© BM 2008
Chapter Eight – Episode 11
“What’s that?” said Dickson.
“That’s gunfire”. Manners and Millar spoke as one. The Australian put out the lights, and they moved out on to the balcony of the apartment, which was situated on the tenth floor of the newish apartment block. The lights of Brazzaville glinted, fairy like, across the river. At first, they could see nothing, but the firing continued, and grew louder. The city centre was about a mile to their left and the noise seemed to be coming from that direction. More firing was heard, nearer this time, and they saw two Army trucks being driven wildly, and at speed along the street below them. The trucks screeched to a stop, and the soldiers disgorged from the back.
“They’re coming here.” Dickson spoke softly as if the running men, one hundred yards away, and ten floors below could hear him.
Manners agreed. “They sure as hell are. The bastards.”
Alex spoke urgently. “Can they get in here, Richard?”
“No, mate, not without explosives they can’t. They had this kind of situation in mind when these places were designed. They are like a fortress. You go in, and pull up the drawbridge behind you. Everything starts at the first floor. The ground floor has solid concrete walls and solid steel doors.”
Dickson was unconvinced. “I hope the Christ you are right.”
Manners was not entirely convinced himself. “I suspect we are about to find out”
There were several loud bursts of gunfire from the front of the building, followed shortly afterwards by several more at the rear. They could hear the bullets striking the steel gates and ricocheting off. “Let’s hope one of the bastards shoots himself.” Dickson was whistling in the dark.
“Where are your bodyguards, Richard?” Alex asked anxiously.
“In that room by the front door.”
“Let’s have them in here.” As he spoke the gunfire increased, and he heard the bullets striking the windows. “What are your bloody windows made of, mate?”
They were all on the floor now, crawling to the other side of the room.
“I believe they are bullet proof, but I couldn’t swear to it. In any case I’m not sure that they reach all the way to the top floor.”
They called the two DSP soldiers into the room, and Millar was pleased to note that their short barrelled weapons were at the ready, and the safety switches off. They carried a small box that contained several automatic pistols. These were offered, and Millar and Manners each took a 9ml Browning. Dickson declined with a shudder.
“It’s been a long time, Alex.” Richard Manners was checking his pistol.
“A bloody long time, Richard.” Millar inserted the magazine into the butt, and pushed it home with the heel of his hand.
Willie Dickson looked from one to the other, and spoke to Manners. “I suppose a lift back to the hotel is out of the question, just at the moment, then?”
They all laughed, and pulled the fridge freezer out of the kitchen to block the front door.
“Oh, shit,” said Manners.
“The bloody lead won’t reach the power point. All the beer will get warm.”
“We’d better drink it then, before that happens.”
They settled down to wait, sitting on the floor, with their backs against the wall, drinking Fosters. Manners threw the two Zairians a beer each, and the five men waited.
Manners was evidently correct in his assessment of the quality of the building, as the shooting and noise moved off after thirty minutes, or so. They were left in silence once again. Manners spoke in French to the DSP sergeant, nodding frequently. The sergeant, in turn, conversed urgently with his subordinate in Lingala, the local language, and turned back to Manners reverting once again to French.
“Augustin believes we should all stay here tonight, and take you guys back to the hotel tomorrow, if it seems safe then. It may be quieter then.”
Millar and Dickson exchanged glances, and nodded.
“No argument from us, mate. Let’s have another Fosters.”
About two in the morning things were quiet around their building, although they could still hear bursts of gunfire in the distance. They left the DSP men in position, and went to bed. At first light they were ready to leave, lowering the drawbridge once again, as Manners expressed it. The area surrounding the apartment block was quiet, but there was much evidence of the previous night’s activities. There were hundreds of spent cartridge cases, and Richard’s much vaunted steel doors were pock marked.
“Looks like they had ammo after all” remarked Dickson
Two cars, which had not been garaged in the underground car park, were now shells, with almost everything portable stripped off. They took the Land Rover out, with the DSP sergeant scouting ahead. He climbed aboard, with Richard driving, so both soldiers had their hands free for their weapons.
“I’d like to check the office, and some of the sites, if you guys don’t mind. I have not been able to rouse anyone on the radio.”
