Out of Africa

Ryszard Kapuściński does it the hard way

I would like to tell the story of the time lived through after the night when Stanleyville learned that Lumumba had been murdered, and that he had died in bestial circumstances, in a way that trampled all dignity. Someone’s penetrating shout woke us up in the morning. We jumped out of bed – I was sleeping with Duszan in one room, and Jardawas next door – and dashed to the window. In the street in front of our hotel (it was called the Résidence Equateur), gendarmes were beating a white man to within an inch of his life. Two of them had his arms twisted in such a way that he had to kneel and stick his head out, and a third was kicking him in the face with his boot. At the same time we heard shouts from the corridor as other gendarmes went from room to room dragging whites out into the street. It was obvious that the gendarmes had begun a morning of revenge directed at the white colonists whom they blamed for the death of Lumumba. I looked at Duszan: he was standing there, pale, with fear in his eyes, and I think that I too was standing there, pale, with fear in my eyes. Now we listened to hear whether the clumping of boots and the banging of rifle butts against doors was headed our way and, nervously, hurriedly, we started getting dressed because it’s bad to be wearing pyjamas or only a shirt in front of uniformed people – it puts you at a disadvantage right away. The one in the street was screaming more and bleeding a lot. In the meantime the gendarmes had pushed a few more whites out of the hotel; I didn’t even know where these people were coming from, since our hotel was usually empty.

We are saved by chance, or more exactly by the fact that our rooms don’t open onto the corridor, but onto the terrace at the end of the building and the gendarmes haven’t taken the trouble to poke into every corner. They threw our beaten neighbours onto a truck and drove off. Immediately it grew as quiet as a graveyard. Jarda, who had come into our room, was carrying his radio. The Stanleyville station was issuing government communiqués appealing to all the whites who were still in the city to stay off the streets and not to appear in public because of the behaviour of isolated elements and certain military groups which the Government ‘is not able to control fully’. Since there was no sense in sitting inactive in the room, we went down to the lobby thinking that somebody might show up and tell us what was going on. We were not there as tourists, but as correspondents who had to work, and the more dramatic the circumstances, the more we had to work. There was no one in the lobby. We sat in armchairs, around low tables, facing the door. The heat and the thirst for beer were already setting in, but beer was not even to be dreamed of. Our daily nourishment consisted of one can of Dutch sausages for the three of us. There were five little sausages to a can. We ate one sausage each and then drew lots – the one with the short straw didn’t get a second sausage. Aside from those two sausages (or that one), we didn’t eat anything, and even these supplies were running out. So we sat in the armchairs thirsty and dripping sweat. Suddenly a jeep drove up in front of the hotel and a gang of young people with automatics in their hands jumped out. This was patently a hit squad, a vengeance patrol. All you had to do was look at their faces: they were out for blood. They came storming into the lobby and surrounded us, pointing their weapons at our heads. At that moment I honestly thought: this is the end. I didn’t move. I sat immobile, not out of courage of any kind, but for purely technical reasons: it felt as if my body had turned to lead, that it was too heavy for me to budge it.

Just then, when our fate was already decided, the following occurred: the leader of the squad trotted into the lobby. He was a young boy, a mulatto, with a look of madness in his eyes. He rushed in, looked at us, and stopped. He stopped because he spotted Jarda. Their eyes met, they looked at each other in silence, without a word, without a gesture. This lasted a long while, during which time the mulatto began to calm down and think something over. Then, without a word, he motioned to his people with his automatic and they – also without a word – turned away from us, got back into the jeep, and drove away.

‘That’s Bernard Salmon,’ said Jarda. ‘He was once in Cairo as Lumumba’s envoy. I interviewed him.’

