Civil War in Brazzaville

Mbote, bampangui ya munu!

(That’s “Hello, my friends” in Munukutuba)

I asked my brother John to send an e-mail to let everyone know that I’m okay, but I wanted to write to describe my stay in the Congo and to help me digest my experience.

In the days before I left for the Congo, many of my Congolese friends and acquaintances had asked me to carry items for the to their family. I ended up carrying a bag of clothes for Alain’s family, a small suitcase of medical supplies for Aimé’s family and some videocassetes for Zeze’s brother. I was a little concerned about customs issues. As it turned out, there was no problem, I arrived with the Tambours de Brazza. Timothé, Alain’s brother met me at the airport, and we hung around with the Tambours de Brazza. Since there were about a dozen drummers in the Tambours’ entourage, they took a long time sorting out their luggage. By the time they were done, the customs officers had evidentally gotten tired and left. We took our bags and walked out of the airport.

Alain had arranged that I would take lessons in the Bacongo district of Brazaville, and eat my meals with his cousin, Francis, in the Plateau de Quinze Ans district. They found a hotel for me within about half a mile of Francis and Timothé. It was a pretty good, but not de luxe hotel. This means that there was toilet paper in the bathroom, but no seat on the toilet . The water worked in the bathroom, but you had to ask them to turn it on at the front desk. The idea was that I was going to stay there until they located a studio apartment for me.

The first day Brazzaville, Timothé and his girlfriend Cheryl took me around introducing me to various relatives. From what I could see, most Congolese households are organized into a sort of compound – a walled enclosure with one or more buildings inside. For the well-to-do, likeTimothé’s cousin, Francis, the walls of the enclosure are concrete. In Bacongo, alot of the compounds have walls made of corrugated metal and wood (I saw one that had incorporated the body of a junked car as part of its wall). Most of the courtyards were unpaved. From what I could see, extended families tended to live together in the compound.

Timothe’s family lives in a large compound opposite the Palais de Congres. It used to be a fair ground, but after 1992 and 1993 when many houses were destroyed in the fighting, the fairground was converted into housing, and Timothé’s family was resettled there. There are about six long, low buildings each maybe 60 yards long. The roofs are of corrugated metal. Each building is subdivided into many small rooms with walls that don’t reach the ceiling. There’s electricity inside the buildings, but no running water. Between the buildigs, laundry is hung up to dry and there are individual or family fire pits. For the most part, these consist of three paving blocks. You build the fire and put your pan on top of the paving blocks. Cooking was done exclusively by women.

The first couple of days, we got around mostly by taxi. The major roads are paved with asphalt. There aren’t any traffic lights, and at most major intersections, there’s a traffic circle. Traffic is not particularly heavy. Occasionally, we’d split a taxi with other folks (this means getting about six passengers in a compact car). There were also minivan/buses available. The drivers of these would park by the side of the road calling out their destination until they’d filled up the bus, and then they’d head to where they were going.

The first few days we spent a lot of time in the Bacongo district because that’s where our lessons were. Bacongo has mostly dirt roads, and most of the roads have the appearance of back alleys that you would expect to lead from one major road to another. I don’t think many white folks go there, because it was pretty common for little kids to come running out of their households yelling “Mundele!” when we walked by (that’s the Lari word for “white”). Bacongo had experienced a lot of looting in 1992 and 1993, and a number of houses were destroyed. We rehearsed in one – it still had its interior walls and tile floors, but the exterior walls were mostly destroyed, and there was no roof. You could see from the layout and the floors that it had been a pretty fine house. Out in front were about a dozen women with piles of print fabric that they were selling.

Rehearsals were quite the entertainment for the neighbors. Since school was out, all the kids around with nothing better to do would come hang out and watch, along with some of the fabric merchants and assorted adult neighbors. One thing that occured to me in my stay was that in Africa, you live your life in front of everyone. There really isn’t the sort of privacy that we expect in the US. Lessons are right out there for all the world to see. Fights and arguments are held out in the street. I watched one argument in Timothé’s compound that started with one women yelling from the courtyard into a house. This went on for a while until another women about twenty yards away started yelling at her. Then two other women began to try to calm down the second women, but pretty quickly began to dispute among themselves. At this point, the first women had gotten tired of yelling at the women inside the house. It occurred to me that it would make a great scene for an opera.

