Monday, March 9, 2015

Inside The Heart of Darkness (part 4)

Part Three
 of 'Inside The Heart of Darkness'

We woke up early the next morning, took our bags, and walked back to the military post where we were hassled for bribes a couple nights before. One of the soldiers who had watched in awe as we pitched our tent was back on duty at his post. We approached him and asked in French when the next bus was to Beni or Butembo, a city of 200,000 fifty kilometers south of Beni.

Une semaine,” he answered without expression. One week.

Impossible,” we said in response. “Sept jours non bus?” Seven days no bus?

The soldier nodded his head. We walked around for about fifteen minutes asking locals and other soldiers the same question. Unfortunately, each time we got the same answer. There was no way we were staying in Epulu for a whole week. Then we would be in danger of overstaying our transit visas and would run into real trouble with the military. We had no choice.

“We have to hitchhike,” David said.

We put down our bags on the side of the road and pointed our fingers towards the ground to signal to passing truck drivers that we wished to travel with them. Once again, the soldiers couldn’t believe their eyes. White men hitchhiking with Congolese truck drivers? A Congolese soldier standing about six foot six and a four and a half foot tall Pygmy man stood side-by-side staring at us, as if we were the spectacle.

The Congolese soldier (standing) and Pygmy man (sitting) looking out for a truck for us to hitchhike with out of Epulu. 

We waited roughly twenty minutes for a truck to stop. When it did, the driver said he was traveling to Kisengani. East was in the opposite direction, he informed us.

“Shit!” I yelled out.

We’d just wasted twenty minutes hailing trucks traveling in the wrong direction. We crossed the road and started over.

Another twenty minutes passed by and a truck stopped. We told him where we wanted to go and he said he’d take us to Komanda, a town about half way, for one hundred dollars each. We resoundingly said no. Then he tried for eighty. We still said no. Then he drove off. While we waited for another truck to stop, I wondered if we should have just taken his offer and forked over the cash.

Luckily another truck with three men inside stopped less than five minutes later. We asked them where they were headed and they also said Komanda. Before they could name a price, we offered them twenty dollars a person, an unheard of sum for transportation in other parts of East Africa. The men bargained with us a little and eventually we settled for thirty. Just so we didn’t have any problems later, we made sure we got the franc/dollar exchange rate settled up front.

The ride was long and uncomfortable, but thankfully uneventful. We sat behind the two main passenger seats on top of our bags and leaned against the wall. Our companions didn’t try talking to us much. They just played a cassette of ten Congolese pop songs over and over for the duration of our six-hour journey. Thankfully, the truck’s tires held up. It’s amazing how much less time a trip takes when there’s no need to replace flat tires three times.

We arrived in Komanda around two o’clock in the afternoon and were, naturally, hungry. The town’s streets were packed with hundreds of men, presumably with no jobs and nothing useful to do. During the Congo wars, the town's entire population was forced to flee from the different militias and hide out in the forest. These people knew extreme cruelty and instability, and were also fairly good at not being productive.

David went up to a group of men sitting on a street corner and asked if they could recommend a place to eat. One of the men abruptly stood up and shouted in English, “Give me money white man!”

Shocked and frightened, we hurried away. The men stayed where they were, pointing and laughing loudly. This caused a lot of the other men in the area to notice us as well. All of a sudden we heard people running up behind us, smacking our bags, hissing loudly, and shouting to give them money. No one actually attacked us, but we knew someone could at any second.

Five minutes in Komanda was enough time to know it was a place we wanted to get the hell out of. We eventually located a small restaurant on a side street with a real kitchen. We dumped our bags at the nearest table and asked the owner what there was to eat. We were starving and on the brink of willing to pay any price for some food.

The owner just shook his head from side to side with his eyes closed. We knew what that meant. There was no food in his restaurant. Anxious about going back outside and wandering around aimlessly, we remembered glimpses of a marketplace. Refusing to leave his restaurant, we told the man we’d buy the food and pay him money if he cooked up whatever we purchased from the market and brought back. Clearly lacking the energy to refuse us and perhaps a bit hungry himself, he agreed.

I volunteered to go out to the market and leave David with the bags. I left my passports and wallet with him and only took the few thousand francs I needed to get some basics. Thankfully, the marketplace was close and was manned by mostly female peddlers. I quickly scrounged up eggs, tomatoes, an onion, and rice and raced back to the restaurant to find the owner already boiling water.

Twenty minutes later he presented us with his concoction. After one bite we knew something was very, very wrong. The food tasted totally off, as if it was cooked with something rotten or poisonous. Were there pesticides on the vegetables? Were the eggs rotten? Did the restaurant put something funny in our food in an attempt to kill us and rob us? We had no idea. 

We were in shock someone could mess up eggs, rice, tomatoes, and onion so severely. Mad beyond belief and concerned about getting out of town while there was still sunlight, we paid the man for his “service,” bought some bananas at the market, and hustled out of town as fast as we could on the main road.