We went back upstairs to our rooms to write our dispatches about Lumumba’s death and about what the city looked like after his death – the city in which he once lived and worked. Each of us wrote something brief because we had little information and what we had lived through that morning was not fit to appear as part of the next day’s official press coverage. Now arose the problem of taking these dispatches to the post office at the other end of town. The problem arose for us, as white people who would have to drive across a city terrorised by gendarmes and vengeance squads. Immediately upon arriving in Stanleyville we had pooled our resources to buy a very used car, a Taunus, from an Indian. In this car (Jarda was driving) we set off for the post office. A very hot and humid afternoon was beginning. The city was so deserted that we did not see a single car or person. It was an empty model of a city, dead concrete, glass and asphalt. Dead palm trees. We reached the post office building, which stood alone in an open space. It was locked. We started banging on all the doors, one after another. No one answered. At one point Duszan found a small metal door leading into the cellar: he pushed the knob and we sneaked into a dark, musty passageway. At the end of the passage were some stairs that led up into the cavernous, empty, littered main hall. Not knowing what to do next, we stood there. At the other end of the hall was a door, so we went that way. Behind the door were stairs leading to the second floor, and we went up to see if anyone was there. We started up to the third floor, the top one. If the police caught us in this dead but strategically important place, we feared they would treat us as dangerous saboteurs. Finally, going from room to room, we stumbled on a hall containing more than a dozen telex machines and a battery of transmitters. A hunched-over, dried-up African approached us from one of the corners. ‘Brother,’ I said, ‘connect us with Europe. Connect us with the world. We have to send important dispatches.’ He took our texts and sat down at the machine. We returned to the car; the street was empty. We were on our way back to the hotel and it seemed that everything would go well when suddenly a jeep full of gendarmes pulled out from around a corner and we found ourselves facing them, eye to eye. I don’t know what happened, or rather, I think that what happened was this: the presence of whites in the street was so improbable that the gendarmes took our car for a phantom, an illusion – they were dumbfounded and they did not react. The confrontation lasted only a moment, because Jarda had the presence of mind to whip the steering-wheel around and cut into the nearest side-street. We hadn’t reached the hotel when Jarda slammed on the brakes and brought the car to a stop in the middle of the road. We jumped out, leaving the doors open behind us, and sprinted for the hotel. When we locked the door of the room behind us, we were all panting and wiping the sweat from our foreheads.

It wasn’t always that bad. There were also calm, peaceful days. Then the likelihood of having our white mugs smashed in when we appeared in the street diminished and we could set out into town without fear. Most often we would go to the airport to wait for the aeroplanes which were supposed to bring help. At that time the Gizenga Government, or rather the handful of people who had managed to get from Leopoldville to Stanleyville with Gizenga, was officially recognised by our countries as the legal government of the Congo. We, in turn, were the only people who had managed to come to Stanleyville from Europe and the local authorities – having no one else to hand – treated us more like ambassadors and ministers than simple correspondents, drudges of the pen. However, the Government did not have full control of the situation and thus not even our esteemed positions could assure our heads of protection against the fists of the angry populace. It was small consolation that the authentic ministers of the Congolese Government were themselves being drubbed by their own gendarmes, which we saw with our own eyes. And so, when a peaceful day came along, we repaired to the airport. We had found a spot on the porch of an abandoned house with a good view of the runway and we always went there. ‘Today they’ll come for sure,’ Jarda would say each time. We would sit staring for hours at the sunny sky in which the plane was supposed to appear. But the sky remained motionless, and there was silence in the air. I doubted more and more that they would come, but I did not say so aloud – I thought that Jarda had some special information.

