Hunting for warlords - The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life - John le Carré

The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life - John le Carré (2016)

Chapter 27. Hunting for warlords

The novel had everything, even a title: The Mission Song. It was set in London and the Eastern Congo, and had a central character called Salvo, short for Salvador, the son of an erring Irish missionary and a Congolese headman’s daughter. Salvo had been brainwashed by zealous Christian missionaries from infancy, and punished as an outcast for his father’s supposed sins, so it wasn’t hard for me to cry in my beer and identify with him.

I had three Congolese warlords, each a standard-bearer of the tribe or social group that had spawned him. I had separately wined and dined a small platoon of British and South African mercenaries, and devised a plot flexible enough to respond to the needs and whims of its characters as the story developed on the page.

I had a beautiful, young female Congolese nurse, a daughter of Kivu, working in an East London hospital and longing only to return to her own people. I had walked her hospital’s corridors, sat in its waiting rooms, and watched the doctors and nurses come and go. I had staked out the changing of the shifts, and from a respectful distance followed groups of weary female nurses as they trekked back to their sleeping quarters and hostels. In London and Ostend I had spent long hours head to head with huddles of Congo’s secret exiles, listening to tales of mass rape and persecution.

But there was one small snag. I didn’t know anything at first hand about the country I was describing, and knew next to nothing about its indigenous people. The three Congolese warlords that Maxie, my head mercenary, had embroiled in an operation to seize the reins of power in Kivu, were not real characters at all: just identikit men, cobbled together from hearsay and my uninformed imagination. As to the great province of Kivu itself and its capital city Bukavu, they were fantasy places to me, conjured out of old guidebooks and the internet. The whole construct had been dreamed up at a moment in my life when, for family reasons, I had been unable to travel. Only now was I free to do what in better circumstances I would have done a year ago: go there.

The lure was irresistible. Bukavu, built in the early twentieth century by Belgian colonialists at the southern end of Lake Kivu, the highest and coolest of Africa’s great lakes, read like a lost paradise. I had visions of a misted Shangri-La of wide, bougainvillea-laden streets, and villas with lush gardens sloping to the lake’s shore. The volcanic soil of the surrounding hillsides is so fertile, the same guidebooks told me, and the climate so benign, that there is scarcely a fruit, flower or vegetable that doesn’t thrive there.

The Eastern Congo was also a death trap. I had read about that too. Its riches had for centuries lured every species of human predator, from roaming Rwandan militias to corporate carpetbaggers with shiny offices in London, Houston, Petersburg or Beijing. Since the Rwandan genocide, Bukavu had been in the front line of the refugee crisis. Hutu insurgents, fleeing across the border from Rwanda, had used the town as a base to get their own back on the government that had driven them out. In what became known as the First Congo War, the town had been laid waste.

So what did it all look like now? And what did it feel like? Bukavu was the town of my hero Salvo’s birth. Somewhere close by in the bush lurked the Roman Catholic seminary that had housed Salvo’s father, the big-hearted, fallible Irish priest who had yielded to the charms of a tribal woman. It would be nice to find the seminary too.

I had read In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz by Michela Wrong, and greatly admired it. Wrong had lived in the Congolese capital, Kinshasa, and spent altogether twelve years on the African continent. She had covered Rwanda for Reuters and the BBC in the aftermath of the genocide. I invited her to lunch. Might she help? She might. Might she even accompany me to Bukavu? She might, but on terms. Jason Stearns would have to come too.

At twenty-nine, Jason Stearns, polyglot and African scholar, was a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group. Almost unbelievably, from my point of view, he had actually served three years in the city of Bukavu as political adviser to the United Nations. He spoke immaculate French, Swahili and an unknown number of other African languages. He was one of the West’s leading authorities on the Congo.

Amazingly also, it turned out that both Jason and Michela had their own professional purposes in East Congo. They agreed to coincide their visits with mine. They ploughed through an embarrassing early draft of my novel and pinpointed its many transgressions. Nevertheless, it gave them an idea of the people I was keen to meet and the places I needed to see. At the top of my list came the three warlords; after them, the Catholic missionaries, seminaries and schools of Salvo’s childhood.

Foreign Office advice was for once clear: don’t travel to the Eastern Congo. But Jason had taken soundings of his own and reported that Bukavu was pretty quiet, given that the Democratic Republic of Congo was about to hold its first multi-party election in forty-one years, and there was a certain nervousness in the air. For my two companions this made it the perfect time to go, as it was for myself and my characters, since the novel was set in the run-up to the same elections. The year was 2006, so twelve years since the Rwandan genocide.

