Green Hills Literary Lantern

Incoming and Outgoing

 

 

 

Our first warning of imminent trouble comes the evening of the reburial.  Laura went, because she was the least adamant about not attending.  She arrives back as we’re toward the end of our dinner.  We’re seated around a rectangular dining table just off the kitchen, and most of us are there, which is rare.  Godlove rises, pulls out a chair, and asks her how it was.  She drops into the seat and puts her fingers to her temples.

“It was awful,” she says.  “It went on for bloody ages, and it was terrible.  Just terrible.”  She’s clamping her eyes shut in a kind of ocular grimace. 

Then she opens them and lets loose.  “First of course, there was the actual transfer of the bodies to individual graves.  Good Lord.  And it went on for bloody ever.  And then the bourgemestre went on and on about how we did nothing to stop the killings, and how the killers were now in our camps, and how we were protecting them.  And he kept glaring at me all the while, and of course so did everybody else.  So that was nice.  And then he went on and on, and on, about how some of the people had their hearts cut out and eaten.  As if the whole bloody thing wasn’t ghastly enough without, you know, highlighting that.”  She pauses and looks around the table.  “Although.  Can you imagine?  How could one human being do that to another?” 

Abdoulaye gazes at the beveled lampshade above the table, giving her question the appropriate silence.  “But maybe the heart of the Tutsi is very sweet,” he says.

Our eyes dart toward him, regaining their focus.  Godlove gives the table a sharp smack and roars.  Laura shrieks “Abdou-laye!”; his straight face crumbles.  I snort, and strain to contain the contents of my mouth.  It’s progress of a sort: when I first arrived in Rwanda, I found genocide jokes very offensive.

Tom leans into the dining room, hands on either side of the doorframe. “Kamanyola’s burning,” he announces.  “I saw it coming back from the way station.  It’ll kick off soon.”  He nods slowly, eyes wide under his blue UNHCR baseball cap.  We look at each other to assess the significance of this news. 

The way station is only about 20 miles away, and the Kamanyola camp, though on the Zaire side of the border, is closer.  This is a sudden and dramatic development; it’s now clear that there will be fighting where we are.  We lean back and mumble curses to indicate that we understand the gravity of the situation, but nobody comments or asks questions. He slaps the plaster wall.  “I’m off down the Kivu. Anyone coming along?” 

The Hotel Kivu is where Cyangugu’s expatriates—the UN staff and aid workers—meet for evening drinks.  It has a small, roofed terrace that overlooks the confluence of the diminutive Rusizi River, which divides southwest Rwanda from northeast Zaire, and the rather grand Lake Kivu, which lies between the two as well.  We joke that we can throw our empties into another country, but we don’t dare try.  The hotel is also the preferred meeting place of local army officers, who gather in the room underneath the terrace.

Cyangugu shares the southern lakefront with Bukavu, the hub of transport and trade of easternmost Zaire. Bukavu has two dozen UN refugee camps that host hundreds of thousand Rwandans.  Many of them are the militia members who conducted the genocide.  Since their flight, the prefecture of Cyangugu has been mantled with strategic significance: it’s the point from which the army defends incursions by the genocidaires.

Tom and I drive down the hill, each in our own vehicle, since he says he won’t be returning to our residence.  The Hotel Kivu is a squat, two-story building.  It’s probably painted white, but I only go there in the evening, and its overall shabbiness and harsh, irregular lighting give the place a jaundiced wash. 

When we get to the top of the outdoor stairs that run up the rear, not far from the riverbank, the long wooden table where we always sit is surrounded by foreigners I haven’t seen before.  There’s a boisterous conversation in session.  Scanning the group, I realize that I do in fact know one of them. 

“Hey man, you’re down here?”  Matt asks.  He’s a stringer for the AP.  Everybody at the table is looking in our direction.  He invites us to sit.  We pull up plastic lawn chairs from other tables, and Tom greets a few of those present by name, whom I take also to be journalists. 

It’s a half-dozen men and one woman with a British accent, who keeps throwing up her hands and shrieking “I got juju!” then staring fiercely at her companions and cackling maniacally.  Judging by the general good humor and the number of bottles on the table, it’s clear they’ve been here a while.  They’re talking about their time in Liberia.  The topic of discussion is an interview with a warlord, General Butt Naked, who had apparently received the woman in the manner indicated.

 I’m glad I came tonight.  Nineteen visits out of 20, the Kivu is a repetition of the previous evening’s experience.  The faces you see are a varying subset of a larger but static group, and what passes for conversation is either rote recitation of the day’s difficulties, or caustic comment on Rwanda and/or those not present.  Occasionally, however, there is a deviation that inspires you to return to the terrace hopefully. 