On the third day, while we were taking a taxi to Bacongo, we heard a cannon in the distance. I thought maybe it was announcing victory in the World Cup, since the Congolese were supposed to be playing in the elimination rounds. I didn’t think anything of it until it got to be time to go home. After rehearsal and a few beers in the neighboring cafe, we walked for a while. I thought we were just walking because it was a nice night, but it became clear that we weren’t going to find a cab. We were stopped by the military who wanted to see my papers. A little while later as we were walking we were joined by a few others who didn’t want to walk alone. We began to here some gunfire in the distance. One of our new found companions spoke some English and he advised me to go straight back to the hotel. I began looking around at the occasional bystander, wondering if they were armed. Timothé began exchanging information with people heading in the opposite direction – “is it safe to go that way?” “Yeah, how about that way?”. We arrived at Timothé’s compound without further incident. Cheryl wanted us to stay there, but Timothé wanted to go to his Francis’s. Since that’s where the food was, I decided to go there. I also wanted to see if I could get some information form Francis who spoke some English and held a government post. On the way to Francis’s we could see flares being fired into the sky, and hear the sound of gunfire. Timothé found it amusing that I was scared. “This is nothing”, he told me. “They’re very far away.”

Francis also thought that the trouble was minor. “This is just a small problem. It will be arranged very quickly”. I wasn’t completely convinced – it’s scary hearing sporadic gunfire even if it is not in the immediate vicinity, and I wanted to stay chez Matsala that evening, but it didn’t sem to be an option. I looked yearningly at the heavy metal gate with its padlock when Timothé and I were sent into the night to walk the half mile to the hotel. When we got to the end of block, close to a small field/garden, several men in dark jumpsuits emerged from the shadows, holding submachine guns. The stopped Timothé and searched him. Then they began going through my backpack. They demanded my papers. I was pretty shaken by them – they are pretty intimidating, and I had no idea whether we’d fallen in among the rebels or not. After they had checked us out, they let us go and Timothé explained that they were the police, guarding the homes of the various ministers in that neighborhood.

The road to the hotel was deserted – I believe there was a curfew by that point. At the hotel, I drank beer in the lobby with a few of the guests – all of them African, trying to piece together what was happening,. It made me feel a little better to know that some of them had fled to that hotel – at least it must be somewhat safe.

The next day, we decided to go back to Bacongo for rehearsal. There was a lot of foot traffic on the roads, people carrying all sorts of burdens heading toward Bacongo. As it turned out, they were being evacuated from Moungali because that was the neighborhood of the Cobras, the militia of Dennis Sassou-Nguesso. President Lissouba had ordered that neighborhood evacuated and then proceeeded to shell it.

We caught a cab going to Bacongo, but traffic was being stopped all along the road. All the foot taffic was being searched. We were stopped a couple of times by the military. The second time I was again asked for my papers. This time, the soldier wanted to see my residence permit. Of course I didn’t have one, just a visa – but that seemed to satisfy him. Bacongo was pretty calm, and what turned out to be my last drum lesson went well. I tried to call the embassy and get information, but the lines were all busy so we decided to head back home. I had already determined that I would not be coming back for the evening, as I didn’t want to walk homein the dark again.

(A little note on daytime in the congo – because it’s right on the equator, the sun goes down by 6:00 and it gets dark fast. Also, the moon waxes from the bottom up. In the northern latitudes, it waxes from right to left. Check it out.)