“Sure, go ahead.”
As they drove around Kinshasa, the full extent of the night’s happenings began to reveal themselves. Less than a mile from his apartment Richard stopped at one of his service stations. Where the petrol pumps had once stood, now there were only the concrete plinths. The Lubes area was a smoking wreck, and the shop and office area had been devastated. The windows were smashed, the doors missing, all the furniture gone, and where the office safe had once been bolted to the floor, was a blackened mass of twisted metal.
“Jesus, they have blown up the bloody safe, to get a few lousy Zaires.” Richard spoke softly, horrified at the destruction.
Sitting on a wall outside was a young soldier, smoking.
“What’s he doing here?” Alex looked at Manners.
“He’s the fucking guard. For Christ’s sake, he didn’t do much fucking guarding.” He went to the man, and spoke rapidly in French. The soldier stood up, and put out the cigarette, obviously at the Australian’s direction.
Manners turned back to Millar and Dickson. “He says he ran away when the other soldiers came during the night, and only came back when they had gone. I wonder if he has seen the manager. This site is a twenty four hour operation.”
He turned back to the soldier, who indicated towards the rear of the site. About thirty yards away they saw what appeared to be a bundle of clothing. It was the site manager. He was dead, and when Alex bent to turn over the body, he noticed that it was already stiffening. The man had been shot several times, and the front of his body was a mass of congealed blood.
Manners was visibly affected. “My wife and son were here about three weeks ago. She wanted to stay. I told her ‘No’. I thought it was too dangerous for a white woman. Thank God.”
“And not just for a white woman,” remarked Dickson. “Not too bloody clever for the locals, either.”
They visited two other service stations, where the scene was the same. At least at these there appeared to be no casualties and no soldiers either. They called in at the head office, next to the US Information office, but both buildings were unscathed, the former because of the building design, and the latter undoubtedly due to the US Marine Corps, whose duty was to defend US occupied buildings. Most of the shops had been looted, windows smashed, and doors removed. They counted perhaps twenty bodies lying in the streets. They visited a fourth service station, looted like all the others. As they stood in the broken ruins of what had once been a maintenance workshop, they heard a truck pulling up outside.
A crowd of perhaps nine or ten ragged FAZ soldiers staggered from the vehicle, waving a variety of weapons, mostly rifles. One lowered his firearm to fire, and the DSP sergeant cut him down with a short burst of automatic fire. The three white men sprawled in the broken masonry and shattered glass of the workshop, and Millar and Manners fumbled wildly for their Brownings. The rebel soldiers tried to find cover behind the low wall of the service station, and opened fire, wildly shooting at the DSP men and at the little group lying in the workshop. The soldiers were totally drunk, the DSP men were not, so the odds were not as unfavourable as they seemed to be.
“Back to the Land Rover!” Manners crawled to the back of the workshop to their vehicle, on the other side of the wrecked office building. The DSP men followed, loosing off bursts from their automatics. Alex took Manners’ pistol and fired both the Brownings out of the open door of the Land Rover, as the DSP Guards, backed towards the vehicle. The rebel soldiers, seeing their opponents retreating, became bolder, stepping over the wall and firing at the group on the other side of the service station. The DSP private was hit in the arm, and as Willie Dickson leaned to pull him into the car, a bullet struck him in the leg. The sergeant pushed both men into the Land Rover, and climbed in beside Manners.
“Allez, allez.” He screamed at the Australian, and turned to fire once again at the now advancing soldiers.
Alex was also swearing, as he clung desperately to Dickson, who was half in and half out of the door. “Come on Richard, let’s get the fuck out of here.”
The Land Rover, screamed away from the service station, the two offside doors swinging open, with the sergeant leaning out of the front roaring his defiance, and firing his automatic, at the fast disappearing rebels, and Dickson being slowly hauled inside the vehicle.
The Land Rover’s engine howled its protest, as the vehicle hurtled away from the station.
Alex roared at the Australian. “Take the bastard thing out of first gear, for Christ’s sake.”
Manners realised that the immediate threat was gone, and the engine note of the Land Rover decreased. “Where are we going to go?”
“Let’s get to the hotel. We are going to need a doctor.”