One day a patrol of gendarmes came to the hotel. They took us to headquarters, to the army command post, which was located in the grounds of the barracks. Between the barracks wandered gendarmes, their women and their children; there was a lot of cooking, washing, eating, lying around and sitting – it looked like a big gypsy camp. A massive, reddish ogre named Major Sabo greeted us in the command post. He ordered us to sit down and then asked: ‘When is the aid going to come?’ I waited to see what Jarda would say because he might know more. Jarda told a story according to which the airplanes were waiting in Cairo, but had been refused the right to fly over the Sudan by the dictator of that country: there was no other air route. ‘We have nothing left here,’ said the major. ‘We have no ammunition, no food. The commander of the army – that was General Lundula – ‘is himself distributing the last drops of gasoline. If nothing changes, Mobutu and his mercenaries will have us by the throat.’ And here the major quite literally grabbed himself by the throat, so that the veins on his temples stood out. The atmosphere was tense and unpleasant; we felt helpless, weak. ‘The army is rebelling,’ the major went on. ‘They are hungry and riled up, they refuse to obey orders, they are asking whose fault it is that no aid has come. If the aid does not arrive, the general staff will be forced to hand you over to the gendarmes as the scapegoats. That will calm things down for a while. I’m sorry, but I have no other way out. We’ve lost control of them’ – and with his hand he motioned towards the window, through which we could see half-naked gendarmes wandering about.

Obviously, we had to escape. But how? Escape was impossible. There were no aeroplanes and our car would be stopped on the way out of town. We wondered whether we should hide out in one of the houses abandoned by the Belgians. But that would only give us a chance to last a few days. Somebody would spot us and denounce us, or we would die of hunger. There was no way out: we were trapped, and the more we struggled, the more the noose would tighten. One hope remained: that I could talk to H.B., who could help us. H.B. worked in the United Nations headquarters in Stanleyville. People from the United Nations form a club unto themselves. Many of them are pretentious: they look on everything and everyone from a global perspective – which means, simply, that they look down. They repeat the word ‘global’ in every sentence, which makes it difficult to settle everyday human problems with them. Nevertheless, we decided that we should go to see H.B., who was an acquaintance of mine. He invited me to supper, since the UN always has enough to eat. I could not remember the last time I had eaten supper: indeed, for a long time I had not eaten anything at all. During that feast, UN soldiers in blue helmets watched over us. Their presence enabled me to experience a blessed moment of security that evening, two hours in which I knew that no one was going to beat me, lock me up, or put a pistol to my head. ‘Commissioner,’ I told H.B. as he lay back in a colonial armchair after supper, ‘my friends and I must get out of here urgently. We’d be very grateful if you were able to arrange things for us.’ But in reply H.B. lectured me on the neutrality of the UN, which cannot help anyone because doing so would immediately lay it open to charges of partiality. ‘The United Nations can only observe,’ he said. I got the idea that my request had sounded rather unimpressive, and that I would have to bring up heavier artillery. At the same time, I could not let H.B. in on our real reasons for having to clear out (and fast), because if he found out about our conflict with the Lumumbists he would immediately broadcast it to the whole world – that is, broadcast it globally. ‘Commissioner,’ I began in a new style, ‘I wish you a long life and we know that, unfortunately, life is full of changes and one day you’re on top and one day you’re on the bottom. There might come a day when you need my help’ – I didn’t believe it for a second – ‘so let’s build a bridge. First I will use it to cross a raging torrent, and perhaps in the future this same bridge will be of service in allowing you to cross a raging torrent of your own.’ And H.B. helped.

Two days later a car flying the unfurled banner of the United Nations carried us to the airport. We had left our Taunus in the street, with the key in the ignition. On the runway stood a four-engine transport without any insignia or markings. Frankly, we had no idea where that aircraft would carry us: but at the moment the important thing was to get out of Stanleyville. At the airport people were saying that we would fly to Juba (which meant to the north-east), but the aircraft headed south-east and, after an hour’s flying, we were looking not at the monotonous brown-grey of the savannah but instead at the monumental, and simultaneously soothing, intense green of the Kivu mountains. This was Africa the arch-beautiful, the fairy-tale world of forests and lakes, cloudless sky and peaceful prospects. The change in direction set us wondering, but there was no one to ask where we were flying: the crew were sitting locked in the cockpit, and we were alone in the empty fuselage of the aircraft. Finally the transport began its glide, a lake as big as a sea appeared, and then, right beside the lake, an airport. We rolled towards a building marked by a sign reading ‘Usumbura’. Usumbura, now Bujumbura, is the present-day capital of the republic of Burundi. Then it was a Belgian territory.