I walked with Timothé and Fortuné, holding hands. It’s very common for men to hold hands in Africa, and I have to tell you, it felt reassuring to hold Fo’s hand as we headed toward home. The foot traffic was moving in the opposite direction, which I did not take to be a good sign. We were stopped again by the military (“Hey Mundele, come here.”). They told me not to be afraid if I was really American. I told them that I was really American. Finally we caught a cab. We were almost at Timothé’s compound when we were stopped again. This time, it was a man without uniform, but with the requisite submachine gun. He called me into the middle of the traffic circle and stopped Timothé from following us. He told me that I had committed an infraction, and would have to pay a fine. I wasn’t sure what the proper amount of the “fine” should be. I certainly didn’t want to insult a man with a submachine gun by under-bribing him. I gave him one of my larger bills which amounted to something less than $20.

When we got to the compound, and Timothé discovered how much I had given he was outraged – that was too much. I was walked around the compound while we looked for Cheryl’s dad, who was with the military. Timothé and Cheryl thought that he could go figure out who had taken the money and get it back. Personally, I was ready to let it drop – Idid not particularly want to get the money back and have my armed pal be really angry with me.

That evening, before dark Timothé, Cheryl, and I went back to the hotel. Later that night, the hotel concierge opened my door. I didn’t quite understand his explanation – but I began to feel less safe there. I wondered, if an armed group wanted to come into the hotel, would he be willing to hide me? The gunfire started up again outside and at dawn someone fired a rocket launcher from close by. I packed my bags.

In the morning, Timothé and Cheryl came by for a while but they had to leave to go to the market. While they were there, some of the local militia passed by, and the concierge told me to go back up to my room. I spent the morning with the shades drawn, listening for gunfire and watching cartoons on TV. Later, Timothé returned with a friend, and told me that he was going to take me to his compound to stay. We joined the throngs on the street all heading away from the areas where the most fighting was happening. Everybody was toting suitcases, mattresses, piles of clothes tied inside sheets, lugging necessaries to wherever they were going to stay until the fighting blew over. Without saying anything, Timothé gave my large suitcase to one of his sisters-in-law and separated me from it. I think he did that so that I wouldn’t be carrying anything that looked interesting when we went past the military.

I stayed at the compound for five days. Everyone was very friendly, and without being pushy, they basically kept me inside and out of sight during that time. I was allowed to be between the buildings and inside the buildings, but they weren’t too happy if I headed for the gate. Everybody kept thinking that the trouble would be over very shortly and I thought so, too. Right up until I left, I thought that everything would blow over and that I could stay in the Congo.

Among the people living in the compound there were a bunch of members, of the Zoulous, which are the militia of President Lissouba. [Political lesson – there are three major contenders for office: President Lissouba, ex-President Sassou-Nguesso, and the Mayor of Brazzville, Kolélas. Each one of these had their own militia. Lissouba’s militia are the Zoulous, Sassou-Nguesso’s are the Cobras, and Kolélas’s are the Ninjas. In addition, Lissouba has the regular army as well. Basically, the militia and political alignment runs along tribal lines. In 1992 after the elections, Kolélas claimed fraud and fighting started between the Ninjas and the Zoulous. Since neighborhoods are for the most part divided along tribal lines the Ninjas attacked those member of the tribes that supported Lissouba who lived in theNinjas’ neighborhood (Bacongo), and the Zoulous attacked the members of tribes who supported Kolélas and who lived in the Zoulous’ neighborhood. In that fighting, the Cobras were hors de combat. This time around it was the Zoulous versus the Cobras with the Ninjas for the most part hors de combat]

The Zoulous that I met were, for the most part between the ages of 16 and 19. They carried submachine guns (AK-47’s, but they might have been Chinese, as well.) and occasionally grenades. At one point in my stay, I was told that the Zoulous were distributing arms. Any man who wanted a gun could have one. The Zoulous seemed pretty pumped up about having guns and being able to shoot them. Occasionally they would fire a couple of rounds into the air when they would come back to camp. All of the Zoulous seemed to have the rank of officer. I didn’t meet one who was less than a Colonel. They did not seem to have much organization, and didn’t have any uniforms, except occasionally when one had managed to steal a garment from the regular army. Each night, they would head out to loot the neighborhood of the Cobras. They would return in the day lugging all sorts of stuff. Bags of shoes, kitchen utensils, food, stereo equipment. One even came back with a refrigerator in a wheelbarrow. The items that they didn’t keep they would sell in the compound, which meant changing role from victorious warrior to haggling merchant.

