SIAFU – THE TIM BAILY STORY
AS TOLD TO ROBERT LEADER
CHAPTER FOURTEEN: AT GUNPOINT THROUGH THE CONGO.
The only sound was the steady splash of the paddle and the ripples of the disturbed water. The sun blazed down and bounced back in a silver dazzle from the river and as we drew nearer to the green hills of the Congo I couldn’t stop my mind from recalling all the horrific facts of its immediate past.
The republic of Congo had the bloodiest history of all the new independent African states, for it was a vast country with a diversity of tribal interests and a succession of competing presidents and governments. The reign of terror by the communist simbas had been raging while Peter and I had made our slow way north through East Africa and Ethiopia had at last been brought under control at the end of 1965. Tshombe’s white mercenaries had made spectacular commando raids down every jungle road, storming every town with a blaze of weapons, and either saving the white civilian populations who had been held hostage or grimly burying the hacked-up remains of their bodies. The Catholic priests in their remote missions had been slaughtered in their hundreds, nuns and children had been raped and butchered and practically every street had dripped with blood before the rule of the simbas had been broken.
However, even before the uneasy peace was fully restored Tshombe’s political opponents had engineered his dismissal and the rot continued. Some of the very troops and mercenaries who had fought to end the simba rebellion rebelled in their turn and the summers of 66 and 67 saw more bloody fighting over the same old battlefields.
Now the Congo was supposed to be quiet again but nobody had yet travelled through to be sure. We had been warned before leaving the north bank of the Oubangui and the rifle and machine gun muzzles loomed larger as we approached. My mouth was dry.
The canoe bumped gently on the Congo bank and a group of Congolese soldiers in battledress and carrying FN rifles were waiting to meet us. Their black faces were blank, perhaps a hint of curiosity but showing neither hostility nor friendship. I stood up in the canoe, stepped ashore with my most diplomatic smile and said cheerfully:
The transformation was sheer relief for their faces burst into happy smiles. I spoke Swahili, they spoke Swahili – and immediately we were friends. They had all been drafted up from Katanga in the east and were delighted to find someone who spoke their language. After all our dread thoughts on the way across it was a complete anti-climax and Allan and I were given a most enthusiastic welcome. It took us a couple of hours to sort things out, for Africans love to talk and see little urgency in the passing of time, but finally they assured us that we could use the ferry – if we could get it going.
As an ex-marine engineer Allan was in his element again as he inspected the ancient diesel engine that powered the rusty old ferry. He was confident that he could get it to work but first we would need a couple of batteries from the Land Rovers. Plus some diesel fuel to get it started.
Our African chauffer paddled us back to the C.A.R. where we loaded up the batteries and then dashed into Bangassou to purchase a couple of gallons of fuel. Back we went again and after half an hour’s work Allan had the old engine spluttering into life. The Congolese captain took over and we sailed the old hulk majestically back to the C.A.R. again. By this time we were disregarding all the threatening machine guns, reassured by the fact that the soldiers on both banks were now finding our activities temporarily more interesting than the prospects of immediately starting another war. We loaded the expedition aboard with a flourish and then sailed again for the Congo.
We were old friends now but the Congolese soldiers still had their duty to perform and it took them another two or three hours to search the four Land Rovers and ensure that we were not smuggling in arms or ammunition. Then the officer in charge told me apologetically that he still could not allow us to proceed any further, not until one man and one vehicle had travelled under escort to Monga, a town forty-six miles away, to report to the immigration authorities there. I asked if I could get going right away and he promptly gave me one soldier armed with an FN rifle as my escort.
I scrambled into “Henry” with the Congolese beside me and tore off for Mongo. However, I only made three miles before I had to turn round and limp more slowly back. “Henry” had had enough and the clutch plates were worn to pieces. I rolled back to the river and Andy and Allan jumped onto the crippled Land Rover to haul out the clutch and fit new plates, while I commandeered “Sarah” and sped off again with my escort.
The road passed through double rows of thatched huts, shaded by banana fronds and coconut palms. The little gardens grew head-high maize stalks, melons and pineapples. The people were friendly, as ordinary African people always are, grinning and waving. The village straggled for several miles but then the road wound its way through tropical jungle. Great trees a hundred feet high dwarfed the Land Rover, their ash-silver trunks strangled with branches and vines. There were great knotted creepers that would have made fine jungle highways for a Hollywood Tarzan, great sprouts of dark shining bamboos and impenetrable barriers of green leaves of all shapes and sizes. The road was a red dirt track through this tunnel of green, deeply rutted and full of potholes. I shunted “Sarah” back and forth between second and third gear while my escort grinned and enjoyed his bouncing ride.
