Finding My Way
Kinshasa, Congo-Zaire, August 1998
I hated it when the lights went out. I still had a dispatch to write, for Washington was awaiting my daily file. But there I sat, foiled again, fumbling for my flashlight and candles as the whole of
Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, was reduced to the darkness of a village. It was August 1998, in the midst of yet another Congo war, and those damned rebels had done it again. They'd seized the country's main hydroelectric plant and taunted Kinshasa, and me, with another nightly blackout.
I fumed to myself as I lit a candle and welcomed the eerie glow it cast over my room. I lodged up on the fourteenth floor of the Hotel Intercontinental, and down below, as far as the eye could see across the sprawling metropolis, cooking fires and candlelight speckled the darkness like stars fallen to the ground. My people, African people, were suffering again. And my people, African people, were the cause. This was getting pathetic.
I pored through my notepads, jam-packed with days of scribbled shorthand, and raced against time as I wrote. I could only hope my laptop battery would outlast the night's power outage; only hope I'd make it through another Washington deadline. Night after night, my dispatches grew more ominous. The rebel juggernaut pressed closer to the capital. Food shortages deepened. Ethnic cleansing swept through the streets. Massacres unfolded all around the country. President Laurent Kabila's regime girded for a fight that his splintered army could not win. The United States, France, Belgium, and Britain evacuated their nationals but had no intention of rescuing Kinshasa itself. So African leaders stepped into the void, assembling a response of their own to the bloodbath that many feared would consume the city's 5 million people.
That was my fear too. The days ahead would be dangerous. I didn't know how I'd make it through. I had a fever and needed sleep. I needed a hot bath in clean water that wouldn't plant strange bacteria on my skin. Sick with the bends from the hotel's lovely display of a faintly rancid buffet, I craved fresh food. And what I wouldn't give for a doctor to do something about the infected boil on my face. It bulged from my cheek like a third eye. It assaulted my vanity each time I looked in the mirror, and disgusted my colleagues as they watched the boil grow.
Strangely, it reminded me of my mother back in Los Angeles. If she could see me now, I laughed to myself. Mom thought mine such a glamorous profession and regaled friends and relatives with tales of my travels. But I am certain she never imagined that a foreign correspondent for the famed Washington Post could look as worn and diseased as I'd become--on the road, in Africa, at war.
There was no way out. The borders were closed. And even if I could have gone, I'd have opted to stay. I had a job to do, a mission to fulfill. A certain degree of misguided heroism kept me going, as if Congo needed me to be there to write its latest chapter. It was a delusion, I know. But I'd placed myself fully inside Africa's unfolding story.
Change and upheaval roared through Central and Southern Africa in the 1990s, and that was my territory. Some of it was inspiring. After decades of white-minority rule called apartheid, South Africa had turned to democracy under President Nelson Mandela in 1994--a change that freed southern Africa as a whole and opened the prospect of South African-led peace and development. But farther north, the Central African region reeled from the 1994 genocide in Rwanda that left some 800,000 people slaughtered. Rwanda's blood spilled throughout the region and was the spark that ignited two wars next door, in Congo.
I'd written through the first war, the one in 1997. That conflict unseated Mobutu Sese Seko, the infamously grandiose and corrupt dictator when the country was called Zaire. And now, only fifteen months later, Mobutu's disastrous successor, Laurent Desire Kabila, seemed certain to meet the same fate. Kinshasa, again, was the epicenter of events shaping my notions of Africa.
During the day, free of the nighttime curfews and power outages, it felt strange to venture through a suddenly silent city. Kinshasa, normally, is a place of high-decibel noise--loud conversation; loud music, rumba and ndombola; loud traffic. You could hear old cars banging down the road, parts scraping against each other, bouncing along crumbled, potholed streets choked with exhaust fumes, honking horns, shouting people, and, of course, the loud music. But all that was gone. No sashaying women, their hips draped in garishly gorgeous cloth; no market women with necks taut from the loads they bore on their heads. Even the ragtag, malnourished children who hawked soap, cigarettes, and facial tissues on every corner were scarce.
