Following an evacuation from the USIS post in Coquilhatville in the northwest Congo, Fred Hunter agitated to return. The embassy finally agreed that he could go back, which he did. Then rebels took a nearby town Boende and moved toward Coq. Here’s his further account of what happened:
Occasional bursts of excitement punctuate Jules’ mood of terrible depression at dinner. I get only hints of this mood as he walks along the terrace to greet me, Méteore at his heels. As he often does in the evenings, he’s wearing a clean pair of white shorts, white knee socks and a long-sleeved white shirt. The cut of the colon shorts has always seemed odd to me: huge leg openings – for air circulation? – which hang only to the middle of the thigh. To me their effect has always been to emphasize Jules’ slightness. Tonight he seems fragile. The muscle and bone (there isn’t a scrap of fat) do not look husky enough for the times; the white shirt hangs. The legs, topped with the shorts’ excess of white cloth, appear thin and easily breakable. I wonder again how much larger he’d have been if his growth had not come during the war when food was scarce and coal hard to come by in winter.
As we shake hands and go inside, I see the depression in his eyes. Something makes me feel momentarily that our whole friendship will have to start again tonight from scratch. Jules paces and fondles Méteore. “What to drink?” he asks.
I shrug. He moves nervously, unnecessarily about the room.
Nervous I am not. I have no need to be and am a contrast to Jules. He may lose everything; I can lose almost nothing. The United States government stands behind me with special responsibilities toward me, as one of its representatives. It will use considerable of its tremendous resources to keep me from danger. Who stands behind Jules? A tiny nation that has citizens trapped in pockets all over the Congo.
“I have some champagne.” Jules lights up and I watch the first excitement burst from him. “Ca, c’est mon ressort. That stuff really gives me bounce. I have two bottles. We must have them!”
I laugh at this suddenly ebullient Jules. He laughs, too, delighted at this magnificent idea crashing through his gloom. But before getting the bottles, he must tell me, of course, how he happens to have them. A French UN expert, needing a frigo repaired, came naturally to the only electrician in town. Jules promised the repairs. But when one is the only electrician in town and there’s so much work to do, one occasionally forgets a professional promise. (Jules might admit this – as the glint in his eye almost does now – but it would be disastrously impolitic ever to suggest it.) To help his memory, the Frenchman offered him two bottles of champagne, a very good reminder, indeed.
But as things work out, we do not have the champagne. Jules takes a little whiskey and shows me where there is fruit juice in the frigo. It’s been a long time since either of us has cooked for another person. We laugh from time to time at our efforts to prepare what Loka has left. In spite of this, however, the atmosphere returns to what we’ve been feeling all day: uncertainty, discouragement, depression.
While we eat, we talk of the canot and of specific preparations for an escape on the river. How much food could we take? How much gas and oil? After our Sunday caught in the swamp channel in that windy rainstorm, shelter seems important. What could we rig up? If the rebels actually come, what will be the last moment that we could slip away? Will the Congolese living and working on this strip of riverbank reveal the location of boats they know about? How can we avoid getting cut off with rebels between where we work in town and the boat dock on the outskirts of it?
My mind drifts from these practicalities. It shows me a series of images: Pierre Bogaerts and Jules and I slip the canot into the river on an inky black night. We push off, jump aboard and slide into the current. Rebels shoot at us. We duck, maneuver and make good our escape.
(One summer in the backlands of Yosemite – was I thirteen? – I was one of seven who started hiking from Tuolomne Meadows headed for Mirror Lake. The trail that stretched across rock was badly marked. When at last we lost it, we climbed down into the streambed and followed it along until a thirty-foot drop forced us to turn back. We returned to a pool we had passed that was drying up. We fished in it naked, using tee shirts as seines and caught seventy-five trout that could not escape. After dark we arrived back where we’d started, built a fire and slept in the happiness of our fatigue until someone fetched us at midnight. The crowning experience of my boyhood. As an adolescent Jules ran errands for the Belgian underground.)
Are the boys still locked inside the men? As I listen to Jules, in my mind I see us push off into the night. Part of me delights at the prospect of this adventure. But who will fetch us at midnight?
“A trip like that could be rugged,” I say.