Now the worst part began. Le Monde and other papers around the world later wrote up what they did to us in Usumbura. Belgian paratroopers were waiting for us on the airport concrete. If they are soldiers from Belgium, I thought, they will treat us respectably and honestly. But the units stationed in Usumbura were made up of Congo colonials – rapacious, brutal and primitive. They did not treat us at all as journalists, but only as agents of Lumumba, and they were elated that we had fallen into their hands. ‘Passports and visas!’ a non-commissioned officer said sharply. Of course, we had no visas. ‘Aha, so you haven’t got visas!’ he rejoiced. ‘Now you’ll see.’ A minute, clockwork search began. They dumped all our baggage onto the ground, the whole pathetic content of our suitcases, for what does a reporter carry around the world? Some dirty shirts and a few newspaper clippings, a toothbrush and a typewriter. Then the body search began, with special fingering of all folds and seams, cuffs, collars, belts and shoe soles. It was all done with pushing, pulling, prodding and provoking. They took everything, including our documents and our money. We ended up in our shirts, our trousers and our shoes. The air terminal had a central section and two wings. They led us to a place at the end of one of the wings and locked us up. It was on the ground floor. They set a paratrooper on watch under the window. In normal times our cell must have served as a storage room for chairs, since the only objects there were metal chairs.

It was in that room that I satisfied myself that chairs are the riskiest sort of construction for sleeping on, since any movement of the body during sleep makes the chairs slide away from each other, so that you fall to the floor (in this instance, concrete), suffering varied and painful injuries to the body. On the other hand, the advantage of the chairs over the floor was that on the chairs it was warm and not constantly damp: in a word, you pick what suits you best – either shivering on the concrete, or massaging bones bruised by nocturnal falls. It was the first time I’d been locked up (actually, the second – there had been that time in Kabul, some years before) and I must stress the fact that it’s wholly unpleasant. Particularly unpleasant is the beginning, the moment of passage from a free to a captive state, the echo of the closing door.

In the meantime the investigation began. The investigation was conducted by civilians, perhaps colonials from Stanleyville since they knew the city like the backs of their hands. Of course, they would not believe that we were journalists. Nowhere in the world will the police believe that such a profession even exists, and they are often right not to believe it because the foreign correspondents’ milieu has been infiltrated by the most varied riffraff. But we had little to tell them and finally they stopped tormenting us with their questions. The paratroopers watching over us changed shifts at nine in the morning and nine in the evening. The one who came for the night watch brought us our meal. We were fed once a day, in the evening – one bottle of beer for the three of us and a small hunk of meat each. The one who took the day turn began by leading us one by one out to the toilet because there was no bucket in the room where they were holding us. In the event of sudden need we had to request special permission, which was granted grudgingly. They did not allow us to wash, which is a form of torture in tropical conditions – the sweaty skin quickly begins to itch and hurt. Jarda was suffering the most because his asthma had started up again.

From our window we had a view of the following: in the foreground the helmet and shoulders of the paratrooper, in the middle distance a piece of flat ground leading down to the lake, and in the far distance the mountains ringing the horizon. Sometimes we saw aeroplanes landing and taking off. The days flowed by in wearisome monotony and uneventfulness. We had time to ponder our situation. The first point was that the paratroopers could do with us whatever they pleased. Drown us in the lake, and who would find out? (All this was happening during a period of heavy and merciless fighting when people far more important than us were being murdered left and right.) The second: we were in the position of Kafka’s heroes – accused, but unable to demand our rights. We were not allowed to talk with anyone or inform anyone. We didn’t know what awaited us, what they intended to do with us. The paratroopers said nothing. Not a single representative of any higher authority appeared. One evening a new paratrooper, completely different from the previous ones, took the watch. He began speaking with us and he wanted us to buy hippopotamus teeth from him. But since we had no money – it had been taken from us during the search – we ended up promising him that if we were set free and had our money returned, we would buy teeth. That paratrooper helped us a great deal: it was afternoon (a different, inaccessible paratrooper was standing guard) when an African approached our window, a tall, portly Tutsi with a serious intelligent face, and quickly – before the guard managed to chase him away – said that he had overheard a couple of officers saying in the airport coffee shop (where this Tutsi worked) that we were to be shot the next day. The guard came trotting over and in a second that man disappeared from our sight.