Timothé made sure that I was introduced to the Zoulous so that everyone knew that I was one of theirs. They would come by occasionally, and tell me not to be scared, that I was being protected by them. One day, Timothé called me into the room of one of the Zoulous. The Zoulous had managed to grab a Sony stereo, but all of the components were labeled in Eglish, so they weren’t quite sure how to operate it. They figured the mundele would know. [African French, assignment 43: Explain to the militia man that the reason that his pillaged stereo is having problems is that the optical cable connecting the CD player to the amplifier has got a little break in it]

I had the impression that outside of the camp things were developing into a bit of a feeding frenzy. One day, the Zoulous returned with about 20 merchants from Mali. They brought them into camp and fired a bunch of rounds into the air. They let them go later, but I was told that they shook them down for 500,000 CFA (about $1000).

Days in the compound went by pretty slowly. There really wasn’t much for me to do, since the drums were down in Bacongo. I watched the women go about their business. They would start up in the morning around 6:30 building the fires. They would roast peanuts over the fires and display the finished product on tables for sale in the compound. Cheryl usually cooked a large pot of something which she would put up for sale. Soldiers would stop by during the day to get something to eat. Once the crowd found out that I would eat peanuts, I was the object of a lot of generosity goober-wise.

Occasionally, there would be bursts of gunfire, and the women would shoo me and the kids back in side.

Luckily for me, there was a guy by the name of Serge who was with the foreign language department of the University of Brazzaville. He wanted to practice speaking English, so I had a conversational partner. He was particularly interested in American expressions. Now he knows how to say “No shit, Sherlock.” Occasionally, we would get on to a topic that was pretty difficult to explain. For instance – what’s the difference between wooing a woman and picking up a woman. Is it just a question of speed?

Serge had lived in the Moungali district in a rented apartment, and when he was evacuated, he came to live with his cousin. A couple of days into our acquaintance Serge looked at my name written on a piece of paper, and told me “That’s a very good name. If I have a son, I’m going to name him Weiser”. Weiser Makounou – I look forward to meeting him.

There tended to be more gunfire at night, including heavy artillery. Since there were no toilets inside the buildings, you had to go around back of the buildings to pee. At night with the crackle of small arms fire and the more distant booming of cannons, it was a little unnerving. I also had an irrational fear that I would be hit by a stray bullet while taking a crap in the latrine – a padlocked stall of corrugated metal which enclosed a pipe leading to a pit that I didn’t care to examine too closely. (There’s another example of how you live your life in front of everybody in Africa. Whenever I wanted to use the latrine, I had to ask someone to get the key. Then I’d be escorted over to the latrine. Thank god I didn’t develop diarrhea.)

I didn’t see any of the destruction that the heavy artillery made, but I’m sure that it was pretty devestating. It made an almost stately sound thundering in the night, slowly, methodically. In fact, I didn’t see much of anything, I only got to hear it. The lack of information was hard to bear. I couldn’t tell what was happening, I couldn’t call to find out what the embassy had to say (no telephone). I couldn’t get word out to my family and friends that I was alright ( I knew that people would start worrying).

For my sources of information I had Serge and Marcel. Marcel always tried to put a good face on everything. In the news according to Marcel, the Cobras were far, far way. They tried to get organized, but the heavy artillery kept them from regrouping. Sassou-Nguesso had no support, and it was just a question of pride which kept him from giving up immediately. The foreign press was completely mistaken about fighting around the airport – that was the Zoulous firing into the air to intimidate the Cobras.

I believed the news according to Marcel up until my last night in the compound. I had been told that the French had taken up a position at the traffic circle near us, in conjunction with the Congolese army. (I found this out because it seemed like a possible avenue to send a message out that I was okay). During the night, shooting started up again, and I could hear that some of it was coming from the traffic circle. But I doubted that the French would only shoot into the air. I figured that Europeans shoot to kill.

