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. An evacuation plane has arrived, but will refugees be allowed to board it? Here’s his account:
Catastrophic possibility. Rebel money may have passed into Major Kwima’s pockets. That’s what the Europeans fear. He may have agreements with rebel elements already in town. But at this moment it’s hard to believe that he’s going to betray us into their hands. His nearness to tears is the betrayer, not of us, but of this child-man. It reveals him as not cruel enough to betray us. As not strong enough to break with the system that has produced him: Belgian paternalism.
Suddenly able to act with independence, he can’t break with the dependence that has been his way of life. Always in the past les blancs took decisions; les blancs found solutions. Les blancs were the fathers, les noirs the learning children. Kwima may have hated that system; he may still hate whites. (And with good reason. Isn’t it the whites whose message has questioned his loyalty and may wreck his career?) “I hate you,” say the eyes and shaking head. “But,” say the tears, “I cannot betray you, you who have betrayed me with your message and your leaving.” (I sense this attitude very forcefully, but perhaps it’s my own sentimentality and naiveté.)
The Europeans sense that Kwima is saying, “I hate you, but don’t leave me.” They understand that he can be palavered, cajoled, flattered at least into letting the women and children go. And finally this is what happens. Kwima relents. The women and children of Europeans may board the plane, but all the men must stay. Does he expect these men to fight the rebels as they enter? I sense that they will not allow themselves to become embroiled in this. Or does he hope to turn them over to the rebels as hostages?
Suddenly once again there’s the naked emotion of goodbyes. The tears. The passionate embraces. The men crouching beside their children. The contradictory desires, on one hand, never to leave these loved ones and, on the other, to get the emotion done with and the refugees loaded and the plane gone.
The women and children begin to file out toward the plane.
I am still in the crowd of men around Kwima, not certain what to do. There’s a strong pull to stay. I know how the Belgian men feel: that they sacrifice their own sense of themselves if they leave. That they will have to live for some time with the feeling that they are cowards, the sense that Tom Madison is now having to deal with in Léo. But there’s little I can do for Jules. Last night’s communion with the river on the Andrés’ terrace made me realize how foolhardy and arduous that adventure might be. Two months on the river! What would we eat? How would we survive the heat, the sun, the glare? My instructions order me to return with this plane. I will do myself no good in Léo if I ignore these instructions. And in any case I am needed to help with loading the plane.
When Kwima moves off, I nudge Jules, next to whom I’m standing, and offer my hand. He nods to me. We shake hands. I melt into the file of refugees that stands at the plane’s loading ramp.
Crewmen have strung straps of webbing in lines across the width of the cargo bay. They signal to women and children to climb inside the plane and take designated positions on the cargo floor. When the plane is loaded to capacity, we tell those whom we cannot accommodate that another plane is on its way. I hope this is true.
Finally everyone is set in the cargo bay where apprehension has caused a quiet to descend. The cargo ramp is raised. Goodbye, Coquilhatville. The motors start. We hear their sound, feel their vibration. The crew guarding the plane jumps aboard and the huge machine begins to crawl across the tarmac. The passengers listen intently. They are wide-eyed but all we see is each other and our various emotions: fear, uncertainty and a relief that already has some people crying.
The plane inches onto the runway. The motors roar. The plane shakes. We look at each other. Suddenly the plane hurtles down the runway. Then: whoosh! An enormous surge of power. The plane lifts. It tilts us. We start sliding backwards on the cargo bay and reach for the straps of webbing, understanding now why they’re there. And we are in the air.
Next post: A refugee in Léo, Fred realizes that the end has come for USIS Coquilhatville.