Following a precipitate evacuation from the USIS post in the northwest Congo, ordered by his superior, Fred Hunter was allowed to return to Coquilhatville. He found the situation there much deteriorated. Here’s his account:
Hardly has Jules disappeared into the courtyard to check out what sounded like machine-gun fire before Rishi knocks at the front door. Hardly has he confirmed that no answer has been received to my last night’s message than Cabiaux and Herman are in the room.
They ask if I have received news from Leopoldville.
I have not.
Cabiaux takes a cigarette from his breast pocket and asks if I have a match.
Let’s see… My only matches are stuck away with the candle in the medicine cabinet where I can find them during an electricity failure. I run upstairs to fetch them. While my body takes the steps two at a stride, my mind detaches itself for a sidelong look at me. It’s puzzled to see me doing for Cabiaux what it doubts he would do for me; it’s a bit piqued with him for sending me off on an errand when the need for taking decisions seems to hang momentously in the air. It’s perplexed at my preoccupation with being a host (I’ve already excused myself for having nothing in the house to offer them). And most of all amused at my preoccupation with everything (hosting, letters, a trip to Europe) beside The Situation.
I get the matches (there are about five left), return below and help Cabiaux set himself afire. Herman asks again that I request rescue planes from the Embassy. We review The Situation as it’s developing. As the threat grows, I’m told, ANC officers are losing confidence, disputing among themselves what should be done. They will certainly not relinquish the arms shipped in to reinforce the gendarmerie’s defense of Ingende. And it appears that the gendarmerie has abandoned any idea of making a stand there. About the probable incompetence and questionable loyalty of Major Kwima? Nothing.
There’s the ever worrisome possibility of a local explosion. That this will come, that the rebels will be welcomed, none of us doubts. The question is: When?
There’s also the problem of escape. Getting out by land is impossible. As the events of 1960 showed, river escape by women and children is problematic, especially now that local control of Otraco rests in Congolese hands. Moreover, the road to the airport can be easily cut.
“And in any case,” says Herman, “the Europeans are having great difficulty boarding Air Congo flights.”
“But why is that?” I ask.
“The Congolese authorities are taking over the planes,” Herman says. “What was left of the Provincial Government went out on the plane this morning.” If the Belgian Embassy decides to evacuate its citizens, it will use Air Congo planes, Air Congo being an affiliate of Sabena, the Belgian National Airlines. There will be no point in the Belgian Embassy sending them if its citizens cannot get aboard. We all understand what the report of Van Nitsen’s execution means in terms of the direction the rebellion may have taken.
Herman reiterates what he told me last night: “The women and children must be evacuated.” Cabiaux leans forward, elbows on his knees, the cigarette still burning between his fingers,
“What about the men?”
A look passes between the two lawyers. Again Herman speaks: “Most of them are ready to go, too.” Cabiaux nods in agreement.
“When?” I ask.
“Today,” says Herman. “Now. People are going to the airport right now to wait for planes.”
“For what planes?”
“For any planes. Air Congo. American planes. Anything.”
If I have been waiting for some demonstrated willingness by the Europeans to leave, their flocking to the airport would seem to meet that requirement.
“Okay,” I say. “I’ll write a message immediately.”
Taking a pad of paper, I move to the dining table and start to print in large block letters: FOR 250 LEOPOLDVILLE AMERICAN EMBASSY. This is the Embassy’s telex address. Without our KWM-2 transmitter, I have no direct contact with Léo except via UN radio or the telex at the post office.
I don’t trust the UN radio. There’s no assurance that last night’s message got through. In any case a message has to be transferred twice: from UN Coq to UN Léo, from UN Léo to US Embassy. Judging from my own transmission experience with the KWM-2 and from the fact that UN people transmit in second or third languages where mutual comprehension is often faulty, the possibility of transmission errors seems tremendous. As does the possibility of a snafu in getting the message from UN Léo to the Embassy. (What if this rescue cry gets into the hands of someone who doesn’t know what to do with it? Horrible thought!)
The post office telex, on the other hand, is a commo channel I’ve often used for one-way messages – even in preference to our own transmitter. It’s a kind of telephonic typewriter. The post office technician dials the address and connects with a telex inside the Embassy. In principle two telex machines can converse with one another (via typed messages) although in practice the post office will get no more answer from the Embassy than an acknowledgement of receipt. But that will be all I need to know that the message has reached the Embassy.
But there are two problems with the post office telex. First of all, it’s an open channel, in these circumstances even more open than the radio. While its messages cannot be intercepted as can those sent by radio, any official can look through the outgoing messages, of which copies are kept. That presents a danger. Should the wrong people see the message, they might set off a panic or the local combustion we all fear. Fortunately, diplomatic usage tends to understate and my message will be in English. Both will act as fairly effective codes in this underdeveloped, francophone region.
The second problem is that the telex, like everything else, doesn’t always work. We’ll just have to take our chances with that.
As I print the message, I feel on the fleeting edge of dizziness, at the border of a trance. The words flow easily: EUROPEAN POPULATION READY TO EVACUATE TOWN NOW MORALE OF MILITARY LOW WRANGLING AMONG OFFICERS APPARENTLY NO DEFENSE CAPABILITY.
Some messages – even the most banal – have to be changed and redrafted before I’m satisfied. Not this one. For a moment I let myself feel swept up in history, participating in it a little. But only for a moment.
Herman and Cabiaux converse in low tones.
“How many people?” I ask them.
