As I raised my hand in defiance of the soldiers who were seemingly about to kill me, I knew one thing for certain: This officer was never going to give the order to fire. It simply was true that his soldiers were in too close to fire with rocket propelled grenades and even automatic weapons. This was a job for a sidearm. If his intention was to kill me, he would order his men to stand down and simply shoot me with his pistol. But even that was a virtual impossibility. The paperwork that would need to be filled out prohibited that particular decision.
I would not be shot. I would simply be harassed, as would the guards. And the guards lived here with their families, which made them even more vulnerable. This was going to get complex.
By the time that this event had occurred, I had previously had many encounters with the Zaire military, and I would have more since that day. Previously, my hospitality had been imposed on, at our research camp in the Ituri Forest, by a lone soldier who, after he moved on, we learned was a renegade mass murderer. Numerous times we’d dealt with soldiers at road blocks … this was routine. Earlier this same month, Biker and Joan had been kidnapped by a renegade group of soldiers, and I had to ally with a different group of renegade military to bust them out (one of the numerous stories I’ve left out of this memoir). Eventually, I would be arrested by an entire company of regular army led by the Zaire equivalent of the CIA/KGB.
We slowly realized, and in retrospect it is now pretty clear, that these incidents occurring over a period of about two years were part of a growing escalation of tensions between various factions living and working here on the eastern border of the country. These tensions would eventually be sewn into the complex fabric of civil war, invasion, occupation, and rebellion that together constitute what is known as the Congo War, and in which millions have died, and which continues to this day.
When I raised my hand in defiance of the soldiers who were seemingly about to kill me, I had decided that these men should leave rather than stay, not only because they had us out-gunned, but because there was nothing we could do. Something was going on here that seemed to grow beyond the sort of thing that had happened in the past in this region. Some sort of real trouble had started. Or, more exactly, “The Troubles” as they have always been called here had returned.
When I looked up the barrels of a half dozen weapons and smelled the beer on the breath of the officer who had moved too close to me, and thought of the kob piled in the back of this green pickup days before, I knew that the park was about to undergo a transition from conservation area to the Army’s larder. I hoped it would not be true but could clearly see that it was. And that made me very angry.
So I raised my hand and pointed towards the nearest guard and said, “Open the dam gate.” And walked away, back towards King Leopold’s castles, ignoring the officer who was now yelling at me in various languages that I was to not turn my back on him.
I could hear that he stopped yelling, and I could hear the truck drive off, as I walked towards the castle. I walked up to the chief who had been in cahoots with the military all along, I now realized, and I told him what I thought of him. Which he accepted graciously. He was rather embarrassed as a matter of fact. I asked him how to spell his last name. He told me, bewildered as to why I wanted to know.
The chief had a favorite wooden table and a set of chairs. I pulled my k-bar knife out of its sheath and went to work on the table. I carved the following into its top:
“Chief Karonduzu, Head Poacher, Lives Here. The Green Pickup Lic Num. 443456 Drives This way, and carries the poachers. This is not a park.”
(That is a transliteration. It was written in KiSwahili, and in that language was a bit more poetic.)
As I carved these words in the chief’s favorite table, Joan, who had witnessed all of this, joined me. She pulled out her k-bar and deepened the lines I had started to carve. Biker would have joined us as well, but he had driven off and returned to the US already and could not. Zorba and Lawrence came over and rested their elbows on the table as they watched us carve. Some of the kids from the chief’s family came over too, and they read the words to Zorba and Lawrence, who could not read. Zorba laughed and shouted at the guards in a language I did not know, and laughed some more and continued his tirade at them as they looked very embarrassed. I imagined that he was questioning their manhood.
And as that social interaction continued, I took one of the chief’s wooden chairs … all of which, along with the table, had been bought by our expedition the year before and given to the chief … and raised it over my head and smashed it on the big wooden table and it blew apart into many smaller pieces. And I turned to the children and said, “bring me all the chairs,” and as they did, I smashed every one of them on the table, until there was nothing left of them but a pile of kindling.
