The sun was up, but it had not yet crested the steep, mist-shrouded mountains. In the little valley that leads from the Buhoma Gate of the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park in southwestern Uganda, visitors were preparing for hikes that would put them face to face with rare mountain gorillas. American tour guide Mark Ross was up at 7 a.m., but his clients, four executives from Oregon's Intel Corp., were still in their comfortable tents at the pricey Abercrombie & Kent Gorilla Camp. None of them would get to see the animals. "There was a crack, and at first I thought it was a tree falling, but it was a rifle shot," Ross later recalled. "It must have been a signal shot. A hundred fifty soldiers poured over the ridge into the valley, and there was firing everywhere for the next four or five minutes. It was incredibly fast."
Ross's first instinct was to protect his clients. He told them to stay put, then ran down a hill toward the park headquarters, the attackers' first target. Deputy warden Paul Ross Wagaba grabbed a hunting rifle but was quickly overwhelmed and tied up. Other park rangers opened fire, wounding at least four of the attackers, who carried AK-47s and heavy machine guns. Intel executives Susan Studd, 46, and her husband, Robert McLaurin, 44, stayed in their tent. When the attackers drew close, they sneaked out a back flap and hid in the jungle. But Robert Haubner, 48, and his wife, Susan Miller, 42, senior Intel execs from Oregon, made a fatal mistake: they defied Ross's orders and followed him down the hill. It was their third trip to Africa; the first was their honeymoon, the second a trip to Tanzania guided by Ross. Eric Pozzo, a close friend of Haubner's from Oregon, says he had advised Haubner to make the Bwindi trip, which he'd heard was safe and "a mind-blowing experience."
Before the day was over, Haubner, Miller and 10 others would die--shot or burned to death on the spot or marched barefoot into the hills to be killed with clubs and machetes. The attackers knew what they were doing. Their assault bore the hallmarks of terrorism--an outrage carefully planned and executed to send a political message, in the blood of innocents, to the government of Uganda and its main foreign backers, the United States and Britain. In fact, if the guerrillas, Hutu rebels known as Interahamwe, had struck two weeks earlier, they might have netted the American ambassador to Kampala, Nancy Powell, who herself had gone on a gorilla trek, diplomatic sources told NEWSWEEK. It's not clear if they knew of her visit.
The gunmen immediately began culling the 31 tourists they had rounded up, Americans and Britons in one group, French and other nationalities in another. A half-dozen Americans and several Britons had the foresight to lie about their nationality and made the French group. Suddenly there was a series of explosions; some of the tourists screamed, thinking they were being shelled. The attackers were torching park vehicles; Warden Wagaba, hogtied and doused in gasoline, was pushed under one and burned alive, one of four rangers who died. The guerrillas let the French group leave, but the 16 English speakers (including some who were mistakenly thought to be American or British) were told to hand over their shoes--and start marching for the border with Congo.
It soon became a death march. A British man and woman, near the end of the column, complained they couldn't keep up. Soldiers at the end held them back; their bodies were found later. But Linda Anne Adams, 54, from Alamo in Southern California, an Abercrombie client, and tour guide Fiona Morley, a Briton from Kent, both survived because they managed to split off early. Half an hour into the march, Adams faked an asthma attack; the gunmen let Morley go with her to help the older woman.
Ross and his two clients were up front because the guerrillas could speak to him in Swahili. A bush pilot from Arkansas who has livedin Kenya for 22 years, Ross became the spokesman for the 11 other remaining tourists as they climbed the steep rain-forested slope. "They started interrogating me loosely about what the war [in Congo] was about and what I was going to tell people when [I got] back," he said. The attackers, he said, plainly were Hutus from among those driven from Rwanda after slaughtering upwards of 500,000 Tutsis in 1994. They blamed America and Britain for supporting the Tutsi victors in that war, and Uganda for backing mostly Tutsi rebels in a new civil war in Congo that began last August. "It seemed like an angle we could use to get out of this, so I said, 'Why don't you write down what it is you want to say and we will take it back?' " Ross said
It was rough going. The guerrillas struggled to carry four wounded comrades on stretchers, and often had to widen the jungle path with machetes. The tourists, all shoeless, slipped and fell. After climbing for three hours, Susan Miller, the Intel executive, was exhausted. "I asked if she could be left, but they weren't sure," Ross said. The guerrilla leaders finally agreed, letting her and another woman, New Zealander Rhonda Avis, 27, turn back with a small group of guards. They were later joined by a second New Zealand woman, Michelle Strathern. All three later were found hacked to death; one, found nude, apparently was raped, Ross said.
By 11:30 a.m., the attackers realized they had missed the point at which they would leave park trails and bushwhack into Congo. They ordered the American Haubner and two British men to go with a smaller detachment as the main body retraced its steps. The others tried, without success, to block the separation. "I said, 'Look, he's my brother'," said Danji Walthers, a Swiss Air flight attendant whose friend was among those taken away. The three men's bodies were later found just across the border with Congo.
Ross and the other remaining five stuck with the commanders, who agreed to release them once they reached the border. Walthers almost scotched the deal. She chatted about pop music with one of the guerrillas, and explained what a looted deodorant stick was for. While the commander wrote out a two-page political screed in bad French, Walthers's new "friend" grabbed her by the hair and tried to drag her over the border. But after a few minutes of arguing, the six were released unharmed.
The survivors were elated as they hiked back down the mountain. But within an hour they met a Ugandan Army patrol and learned that the bodies of some of their fellow tourists lay ahead. Mark Avis didn't want to look at the bodies, so he described the clothes of his wife, Rhonda, to Ross. "I couldn't find a body with her clothes," said Ross. Only after they returned to Kampala would Mark Avis realize that his wife's body had been there, too. By nightfall, the six survivors made it back to camp and spent the night in one tent.
It may be a long time before anyone else sleeps there. The upscale British tour company closed its base, and other tour operators followed suit. With 70 percent of its revenue coming from gorilla trekkers, Uganda's tourism industry won't soon recover. The attackers told their captives that was one of their goals. The gorillas may well be their victims, too; Uganda plowed hefty fees for viewing gorillas back into programs to protect them. Ugandan authorities found postcards of the gorillas, with the Hutus' propaganda message scribbled on the back, pinned to two of the bodies.
This was no random attack, but a carefully planned operation--with intelligence and coordination much beyond what Western diplomats in the area thought the Hutus capable of. Two FBI teams dispatched to Kampala will try to find out just who was behind the assault, especially if American diplomats might have been targeted. There's no shortage of suspects. Washington believes that Libya and Sudan now back Congo's Laurent Kabila, who has welcomed thousands of Hutu fighters into his camp. An awful war continues to consume thousands of Africans lives. Now it has begun to claim outsiders, too.