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.’

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