidget with their AK-47s. The noise jolts Kalpers, and he turns anxiously to Musonera. “Do these guys have their safety locks on?” he asks.
“I think so,” Musonera assures him.
“You know about soldiers’ instincts,” Kalpers says.
The silverback calms down, and we linger for a half an hour with the Sabyinyo group, comprising 13 gorillas, including two infants under six months old–an encouraging sign of normality in this fragile jungle enclave. The sight of life-as-usual in the forests enlivens Kalpers; he excitedly points out the silverback’s nest and delicately fingers small bits of gorilla dung and a
It’s not difficult to see what attracts Kalpers to these giant primates. With their dense black fur, bridgeless snouts, Halloween-mask faces, and intense yellow eyes, they’re at once frightening and strangely beautiful. One feels an odd fraternity with them, an appreciation for their complex social structure, an awe at how they’ve survived the chaos below the volcano.
The idyll is brief. Shortly after our descent from the forest, we arrive at the reserve’s headquarters at Kinigi. Looters and vandals have torn off the corrugated iron roof, smashed all the windows, stolen computers and a half-dozen Toyota Land Cruisers and jeeps, and trashed the records. A six-inch pool of fetid water fills every room; the walls are covered with anti-RPF
Back on the road to Kigali, Kalpers and I pass Rwandan soldiers jogging along the highway, chanting victory songs, and punching their fists in the air. The raw optimism of these young recruits, says Kalpers, is shared by the new Tutsi-led government. Despite their burdens–the threat of war along the Zaire border, the planned trials of thousands of accused killers, the
“I’ve been dealing with an emergency for four years in Zaire and Rwanda,” he says as we approach the capital near dusk. “That is something that can wear you out. I’m tired now.”
He doesn’t know whether he’ll leave or, if he does, where he’ll go. He isn’t sure that Rwanda’s torment is really over, but for now, the killers have been banished, the gorillas have survived, and the tourists are trickling back. For Kalpers, that offers a small measure of solace.
Joshua Hammer is Newsweek‘s Nairobi bureau chief. His profile of Richard Leakey appeared in the June 1994 issue of Outside.