There is no space here to describe what goes through the mind of a person to whom a tall and serious Tutsi repeats the conversation of officers in the airport coffee shop. Almost instantaneously a state of depressing emptiness, of collapse, of dulled inertia sweeps over him, as if he had succumbed to the effects of a narcotic or a stiff dose of some stupefying medicine. The feeling of complete powerlessness, and the consciousness that he can neither change, nor counteract anything, further deepen this state. All the strength suddenly flows out of his muscles, leaving him too little energy even to scream, to slam his fist against the wall, or to beat his head on the floor. It is not his body any more: it is foreign matter that he has to drag around until someone frees him of the enervating burden. It becomes stuffy, and that stuffiness hurts most – is, somehow, the most terrible thing. Duszan and I sat there, not looking at each other: I can’t explain why. Jarda lay across the chairs, sweating, tormented by his asthma attacks. A sleepless night.

The rain began falling during the night. At first light the rain was still falling; it was cloudy, and damp, and fog lay on the lake. At dawn a plane emerged from the rain and fog. It was parked on the side-runway, not far from us. This was incomprehensible, because all the aeroplanes (the few of them that landed) parked on the opposite side of the airport, far away, but this one – perhaps because of the poor landing conditions – was sitting right there on our side, where there was less fog (this was the part of the airport farthest from the lake). Two white pilots got out and went straight to the main terminal building, but a few black stewards were hanging around near the plane. We started calling to them and waving our hands. We could do this since the honest paratrooper with the hippopotamus teeth had taken the night watch: our guy, who just wanted to make a little money and survive – in other words, simply a man (it was then that I became convinced that the ones who want to pick up a few pennies are often more human than the incorruptible formalists). And when he saw that we wanted to talk with the stewards he moved around to the other side of the building. A steward came over and Jarda asked him where they were flying to. Leopoldville, he replied. Then Jarda told him briefly about our situation and that our hours were numbered and that we were begging him (a white begging a black to do something was shocking in those days) to go to the local United Nations headquarters as soon as he hit Leopoldville and tell them that we were in prison here, and that they should inform the world about us because then the paratroopers would not dare kill us, and that they should send the army to rescue us. Looking at us, the black man must have seen the frame of the window, and in that frame bars, and behind those bars three white faces, horribly dirty, unshaven, exhausted: Jarda’s face, round and full, and Duszan’s and mine, thin. ‘OK,’ he said. ‘I’ll see what I can do.’