Instead, angry troops were on the prowl, including those twitchy teens with guns, the child soldiers. I'd become all too familiar with the barrel of the AK-47, having had so many pointed in my car window by these power-mad juveniles. Nationalism had exploded. Ethnic chauvinism became deadly. Kabila's brutish regime stoked it. The army rounded up all Tutsis--or any tall person with angular features that fit the ethnic Tutsi stereotype--and detained, tortured, even killed them, on suspicion of complicity with the rebel force spearheaded by Rwanda and its Tutsi-led military. As rebels infiltrated the city, some civilians took matters into their own hands. On the streets, they burned suspected insurgents to death, no matter their ethnic background. I worried about Alec, my friend from Kigali, who'd come to Kinshasa for the sake of a renewed pan-Africanist unity he thought would take hold after Mobutu's ouster in 1997. Alec was Tutsi, and that put him in danger. I hoped he made it out alive.
For thirty days, I clenched my teeth. Dodging soldiers and roadblocks, I moved through the city interviewing local people, known as Kinois, as well as foreign diplomats. I worked the cell phone as I drove around with Tom Tshibangu, my translator and tireless assistant, and Pierre Mabele, the driver and strategist of Kinshasa's mean streets. Both had become true friends in a pinch. During much of that month, I teamed up with colleagues including Marcus Mabry of Newsweek and Jennifer Ludden of National Public Radio. Marcus was based in Jo'burg and I knew him well. I'd met Jennifer on earlier Africa travels, and, on this assignment, we had run into each other while catching the flight from Nairobi to Kinshasa. Colleagues provided a security blanket. The duress of Kinshasa's tension, plus the expense of drivers and translators, made it unwise to work alone.
But unlike Marcus, an African American like me, Jennifer was white, and her whiteness became problematic. Whether American, French, British, or Belgian, whites were particular targets of Congolese who were angry in their belief that the West was in league with the rebels. Angry mobs attacked foreign journalists routinely, though usually without severe injury. Jennifer got caught one day while trying to interview people at a street rally. Some young toughs descended on her, threatened her as a white person, and hit her as she jumped into her car and sped off with her driver. I had no such incidents. I could easily blend in with crowds. I wanted to keep it that way.
One day I needed to go out to La Cite, a jam-packed and vibrant slum, without attracting attention. I told Jennifer I'd have to separate from her for a while since her skin color made her a magnet for trouble. My tact, no doubt, wasn't very diplomatic. I felt edgy amid the city's insecurity, and that made my manner pretty brusque, even with friends. Ditto for Jennifer, who exploded at me outside the Intercon, as the Intercontinental was called. She said it seemed racist for me to go off without her because of her white skin. She accused me of being disloyal, while I tried to convince her I had to get my work done the safest way possible. As Tom, Pierre, and I drove off toward La Cite, I called Jennifer via cell phone to apologize and we continued our silly debate. We got over it, in coming days, for there was much more to be concerned about than the nuances of race and reporting.
The war roaring toward the city had me pumped with adrenaline. I attacked it, journalistically, like an obsession. Seeing Congo facing yet another setback made me passionately angry, for I knew that Congo was on its own. No matter how bad things got, I feared there'd be no rescue, no intervention to save the thousands of African lives being lost. The West would watch and warn combatants to retreat, but nothing more. Hell, even during the Rwandan genocide a few years earlier, the international community had sat on its hands and let African blood flow. So fine, I thought. With my dispatches, read in Washington but also around the world, I could at least rub people's faces in it day after day after day.
This sounds less than objective, I know. I was there ostensibly to observe and tell the story, not to get emotionally caught up in it. But in the best of times, I am a true believer that journalism should comfort the afflicted. And in these, the worst of times, my sensibilities could not withstand the daily onslaught of fear and death, of sources and friends living under the gun, of people I knew being targeted for death. I felt swept up in a storm far larger than journalism, a storm of history's cruel and unfinished work in Congo.
It all seemed to blend together in my mind, from the fifteenth-century plunge into slaving with Europeans who brought the depopulation and ruin of the ancient Kongo kingdom, to the brutish colonialism of Belgium's King Leopold II, to Patrice Lumumba's briefly valiant 1960 prime ministry as the first elected Congolese leader, to the CIA connivance that helped kill him and paved the way for Mobutu's 32-year dictatorship, to the chaos that followed Mobutu's demise, when Kabila stepped right into Mobutu's shoes.
