I was just stepping out of the store, where I had purchased a piece of cloth to bring back to the US, when I heard the awful sound.
Cloth was one of those things people brought back from Zaire. I’m pretty sure none of this cloth was made here. Most of it was made in Indonesia, Kenya, Malawi and Belgium, and shipped here to make the beautiful traditional clothing that the women wore. But since all the cloth of these particular designs seemed to be shipped here and nowhere else, this is where you got it. I was planning to bring this particular piece of cloth … with a peacock design in dark blue and red … to a friend in The States who had asked for this to join to a similar piece she already had, to make a piano cover. Luckily, Bukavau, one of the largest cities in the East of Zaire, had a lot of cloth stores.
The sound was of a series of very loud pops, each a slightly different pop from the previous pop, owing to the slight difference in orientation (with respect to my direction of hearing) of the muzzle of the carbine as the kickback pushed the weapon in a sweeping motion across the sky. The man firing the automatic weapon was only a few feet away from me, wearing a military uniform, and sanding on the back of a passing jeep. He fired again as the jeep drove down the street. He fired a few more times. I remember wondering, if you shoot bullets in the air like that, when they come down, are they still hot? I remember waiting and listening for the sound of little bullets raining down on the pavement, but I never heard it. People were making too much noise as they busily but somewhat lethargically ran away. I sensed that this was a fairly run of the mill event for this town.
I heard later that the rebels had done something bad, something that pissed off the government, up in the Rwenzoris and what we were seeing here was a show of force designed to intimidate the college students. Bukavu was a college down, and this place was full of dissidents.
Laurant Kabila was at that time the rebel leader, and he was living in the mountains. All that time we were at Senga and Kenyatsi, on those rare days looking up at the Rwenzoris just a few kilometers to the north, Kabila and his rebels were up there hiding out. There were a couple of villages up there, and I think the rebels lived in those villages. They had lookouts and a bush telegraph system, so when the government soldiers would go up there to harass them, the rebels would retreat into the forest or down or up slope to some other village. Then the soldiers would go away and the rebels would come back.
If, in the interim, the villagers gave the government soldiers any information about where the rebels were … which may in turn have been elicited with bribery or threats by the soldiers … the rebels would punish the villagers. I’ve heard of the occasional very public and gruesome execution.
This is how it was in a number of villages and rural areas around the country. In all cases, we have the government soldiers wafting in an out of this or that locality, in other cases the rebels and the soldiers trading places.
I’m reminded of a story told to me by Johnny, a European ex patriot. It was a bizarre story told to me under somewhat surreal circumstances. I was visiting another ex patriot in Isiro. I was staying in this home while getting my vehicle fixed and acquiring supplies, while working in a very different part of Zaire than I’ve been describing in these memoirs. Sitting in my friend’s living room, I heard someone come in to the back of the house and greet the house staff in KiSwahili. This meant the visitor was probably a mzungu (white person) as KiSwahili would be the shared language. Then, in walked a very large and tall man abut fifty years of age. He was being accompanied by one of the house staff, who was telling him in KiSwahili, “This is it here, Mr. Johnny … that box right on the table.”
So Johnny, seemingly ignoring me and the two or three other people in the room, like he did not even see us (which would have been considered very rude) walked over to the box and ripped it open. From the box he drew a pair of wire framed spectacles, and placed them on his face. Suddenly his eyes fell upon us and he said, in English, “Finally, I can see!!!” Then he said it again in KiSwahili, turning to the house staff person and said “Ah, Francois! I see you now!” and he turned to the rest of us and said “Aha, so we have the guests from America today! Hi, my name is Johnny! I’ve been waiting for these damn glasses to be shipped from Europe for months!”
And just at that moment, there was the tiniest little ‘ping’ from his general direction, and as big Johnny stood there, feet planted firmly six and a half feet down from the top of his head, hands on his hips, proudly showing off his brand new glasses, one of the lenses went spinning out of it’s frame, flew a couple feet out in front of the man, and dove to the concrete floor. (All the ex pat houses in this region have painted concrete floors, sometimes with rugs, sometimes not. In this case, alas, not.) And broke into a million tiny little pieces. Or at least, three or four pieces.