It was late afternoon with dusk approaching, the time when most animals begin to move after the heat of the day to start their evening search for food and water. Suddenly we saw a whole troop of baboons crossing the road ahead.
“Samama, Samama!” My escort frantically screamed the Swahili word for stop.
I slammed on the brakes and brought “Sarah” skidding to a halt. In the same moment the soldier catapulted himself out into the road. Without pausing to take aim he opened fire with the FN at his hip and blazed off a whole magazine at the startled baboons. The latter fled in terrified streaks of brown fur, their rude red bottoms bobbing like jet afterburners as they vanished. None of the spraying arc of bullets scored a hit and when the magazine was empty the soldier turned back to me with a vague shrug of his shoulders. Then he calmly got back in the Land Rover as though nothing had happened.
As I drove I began to realize that here was the answer to many of the outbursts of shooting that had been heard in the C.A. R. The Congolese were not always shooting at each other but instead were bored silly with having nothing else to do but sit and stare across the river. Discipline was practically non-existent and so they had taken to hunting and firing at anything that made a target with their army weapons.
After the initial shock this was a little reassuring but when we arrived in Monga I soon became apprehensive again. The whole town was a shambles of broken glass and bullet holes and had obviously seen some hot action. Scores of Congolese soldiers strolled around with casually slung weapons. As we entered the town the road passed a magnificent red-brick Catholic cathedral but now it was boarded up and every one of the beautiful stained glass windows had been smashed to splinters. Those gaping sockets reminded me of empty eyes in a dead skull.
Monga looked as though it had once been a flourishing little town with smart bungalows and shops but now it was shattered and broken. One or two of the shops had struggled to re-open but had nothing to sell except for a few tins of condensed milk. As my first introduction to the Congo it was most depressing.
Following the directions of my escort I drove into the residential part of the town where there were half a dozen once-beautiful colonial-style houses, each with its own veranda and large shuttered windows. Once they had probably housed Belgian officials but now the biggest one had been taken over as the Congolese immigration post. It was dark as we walked up the drive towards it, the electricity wasn’t working and the only light came from the stars and a hurricane lamp flickering behind the broken windows. It was just enough light for us to see the bullet holes which pock-marked the brickwork all around the doors and windows. Then something leaped at me in black, teeth-gnashing fury from the shadows of the veranda. My heart stopped but mercifully there was a chain to bring the animal up short. It was a male baboon and one of the most vicious of its species that I have ever seen. It was the immigration officer’s pet.
The whole atmosphere was definitely macabre and I expected to be met by somebody who was a cross between Hitler and Dracula. Instead the immigration officer proved to be a very helpful and friendly Congolese who spoke fluent Swahili. By the light of the hurricane lamp we sat down at his desk to go through all the passports which I had brought with me. After a few minutes my eye was caught by the large poster on the wall behind him. It was a typical “wanted” poster, such as you might find in any African police station, with perhaps twenty-five or thirty photographs. The only unusual thing was that they were all white faces and that some of them were women. I asked jokingly if they were all criminals and the Congolese officer turned his head to gaze at them for a moment with regret.
“No,” he said in Swahili. “They are all the white people who are missing in the Congo. We know some of them have been murdered and we are still looking for the others.”
For the sake of my own peace of mind I decided not to ask any more questions and we struggled for an hour with the passports. Eventually his pen ran out and he disappeared to get another, leaving me sitting alone in the silent house. I could hear the rustling sound of the African night outside and the low murmur of voices from my escort and another soldier on guard duty. The shutter made a faint creaking in the wind. The lamp flickered fitfully and the lost faces stared at me from the wall. Some of them were young and some were old, some had beards or spectacles and one or two of the women smiled sadly. The only thing they had in common was that they were all probably dead and the thought preyed on my mind. Then abruptly the stillness of the night was ripped open by an ear-splitting burst of automatic fire only a few yards away.
My heart kicked into top speed and I thought, Christ, this it! I sat there frozen for a few minutes but the sound had emptied itself into the darkness and was not to be repeated. The only sound was the frightened gibbering of the baboon on the veranda. I got up slowly and went over to the window to investigate. Outside stood the two soldiers and the FN rifle lay smoking on the veranda between them. They began to argue and I realized that one of them had simply handed the weapon to the other. All that had happened was that they had fumbled and dropped it. As they always carried their weapon off safe and with a bullet up the spout the gun had simply fired itself and was empty, fortunately without plastering either of them up against the wall.