One night I drank beers well past curfew with an engineer who had recorded the debut of a London band I’d seen back home a few nights before I left.  A few weeks later, a blond woman dressed for a wine bar ascended the staircase and offered to buy us drinks if we would talk with her.  She had quit her publicist job at Icelandair to work with refugees, and was gathering material for a newsletter.  Tonight, however, exceeds my expectations.  The prospect of being quoted crosses my mind. 

The jollity is punctured by a series of insistent thuds, not loud but distinct.  “Ah, the lads must be dropping in for sundowners!” says a man with a shaved head and an action-figure physique, also British. 

It’s quickly agreed that the rebels must be nearing Bukavu’s limits.  What strikes me as very odd, however, is that no one makes the slightest indication of preparing to leave.  After no more than five minutes, there’s a sound like the landing of several sacks of flour from a cathedral’s rafters.  But this too only prompts idle inquiry, and no visible agitation.

            “Must be the 81s,” Matt says.  I move my left hand into my trouser pocket, where I locate the ignition key with my thumb and forefinger.  I get the sense that everybody has one ear to whoever is talking and one to the other side of the river.  I assume this casual alertness comes from a refined nose for danger, that they’ll rise from the table when they think necessary, and that I should start worrying only when they do.  Still, for the first time, I’m happy that there is an early curfew. 

I turn to the man on my right, a Washington Post correspondent, and say that I am willing to provide him with valuable leads if he expenses my beers.  “I don’t understand,” he says.  I repeat myself and am returned a tight courtesy smile. 

            After the report of a machine gun that sounds not at all distant, Tom leans over and says, “Let’s be off.” We excuse ourselves to considerable mockery, which sounds forced to me.  Tom and I hurry down the steps to our vehicles. 

            He’s turning around when I start my Nissan Patrol, a boxy relic of a peacekeeping mission in Mozambique.  I hear something metallic rattling near my right leg.  I turn off the engine and work to unlock the anti-theft device on the gearshift.  I conjure a vivid sketch of a Zairian rifleman, a decorated exchange graduate of Saint-Cyr, prone atop the hill, watching my fumbling through his scope and making final calculations.  Then the key finds the lock, the bar pops off, I start up, wheel around and catch up to Tom, who’s pulled over where the road turns eastward to follow the lake.  He rolls down his window as I approach, and I lean over and do the same. 

“Not the time to find your favorite tune on the radio,” he says, then salutes and drives on.

 

*  *  *

Bukavu has been relatively quiet all morning.  Laura has made us copies of the life insurance beneficiary forms that she brought with her from Geneva, and, after we all pack evacuation bags (“one bag is all, and no suitcases”), we fill out the sheets at our desks.  I chivalrously divide the proceeds between my mother and girlfriend.

Sporadically there are pops, and a handful of louder explosions, but it’s not all that different from what I occasionally hear when I’m out driving in Cyangugu’s rural communes. 

            By about midday, restlessness and intense curiosity prompt me to devise a pretext to drive down to the border crossing to see what’s going on.  I back my Patrol up the steep driveway, which requires deft footwork between the clutch, brake, and accelerator.  The hill on which both our office and residence stand is fit for Alpine competition, and I take pride in never using the handbrake to start moving. 

When I come to the turn that leads down to the iron bridge over the Rusizi, I see a four-by-four parked on the brink of the hill.  It’s easily identifiable as not belonging to the UN or an aid agency because it’s not white, nor does it have a logo or outsized radio antenna.  Two men stand in the gravel between the blacktop and the grass, looking through binoculars toward Zaire.  One of them appears to be Matt, so I drive up to where they are. 

            “Hey man, you have got to check this out!” he says, handing me his binoculars and introducing me to his companion, a correspondent for AFP.  “You can see them fighting it out over there!  See?  The rebels are advancing out of the forest!”  He sweeps his arm in the other direction.  “Over there, the soldiers are packing up and getting the hell out!” 

I crouch and put the lenses to my eyes.  The broad slope of the hill across the river, a patchy assemblage of green, yellow, and brown cultivations, comes into focus.  I see groups of men moving about, seemingly slowly, about a half-mile away, toward the summit.  It looks like a game in which there are far too many players, as if the fans have also taken to the field.  I don’t hear any firing. 

“Look over to the right,” Matt tells me, “by that long building.  You can see they’re setting up a recoilless on a tripod.” 