Looking back, I’m a bit ashamed that I prevailed on them to take me with them at all. If something had gone wrong, which in Kivu was practically mandatory, they’d have been saddled with a not very agile, white-haired septuagenarian.

Long before our Jeep had left the Rwandan capital, Kigali, and reached the Congolese border my imagined world had receded and the real one taken over. The Hôtel des Mille Collines in Kigali, alias the Hotel Rwanda in that movie, had an air of oppressive normality. I looked in vain for a commemorative photograph of the actor Don Cheadle, or his alter ego Paul Rusesabagina, the real-life hotel manager who in 1994 had turned the Mille Collines into a secret refuge for Tutsis in terror of the panga and the gun.

But that story, in the minds of those now in power, was no longer operative. Ten minutes into Rwanda with your eyes open, you knew that the Tutsi-led government ran a very tight ship indeed. From the windows of our car as we wove over the hills towards Bukavu, we glimpsed Rwandan justice at work. In tailored meadows that would not have been out of place in a Swiss valley, villagers crouched in rings like summer schoolchildren. At their centre, in place of teachers, men in prison pink gesticulated or hung their heads. To break the backlog of suspected génocidaires awaiting trial, Kigali had reinstated traditional village courts. Anyone might accuse, anyone might defend. But the judges were appointed by the new government.

An hour short of the Congolese border we turned off the road and climbed a hill in order to take a look at a few of the génocidaires’ victims. A former secondary school looked down on lovingly tended valleys. The curator, himself an improbable survivor, led us from one classroom to another. The dead - hundreds of them, whole families, tricked into assembling for their own protection and every one of them hand-killed - had been laid out in fours and sixes on wooden pallets and coated with what looked like congealed flour and water. A lady with a facemask and bucket was giving them an extra coat. For how long would she go on painting them? How long would they last? Many were children. In a country where farmers do their own slaughtering, the technique had come naturally: first cut the tendons, then take your time. Hands, arms and feet were stored separately in baskets. Torn clothing, brown with blood and mostly children’s sizes, hung from the eaves of a cavernous assembly hall.

‘When will you bury them?’

‘When they have done their work.’

Their work as the proof that it had really happened.

The victims have no one to name them, or mourn them, or bury them, our guide explains. The mourners are dead too. We leave the bodies on show to silence our doubters and deniers.

Rwandan troops in green US-style uniforms have appeared along the roadside. The Congolese frontier post is a dilapidated shed the other side of an iron bridge across an outlet of the Ruzizi River. A cluster of female officials frown over our passports and vaccination certificates, shake their heads and confer. The more chaotic a country, the more intractable its bureaucracy.

But we have Jason.

An interior door bangs open, joyous cries are exchanged. Jason disappears. To peals of congratulatory laughter, our documents are returned to us. We bid farewell to the perfect tarmac of Rwanda and for five minutes lurch over giant pot-holes of red Kivu mud to our hotel. Jason, like my Salvo, is a master of African dialects. When passions flare, he first joins in the excitement, then gently talks the protagonists down. It’s not a tactical thing, it comes instinctively to him. I can imagine my Salvo - child of conflict, natural appeaser - doing exactly the same.

In every trouble spot I have cautiously visited, there has always been one watering hole where, as if by secret rite, hacks, spies, aid workers and carpetbaggers converge. In Saigon, it was the Continental; in Phnom Penh, the Phnom; in Vientiane, the Constellation; in Beirut, the Commodore. And here in Bukavu it’s the Orchid, a gated, low-built, lakeside colonial villa surrounded by discreet cabins. The owner is a worldly-wise Belgian colon who would have bled to death in one of Kivu’s wars had not his late brother smuggled him to safety. In a corner of the dining room sits a German lady of age who talks wistfully to strangers of the days when Bukavu was all white, and she could drive her Alfa at sixty down the boulevard. Next morning we retrace her route, but not at her speed.

The boulevard is wide and straight but, like every street in Bukavu, pitted by red rainwater gushing off the surrounding mountains. The houses are fallen gems of art nouveau, with rounded corners, long windows and porches like old cinema organs. The town is built on five peninsulas, ‘a green hand dipped in the lake’, as the more lyrical guidebooks have it. The largest and once the most fashionable peninsula is La Botte, where Mobutu, mad King-Emperor of Zaire, kept one of his many residences. According to the soldiers who bar our entry, the villa is being refurbished for the new Congolese President, Joseph Kabila, Kivu-born son of a Marxist-Maoist revolutionary. In 1997 Kabila’s father had ousted Mobutu from power, only to be murdered by his own bodyguard four years later.