After that I decided that Monga was too nerve-wracking to delay. As soon as the formalities were finally completed I climbed into “Sarah” again with my nonchalant escort and drove fast through the night to rejoin the expedition. It was a terrible road to drive in darkness and my companion was no help. All that he wanted to do was to stop every time he saw a pair of glittering eyes and get in some target practice with his FN. It was midnight when we arrived and I found Andy and Allan still toiling away to replace the stubborn gear box on “Henry.” They were smothered in oil and grease with great clouds of mosquitoes buzzing around their heads and for a while I pitched in and tried to help them. However, I was tired out after nearly a hundred miles of driving over the foul Congo roads and when they told me to go away and sleep I didn’t really argue.
After that night I had some serious misgivings but the next morning I gathered up my courage and led the whole expedition back to Mongo. Even by daylight the depressing atmosphere didn’t improve much and so as soon as possible we pushed on for Bondo, the next major town. Immediately on leaving Mongo we had another river to cross and like everything else the once motorized ferry had broken down. The Congolese told us to load our vehicles on board and eventually we were paddled across by forty cheerful Africans who sang and chanted to the tune of their own vigorous strokes. It was a scene from the Africa that I love, simple, colorful and happy, and for a moment my faith was restored.
Beyond the river the jungle road continued to deteriorate and in places it was more like a washed- out river bed where the monsoon rains had flowed down to create deep gulleys and sandbars. The close air was hot and humid and we sweated profusely as the Land Rovers slithered and swayed through the mud. Many of the pot-holes gave us real trouble and we constantly had to resort to four-wheel drive to lurch out of them.
When we arrived at Bondo we were fortunate enough to meet the Norwegian Baptist missionaries working there and were invited to stay overnight by the Reverend Paul Hansen, a man of tremendous courage and devotion. I have heard a lot of criticism from people who say that the missionaries in Africa have tried to push the people too fast into Christianity, but I have always found them to be doing a magnificent job. Reverend Hansen and his colleagues were no exception and although they set an honest Christian example in their own lives there was no sign that their religion was being forced upon the natives. Christianity was there for the taking but the main object of the missionaries was to help improve the lot of the African villagers who had been left in really dreadful condition after the simba revolution.
The simbas had stripped them of everything and the whole population had been left starving. The basic tool of Africa is the panga, the heavy cutting knife used for clearing and harvesting, but these people had not been left with a single panga between them. In desperation they had been forced to eat the seeds that would have provided them with their next season of crops. The missionaries brought them food, more seed, and lorries loaded with pangs and hoes and other basic implements so that they could get started again.
It was a common story all over the Congo where the Catholic and Baptist missions, despite the horrors they had suffered, had practically taken over the administration of the more remote areas beyond the big towns. The missions ran all the small schools and hospitals and were usually the only stabilizing influence to which the villagers could turn.
It was possibly because they form such a stabilizing influence that so many of the priests and nuns in the Congo were cruelly butchered by the simbas, for Communist strategy decreed that anyone capable of forming any part of a rival administration must be promptly put to death before any new cadres could hope to rise out of the resulting chaos. We discussed the subject late into the night and finally Reverend Hansen told us his own story of the revolution.
There were half a dozen white families living in the small missionary community and when the bloodshed started their wives and children were hastily sent back to Europe. Reverend Hansen was determined to stay and continue his work and most of his fellow priests insisted on staying with him. When the simbas came they were captured and held hostage.
The simbas brought more white prisoners with them. In all there were fifteen white prisoners held in Bondo and all of them were treated abominably. They were beaten, tortured and starved by drug-crazy youths who formed an uncontrollable mass of the rebel horde. When the white mercenary commandos began to liberate the Northern Congo and their flying columns became a threat to Bondo, the simbas worked themselves up into a frenzy. They began to execute one hostage a day, picking a man out at random and taking him outside to kill him.
A new recruit to the rebels was one of the Bondo mission boys, desperately pretending to be a simba to save his own life, but still loyal to his old friends. The mercenaries were held up by the river that flowed through Bondo and the group of hostages grew smaller every day. The mission boy was their only hope and Reverend Hansen drew up a precise sketch map of the town he knew so well and asked the African to smuggle it to the mercenaries. The boy did so at great risk to his own life and shortly afterwards the mercenaries were able to capture the town. When they arrive Reverend Hansen was one of the only three hostages still alive.