And over the next two days, we packed up the remaining equipment and samples and whatever we needed to bring back to the United States. There were no working vehicles, other than the Zodiac. We arranged a meeting in the village with the wives and eldest daughters of Zorba, Lawrence, Kunuzu, and Lula’s mother (who was still at the guard camp though her son had been reassigned) and a few others, and had a huge feast of pit roasted tilapia. Then we divided all of our remaining worldly goods among them.
And then, Joan and I loaded up the boat and started the motor and headed south across the lake. It was the exact moment of sun-up and the lake was absolutely flat and motionless and blanketed in a thin fog which parted as we struck our course. The sound of the motor startled the hippos who continued with their sardonic laughter for as far as we could hear them.
We were the first non-locals, by all accounts, to cross the Big Lake (the long way, or any way, really) by ourselves. We were the first people, by all accounts, to ever cross the Big Lake with a rubber boat. Some people said we shouldn’t do it. Zorba wanted to go with us but we would then be overloaded, and we had promised his wife to not take him. A dozen people waved at us on the shore, and I could see them disappear in the fog, and another dozen people waved at us from the cliff tops, including the chief and his family and the guards. I waved once and now clear of the hippos and the hidden laterite ledges on which we could bust a prop, I went to full throttle. And that was the last time I would ever see the Semliki Valley.
We kept course by following the western side of the Great Western Rift, which here is also the bank of the Big Lake. We kept back from the shore enough that we could avoid hippos and stranded logs, but close enough that we could turn in should a squall arise. We had previously nearly died in such a storm and we had learned our lesson. We passed the tiny halfway village after a few hours, and stopped the engine to change tanks and eat some lunch, bobbing around in a very light chop several hundred meters off shore. This was a village accessible only by boat, with the western wall rising up precipitously behind it. It was really an emergency stop for fishing boats caught in bad weather. We could see the villagers watching us, and as we watched them the crazy old man of the village came out of his hut, carrying a stick. He walked over to the the wooden frame which held up the wheel rim of a truck, dangling from a vine. He used the stick to bang repeatedly on the rim, using it as a gong, and as he did so two adult warthogs and eight or nine babies came running to him from the nearby brush. And as they approached, he leaned over and opened a basket and from this basket distributed mohogo …. perhaps known to you as cassava … which the warthogs greedily gobbled up. And we started the engine up again, waived at the villagers, and headed south.
The water flattened out again and the fog deepened for an hour or so, and we eventually came to a gap in the fog and right there was a man alone in his wooden fishing boat, waving frenetically at us. When we were near enough, I cut the motor and greeted him.
He said something in some language, and I said something in KiSwahili, and he said something in Broken French and then switched to KiSwahili realizing that I had just spoken in that language.
“Where are you going?” he said.
“To the village,” I pointed roughly south.
“You are lost.”
I looked at him. How can one be lost on a lake?
“Turn that way,” he pointed straight East, towards Uganda. “Go that way for five kilometers, then turn south. If you go the way you are going, you’ll break your prop. There are rocks just below the surface everywhere in this part of the lake.”
I thanked him and we followed his suggestion.
Finally, we could see the south end of the lake and our present course was perfect to bring us the the tiny fishing village from which we had initially departed in boats months earlier. As we approached the shore, still quite a ways out, we could see the ubiquitous children gathering to greet us, to touch the boat, to touch us, to see if we had any bon-bons. Which, remarkably we did. Because we knew they would be there.
We also saw some adults, but they were moving away rather than towards the shore. That was odd. Then we saw him. The man in military uniform, standing right where we would need to land to avoid hippos and already pulled up boats and rocks. He stood watching us with a pair of binoculars. The fact that he had binoculars meant he was not a park guard or a local policeman. He was serious military to be so well equipped. He was also extraordinarily short and as I got in close, I could see that his uniform was extraordinarily well pressed, and his insignia different than I had seen before.
I touched the bow of the boat the the shore, and jumped out to pull the boat in. The military man reached down and grabbed a rope and helped me pull the Zodiac most of the way out of the lake, and as he did so he shouted at the children, now converging on us, to stay back, which, remarkably they did. At this point I saw the insignia. He was an officer with the Navy! The Zaire Navy, I knew, did not have any boats on this lake. But they had this guy.
Who, at that moment, resumed his stiff and military stance having finished helping me land the boat, saluted me once, and said “Sir, you are under arrest. Please come with me.”