A steamy haze hangs over the lake. The border with Rwanda splits it longways. The toe of La Botte tips eastward. The fish are very small. The lake’s monster is called mamba mutu and is half-woman, half-crocodile. What she likes best is eating human brains. Listening to my guide I scribble notes of all this, knowing I shall never make use of them. Cameras don’t work for me. When I write a note my memory stores the thought. When I take a photograph, the camera steals my job.

We enter a Roman Catholic seminary. Salvo’s father was one of the Brothers here. Its windowless brick walls are unlike anything around them in the street. Behind them lies a world of gardens, satellite dishes, guest rooms, conference rooms, computers, libraries and mute servants. In the canteen, an old white priest in jeans shuffles to the coffee urn, vouchsafes us a long, unearthly stare and goes his way. If Salvo’s father were still alive, I am thinking, this is how he might look today.

A Congolese priest in brown habit is lamenting how his fellow African Brothers are at risk from penitents who confess their ethnic hatreds too eloquently. Inflamed by passionate rhetoric they are supposed to assuage, he says, they are capable of becoming the worst extremists of them all. Thus it was in Rwanda that otherwise good priests were known to summon all Tutsis in their parish to the church, which was then torched or bulldozed with the priests’ blessing.

While he talks, I write in my notebook: not as he might suppose, his golden words, but rather how he speaks them: the slow, guttural elegance of his educated African-French, and the sadness with which he recounts the sins of his Brothers.

Thomas is so far removed from my version of him that again I abandon all preconceptions. He is tall and suave and wears a well-cut blue suit. He receives us with consummate diplomatic ease. His house, guarded by sentries with semi-automatic rifles, is spacious and representational. A massive television screen plays silent football while we talk. No warlord of my uninformed imaginings was ever like this.

Thomas is a Banyamulenge. His people have been fighting wars in the Congo ceaselessly for the last twenty years. They are pasturalists who came originally from Rwanda and over the last couple of hundred years settled the high plateaux of the Mulenge mountains of South Kivu. Famed for their battle skills and reclusiveness, hated for their supposed affinity with Rwanda, they are the first to be picked on in times of discontent.

I ask him whether the upcoming multi-party election makes things better for them. His reply is not encouraging. The losers will say the vote was rigged, and they’ll be right. The winner will take all, and the Banyamulenge will be blamed for all of it as usual. Not for nothing are they called the Jews of West Africa: if anything is amiss, it must be the Banyamulenge’s fault. He was similarly unimpressed by Kinshasa’s efforts to forge Congo’s militias into a single national army:

‘A lot of our boys joined, then defected to the mountains. In the army they kill us and insult us, despite the fact that we have fought and won many battles for them.’

There is one chink of hope, Thomas concedes. The Mai Mai, who see it as their job to keep Congo free of all ‘foreigners’ - and specifically the Banyamulenge - are learning the high cost of becoming a soldier of Kinshasa. He does not elaborate.

‘Maybe as the Mai Mai learn to mistrust Kinshasa, they will draw closer to us.’

We are about to find out. Jason has arranged for us to meet a colonel of the Mai Mai, the largest and most notorious of Congo’s many armed militias, and the second of my warlords.

Like Thomas, the Colonel is immaculately turned out, not in a well-cut blue suit, but in the dress uniform of Congo’s maligned national army. His Kinshasa-issue khaki drills are ironed and pressed, his badges of rank glisten in the midday sun. He wears gold rings on all the fingers of his right hand. Two cellphones lie on the table before him. We are sitting in an open-air café. From a sandbagged emplacement across the road, blue-helmeted Pakistani troops of the United Nations watch us over their gun barrels. Fighting has been my life, the Colonel says. In his day he commanded fighters as young as eight. Now they’re all adults.

‘There are ethnic groups in my country that do not deserve to be here. We fight them because we fear they will claim our sacred Congolese land. No government in Kinshasa can be trusted to do this, therefore we do it ourselves. When Mobutu’s power failed, we stood in the breach with our pangas, bows and arrows. The Mai Mai is a force created by our ancestors. Our dawa is our shield.’

By dawa he is referring to the Mai Mai’s magic powers that enable them to divert flying bullets or turn them into water: Mai.

‘When you are face to face with an AK47 that is firing straight at you and nothing happens, you know our dawa is authentic.’