When mortar blasts rocked me awake one morning toward month's end, I was actually glad. Whoever was bombing whom, I was willing to bet the endgame had arrived. Angola, Zimbabwe, and Namibia, Kabila's allies, had been planning for some days to help save the capital, and as I sat straight up in bed that morning, I hoped that was what they were doing. Luckily, I slept fully clothed. It took only a couple of minutes to slide into my shoes, do some quick ablutions, and grab my gear before running down the stairwell (yes, fourteen flights) to find out what was going on.
To my relief, I learned from diplomats around the city that the allies were fighting rebels out in the city's crowded eastern neighborhoods, toward the airport. From the city center, we could hear the fighting that raged for three days, though journalists couldn't get anywhere near it. But we lined our balconies one night and witnessed a terrifying sight. Near the fringes of the blacked-out city, the sky exploded over and over in the silent white light of huge magnesium flares sent up to help Kabila's allies flush out the insurgents. Out there, in that light, people were dying--rebels, troops, and ordinary people--in what I assumed was brutal street combat. I hated the thought of it, but this was war. And with gunfire raining all over the city from soldiers in celebration in following days, the siege of Kinshasa having ended, the bloodbath we'd all feared had been averted.
Leaving the Intercon, a pack of us foreign correspondents, about a dozen all told, headed to the Congo River. The airport remained closed, so a river ferry was our only way out. It would take us to Brazzaville, capital of the Congo Republic, and from there we could fly out on a British or French military transport. But the first attempt at a river crossing failed, for the ferry did not cross from Brazzaville. We spent the night in another Kinshasa hotel, the Memling, then caravanned back to Ngobila Beach the next morning, the port where the ferry was waiting.
We weren't the only ones trying to flee. When we got to Ngobila, crowds of local people with their bags and children in tow milled about near the rotting docks and jetties. They looked forlorn, but they'd remain stranded. Apparently, ordinary people wouldn't be allowed to board our ferry. The people watched us. Their gaze seemed resentful, or maybe my guilt made it look that way. I would be getting out. They would stay. They would have to endure more of a city with no electricity, no water, dwindling food supplies, and legions of trigger-happy teens.
An armed gang of immigration officials, soldiers, and plainclothes security men swarmed among us. They shoved and shouted angrily. They snatched up our luggage for thorough searches, as if we foreigners surely had some incriminating possessions. Any papers or documents would only bring interrogation, or worse, so I'd hidden mine in my pants and in my suitcase lining. Sweat dripped down my chest. My boil had begun to ooze. My nerves seemed about to snap. But soon I'd be on my way. As we lined up to board, the crowd of locals heaved forward, dragging their bundles and children toward us, toward the gangplank. Soldiers lashed out at them. They whipped the people with long knotted ropes to keep them at bay.
The light. That's what I remember of my view from the ferry's bow, how daylight suddenly seemed so much brighter, how sunlight dappled the river's swells like diamonds tossed down from the sky. Ten miles across at its widest, the river's broad vista unfolded before me, promising to take me away. So mighty and meandering, this river, this vein of life. It entranced me, whenever I had time to ponder it. So much history was written on its banks, so much misery. It filled me with regret to be leaving this way. I'd come to love Kinshasa for its vibrance, but I felt tingly, almost light-headed, that my escape was finally at hand.
But--BAM! The troops opened fire. The ratatatatatat ricocheted over the river. It seemed to come from everywhere. I hit the deck, crouching low. My traveling colleagues did likewise. I didn't know who was shooting or why. I chanced a quick glance up to the port in time to see the troops spraying their AK-47s like water hoses to stop the desperate locals who'd rushed the boat. The throng of bodies and bundles hit the ground. Oh God, oh Jesus. Don't let them be dead. Please don't drop another mass killing at my feet. I wanted the entire scene to go away. I wanted no responsibility for it. Emotionally exhausted, I did not want to care. That's what it had come to: massacres could be inconvenient. The port fell silent. I stood up to get a better look, feeling guilty that I'd momentarily lost heart.
Excerpted from Mandela, Mobutu, and Me by Lynne Duke. Copyright © 2003 by Lynne Duke. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.