The Congo Memoirs continue. The last episode was Return Of The Green Pickup.
The usual procedure is this: A person is caught poaching and the park guards arrest them, confiscate their weapons (forever) and any vehicle involved (temporarily, perhaps) and the person is brought before a magistrate or other official who may issue a document that says they must pay a fine, or that they must be incarcerated for a period of time. In the most undeveloped parts of the region, the “incarceration” involves joining a local chief’s household as a servant for a while, and your family is required to move nearby to provide you with food as you will not otherwise be fed. In the more developed areas one might spend a few days or weeks in a jail. In any case, the fine is usually not paid. In the less developed areas, the unpaid fine simply becomes part of the larger and very complex fabric of monetary and service related debt that involves money, durable objects equivalent to money (such as Jembe, which are hoes, or other goods), goats and chickens, promises of service in labor, and the occasional marriage arrangement.
The modified version of this is when outside researchers are present. Typically, in a park like this, the outside researchers are given permits only if they also promise to provide goods and services to the park. For example, our tents were rented out to tourists when we were not present, and eventually our vehicles were to become part of the park system’s fleet. During the course of our work in the park, we were expected to help out with park related emergencies or to help catch and transport poachers.
Most of the park related emergencies turned out to be our own, or about the chief’s family or the chief running out of beer. Occasionally, there had been poachers caught with the help of the researchers and the research vehicles.
I should also mention that the number of animals killed over the two or three days surrounding Army Day was quite high …. probably a few dozen park-wide. The poaching several days earlier that had happened near Senga was not a normal event, but rather much more bold and aggressive than anyone could remember. And the fact that the perpetrators of one of those poaching sprees were standing around with some of their friends on the ferry with the green pickup truck, on their way up to Senga (presumably to pass through and take the road north) was alarming. I felt that they should be stopped and the guards given the chance to cite them.
So, I turned the Zodiac around with one quick move, and gunned it down stream, away from the ferry which was being poled slowly across the river. I worked out the situation in my head. I needed to go down stream through the Hippos (the 300 or so that rested just below the Ishango cliffs) and make my way to the southeast face of the cliffs where I could pull the boat in. Then, I had to go up the very steep and high cliff to Ishango. The quickest path up, a near vertical climb, would get me very near the guard house. I could then tell the guards that the green pickup with the poachers was on its way through, they would close the exit gate, and issue citations to the army guys. The army guys would probably laugh at them and continue on, but at least there would be paperwork and thus a paper trail and a complaint about the army misconduct could then more easily be sent up the line.
As I worked my way between the hippos, at high speed but very carefully (hitting a hippo on the way to address an issue of poaching would be absurdly wrong) I knew the green pickup was making its way to the shore. The driver was experienced and it would not take him long to drive the truck off the boat and onto the muddy bank, but these army guys would probably insist on driving in the truck up the hill. Since it had rained quite a bit recently, this would slow them down and I imagined they would get stuck once or twice. Or, the truck might go up the hill empty (the best way, really, given the road conditions) and the soldiers would walk up the hill, requiring the truck to wait for them. Either way, the amount of time it would take for them to get to Ishango and through the north gate through which they would make their escape was probably almost exactly the amount of time it would take me to get the boat to the landing and make my way up the cliff.
Unless I drove the boat extra fast and ran up the cliff with all I could muster. Which I did.
And when I got to the top, there were three guards and some of their family members sitting around in the guards’ compound. The guards’ compound was a squared off area of wattle and daub houses just inside the Ishago parcel’s boundary, between the road and the cliff, and between the vast wildness of the park to the north and a ‘camping ground’ just to the south, in which I’ve only ever seen one family of tourists actually camp. That family turned out to be relatives of the president, Mobutu Sese Seku Kuku Kibombe. I met them one time because they sent a young child to fetch me and bring me to them, in order to show me the head of a hyena they had killed the night before with a compound bow. I had been warned in advanced to not mess with these people. So I smiled and said “Nice hyena head” in two or three languages until they got me, and walked away. But I digress.
I arrived, gasping for breath, at the guards’ compound before I could even hear the pickup coming. Or, perhaps after it had driven through. So I inquired.
“Has a pickup … small green … been through just now?” … catching my breath.
“No. No one’s been through. I can hear the pickup coming,” said Kununzu, who was one of the three guards.
I stopped and listened. I couldn’t hear it, but I believed him. He was always hearing things I was missing. Too many rock concerts vs. a life in the bush.
“That,” I said, “is the green pickup from before … ” pant pant … “… with two of the same soldiers who killed the kob antelope, the same driver, and a half dozen other soldiers.”
Three sets of eyes widened. But less like efficient predators and more like deer. In the headlights that weren’t quite there yet.
“You should close the gate!” I suggested, referring to the long iron pipe that served as a barrier across the road. And instantly one of the guards went over and dropped the gate.
As we had been talking, the pickup truck came closer and I could finally hear it, and as the gate came down, the truck was driving somewhat slowly (because of the potholes) across the Ishango compound, crossing in front of King Leopold’s castles.
As the pickup rounded the corner to head north towards the gate, the guards and I spread out across the road with the gate behind us, and one of the guards gave the “slow down and stop” hand signal, which is the same as the universal symbol for hitch-hiking. Which is not sticking your thumb out. That means something else here.
