Tom Madison, the USIS officer in charge of the American Cultural Center in Coquilhatville in the northwest Congo, decided to evacuate the post in the face of rebel advances toward Coq. The evacuation impacted the American reputation in the town. But was it truly justified? An account of the immediate aftermath:
After we arrived in Léo, Tom and I drove in to give a report to the Embassy’s Political Section. There was “surprise” that we had come out so soon. Tom began justifying himself, bad tactics in my judgment. Dick Matheron, down on consultation from Bukavu, asked me if I’d like to come up to USIS Bukavu. I encouraged his interest (why not?) although I said I was taking off for Europe as soon as possible. A C-130 was scheduled to fly into Coq the next day (9/4) and I decided to hitch a ride in order to help any Belgian women and children who wanted to evacuate. Sent a radio message via UN radio to Jules.
Next day we flew up to Gemena with a planeload of ANC reinforcements for the Ubangi. Gemena’s a tiny town in the middle of nowhere. We flew over endless miles of scrub country under a dark sky. The pilot suddenly sighted the airstrip, pointed to it and we headed in. Barrelled in low and fast over the runway to check that it was safe to land, then we circled, came in and put down just long enough to get the troops off.
I sought out the MEU representative, an African-American missionary. “How’re things up here?”
“Everything’s pretty calm.”
“Your people getting out to Bangui?”
“Most of ‘em. I’m staying on for a while.”
Wished we could have had a real chat. As we left Gemena, Congolese tried to rush onto the loading ramp. Paratroop guards had to point rifles at them to discourage them from boarding.
As I expected in Coq, there were no Europeans stuffing the runways waiting to get out. The Andrés’ white BMW was there with Thérèse and the kids all ready to go. Since there was time, we went back to the house and had some lunch together. The kids seemed excited by the prospect of flying in the big plane, but had no sense of evacuation. It was just a convenient way to get to Léo. Thérèse was to have taken the kids down via Air Congo the next day anyway to put Jean-Luc and Yves into school.
During lunch Jules complained that my message had made him the man to see for evacuation. “Portuguese kept coming to me this morning, saying: ‘We understand that we have to see you, M. André, to get a place on the plane.’” Very important in the colon minds not to have been the first to run. I’d compromised Jules’ continued stature in the community.
But he’s been sympathetic to my situation. He spoke of “brave types” suffering in ‘60 when their panicky bosses yanked them out. He feels we pulled out too early, too hastily, thought we’d have difficulty returning at a later time to re-establish ourselves. The Congolese and Belgians will not respect our values, he feels; they’ll think we ran too fast. After this lunch I felt Tom and I (or one of us) should return to Coq to man the Center and act as a listening post until the town is more obviously threatened than it had been so far.
During dessert Maitre Herman came in, seeming like a child who hangs around another family’s house at meal times. He was, however, duly offered a beer which he took. Seeing me, he gestured thumbs-up. We shook hands and the depth of his gratitude seemed embarrassingly close to the surface, particularly since he’d been so critical of us yesterday. (After he left, we laughed about this. “Today it’s thumbs up for the Americans,” said Jules. “And yesterday it was thumbs down!” I added.) Herman asked to speak privately to Thérèse. We all knew he was asking her to keep an eye on his wife. Finally they returned. Thérèse looked rather as if she’d been raped – although she’d known all along that this favor would be asked of her. She seemed surprised she’d survived. Herman smiled, relieved, and shook hands all around; he gestured thumbs up again and left. Thérèse kept mumbling about “cette personne” and her “crise de nerfs,” at least it was “crise de nerfs” before the children.
At the airfield Mme Herman was sloppy drunk. She’s never struck me as the sort of woman who belongs in the Congo. Her mind’s too sharp, too raffiné. Trained as a lawyer herself she worked up her husband’s briefs. But her unusually alert mind seemed to unbalance her, deprive her of adaptability to Congo life. She’s been an occasional victim of “crise de nerfs,” as it’s called in town, and I’d heard whispers about the problem. Now she could hardly talk. She kept walking around, her hair frizzy and sticking out on all sides, dragging a coat and complaining loudly to her husband that she had left out of her suitcases “the new blue blouse that you’ve never seen.” Herman called after her ineffectually to get her to remain at the car until the crew was ready to load passengers. Her two children, smart-alecky types, alert but undisciplined, danced around getting in the way, the little girl coming up to shake hands with me five times a minute and calling out, “Bonjour, Monsieur!” in a sing-song voice. Poor kids. Their mother probably embarrassed them to death. At one point after take-off the boy finally said, “Shut up, Maman.”
In handling evacuees one grows accustomed to seeing people stripped of all their defenses. I was pleased how everyone made the best of the situation Mme Herman created. The officers and crew members were solicitous, walked her onto the plane, assured her that all baggage would be taken care of. We boarded fathers and sisters from the Catholic Mission in Lisala, trying to get their names and nationalities so they could be radioed to the various consular officers in Léo. Most of these missionaries are Flemish, blond, with faces right out of Van Eyck, Memling and Breughel. They’re stubborn and contrary. Finally got them all on.
The Herman kid comes zipping out at his mother’s request in a final effort to do something about the new blue blouse. I take a head check. Thérèse sits in the dark front of the plane, “cette personne” beside her, talking confusedly to its not quite certain whom. Thérèse sits stiffly forward, clutching Martine, staring straight ahead. All seats are taken; some men must sit on the floor. They clutch the freight lining the center of the plane on take-off and landing. With the center aisle full of freight, there’s no room for my car.
Outside a crowd of Congolese wants to board the plane. Many of them get nasty when I do not allow them on. Since I am the only American who speaks French, I’m charged with selecting and loading passengers. The Congolese insist: “These are our planes,” or “These planes are under the control of the Congolese govt,” or “It is not right to evacuate Europeans when there are Congolese wanting to leave,” or “This is a proof that the US is a racist country.”
This last charge irritates me. I tell them that another C-130 is coming in. They don’t believe me. Fortunately, as the first one is about ready to take-off, the second arrives. We end up boarding most anybody with a legitimate reason to go: Army people, more European evacuees, the President of Moyen Congo province and two of his ministers. He looks like a college student dressed in a sport shirt and slacks; it’s all he could get out of Lisala with, he tells me. Even take the wife of a local provincial minister who carries an infant and a huge washtub full of possessions, the whole business wrapped up in mammy cloth.
Next post: Fred tries to wangle a return to Coquilhatville.