I turn to where he indicates but can’t make out any such thing, just more random activity.  I thank Matt for use of his binoculars and excuse myself, citing obligations at the crossing.  I get back in the Patrol, cut a three-point turn, and speed back to the office, not caring if they notice the inconsistency of my stated destination with my direction.

*  *  *

It sounds like a Dumpster-sized lunch bag has been inflated and slammed against a giant palm.  It’s a profound disruption of the atmosphere, one I feel as much as hear.  I’m in mid-sentence, something about the printer taking forever to print one single page.  From down the hall I hear Godlove yelling for everyone to take cover.  Another, equally thunderous explosion follows, by which time I’m curled underneath my wooden desk, and then two more, and then I stop counting and begin to wonder whether my back should be facing the window or away from it. 

“Yes, yes!  We’re having a bit of excitement!” Godlove is on the satellite phone, his voice almost jovial, his accent a mix of brisk East African and English public school. He’s the sort of guy who could squat under a desk and sound like he’s on a stallion. “It would seem our hilltop friends have decided to weigh into the matter!” 

The explosions, then, are from artillery in the Rwandan army camp up the hill, not a bombardment from Zaire.  To my uninitiated ear, I can’t tell the difference, or rather, I can’t imagine something that loud not being the business end.  Last night I asked Matt how to distinguish between the sounds of shells being fired and their impact, and he laughed, but not unkindly, as if a child had asked him the difference between Halloween and Christmas.

“Believe me, my man,” he said, clapping me on the shoulder and rocking it, passing on paternal wisdom, “you’ll fucking know when it’s incoming.”

Laura asks me if I’m OK.  I ask her back; we’re both alright.  The shellfire goes from persistent to intermittent and then to occasional, and we decide to emerge.  Most of the local staff—that’s what we call the Rwandans who work with, or rather for, us—are in the narrow hallway, some are in the bathroom, but a few are outside, crouching behind the wall of sandbags on the side of the veranda that faces Bukavu.  I kneel at the edge of the stacked bags, each made of thin, woven strips of green plastic, and lean my head around to look. 

It’s a clear, cool day and the lake is its usual placid denim blue.  I look down the hill, over the painted metal roofs of the other villas and the ridges of leafy evergreens, but see no activity.  In addition to the now periodic artillery and mortars, there are staccatos of automatic weaponry, the concurrent tapping of Kalashnikovs and the rapid pulsing of heavier guns.  Most of it appears to be happening in Bukavu, which from our view is a thin scrabble of settlement that extends from the shore to the base of the hills.  I see a few columns of smoke rising from the city, and a misty brown haze above the southern edge, but otherwise, signs of conflict are more audible than visible.  A waving stream of red tracer bullets shoots from the trees to my right, leisurely crossing the lake in an arc that looks insignificant compared to its sprawling target.  I can’t imagine the bullets doing much damage, although I suppose my imagination might be keener were I on the other side of the lake. 

 

*  *  *

By dusk the loud explosions are continuing, albeit less frequently; most evidence of battling is the echo of machine gun fire from Zaire.  We run home during a lull in the afternoon, one after the other, sprinting 50 yards down the dirt road to the residence (the beribboned marksman on my mind all the way).  The house was fortified with sandbags following a border skirmish a month before my arrival, and has emergency stocks in a closet. 

Our road continues down the hill, past the prefecture’s colonial prison.  That stately brick structure is now packed with thousands of genocide suspects, and we seal the windows when we drive by because of the overpowering stench.  I have, on occasion, made banal metaphorical observations about this. 

The bottle of Scotch that Godlove produced (“I was saving it for a celebration, but this will do!”) is now a quarter full, and Laura is filling a coffee mug with cigarette butts, the no-smoking rule temporarily relaxed.  I’m fiddling with my shortwave to see if I can pick up any news when there’s a soft rapping at the door.  Abdoulaye strides over and opens it.  Standing on the porch’s mudgrate is the office cleaner, a petite and hugely pregnant woman named Agathe, with her intensely serious 18-month-old son, Theoneste, slung behind her back.  The humid smell of Cyangugu’s rich, red soil enters our stuffy living room.  Agathe and her baby are dripping wet. 

After a discussion in furiously rapid French, Abdoulaye goes to his room and returns wearing his UNHCR safari vest.  I put down my glass, rise, and tell him that he’s not going out there alone, that I’m coming with him.  We walk out to the driveway, and it’s coming down, but not in the garden-hose streams of rainy season.  I unlock the Patrol, and Abdoulaye asks why I’m not joining him in his Land Cruiser.  “It’s safer like this,” I explain.  “If your vehicle gets hit, we can still make it.”  He gives another shrug, helps Agathe inside, and we back out of the driveway.