“Four hundred fifty? Five hundred?” As the number of evacuees, Herman has given me the figure most people offer as the entire local European population.
I finish the message: CAN YOU SEND C-130 AIRCRAFT TO EVACUATE 300 PERSONS TODAY TODAY RESPOND VIA UN RADIO. I sign the message: HUNTER.
The capacity of a C-130, each refugee carrying one suitcase, lies between 125 to 135 people. The Embassy will probably send three planes into Coq. They can evacuate around 400 refugees. The Belgian Embassy, too, will undoubtedly try to do something. And if other C-130s are needed, they can probably be sent.
Finished, I read through the message. It strikes me as a little understated. One doesn’t want to follow too closely the traditions of the profession! I stick in at the top: URGENT URGENT URGENT and imagine the commo clerk doing a backflip when he sees it coming in on the machine.
“All right,” I tell the two lawyers, the message in my hand, “I’m asking for the kind of planes that came in here last week. I’ll send it right away.”
Herman smiles with relief. Once more I see that expression of doglike appreciation, that we-can-really-count-on-you-Americans look. But the smile transmits to me less gratitude than a reminder of last Thursday afternoon when his glare in the airport waiting room said: “Vous américains, vous rats! You think you can sneak out on us!”
Cabiaux smiles, too. “And the planes will come today?”
“That’s what I’ve asked for.”
“When you get an answer,” he says, “let us know and we’ll spread the news.”
Before following the lawyers out the door, I find Jules in the courtyard to tell him what I’m doing. A few minutes later when I return to the UN Hq, the sky has grown very black. The storm will break in a matter of minutes. Is it the one that failed to come last night? Already men standing in the growing circle of Belgians, Cabiaux among them, are wearing raincoats. Expecting rain, the clusters of men have moved to the covered walkway on the terrace. Figures are milling around in the Game Room. It is quite dark now, no one having bothered to turn on a light.
I find Rishi, show him the message, and tell him I’m hoping for a reply through his channel.
Back in the Game Room, I run into Marcus dressed in a black Gendarmerie uniform. He’s carrying a lightweight sub-machine gun. The stock is only curved aluminum tubing. Seeing him, I’m immediately struck with the feeling that this is one of the men who isn’t going to get out. He’ll get stuck leading a gendarmerie outfit that doesn’t want to fight, that will eventually bug out and leave him. No matter how untrained and ill-armed the rebels are, Marcus and his sub-machine gun can’t hold them off alone. When he offers his hand and greets me in English, however, he doesn’t seem to share my estimate of his fate. He says an officer from the Belgian Embassy, a young count, has arrived on the early plane to report on the situation.
Marcus corroborates Herman’s report that the defense of Ingende has been abandoned. He says, in fact, that thirty-five mercenaries will be flown in specifically to hold the airport. It’s the 1960 strategy all over again: hold the airports and evacuate the Europeans. What about the town itself? Has it been written off? Are the mercenaries for real? So far as I know they haven’t seen much action yet. Will that happen? So much requested, so little received. Questions buzz around my head, only half-formed. The question about mercenaries is: Will they actually arrive?
A newcomer enters the Game Room from the admin offices and passes quickly through it, followed by DeWalsch. He’s a young man with a young man’s mustache, very Belgian-looking, wearing a tie, coat and a raincoat. These more than anything mark him as the Belgian Embassy’s young count. I give him the once-over (one must know, after all, what the other big embassy is fielding this year!). Just then the storm breaks with a roar of thunder and the quickening splatter of rain. I must get to the post office before the worst of it. I excuse myself from Marcus and head out into the heavy tropical downpour.
With rain pelting down, Coq could be a ghost town in a cloudburst. Except at Air Congo across the street from the post office. I have never seen so many people, Europeans and Congolese both. All of them trying to buy a way out of town.
In the telex room, upstairs just beyond the urine stench in the stairwell, a gloom pervades: dark light entering from the small, high window, the gray banks of Siemens equipment, black typewriters. It’s quite cold; the temperature always drops sharply during rain and in here the air-conditioner is purring. My friend the technician looks up as I enter, smiles, greets me with a few words, indicates a chair and returns to his work. He’s wearing wool trousers, a tie and a sleeveless pullover sweater as he learned to do during his training in Hamburg, about which he has told me. (The place he trained was undoubtedly as dark, humid and cold as this cell is now.) From the noise he produces striking typewriter keys, one would expect metal castings to clink out somewhere. The banks of equipment click and flash.
“It’s working all right today, huh?” I ask when the noise of his typing stops.
“Yes, fine. You have a message? I’ll do it in a minute.”
He continues to work. Then he gets up, goes to the door and, promising to return immediately, disappears. I wait. Sitting at first, glancing through an old copy of a magazine. I get up and move around, read the messages on his machine.
“Tu es là, mon cher ami?” my operator has written to the man in Léo. “You are there, friend?”
“Je suis là. Comment ça va, ami? I’m here. How are things?”
Finally I search through offices for the operator. He finds me, having seen me looking for him. We go back to the telex room; he prepares the tape that will actually send the message, feeds it into the teletypewriter and starts it. The keys begin to print. The same impulses that form these words form identical words in the Embassy commo room.
I watch the message go.
When it’s finished, the operator sits down at the keyboard and asks: “M’avez-vous réçu?” “Did you receive me?”
The keyboard prints almost immediately: “Bien réçu.” “Gotcha.”
Next post: Will the evacuation plane actually arrive?