“It might be fun, too,” suggests Jules. We laugh and shrug agreement like companions in an adventure film.
But reality intrudes.
“If my government sends in planes, I’m sure they’ll insist I go out on one of them.”
“Have you called for planes?”
“Not yet.” I tell him of the visit of Herman and Cabiaux. And of the message I’ve sent through the UN.
“This begins to seem more and more like 1960.” Jules sinks back into his depression. I can see him recalling events of that year. Patrice Lumumba campaigned for election in Coq’s central square, making real the prospect of elections and frightening the Europeans. On the day of the vote Jules was in Bumba on one of the last trips he made outside Coq. Tribal foes saw it, so Jules has told me, as an occasion to settle old scores. Six or eight men died in Bumba that day.
In the first days after Independence there was nervous waiting all over the country. In the cités of Coq Congolese workers wanted their fair share of the raises given to government workers. They marched into town. The Force Publique shot into the crowd killing several men. According to the Andrés, the new Provincial President, a Congolese, called the marchers, “That pack of dogs.”
Then in Thysville, south of Léo, the Force Publique mutinied. The mutinies spread. The Europeans panicked. Lines of abandoned cars choked the ferry landing in Léo. Belgians report their countrymen being flown out stacked like cordwood. In Coq, according to Dick Taylor of the DCCM mission, “The Belgians went around armed to the teeth. They tried to persuade us to take weapons and we wouldn’t.” Thérèse left with the children, but Jules stayed, glad to have work and glad to have gates to work behind.
“You haven’t seen any real panic yet,” says Jules. “It’ll start when people realize there’s going to be no defense of Ingende.” He adds, “The running from house to house has already started,” referring to the visits from Herman and Cabiaux.
Jules stares. His flesh seems suddenly to sag. The work and the tension of the last four years, the hoping and the disappointment, have carved their lines. “This should be such a lovely corner of the world,” he says. He looks around at the house. “It was so tranquil here. A little paradise where one could work and make something for himself and give something to this country.”
Thérèse and the children have been back only a little more than a year. They returned because, after three years, it looked as if stability was being restored. Everyone thought so. Since New Year’s there’s been a noticeable increase in goods in the stores. Probably half the commercial buildings in town have been repainted.
Jules looks at his hands. The lines seem to grow deeper in his face. It hurts me to see this. And yet I’m glad to see it – in that part of me that cannot mind its own affairs, that has opinions on what’s best for him. Despair is his friend now. He must not let himself get caught as the people did in Stan. Hope is the enemy. It will betray him into staying, into holding on, holding on, holding on.
“Is it more dangerous now, Jules, than it was in ‘60?”
“Oui, oui.” He nods. “There is no question of staying this time.” We have finished dinner and moved from the table. There is some coffee. I sit to pour. Jules paces. “Pierre Bogaerts and I tried to persuade his mother of that this afternoon.”
“She stayed through all of it last time, didn’t she?”
I know which women stayed. They have become almost legendary: Mme Bogaerts, who was not a widow then; Mme Schambourg, the baker’s wife; Mme Devos who left with her husband four or five months ago when they sold their garage.
“And she refuses to leave,” I say.
“Categorically.” He moves back and forth in front of where I’m sitting. “That’s a real kaas-kup, that one. A real cheese-head.”
I laugh, not having heard that expression since I was in Brussels. “I thought that was the Dutch.”
“No, no. There is nothing so stubborn as a flamande when she has made up her mind.” He stops pacing for a moment. “The Walloons are têtes de caillou, stone heads.” He smiles. “I’m one of those.”
“She can’t really intend to stay.”
“I said to her: ‘Madame Bogaerts, you have a responsibility to leave. To your society. If you don’t, you are asking men to risk their lives to save you.” He paces quite nervously now. “That’s the way the soci–’”
Jules stops short. His words choke inside him. He looks at the room, stumbles a bit in turning to see it all. Now he crouches, his hands before him, open as if to grapple an enemy. He flails his arms.
“Everything!” His voice finally bursts through the knot of frustration in his throat. “I’ll burn everything! Everything!” He looks around at it. “A little kerosene.” He stumbles toward the furniture, spreading kerosene in jerky movements from the imagined can in his fist. “Matches!” A swooping gesture as he strikes one, thumb and forefinger fused together. His hand bursts open and the match flies toward fuel-soaked furniture. “Whoosh! Whoosh!” He fires the furniture. “Why let those monkeys have it? Why should I give all my work to them?”