Our road also runs along the side of the hill before connecting to the main, asphalted route into town, and it can be treacherous when wet.  Roads, as far as I’m concerned, are the most dangerous thing about Rwanda; its valleys are a nationwide sculpture garden of wheeled carcasses. 

I follow Abdoulaye’s lead, and trail him by about 30 yards.  The rain has a firm insistence, but visibility is pretty good.  Nevertheless, Abdoulaye’s driving with an excruciating deliberateness, which, if given only the weather, would be understandable. 

My imagination conjures this time not a sniper, but a cannon.  The Zairean military’s primary competence is rapine, but even drunks don’t miss all their shots.  Perhaps there’s a bookish lieutenant, trained in range finding one summer at Fort Sill, turning the crank of a howitzer, tracking our headlights’ glacial progress across the hill.  I turn them off, deciding to use them only as necessary.

The silence of the Patrol’s interior makes me realize that I didn’t bring along my radio.  Normally, when you’re in range, the handset bursts forth chatter as people try to locate each other before switching to conversation channels.  I mentally castigate my lapse.  Being unreachable by radio is considered, if not exactly derelict, then certainly a grave breach of team etiquette.  I wonder if there is a causal relationship between the quantity of Scotch I consumed and this oversight. 

Abdoulaye’s taillights disappear as the hill curves and descends, so I turn the headlights back on to gauge where I’ll need to turn.  The road, really a broad path, appears before me, and I can see the popping of the raindrops as they land.  I keep the lights on until I’m back on a straightaway, where I can see Abdoulaye again.

The blast is not like that produced by the artillery above our field office.  Instead, what impresses me is its light.  It’s a universal brightness, as if you’ve been sleeping in a convenience store and someone has flipped on all the switches.  I fling open the door and throw myself to the road, and in that instant I am thankful that I also neglected to fasten my seatbelt.  My instinctual intent is to reproduce the sort of head-first slide I used to practice in my Little League days, but the execution is botched.  Even though the Patrol is a low-slung vehicle (“that’s why Patrols are better on mines!”), the distance from the driver’s seat to the ground is farther than a baserunner would dive.  Realizing this in midair, I draw up my left leg to break my fall.  The Patrol bucks and stalls, I land in an inelegant collapse.  I scramble to the side of the road.  There’s no ditch, the hill just continues down, so I stop and put my glasses, which are now hanging from my left ear across my mouth, back on properly. 

The Patrol is almost completely blocking the road now, facing the lake.  I see no crater, let alone any sort of explosive evidence, anywhere.  The vehicle appears to be unharmed.  Its twin beams are projecting outward like searchlights.  I get up and walk over to the open driver’s side door, reach in, and turn them off.  I stand in the vertex of the door and the chassis and look the area over.  There is no sign of disturbance, just the rain slapping against the packed earth of the road.  My knee hurts like hell.  Up ahead I see that Abdoulaye’s vehicle has come to a halt.  I get in the Patrol and accelerate toward him.

The town of Cyangugu, though raggedly lit by night, is not as dark as I was expecting, and there are a few people on the street.  Abdoulaye drives past the turn for the hospital, and stops toward the end of the town’s very small business district.  He halts at the narrow alley between Chez Hamid, the bakery, and the Magasin de Luxe, which sells much of nothing.  The passenger door opens, and Agathe and Theoneste descend.  She gives a stage wave, then hurries down the alley.  Abdoulaye does a U-turn and pulls up alongside my vehicle. 

“She says she wants to go to her house,” he says in the dubious tone that conveys someone else’s explanation for unwise behavior.  Now he’s giving me a funny look, the same one he gives before he cracks a joke. 

“Do you have your radio?” he says.  I shake my head. 

“Why are you dirty?” he asks.

I look down, and see the front of my shirt and both pant legs are smeared a reddish-brown.  I glance in the rear-view mirror, and even in the dark I see my face is filthy.  I give him another shake of the head, this one much slower, with the sort of pregnant expression you give an office mate who asks why you’re late again. 

“Please,” he says.  “Can you let your lights on all the time so I can see you?”  Abdoulaye has asked me to correct him when he confuses “let” and “leave,” but in this instance I forbear.

* * *

There’s an emergency coordinating meeting in our field office at 7:30 a.m.  The head delegate of the International Committee of the Red Cross, a slim Swiss man with shoulder-length moussed hair and granny glasses, thanks Abdoulaye for inviting him to the meeting.  ICRC deals with prisoners and generally has nothing to do with us.  “I am glad that we are all here safe and sound after such a commotion,” he begins.  “I am glad also that your colleague is able to rejoin you,” he says, gesturing toward Tom.  Tom has an odd expression – not exactly a smirk, it’s more a composed turn of the lips that simultaneously expresses contrition and a lack thereof. 