In that case, I ask, as delicately as I may, how does the Mai Mai explain its dead and wounded?

‘If one of our warriors is struck down, it is because he is a thief or rapist or has disobeyed our rituals or was harbouring bad thoughts about a comrade when he went into battle. Our dead are our sinners. We let our witch doctors bury them without ceremony.’

And the Banyamulenge? How does the Colonel regard them in the present political climate?

‘If they start another war, we shall kill them.’

Venting his hatred of Kinshasa, however, he comes closer than he knows to sharing the views of his sworn enemy Thomas of the night before:

‘The salauds in Kinshasa have marginalized the Mai Mai. They forget that we fought for them and saved their fat arses. They don’t pay us and don’t listen to us. For as long as we’re soldiers, they don’t let us vote. Better we go back to the bush. How much does a computer cost?’

It was time to drive out to Bukavu airport for the action scene at the end of my novel. During the week we had a couple of riots in the town and sporadic shooting. The curfew was still running. The road to the airfield belonged to the Mai Mai, but Jason said it was safe to travel, so I assumed he had secured our passage with the Colonel. We were about to set off when we learned that, curfew or not, the centre of town had been blocked by demonstrators and burning tyres. It transpired that a man had mortgaged his house for four hundred dollars in order to buy his wife a medical operation, but when Kinshasa’s unpaid soldiers got to hear about it they raided his house, killed him and stole the money. Angry neighbours had seized the soldiers and locked them up, but the soldiers’ comrades sent reinforcements to get them back. A fifteen-year-old girl had been shot dead and the crowd was rioting.

After a giddying drive at high speed through uneven back streets, we reached the Goma road and drove northwards along Lake Kivu’s western shore. The airfield had recently seen serious fighting. A Rwandan militia had taken it over, and stayed several months before being thrown out. Now the airfield was under the joint UN protection of Indian and Uruguayan troops. The Uruguayans gave us a lavish lunch and urged us to come back for a real party soon.

‘What would you do,’ I enquired of our Uruguayan host, ‘if the Rwandans came back?’

‘Vamos,’ he replied without hesitation: get the hell out.

In reality, I wanted to find out what he and his comrades would do if a bunch of heavily armed white mercenaries landed unannounced, which was what they do in my novel. I am shy of putting my hypotheses so directly, but I had no doubt that, if he had known the true purpose behind my question, his answer would have been the same.

We toured the airfield, and headed back to town. The red clay road was struck by a torrential tropical downpour. We descended a hill to be met with a rapidly filling lake that hours earlier had been a car park. A man in a black suit was standing on the roof of his drowning car, waving his arms for help, to the entertainment of a fast-growing crowd. The arrival of our Jeep with its two white men and one white woman aboard added to the fun. In no time, a group of kids had set to work rocking us from side to side. In their enthusiasm they could have rocked us into the lake if Jason hadn’t hopped out and, speaking their language, pacified them with their own laughter.

For Michela, the moment was so run-of-the-mill that she has no memory of it. But I have.

The discotheque is my last and most affecting memory of Bukavu. In my novel, it is owned by the French-educated heir to an East Congolese trading fortune, who later becomes Salvo’s saviour. He too is a warlord of a sort, but his real power base is Bukavu’s young intellectuals and businessmen: and here they are.

There is a curfew and the town is deadly quiet. Rain is falling. I recall no winking signs or bulky men checking us at the entrance to the nightclub: just a row of miniature Essoldo cinemas disappearing into the dark, and a rope banister descending a dimly lit stone staircase. We grope our way down. Music and strobe lights engulf us. Yells of ‘Jason!’ as he vanishes under a sea of welcoming black arms.

The Congolese, I have been told, know better than anybody how to have fun, and here at last they are having it. Away from the dance floor a game of pool is running, so I join the lookers-on. Round the table, tense silence attends every shot. The last ball goes down. To hoots of joy, the victor is swept off his feet and carted in triumph round the room. At the bar, beautiful girls chatter and laugh. At our table, I listen to somebody’s views on Voltaire - or was it Proust? Michela is politely discouraging a drunk. Jason has joined the men on the dance floor. I will leave him with the last word:

‘For all Congo’s troubles, you meet fewer depressed guys on the streets of Bukavu than you do in New York.’

I hope I got that line into the novel, but it’s a long time since I read it. The East Congo was my last excursion into the killing fields. Does the novel do justice to the experience? Of course it doesn’t. But the education I received was unputdownable.