The day was advancing, and many more rebel soldiers were now on the streets, probably recovering from their alcoholic excesses of the night, and looking for new plunder. One or two stepped into the roadway to try to stop the Land Rover, but the sergeant leaned out of the window and waved his automatic at them, and most, recognising the DSP uniform, let them pass. A small group of five or six men were strutting up the main road in the central Cite area, and they appeared to be either braver or more drunk than the others. They formed a line across the road to force the vehicle to stop.
“Keep going, don’t bloody stop,” yelled Alex
“Don’t worry,” Manners snarled back, “I have no bloody intention of stopping.” He dropped down a gear, and accelerated the Land Rover, which picked up speed reluctantly. “Remind me not to get a bloody diesel next time.”
“Just fucking drive, or there will be no next time.”
The men in the road realised that the Land Rover was not going to stop, and they scattered wildly, and several began firing, hitting the sides of the car, and smashing the windows, spraying glass all around the passengers. The sergeant used the butt end of his weapon to smash the remaining glass from the windscreen. Alex could feel the blood running down his face and lost the vision in one eye. He was mightily relieved to find that his sunglasses had been shattered on the right side. He took them off, and looked in awe at the broken plastic in the lens. The vision returned to his right eye. “Thank you, Jesus, thank you.” He had not, until that moment realised that he was still wearing the glasses.
The sergeant spoke urgently in French to Manners, who hurled back over his shoulder, “Augustin says his weapon is jammed and we should stop screwing around and get to the Intercontinental.”
“I’m with Augustin. Don’t stop to visit the market!”
“How are the boys in the back?” Manners seemed to have taken firm control of himself now.
“Willie is bleeding a lot. The other guy is not too bad, I think.”
“OK. We are about 400 yards away.”
“Is the hotel safe?”
“Safest place in Kinshasa. It’s a regime hotel. The Old Man would not allow anything to happen here. It is practically DSP headquarters.”
They pulled up at the entrance to the hotel drive, but could not go further for the DSP vehicles and men surrounding the area. The sergeant leaped out of the Land Rover even before it stopped, shouting explanations to the nervous men who were pointing their weapons. Dickson and the wounded soldier were lifted from the vehicle and carried into the hotel lobby. Millar walked with his friend.
Alex bent over his friend. “Yes, Willie?”
“Do something for me. Ask that bastard Frenchman, Selosse, what he knew that we didn’t, and what made him drop out of dinner last night.”
Alex grasped his shoulder. “All right, mate.”
The other journalists, and guests, crowded around, gawking at the two injured men. Marc Selosse pushed himself to Alex’s side.
“What happened, Alex?”
Alex briefed the Frenchman in a few sentences.
“How is Willie?”
“He’ll live, I think. Is there a doctor in the hotel?”
“There is just about everyone in the hotel. Injured people are arriving all the time, and they are the lucky ones. The FAZ have gone on the rampage. Comment a dire en Anglais? Le pillage?”
“C’est la meme chose, Marc. Pillage, looting, murder, robbery, the lot.”
“And rape also, Alex. We have been getting reports from various parts of the city; nuns, expat women.” He waved his hands in a helpless gesture.
Alex watched as Willie Dickson and the injured DSP man were carried into the dining room, which was doubling as a casualty station. “Well, who is in charge? Is anyone trying to stop them? What about these monkeys?” He indicated the DSP soldiers standing in groups around the lobby of the hotel, and outside. “What are they doing?”
Selosse shrugged, and guiltily, the gesture having reminded him of Francesca, Alex realised that he had not phoned her since his arrival.
“They will not interfere. Their job is to protect the President, and make war on the enemies of the state. A few rioting FAZ soldiers are not their concern, if they do not try to attack the DSP, or one of their buildings. This hotel, merci a Dieu, is one of theirs.”
“How serious are things?”
“Very, very serious. It is not just Kinshasa. There are reports from Kisangani, and from Kasai and Katanga as well. A lot of people are dead, not just locals, but many expats as well. I think the whole thing caught the Government unprepared, and they don’t know what to do.”
Alex breathed deeply. “Well, everyone said that something was going to happen. No one knew it would be like this. Have you heard from the embassies?”