And the truck slowed to a stop about 20 feet south of the gate. It was a comical sight in some ways. The driver from the previous encounter, the night the kob were shot, was at the wheel, and the officer in charge was in the passenger seat. The back of the pickup truck held six or eight soldiers in full combat dress and armed to the teeth. Having just come from the fishing village, they were all well fed (on fire-pit roasted tilapia) and slightly drunk.
I noticed that the soldiers were all staring at me. That is when I noticed that the three guards had all moved to the side and were no longer blocking the road with me. It was just me and the iron pipe.
The soldiers were staring with some level of bewilderment, wondering what was going on, even looking a little worried. The driver was clearly scared, as he knew the score. He was local and had probably been involved in poaching before, and was concerned about losing his pickup truck.
The officer, in the passenger seat of the truck, did not look scared, and he did not look bewildered. He looked mean. And competent at being mean. He worried me a little.
So, recognizing who the weak link in the chain was, I glared at the driver and raised my right hand out in his direction. He looked at my hand. My hand then imitated the movement of turning the key of a vehicle. This was the universal signal to switch off the ignition. He did so instantly, and this brought an annoyed look from the officer sitting next to him, and an increasingly bewildered look from the soldiers now arrayed in various standing and sitting positions on the bed of this tiny truck.
Now the officer got out of the truck and took a few steps in my direction.
In French, the language of the colonial oppressors, he said to me, “What are you doing?”
In Lingala, the language of the military across the Congo, I said “The guards of this park wish to speak to you,” and I made a little motion with my head and eyes, at the guards, indicating that it was time for them to move in and take over.
The three guards, all now standing over to my left, off the road, each took a step backwards.
In Lingala, the language of the military, the officer said, sternly (Lingala is a stern sounding language, like German), “Move aside. We are going through.”
“Yes, you are going through!” now I’m speaking in KiSwahili, the language of negotiation and trade. “As soon as the guards have spoken to you.”
Another head and eye gesture to the guards, with a little hand gesture by me added in for good measure. And the officer stared at the guards. This caused Kunuzu to place his rifle carefully on the ground and the other two guards to take yet another step backwards.
“We are going through,” in French. Growling, almost. Gritting his teeth, anyway.
And with this the officer gave the driver the universal signal to turn the truck back on. And he did.
“You are not going through!” in Lingala. And again, I gave the driver the universal signal to turn the truck off. And remarkably, his hand went up to the key, but before he turned the ignition off, he glanced at the officer who was glaring at him. The driver’s hand went back to his lap, the truck still running, and with a look of serious concern on his face, he sat out the rest of the argument.
OK, I lost that round. So I tried the Mr. Nice Guy approach again. Returning to KiSwahili, “I understand what you are saying,” to the officer. Waving my hand towards the guards and their compound, “Let’s just sit down and talk for a moment. Have a beer. We can work this out.”
Some of the soldiers, hearing about the beer and looking at the shaded sitting area overlooking the Ishango cliff, started to get down from the truck.
But the officer would have none of that. He shouted something in a language I did not understand, I think Luba. He was from the south. The soldiers did not understand him either. So, in French, “Stay there. Stay at attention.”
And they did.
So I started to explain, sticking with the nice guy KiSwahili routine, “You see, this truck was used in a crime a couple of weeks ago….”
Ignoring me, the officer ordered his troops, “Take off the safeties!”
click click click clickity click
“… we know this because the license plates match…..” I intoned.
“Ready your weapons!” the officer shouted, sticking with Lingala.
complex metallic noises as bolts are thrown, other adjustments are made, and grenades are placed in a launchers.
“Grenadiers” I thought. “I hate these guys.”
But aloud I continued, “… we just need to check the records, have a short talk, then you can move on…”
And suddenly, with military precision, all the weapons held by all of the soldiers standing on the bed of the green pickup truck were raised and pointed at me. The officer had drawn and readied his own sidearm as he gave the afore mentioned orders, and this was now raised and pointed at my head.
Several thoughts occurred to me at that moment. Including:
…two of these soldiers are pointing rocket propelled grenades at me. If they hit me, won’t they blow up too? …
…the truck is running and the driver had his foot on the brake and the clutch. These soldiers are struggling to point their various weapons at me and hold their proper stance, in a very small space. If the driver slips and the truck jolts, half of them are going to fall on their asses …
… why is there an officer from the south leading a squad of grenadiers in this area? Is something going on with the rebels up north? Are these guys actually the rebels from up north? …
… when they do all pull the triggers, they really ARE all going to fall on their asses …
… and finally …
… what would Indiana Jones do in this particular circumstance? …. probably rely on the fact that the bad guys can’t aim for shit …. which I’m pretty sure does not apply here …
There was a cadence to what the officer was saying. “Safety off” two seconds “Ready your weapons” two seconds “Aim” ….. and one could assume two seconds before issuing the order to FIRE!
Having thought this through in about half the alloted time before the order to gun me down, I knew I had only milliseconds to make my next move.
So I raised my right hand in front of my face, and made the shape of a pistol with my index finger. And pointed it ….