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. Then rebels take a nearby town Boende. Here’s his further account of what happened:
Later, when I go out to the pool, the old colon Lermusiaux sits alone on a bench watching his two mulatto daughters swim. We wave. He asks me questions about news from Stanleyville that I cannot answer. I swim my usual twenty laps: six sets of breaststroke, backstroke, freestyle plus two rest laps at the end. As always the backstroke is the most pleasant. Then one can watch the magnificent clouds of Africa.
Back home, I am about to throw myself down for a nap when a car stops in front of the house. There’s a loud banging at the door. Peeking through the windows downstairs, I see that it is Herman. The fall of Boende has had its expected result. I know what Herman has come to ask. Cabiaux stands behind him, obscured in the shadows.
“Entrez, entrez, je vous en prie.”
Herman shuffles in. “Bonsoir, M. Oontaire.” The pout he wears in my presence (as if Americans smelled bad) is more than usually pronounced. Cabiaux, his fellow lawyer, follows at a distance. The perfunctory handshakes. Herman looks around the room as if Americans’ homes also emitted foul odors.
“Asseyez-vous, s’il vous plait. I’m sorry, but there’s nothing I can offer you to drink.”
They sit down, Herman’s elbows anchored to his knees, his face more drawn with worry than when I saw him this morning. Cabiaux settles into his chair, crosses a calf over the opposite knee and puts his hand over his mouth.
“What news?” I ask.
Herman leans forward as if bracing himself and purses his lips. “Maître Cabiaux and I have talked to a number of Europeans this afternoon.” He looks toward his colleague. If Cabiaux has come to lend his support, he does it only through his presence. He gives Herman nothing else, not even a nod. I recall that Thérèse disapproves of Cabiaux. She claims that when his wife and children evacuated to Belgium in 1960, he took an African mistress.
I look from one man to the other. An interesting relationship. They have never particularly seemed friends before. Is the reluctant colleague Cabiaux simply an unhappy brother’s keeper to Herman? I think not. He seems not quite merely Herman’s chauffeur. Yet, as he makes clear by remaining silent, neither does he wish to be considered the sharer of his opinions. Cabiaux would not, probably could not, I feel, bring himself to ask for the evacuation plane Herman will soon request. Yet he evidently wants it made available. Why else has he come to help Herman do what he could not do alone?
Herman continues. “Everyone feels that things look very bad now that Boende has fallen.”
I nod, but give no more encouragement than that. It is not pleasant to see a man as frightened as Herman. But is it better to be like Cabiaux, too proud to appear concerned in front of other men even in so dangerous a situation as this one? Too proud to ask for a plane, but not too proud to help a frightened man do it?
“All the men agree that the women and children must be taken out.”
Cabiaux stares from his corner, his hand still over his mouth.
I ask, “Is anyone going to defend the ferry crossing at Ingende?”
“Can they hold it?”
“They’re Congolese. Have they held anywhere else? You see how well they held the crossing at Boende.”
“Will Marcus be leading them?”
“Yes. But he is only one man.”
“The gendarmerie captain, the Congolese, looks like a good man to me.” I play down my personal concern because I’m wary of the request that’s coming. There’s real danger in asking too soon, in calling for C-130s before people are truly scared and thus actually ready to board them. I doubt that their readiness has matured yet, no matter how many Belgians nodded their heads when Herman visited them and voiced his fears. I wonder how ready Cabiaux is to send out his wife and children.
Herman shifts his weight with frustration. “Nobody can defend Ingende without arms.”
“I thought arms arrived yesterday for its defense.”
“They were delivered to the ANC.”
“And the ANC won’t give them to the gendarmerie?”
Cabiaux speaks for the first time. “The ANC won’t fight at Ingende and it won’t give arms to the people who will.”
We have to grunt a laugh, Cabiaux and I. Herman sits with the pout on his face. “Ça, c’est vraiment le Congo, n’est-ce pas?”
Yes, that’s the Congo all right. If it’s true (which seems highly probable), things are worse than I suspected. Still, I’m wary of crying wolf. If I call for a plane, I will be ordered to leave.
“There’s nothing between Coq and Ingende,” Herman continues. “And the gendarmerie can’t hold the ferry while it remains in Coq.” We are silent for a moment. “The women and children must be gotten out,” he says. Cabiaux and I nod. “Could you ask your embassy for one of the big planes to come and take them out?”
“When? Tomorrow? The day after?” I look at Cabiaux.
“The rebels could be here tomorrow,” grumbles Herman.
“How many are there: women and children?”
“How many Europeans all together?”
“Maybe five hundred.”
“How many men will want to leave?”
Herman assumes a speculative expression. “Probably most of the Belgian Technical Assistance.” He names several men. Cabiaux questions one of them. “Oui, oui, he told me he intended to go,” Herman replies hastily. Then after a pause: “Me – I don’t know – I will probably go, too.”
“I’ll send a message,” I promise. When I walk them to the door Herman looks relieved and Cabiaux noncommittal. “I’m here without a transmitter,” I say. Poor Herman looks sick at this news. “I’ll go through the UN. We’ve sent messages that way before.”
A strange approximation of English is squawking out of the KWM-2 receiver when I arrive across the street at the UN. Herman might be disappointed at the message I carry in my hand. It informs the Embassy that a growing number of foreign nationals is getting ready to evacuate, that the military situation seems to be worsening, that C-130s may be needed tomorrow or the next day.
The receiver is squawking in vain. The office is empty. I throw a hip over a desk corner to wait, glad I don’t regularly have to decipher messages through the blur of static and accents.
When he returns, Mr. Rishi and I greet each other in shouts. He gestures against the noise and we laugh, sharing a mutual confusion about radio. His total unconcern about The Situation is reassuring. “If Rishi is so calm,” one keeps asking himself, “why am I so excited? Am I panicky? Or is he misinformed?” He agrees to send the message. I head out to have dinner with Jules.
Next post: My dinner with André.
Leave a Reply