Selosse nodded. “Yes, I have spoken to the French and Belgians. Both OK. At least, they were about an hour ago. The Americans have exchanged fire with some FAZ soldiers, but I do not think anyone in the embassy was hurt. I haven’t heard from your people. But, they, too have soldiers, I think?”
Alex nodded, wearily. “I hope so. Yes, I know they have. RMP, I think. Maybe the SAS.”
Manners joined them. Alex spoke. “Have you been in touch with the Aussie Embassy, Richard?”
“Haven’t got one, mate. You Poms look after we poor colonials. Where do we go from here?”
Selosse gave his familiar little shrug. “I think we stay here. Unless you want to take your nice Land Rover out again?”
“No, mate. We’ll stay here. In any case they have made a fair old mess of the Landy.”
And they stayed, for four days, while all round them, Kinshasa, and other parts of Zaire were torn asunder in an orgy of rape and pillage, looting and murder.
Alex took out his mobile, went to the roof of the hotel, and called Francesca. It took him all of thirty calls to get through, and even then the call was lost after only thirty seconds. There was just enough time to reassure her that he was all right, and to tell her he loved her, before the signal went bouncing off around the world, and he could not connect with her again.
“Fuck it,” he snarled, but at least they had spoken.
On the fifth day, the French and Belgian paras came, capturing and securing the airport, and then the ferry crossing point, from where they fanned out in grim and highly professional columns. Some FAZ, more from drunkenness than bravery, attempted to give battle, and the European soldiers swept them a way in cold fury, taking no prisoners. The city was secured, and the FAZ melted away. The counting began.
The various journalists, who had done their best to make their reports to Paris, Brussels, London and Washington, using their mobile phones, imperfect as they were, also fanned out over the city, checking on the survival of friends and colleagues, and sating the appetite of the world with tales of the latest horror from Africa. Horror there was aplenty. Some fifteen hundred people had been murdered, hundreds of women raped, thousands of people of all races injured, and the city of Kinshasa, never, recently, a pretty place, ravaged. The embassies had, for the most part, been unscathed. Those hundreds and thousands of people who had sought refuge in the embassies, and missions, emerged shaken, but safe, and went off to see what remained from their former lives. Little had. Perhaps the expatriates were the lucky ones, those who had avoided death or injury. They could, and many did, go home, where some would be compensated by their employers, or governments. The people of Zaire had nowhere to go. They had no one to compensate them. They were obliged to begin again, without help, and wait for it all to start all over again.
Dickson was medevaced to Libreville, initially, and then back to London. Richard collected his windowless, bullet riddled Land Rover, and with Alex, went on a tour of inspection of the shattered remnants of his business. Every single service station had been looted and destroyed. The various buildings occupied by the company, which had been purpose built, were unaffected. They went to Petit Jardin, a small housing estate for employees, owned by the company. They were met by François Matele, the Operations Manager. Wordlessly, he turned and led the two men into his own bungalow style house. His wife and two small daughters, aged about three and five, sat at the front door.
“They took everything, Richard, everything.”
They had. There was not one piece of furniture, not one appliance in the house. The glass had been removed from the windows, the light fittings and switches, the power points had all been stolen. Th cables had all been pulled from the wall and removed. Nothing remained, but a concrete shell. One internal wall had been severely damaged by gunfire, bringing down the plaster.
Manners was deeply upset, and held Francois’s wife, Simone, and the two little girls. “We will replace everything. I don’t know what else to say.”
Simone spoke in French, tears streaming down her face. François translated for Alex. “Simone said that no one can give us back what we have lost here.”
“Thank God you are all well,” Manners spoke emotionally. “Was anyone hurt?”
François indicated with his hand, and they followed him. “Number seven, Mr Kumar, one of the tenants. He objected to the soldiers taking his wife’s jewellery. They shot him in the head, and then again in the body as he lay dead on the floor. They still took her jewellery.”
They reached number seven. There was no door and the three men walked into the lounge, stripped bare as in the other house. There was a dark red stain in the middle of the concrete floor, and bloodstains on the walls. Francois began to describe what had happened.