He had to leave the Congo after that, but as soon as the authorities would allow him to return he hurried back. He knew that the people needed him and his mission.
The next morning “Maggie” took the lead while the rest of us were still saying goodbye to the missionaries and a few moments later an African came running up in high excitement to tell us that a Land Rover had fallen into the river. It was panic stations and we scrambled into the remaining rovers. In my mind’s eye there flashed a mental picture of the only bridge in the vicinity from which a Land Rover could fall. It was a typically Congo structure of rickety logs and planks spanning a twenty foot drop into a narrow creek, the whole thing tottering on the very point of collapse. We had maneuvered across several of these with great care since our arrival in equatorial Africa but now it seemed that the worst had happened. From the frantic waving and shouting of the African who had brought the news I could visualize nothing less than my Land Rover wrecked and its occupants dead, drowned or injured.
Mercifully it was nowhere near as bad as all that. We arrived in brake-screeching rush to find that “Maggie” was still on the bridge, although two of the flimsy planks had rotted through and collapsed beneath her. The Land Rover was tilted over at forty-five degrees with both nearside wheels dropped through the hole, while her crew circled around tentatively scratching their heads.
Fortunately we carried enough tools to re-build the whole bridge if it had been necessary. It took a couple of hours but eventually we jacked the vehicle up and slipped more planks under the wheels so we could drive her off. “Maggie” had a few more dents in her battered bodywork and I had a few more grey hairs.
We had the main river to cross, another ferry journey, but first I took the advice of the Reverend Hansen and paid a courtesy call on the local army commander. I asked him for a signed letter to smooth our way through any of his troops we might encounter and he very willingly gave us not only the letter but another armed soldier to act as our escort.
Like his predecessor from Monga our new soldier had the same merry habit of blazing away at the monkeys in the treetops with his FN. On the whole we saw very little animal or bird life on our route through the Congo. Anything that had not been trapped and eaten by the hungry villagers lining the roadside had been driven deeper into the forest by the bored soldiers taking pot shots at everything that moved from the back of their open trucks. At night when camped in the open bush we found that the usual insect orchestra of whistling, cheeping and buzzing became practically deafening, because there were no longer any birds left to keep the insects down.
The road south from Bondo was again a badly pot-holed track through dense jungle and progress was slow. It wasn’t helped by our soldier friend who wanted to stop at every village to talk to his friends and generally strut around to show off his important new position. He was supposed to be travelling with me in the lead vehicle but in exasperation I finally left him behind, not really caring whether he jumped on to one of the following Land Rovers or not.
A few miles further on I swung “Henry” round a bend and almost collided head-on with an approaching lorry. We both skidded to a halt and two Congolese army officers scrambled urgently out of their cab. I expected them to approach us but instead they ran round to the back of their truck and pulled open the flaps. They were shouting frantic orders and like rabbits popping out of a conjuror’s hat a whole stream of Congolese soldiers began leaping out with their automatic rifles and machine guns at the ready.
They vanished just as swiftly with their officers into the long grass and bush that flanked both sides of the road, and we could hear them deploying themselves into ambush position. There was another skid of tyres as Andy pulled up behind us in “Sarah,” and then another frantic grating and grinding as “Matilda” belted round the corner with Allan at the wheel. From the long grass came the ominous clicking of rifle bolts and a nervous rustling.
I sat there with my knees literally knocking and Jan trembling beside me. All that we could see were vague, half-hidden shapes and almost a score of weapon muzzles pointed straight at us. I found my voice and began shouting hoarsely:
“Rafiki, Rafiki!” The swahili for “friend.”
For one horrible minute there was no answer and it seemed that we were about to be massacred as we sat there helplessly in our Land Rovers in the middle of the road. And then an uncertain voice responded in the same language.
“Who are you? What are you? What are you doing here?”
“We are friends,” I shouted back. “We are tourists.” I had memorized the name of the Army Commander and I used it desperately. “We have just come from Colonel Ikela at Bondo.”
“You know Colonel Ikela?” The voice was doubtful.
“Yes,” I assured him. “We have a letter from Colonel Ikela, and a guide. The guide is following in another vehicle. Please wait and he will explain everything.”