Abruptly he stops. He looks about him and at me. And goes into the kitchen.
I’m left alone in this sudden silence with my coffee.
Again this sense of Jules’ fragility, of strength held under tension too long, of the Congo killing him inside. I’m moved by this idea. Its grandeur. To burn it all! Burn everything! Cauterize the Congo’s wounds, then rest and heal and somewhere find the strength to start again.
Jules is still in the kitchen. I wander outside for a moment and rest a foot on the terrace wall. Here there is only silence. And out beyond the light at the edge of the garden only emptiness, darkness. The Congo. The river. But not the daytime river. Not that familiar phenomenon which Thérèse can reduce to brushstrokes, which my eyes can measure and my mind perceive. Not that well-known gray-brown surface carrying its sewage of plants ever wearily on. No, not the daytime river. Not in this silence. Now it’s something more.
In this blackness its presence swirls around me. Its movement now is instinct; it has independent force like emotion. It reaches out to something inside me. A shiver slides along my back. Africa takes hold of me. I shiver again. I hear the beating of its heart. Africa’s dark blood flows past me full of smooth-gliding crocodiles, of man-eating fish, of the secrets of dawas and magic. The river has a primordial life of its own now. It carries along the bones of cannibals and the soul of the Congo nation. And the reversion to savagery that the rebellion has become. How could I trust my destiny to this river?
The door clatters as Jules comes out into the night.
I shiver again. The strong presence of the river diminishes. The moment of dark union passes.
Jules comes beside me. Together we look at the sky.
“The rebels won’t get here tomorrow,” he says. “Maybe not even the next day.” We stand facing the river. “Tomorrow I start loading the barges. With everything I have: clothes, books, furniture. What I can take of the electrical equipment.” He stops a moment, releases a sigh. “I have enough light bulbs to light up Coq for three years.”
For a moment we say nothing.
“I’ll weld the barges shut so no Congolese can open them. I’ll mark them for Bell Telephone Company in Léo and set them adrift. They’ll be waiting when I get onto the river. I’ll collect them and steer them down with me.”
“How long will that take?”
“Two months. Maybe three.” We listen to the night. “But when I get down there, we won’t have lost everything.”
“And the rest?”
“I’ll burn it.” His look is hard. “Why should I leave it for them?”
We look together at the house.
“It will help me navigate if I leave on the river at night. There’ll be soldiers along the banks shooting at anything. I’ll have to travel out behind the islands. At least as far as Wendji. You could see it burning almost that far.”
We look at the night sky. There are no stars now. Rain will come tonight or tomorrow morning. Just within the thrust of the light at the garden edge a pirogue drifts by. Two fishermen stand in it. One crouches working nets over its edge. The other leans forward, slips his paddle silently into the dark water and pulls against it. Méteore growls in his throat from over near the kitchen.
“Fret…” Jules smiles. “This experience is good for your formation. But me…”
“Deja formé, huh?”
“Already formed. Since several years.”
It is time for the curfew and the mosquitoes have begun to pick us. We walk toward the cars.
“Jules…” We shake hands. “Merci beaucoup.”
“Dormez, bien, Fret.”
“You get some good rest, too.”
He smiles skeptically as if I am pulling his leg. He waves and watches me to the gate.
Ten minutes later I’m in bed, the odor of insecticide fading in the darkness. I listen to the night. Nothing stirs except air carrying the coming rain. All is quiet. I will sleep better here than I have in Léo. In the man-flooded corner of the square that has reverted to marsh, frogs sense the rain. They grunt hoarse lovecalls. All is quiet now except this and my own sense of what that dark river is bringing toward us.
What was Donanne doing at this time? Having returned from a summer with her parents at their Foreign Service posts in Cambodia and Malaysia, Donanne arrived at UCLA to begin a year-long master’s degree course in Library Science.
Next post: Looting starts in Coq. It’s time to get out. Fred calls for a plane. But the ANC commander refuses to let anyone board the C-130 once it arrives.
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