“They had already taken the carpet. He only objected to them stealing his wife’s things. She, and their children had to sit here, with his body, for five days, until the Belgian and French soldiers came.” He was crying now, shaking as the pain and humiliation of the last days welled up in him. “These were my people who did this. I might have been to school with some of them. My own people. We are an independent country, and we have to have white soldiers to stop our own people from doing this.”
Richard and Alex waited for some seconds, until it became too painful. They went outside and stood outside the skeleton of a house.
“Cigarette, Alex? Sorry, I’d forgotten you do not smoke.”
“I do today. Give me one.”
Alex and Marc Selosse visited the Blochs that afternoon. They were all well. No one had disturbed them in the entire five days of the looting.
“Thank God you are all well.” Marc spoke sincerely.
Magda was less certain. “We were lucky this time. There will be another time. Who knows when? They will come again. They have the taste. We must go back to Europe. We have lived here for twenty-five years. Monique was born here, and also her husband. There is no future in Zaire. We will go back to Europe, even if it means starving. We must think of the young people and the baby.”
The Europeans flooded out of Kinshasa, by air when the French opened the Airport, or across the river to Brazzaville. Gradually the Zairean authorities resumed what passed for control, and gradually also, the European soldiers began to leave. Alex had several beers with Richard and Marc, and prepared to leave the Intercontinental.
He shook the Frenchman warmly by the hand. “Au revoir, Marc. We will meet again in some other shithole somewhere.”
Selosse grinned. “Oui, Alex, c’est certain. In that case, I will say a bientot. But, you know, it may be this shithole. The French and the Belgians did not come just for the expats, you know. They came to stop the Big Man being replaced. One day, they will not need him, and they will not come any more. Alors, mon ami, peutetre nous avions un rendezvous ici.”
Richard Manners shook hands and slapped Alex on the shoulder. “See you in London, mate. We’ll have a few beers.”
“You bet, Richard. Keep you head down, and keep your dick in your trousers.” He turned to get into the car with the smiling Charles, who had escaped the rape of Zaire unscathed.
Richard called out to him. “Different to Butterworth, mate.”
Millar hitched a ride to Libreville on a Belgian Air Force Hercules, and waited impatiently for several hours to board an Air France Airbus. He checked in his bag, as the need for its contents would not apply on returning from Africa, and he was fed up with dragging it with him. He trudged across the damp tarmac in the humid night air, and stood in line as the Air France security staff checked all carry on baggage, and body searched the passengers. It was not a practice that Millar had any problems with. They had his full support, and he hoped they did the job thoroughly. His mind went back twenty years to the burning tarmac at Butterworth, when the 9th Gurkhas were going off on posting to Seria, in Borneo. Because the Palestinians, in general, and the lovely Miss Khaled, in particular, had been blowing up hijacked airliners in the desert, the Royal Air Force had decreed that all their aircraft would be searched before boarding. He had exchanged salutes, as a matter of courtesy with the Gurkha Captain.
“Millar, RMP. I’m the Station Security Officer. I’m sorry, but I have orders to search your men.”
“Captain Nayat, 9th Gurkhas. I know who you are, Captain, and you must carry out your orders.”
Together, the two captains, one a tall tanned Ulsterman, and the other, a small nuggetty Nepalese, in his forties, with skin like mahogany, watched as the RAAF and RAF Police checked the neat kitbags of the impassive Gurkhas.
They saluted again, Millar on this occasion being careful to salute impeccably, and not casually, as on the first occasion. “Thank you, Captain. Safe journey.”
Nayat returned the salute, and smiled, revealing ivory white teeth. “No, thank you, Captain. Did you find anything?”
“ No, just a little about myself.” They shook hands, and the Gurkha officer turned away towards his troops.
Alex Millar’s reverie ended. He had reached the front of the queue. “Sorry, dreaming.” He handed over his passport, and raised his arms.
The young Frenchman smiled and returned Millar’s passport.
“Have a good flight, sir.”
“Merci, bonne nuit.”
He looked up at the flight deck, and saw the name ‘Ville de Nantes.’ He felt the same wave of relief he always experienced every time he got on a European bound aircraft.
“Thank God, I’m going home.” And this time he was going home to Francesca.
Thirty minutes, two glasses of wine, and two Temazapan later, he was asleep, and Africa was, once again, falling away beneath him.