Then the hours of torture began. The steward had tossed a crumb of hope into our cell and that was all it took to jolt us out of the state of internal paralysis and overpowering depression. That kind of self-deafening is a psychobiological defence mechanism against insanity. But all it takes is one flash of light in the darkness for those who have passively and apathetically sunk into collapse, waiting only to hit bottom, to rise again. With their fall into death interrupted by a lucky break, they come back to life. What they leave behind them is an empty territory which there is no way to define since it has no points of reference, no shape and no signposts, and its existence – like the sound barrier – is something you feel only when you approach it. One step out of that emptiness, and it disappears. I don’t think anyone who has passed over it can ever be the same person he was before. Psychological scars remain, gangrened flesh has hardened. The presence of it is more apparent to others than to himself, and eventually others realise that there is something burned out in him, something isn’t there any more. Those who have been through it know that for every meeting with death you pay. We watched the plane take off and afterwards we began pacing feverishly among the chairs, talking and arguing (through the whole previous afternoon, evening and night it had been silent in the cell). Would the steward really inform the United Nations? And if he went there, whom would he talk to? To somebody who would take him seriously and go into action, or to a guy who would wave his arms around and do nothing? And even if he went into action, would they manage to free us? Assuming that the scenario developed in our favour, it would take at least half a day for the steward to fly to Leopoldville and talk with headquarters, and then for Leopoldville to notify the Usumbura headquarters. Before anything happened, the paratroopers could take us out and finish us off. Thus came the nerves, the war of nerves, fever and agitation, but all of it inside, in us, because outside beyond the window it was always the same: the helmet and shoulders of the paratrooper and, further off, the plain, the lake (Tanganyika), the mountains. And today, in addition, the rain.

In the afternoon a car engine growled under the window, there was a screech of brakes, and then voices speaking in a language I did not recognise. We clung to the bars. Near the building stood a jeep flying the United Nations flag; four black soldiers in blue helmets were climbing out of it. They were Ethiopians from the Imperial Guard of Haile Selassie. They formed part of the UN military contingent in the Congo. Now they posted their own guards alongside the paratrooper.

I have no idea what the Congolese who saved our lives was called. He was a human being – that’s all I know about him.

Not only don’t I know the name of whoever it was, working in the UN headquarters in Leopoldville, who saved our lives, but I never even saw him. In this world there is a lot of crap, but there also exist such things as honesty and concern for other people.

It is hard for me to say whether there was any quarrelling over us between the Ethiopians and the paratroopers. They didn’t like each other, and they treated each other spitefully. They were competing for the prestige of controlling the Congo.

The next morning we took a Sabair flight out through Fort Lamy and Malta to Rome. In the great glass block that is Fumicino Airport the splendid and uncommonly exotic – to us, at that moment – world of contented, calm, satiated Europe was on parade: a world of fashionably dressed girls, of elegant men on their way to international conferences, of excited tourists who had flown in to see the Forum, of meticulously preserved ladies, of newly-weds flying off to the beaches of Majorca and Las Palmas. And as that unimaginable world flowed past us (we were a disreputable-looking trio, three dirty, smelly, unshaven guys in horrible shirts and homespun trousers, and it was a chilly spring so everyone else was in jackets, sweaters and warm clothing) I suddenly felt – the thought horrified me – that, sad truth or grotesque paradox though it might be, I had been more at home back there in Stanleyville or in Usumbura than in this world that was passing all around me now.

The police looked us over suspiciously and I couldn’t blame them. We could not go into the city because we had no visas. The police phoned our embassies, which had been looking for us all over the world. The ambassadors came out to the airport but it was already late in the evening and we had to sleep there because they would not be able to arrange the visas until the next day.

I returned to Warsaw. I was supposed to prepare a note on what I had seen in the Congo. I described the battles, the collapse, the defeat. Then I was summoned by a certain comrade from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. ‘What have you been writing, you?’ he stormed at me. ‘You call the revolution anarchy! You think Gizenga is on the way out and Mobutu is winning! These are pernicious theories!’

‘Go there yourself,’ I answered in a tired voice, because I still felt Stanleyville and Usumbura in my bones. ‘Go ahead and see for yourself. And I hope you make it back alive.’

‘It’s too bad,’ this comrade said in concluding our discussion, ‘but you can’t go overseas as a correspondent because you do not understand the Marxist-Leninist processes that are at work in the world.’

‘OK,’ I agreed. ‘I’ve got some things to write about here, too.’

I went back to work at Polityka. In the Congo things turned out the way they had to, which in the end had been obvious to everyone who was there. A few months later I received an offer. I was to be the first Polish correspondent in black Africa. At the beginning of 1962 I went to Dar-Es-Salaam.