“Last night was of course an unusual event, and we are happy to provide shelter to a collaborator in need,” he goes on.  “However, we have made necessary preparations only for our own delegates.  We can, in very special circumstances such as those of last night, offer one night’s shelter, but please understand that we are unable to provide any more than this.”  He thanks us again for including him in the meeting, and excuses himself.  There’s not much more to the meeting.  All the staffs are OK, nobody knows how many were killed in Cyangugu, no one has any idea what’s happening in Bukavu, there’s still no evacuation plan, we’re expecting a big influx of returnees, we need to plan accordingly. 

Afterward, I stop Tom in the hallway by our office, which is the living room.  I ask him what that was all about. 

“Coming back from Mary’s, shells start fucking dropping left and right.  I hop out and started banging on the first door I see.  Those guys.”  He rolls his eyes.  “They took me in and all, but didn’t exactly make me feel welcome, you know?” 

I say I know what he means, and ask if at least the female delegates look good in their nightgowns. 

“Fucking believe it!” he says with reverent emphasis, and we exchange salacious grins.  I tell him ICRC should worry about fixing the shit smell at the prison instead of giving him a hard time. 

There’s nothing to do in the office, so I go out to the driveway.  I don’t bother with a pretext this time, I just start up the Patrol and leave.  On the way down to the Rusizi crossing, I see a burgundy Land Cruiser approaching.  As we draw near, I see that, in masking tape, the word “PRESS” is fashioned across the windshield and along the doors.  I wave the vehicle to a stop and get out.  At the wheel is the big journalist with the shaved head, now wrapped in a bandana, from the other night at the Kivu.  I recognize the other faces inside as well, and see Matt in the back.  The sight of this odd vessel prompts in me both admiration and skepticism: I imagine gunmen emptying clips into the vehicle and then wondering why the mzungus had covered it in tape.  I ask them if they’ve made it across. 

“Did we fuck!” says the driver, expelling scorn from his lips.  “We’ve been doing the Zaire border dance all morning.  We’re going to give Bugarama a shot now.”  Bugarama is a small, wild-west looking town down at the southwestern tip of the country, where Zaire, Rwanda, and Burundi meet.  At the bar, they had been mocking the BBC’s correspondent in Nairobi, who was notorious for the violence done by his posh accent to local place names.  Someone said he’d once run into him in Bugarama, and then someone else asked how he had pronounced that one, and then we were all turning to each other and saying “Bugger-ama” in our best BBC accents.  It was pretty funny.  Tom was literally holding his sides.

“Hey man!”  It’s Matt, leaning forward from behind the front passenger seat.  “You almost got us killed the other day!”  This takes me aback.  “Your goddamned white Patrol!”  He’s clearly spacing and annunciating his words, and while his tone isn’t unfriendly, it’s certainly accusatory.  I can’t gauge if there’s humor in it or not.  I ask him what he means. 

“What I mean,” his voice now hectoring, “is that your goddamned white Patrol was a big fucking bullseye.  A minute after you left, that recoilless opened up on us!  We got out of there just in time!”  He’s looking at me intently, and everyone else is too.  I can’t tell if he’s angry or not, nor how I should react. 

Matt turns to the driver and thumbs toward me.  “We better get the fuck out of here! He’s parked right there!” Everyone in the Land Cruiser starts laughing, and I do too.

I adopt a casual posture, resting my hand on the rail of the roof rack.  The driver looks up at me with inquisitive scrutiny. 

            “Well, gentlemen,” I say (the juju lady isn’t one of the passengers), “I wish you very good luck.” I pause to think of something more profound to say. Something suitable; important words that convey my recognition of their effort as dangerous and valiant, as well as my acknowledgement that we might not meet again.

I turn my head toward the rear of the vehicle and scratch the base of my skull, gazing past the evergreens at the summit of the hill that leads down to the bridge to Zaire. The road is lined with white plastic posts, onto which red reflective squares have been affixed. Most of these seem to have been removed, which puzzles me. The Land Cruiser pulls away, and I realize he must have thought that was all I was going to say.
 


Peter Sipe teaches English at a terrific public middle school in Brooklyn.  He is the author of "Newjack: Teaching in a Failing Middle School," about a school that wasn’t as good. Prior to all this, he worked in Africa for a bit.