We slowed our pace when cars and trucks passed us. We waved to them, but none stopped. We were watching local children kick around a deflated soccer ball on the opposite side of the main road when three men on loud motorcycles pulled up and parked ahead of us in the direction we were walking. As they got down from the bikes, David and I quickly took stock of them.

They were wearing torn, faded t-shirts and ripped khaki pants to go with their dusty baseball hats and shabby plastic sandals. They looked like homeless people about to ask for some change. We didn’t know who these men were or what they wanted, but at that moment the only thing David and I cared about was getting out of there on the next truck.

Donnez-moi vos documents!” the man standing in the middle ordered. Show me your documents!

“Why should we show you our documents?” David retorted aggressively back in English. 

David and I were in no mood to speak in French to these guys. If they wanted something from us they were going to have to speak our language.

“The documents, sir!” the man demanded again.

“Why should I give you my documents? Who the hell are you?”

“We are secret police.”

David and I looked our new friends up and down as if to say, “You can’t be serious.” These guys were dressed and smelled like they’d just wandered out of a garbage dump. And they expected us to believe they were law enforcement officials?

“You show me your documents!” David challenged. “If you show me your documents showing you are a policeman, then I will show you my documents showing that I am a tourist.”

A tractor-trailer approached our position. David and I picked up our bags and ran out to the road and tried to flag it down. The trailer began to slow, but one of the three motorcyclists walked out to the road and signaled to the driver to ignore us and continue on his way. Whoever these men were, they were trouble.

“The documents!” the leader of the group shouted more forcefully. “I am secret police!”

“If you’re police, then where’s your identification?!” David shouted. “You show me your identification, then I’ll show you mine! You get it?!”

David, normally the more diplomatic of the two of us, was starting to lose his cool due to hunger and stress. He and I weren’t taking full stock of the situation. It wasn’t smart since we really didn’t have any idea who they were. All we wanted was to get on a truck out of that hellhole and those guys were stopping us from doing just that.

We didn’t think these men were part of a gang or a rebel group trying to kidnap us because they would have done it by then. They also didn’t act like they wanted to rob us, since they hadn’t asked for any money. Whoever they were, they started to attract a small crowd of interested passersby curious to see what our dispute was all about.

The main guy who’d been speaking to us suddenly walked away, hopped on his bike, and sped away leaving his two cronies guard us.

“Fuck!” David screamed at the top of his lungs throwing the smaller of his two backpacks at the ground. “This country fucking sucks!”

The ten or so people standing around watched him silently, probably wondering why this white man was so outraged. David’s anger compelled me to remain calm. I didn’t feel like telling him it was going to be okay or that I was sure there was a reasonable explanation for this because I really had no idea. What I did know was that our situation wasn’t going to get better with the both of us out of control.

I stood silently near David as he fumed. Fifteen minutes later the man from the “secret police” returned. This time, when he got off his bike he went to speak to the two other men and ignored us completely. Five minutes later, two Congolese policemen in full uniform approached us on foot.
“Fuck!” David yelled again. “These homeless assholes are the secret police?! What the fuck is wrong with this place?!”

Our nemesis must have told them we were pretty agitated because the main police officer who came to speak with us in his minimal English was very non-confrontational. He asked to see our passports, which we then readily showed him, and told us all we had to do was go back to the police station for registration.

“But we’re not in your town. We’re trying to leave the town,” I tried to explain calmly. “We’re on our way to Rwanda. We don’t need to register if we’re not planning on being in the town.”

“Just registration,” the police officer repeated calmly. “Very fast I tell you.”

“No!” David yelled again as he once again threw his backpack at the ground. “We need to get out of this town, Michael. This town is bad news! I don’t trust any of these motherfuckers!”

“All we have to do is register and then we’ll be off on our way,” I reasoned. “That’s what the policeman said. Let’s just do this as fast as possible so we’ll get back on our way.”

How naïve I was. Led by the two policemen and trailed by the men on motorcycles, we returned to the center of town to a decrepit dark green building that functioned as the local police headquarters. We were told to sit in a shabby room with chipped paint on the floor and to hand over our passports so that one of the police officers could write down our details.

For more than twenty minutes, David and I watched as the police officer filled out a simple one-page form for each of us. He drew the letters of the alphabet so slowly I became convinced he was basically illiterate.

When he finally finished, I asked for our passports back. The soldier shook his head and sat at his desk silently. A few moments later I made the same demand again. Once again, he shook his head unfazed. I paced around the room frantically as David sat in his seat. Finally, I snapped.

“Give me our fucking passports!” I screamed as I slammed my hands on his desk with fury. “Donnez-moi mon passeport!” Give me my passport!

The police officer looked at me completely clueless, which only added fuel to my fire.

Passeport! Passeport!” I howled at him threateningly. Then I picked up the pen he’d used to fill out the forms and bent it totally out of shape, before sitting back down next to David. The police officer looked at me like I was nuts. And, I was nuts.

“You just broke that guy’s pen!” David said.

“He wouldn’t give me my passport back!” I said in my own defense.