Silence. A tear forming in the eye of the big one-lensed man.
Without hesitation, Francois headed off to the office, an alcove just next to the living room where we were sitting. He fired up the radio and started to repeat “Kinshasa Kinshasa. Kuya Kuya. Iko Isiro Hapa. Kinshasa Kinshasa. Kuya Kuya. Iko Isiro Hapa.” By coincidence this was the moment during the day that radio contact from this location out in the middle of nowhere would be attempted with Kinshasa, the capitol. On this particular contact, contact would be established minutes later (luckily) … and Francois would be re-ordering Johnny’s glasses.
As Francois worked out the communications with the big city in the West, I met Johnny, and over time got to know him pretty well. He ran a trucking business, specializing in shipping food from small villages to larger central processing areas. Every time I saw Johnny after this, he would give me a present and I would give him a present. I would give him something we found dead in the forest, and he would give me a bag of something non perishable from one of his trucks. One time it was a bag of black pepper. Enough black pepper to last for years. Another time (and several other times) it was a bag of unroasted coffee beans. Johnny was my hero. He gave me coffee beans.
Anyway, the story I’m reminded of is one dating back to an earlier rebellion in Zaire, when Johnny had first moved here. Details aside, let’s just say he had a job in a military unit of some kind (you don’t need to know the details), and as such, made his first trip to Isiro on the end of a parachute, and took part in the liberation of the city from the rebels. It turns out that if there are two equally matched military units, baring chance events, the unit that wins a battle is often the unit that wants to win the battle the most. It turns out that the Rebels were more comfortable in the forest during the day, and the people Johnny was with were more comfortable in the city during the day, for various reasons. So there would be a battle every morning and another battle every evening. In the evening, Johnny’s people would drive the rebels out of the city and spend the night there while the rebels camped out in the forest, and in the morning the rebels would attack the city and Johnny’s people would withdraw to their base on the other side of the city from the Rebel’s camp.
During one of these cycles, my host in this concrete-floored house who had earlier been captured by the rebels was brought to Isiro to be executed with number of other people. Just as the firing squad was being assembled, Johnny’s military group came into the city and drove the rebels out and freed the captives. Ever since then, my host, and Johnny, have been friends. (I’m leaving out some important details, perhaps for another time.)
The current struggles (or, as they called them in The Congo, “Troubles”) were not yet at the stage earlier rebellions had seen, but things were getting hot. The national army was large, well funded, and experienced, as Zaire was at that time providing military services to other nations (including the US) for a fee. The rebel army was reasonably well funded, very experienced, and very determined to overthrow the oppressive Mobutu regime. I didn’t know it at the time, but that was about to happen. In fact, it was happening. I was watching and hearing the first gunshots …. dozens among thousands over the months to come … of the coming changes.
Later that day, when the afternoon shift change at the beer factory was over, the students assembled. They marched, chanting for change, up and down the streets of Bukavau, and were joined by the factory workers. I had the strong impression that a disproportionate number of students were women, and a disproportionate number of factory workers were men, and in many cases there were couples, where the woman was a college student and the man worked in the factory.
So the protesters marched up and down in the streets until just before nightfall, and then the army arrived from the west side of town to disperse them. The students and workers, on this day, did not need to be convinced. Clearly, this happened every few days and everyone knew what to do. The throngs of protesters simply melted away like they had done this a hundred times before. Then, as the streets emptied ten or so companies of soldiers in formation came out of nowhere and spent the next three hours marching around the city.
And the insect shrill and Afropop nighttime background sound effects that accompanied the burned corn charcoal diesel smell of the pitch black African city night were punctuated by the occasional terrible sound of gunfire in the streets. Until everyone finally drifted off to sleep.