We waited, the Congolese troops crouching unseen behind their leveled weapons and the Siafu expedition sweating and not daring to move. Then “Maggie” rolled up and the rifles bristled and I heard another two or three bolts clicking back. If our soldier-escort had failed to catch the last vehicle we were in dead trouble and I hardly dared turn my head to see if he was there. A moment later our fear of death evaporated as quickly as it had appeared as our guide came running up to talk to his friends in the bush.
The soldiers began to emerge one by one, lowering their weapons, and their officer was briefly apologetic. “We are soldiers,” he said rather unnecessarily. “The only convoys of Europeans we have seen before have been white mercenaries and we did not know what to expect.” The idea of tourists passing through their country was a new one and they became curious and friendly. Now that the drama was over we chatted for an hour before we went on our way.
After that we kept our guide in the front Land Rover where he was needed most, and he was needed again: at the very next town. In an effort to relax I had climbed up on to the roof with Jan and we were stretching out on the tarpaulin tying down the luggage to do some sunbathing as “Henry” lurched slowly over the atrocious road. We came over a blind hill and abruptly the brakes jammed on and Jan and I were almost flung off from our precarious perch as “Henry” came to a complete stop. I heaved myself up in alarm and swung round to look down over the bonnet. We had run slap into another platoon of soldiers and one of them was standing with his legs spread wide in the middle of the road. His FN rifle had been trained on the windscreen but the instant my head appeared the gun jumped and I found myself looking straight down the barrel.
I ducked down fast, shoving Jan down behind me and shouting my plaintive cry of:
Our guide got out amiably to explain once more and the drama deflated. The soldiers searched our vehicles and then allowed us to drive on.
The whole atmosphere of the Congo became more and more depressing. We had a thousand miles to cover of their appalling cart-track roads where we wallowed in mud and pot-holes through the claustrophobic tunnels of dank jungle. Every bridge was crude and rotten and fraught with hazards and the way was lined with constant reminders of the Congo war. There were shattered vehicles everywhere that had not yet been cleared up, and when we stopped to examine them we found them riddled with bullet holes. We passed mission stations that had been burned down and pock-marked walls and smashed windows in every town. The endless military checkpoints and searches continued and the immediate reaction of any group of soldiers who saw us coming was to point all their guns at us. My anguished cries of, “Rafiki, rafiki,” plus a quick gabble of Swahili to tell them that we were tourists usually caused them to relax. However, the knowledge that any one of those automatic rifles needed only a fraction of pressure to fire off a whole clip at any moment made the initial few seconds nerve-wracking at every encounter.
Fortunately my expedition members bore up magnificently under the strain. They all possessed in abundance that one quality essential to the success of every overland expedition, a sense of humour. There were times when it was necessary to moan or curse in exasperation but through it all they continued to work together and never failed to recover their spirits after every scare and set-back. They made the best of every situation and there was always someone who could come up with a joke and a smile.
On the bright side of the Congo were the native markets where we stopped so that the girls could shop for food and always received an enthusiastic welcome from the ordinary African villagers. One superb example was laid out under a vast shady glade beneath great spreading thickets of green bamboos. There were hundreds of colorfully dressed Africans who were gathered from miles around, either buying or selling, squatting before their little piles of fish, bread, mangoes, pineapples, paw-paws and a variety of other exotic foods. One delicacy was a bowl of inch-long sugar ants, fat and juicy and eaten alive for the best flavor. There were shriveled old women grating up manioc, a large tubular white root which formed a basic part of their diet, and old women who simply sat and smoked large wooden pipes. The faces were full of character and the young girls had wild, frizzy hair styles that might stand out in six inch spikes or end in puff balls. For our camera enthusiasts the markets were a source of endless interest.
However, what probably saved our sanity were the Congolese beer sheds and bars. Every town had one and often there would be a small concrete dance floor, lit at night by strings of gay coloured bulbs that looped between the wooden posts at each corner. The Congolese love music and dancing and there was always loud beat music belting out over the loudspeakers from a hidden gramophone. My Siafu spirits were never amiss when there was a chance to swallow beer and were always keen to join in the dancing. In the warm African night lit by the jazzy bulbs and stars there was always a splendid atmosphere and one of my best memories is of Siafu teaching a hilarious chain of Congolese to do the conga. Sometimes it was most disconcerting when the pretty Congolese lady in your arms smiled to reveal a row of sharpened cannibal teeth, but even these moments my gentlemen could survive with remarkable aplomb.