The last day I was in camp, the shooting continued into the day. Bullet holes had appeared in the corrugated roof – stray bullets that were fired into the air elsewhere falling down where we were. The fighting seemed to be nearer. There was a lot more tension in the camp – the Zoulous running toward the gate, crouching behind trees. There was a rumor that one of the Cobras was on top of a tall building not far away. As I was sitting on the bench, a man that I hadn’t seen before sat down next to me and said “I’d prefer if you left. They’re evacuating the French and the Americans.” I told him that I’d prefer to leave, too. Timothé and Marcel went to talk to the French. They came back and said “There’s a French cortege waiting for you – let’s go”. I didn’t have time to say goodbye to everybody.

Timothé took one of my bags, and Marcel took the other. I was quite willing to abandon all of my personal effects, but I figured what the hell, I might as well try to take them with. We walked out the back of the camp, through a small woods and emerged by the traffic circle. When we got to the circle, Marcel told me “You should wak quickly across here”. I trotted across the circle. On the other side, amongst some bushes were about 6 French Foreign Legionnaires with two rugged looking trucks. They sat me down behind one and we waited for a convoy to come by to take me to the airport. While we were waiting for the convoy, I realized that I had the keys to Timothé and Cheryl’s room. (Since I was always around, and I had pockets, I was the one who held the keys. One of the things I learned to say in Munukutuba is “pesa munu fungula” – give me the key). I felt pretty bad about that, but I didn’t think that the Legionnaires would be too helpful in getting the keys back. After about 15 minutes, Timothé and Cheryl came back – they were heading to the market, and wanted to get the keys back, too.

Among the Legionnaires there was an American from LA. He told me that they had in fact been in a firefight the night before, and had had four legionnaires wounded. He said that the day before there had been a fair amount of fighting elsewhere and that he was “All day long with a beer in one hand a joint in the other, and my rifle.” I’m not sure what he held the rifle with. The legionnaires also kept checking out the tall building nearby – evidentally there was someone on top. A couple of convoys came by – the convoys consisted of a column of cars with an armored vehicle on each end. After about half an hour, my convoy arrived, I got into the armored vehicle at the end.

When I arrived at the airport, I was put into a group with the new arrivals. There were a lot of French military around. Don’t worry, they told us, you’re in a secured area. Everyone will be evacuated. Once we were in a group, a soldier came over and said “Ok, everybody who’s French come with me”. About half the group left. A little while later he came back and said “Ok, everybody from the European Economic Community come with me”. I was left with the Zaireans, Lebanese, and a couple of irate Asians who thought they might never get out. I could sympathise. The soldier kept reassuring them “Everyone here will be evacuated”, so I decided to go with that, even though a certain nascent racism began to perkle up (“Please sir, did you miss the fact that I’m white?”). Sure enough, in our turn we got registered, and then assigned to planes.

Once the plane was called, the drill went like this: About 25 soldiers in helmets and bulletproof vests formed a square. The evacuees stood in the middle of the square, and walked down to the runway to wait for the plane. As we were walking down, gunfire broke out fairly close. We crouched down at the side of the runway and the commander explained that there was some gunfire about 400 meters away. He deployed a number of soldiers over that way, including a guy in a jeep who stood up with a rocket launcher, surveying the tall grass. The plane (a C-130) arrived, turned around on the runway, and kept its propellers turning. A bunch of soldiers got out and were deployed in the direction of the gunfire. The soldiers who had accompanied us formed a corridor leading to the plane and we got in.

We were flown to the French army base in Libreville, and later that night to Paris.

I’m a little bit at sea right now. I didn’t expect to come back here, and so I’m kind of wandering about. I’ve attended rehearsals for Ballet Lemba and Ballet Kodia, but my heart’s not in it yet. I don’t intend to go back to the States any time soon, so for right now, I’ll hang out until I can figure out what the new plan is. Suggestions are welcome.

Mpangi ya beno,

Tom