The soldier rose from his chair and sped out of the office. Five minutes later, he returned flanked by a middle-aged man with deep wrinkles wearing civilian clothes and a bright-eyed younger man with a friendly grin carrying another chair. The middle-aged man took the chair, sat down, and gazed at us with stern serious eyes.

“I am chief of police. You are criminal,” he said in broken English. “Your Congo visa is invalide.”
“I’m sorry. I don’t understand your English,” I said mockingly. “We’ve done your registration. Now it’s time to leave.”

“You are under arrest,” the younger man said in perfectly clear English. We later found out he was an English teacher by profession who was occasionally pulled in to work with the police. “He says your visas are invalid. You have crossed into Orientale Province without proper visas. Your visas are only acceptable for North Kivu Province. This is a serious issue. This makes you criminals. You are now in jail. ”

“No, our visas are for the Democratic Republic of Congo. We can go to whatever province we please. We’re not staying here. We’re on vacation and we’re leaving now.”

“No you will not. You will very shortly undergo interrogation.” 

The two policemen and their translator then quickly left the room and locked us inside. If David and I had been thinking and acting rationally, we would have started to panic. We were under arrest in one of the most dangerous countries in the world. If the policemen decided to shoot us and bury our bodies behind the station, no one would have ever known what happened. But we weren’t thinking rationally. To cope, we each took a book out from our backpacks and silently started to read.
The policemen and the translator returned thirty minutes later and snapped to get our attention. We ignored them, continuing to read.

“What is this?!” the chief of police asked.

"A book. Ever heard of it?" I snarled.

The police chief sat down in front of us flanked by the other two and spoke to us in what we think was French. After every few sentences the translator repeated what he’d said in English. Basically he explained that we had illegal visas, which was a “very grave” offense in Congo. He said we could be jailed for many months for such an offense, possibly even transferred to a prison deep in another province. He asked us how we felt about going to prison for a long time in the Congo.

“We don’t feel any way about it because I’m going to get on the phone with the American embassy in Kinshasa and make sure they send someone to have your testicles ripped off,” I said. “How do you feel about getting your testicles ripped off?”

The police chief’s eyes grew wide when the English translator sheepishly explained what I’d said. The three men left the room to reevaluate the situation and locked us inside once more. When they returned, the police chief asked us where we were trying to go. Goma, we replied, to cross the border into Rwanda. He responded by telling us he could have us put on a bus to the border of Uganda in the east or Angola in the west.

“We are traveling to Goma,” David said firmly. “We have no business going to Uganda or Angola.”
The five of us sat in the room in silence for the next fifteen minutes. Bored and wanting to show our host some more disdain, David and I picked up our books and started reading. When the police chief spoke again, he unleashed an interesting new theory.

Vous êtes CIA!” he declared. “You are CIA!”

We each cracked a smile. We knew our interrogator was starting to break.

“He says you are spies from the CIA,” the translator elaborated. “He says he thinks you are hiding a gun in your bag.”

“Tell him he can check my bag,” I challenged. “We’re not spies. We don’t have guns. We just want to leave.”

The police chief stood up and paced around the room before shouting something in rapid-fire French.
“He says you must be spies because your passports are forged,” the translator explained. “He says your passport says you are fifteen years old!”

Quinze? Quinze?” the police chief yelled out at us as he held up our passports. 

Fifteen?! Fifteen?! He seemed quite confident he’d caught us doing something bad, but David and I couldn’t help but laugh.

“Oh my God, he doesn’t know how to do basic math,” David said.

David took out a notebook and demonstrated that 2011, that year, minus 1986, the year David was born, is 25, not 15.

The police chief took the notebook from David and analyzed the equation he’d written out closely. He then showed it to his two associates, who shrugged their arms and appeared to agree with David’s math.

Quinze! Quinze!” he screamed at us again before storming out of the room alone.

 “Just give him some money,” the translator told us somberly. “This is all he wants. He expected you to offer some money a long time ago. Give him some money and you will go on your way.”

By telling us that, he’d just given us all the power in that situation. The police chief didn’t want to keep us locked up in prison for months and months. He just wanted to make some easy cash. Apparently he didn’t expect us to be so damn difficult to deal with.

When the police chief returned he was much more explicit about what he was after. The translator quickly explained that we could end this situation by paying a fine.

“How much of a fine do you think you should have to pay?” the translator asked on his behalf.
“Zero,” David said.

“But the gentleman here broke the police officer’s pen. He must pay for this.”

David reached into his backpack and took out another pen and offered it to the police chief.

“Here is another pen,” he said. “The issue of the broken pen is now resolved. The debt is cleared.”

Our three adversaries looked stressed out, tired, and angry. They sat silently for another few minutes. We returned to reading our books. The police chief eventually raised his hand and signaled we were free to go.

“Départ?” David asked to confirm. Departure?

The police chief handed us back our passports, stood up, and showed us the door. We grabbed our backpacks and left. We’d won the battle.

 “You owe me a pen now you crazy motherfucker,” David said as he put his arm around my shoulder.

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