Following a precipitate evacuation from the USIS post in the northwest Congo, ordered by his superior, Fred Hunter was allowed to return. He found the situation in the town much deteriorated and telexed US Embassy Léo for an evacuation plane. It arrives. But can refugees board it? Here’s his account:
As usual the town’s deserted under the noon sun. Jules and I race through it to DeWalsch’s house where he and the Belgian attaché will be. Rishi and Sami from the UN arrive just before us. DeWalsch and the attaché receive us at lunch, their mouths full. And are just as alarmed as we were when they hear the news.
It’s quickly decided that someone must talk to Kwima. We limit the delegation to a carload of people. We’ll take only one car so as not to frighten Kwima with our numbers and excite his stubbornness. But a carload of European men won’t much affect Kwima. There’s been a steady stream of cars on the airport road since early morning. What we are really doing, I believe, is limiting ourselves in order to control ourselves. We are resisting that strong pull toward panic, trying to remain well on the sane side of it. The delegation comprises Rishi who will represent the UN’s principles and prestige, DeWalsch, dean of the local Belgians (who alone among us speaks Lingala), the Belgian attaché and me as a representative of the US government.
Rishi offers his car, an official one that will pass more easily, we hope, through military barricades than our unofficial ones. I hand my key purse over to Jules so he can take the car. He knows I must return to Léo on the plane. We look at each other, wondering when we’ll see each other again. “A tantôt,” I say. “See you in a little while.”
Moving out through the cités Rishi drives calmly – and is forced to drive slowly. Large trucks that hire for drayage, old wrecks kept working by expediency, ingenuity and need, clog the pavement, chugging forward. They are loaded high above the cab with European furniture: lounge chairs, armoires, floor lamps, tables. So the looting has begun.
Approaching the airport on the long spur of road that parallels the runway, we see the looming bulk of the C-130, parked seemingly isolated on the boarding area tarmac. The US paratroop guard stands before it, facing the crowds milling around the airport building. In battle dress, rooted at parade rest on the pavement, the guard appears very military and capable after the sloppiness of the ANC.
The airport parking lot is a jumble of cars. I have never seen so many here and so many ill-parked, as if abandoned. Seen through its windows the airport waiting room is dark with people. Figures file through the mass of automobiles. Many of them struggle with suitcases. Since they’ve been limited to one, they’ve taken the largest they could find and have packed it with more weight and bulk than it should hold. A teenaged girl plods along, three coats over one arm, the other pulled stiff, almost unsocketed by the weight of her suitcase. She arches her back to heft the suitcase, teeters forward on unproven high heels, shakes her head in frustration. The sun catches the swinging, stringy locks of her hair.
I catch a glimpse of Major Kwima. He’s surrounded by Belgians, ANC officers, and what’s left of the provincial government; he’s shaking his head. But I break free from our delegation to head out onto the tarmac to make contact with the flight crew. Two soldiers man a barricade; a long file of Congolese with suitcases and woven baskets and belongings wrapped in cloths stand before it. “Tu ne peux pas passer,” says one of the ANC soldiers. “You cannot pass.”
“Mais c’est mon avion,” I tell him.
He regards me dubiously. But he knows I’m ”l’américain” and so probably it is my airplane. He lets me through.
“Say, what the hell’s going on?” asks one of the officers as I introduce myself.
The question is so appropriate that I smile and try to explain. What he’s really wondering – so are the paratroopers; I can see it in their faces – is whether or not we’re going to have to fight to get off the ground.
“You speak French?” he asks.
“More or less.”
“You’re gonna hafta lead ‘em on then, if they ever get out here.”
A few Congolese are already on the tarmac. Somehow they’ve gotten past the barricade. A paratrooper nervously watches them edging forward. It’s a little like “Simon Says,” the child’s game where you try to advance without being seen. The trooper shouts in English, retreats a step or two, cursing under his breath and tries to motion the Congolese away from the propellers.
“You must stay back. S’il vous plaît. S’il vous plaît.” My sing-song French and flapping arms induces them to retreat a little. “Everything will be organized in just a few minutes.” I don’t like being once more the man who seems to save white Europeans and turn away black Congolese; I don’t want a repetition of Friday’s ugly scene. But I’m going to be that guy.
At the loading ramp at the rear of the plane I greet the other officers. Dr. Mullen is among them. Inside the plane are Flemish priests, refugees from Lisala and Basankusu. At the very rear of the plane huddle two Portugese families; they seem superstitious, death-absorbed and very frightened indeed.
I return to the huddle around Kwima. DeWalsch is trying to explain why women and children must be allowed to leave. Kwima shakes his head. “We must avoid a panic,” he keeps insisting. “If any Europeans leave, there will be a panic.” It’s an argument that doesn’t make much sense; even Kwima seems to understand that. But he continues adamantly to shake his head. “No European will leave.”
The words fall on my ears with the weight of a sentence. A kind of shuddering hollowness opens inside me all the way to my bowels. Trapped in Coq, with the rebels already on the road to take it, with the looting already started, and the ANC betraying us. All the fears that visited my sleep the night before I left Léo hit me again. I think of those poor guys trapped in Stan. Nobody’s heard from them for weeks. And I think of my mother who assumes I’m in Paris.
Now a Congolese I’ve worked with in the government, the provincial public relations director, steps forward, holding a paper. A telex message. More fear jumps onto what I already feel. Almost immediately, however, I see that the message is too long to be mine. And it’s in French. It starts out: “La situation à Coq est catastrophique.” The rest of the message (I’m told later; there is no time now to read it) outlines why things have deteriorated and what actions need to be taken. It specifically mentions Kwima’s incompetence and fears that he intends to betray the entire European population.
“Who sent this telex?” demands the Congolese who holds it. “He’s the man we must find. He points to a name at the end of the message, that of the young Belgian attaché.
Most of the Europeans in the group look at him. While maintaining a surface calm, the Belgian attaché stutters and can’t control the trembling of his hands. All in all, it’s a commendable performance (I’d hate to be in his shoes), but I can hardly believe what he’s done. He’s sent an alarm message, questioning a key man’s loyalty, over an open, public commo channel. And he’s sent it in French, the country’s first language, when he could have used either English or Flemish. Incredible!
The attaché emphasizes the need to evacuate the women and children. Everyone looks at him. The Europeans know he signed the message that produced this violent reaction; most Congolese seem now to suspect that he did.
Kwima stands against the wire fence that divides the waiting area from the grass that leads to the tarmac. Never has he looked so small inside his uniform. Nor so scared. As everyone else stares at the young attaché, Kwima glances away across the field, shaking his head. But he seems also to be biting the inside of his lip. Is adamancy his only defense against tears?
Next post: Major Kwima allows women and children to leave.