Scared: A Novel on the Edge of the World
- 2009 2 Jul
Democratic Republic of the Congo, Africa, 1998
Ten years ago I was a dead man.
It all began when Lou, my broker from Alpha Agency, said, “Stuart, how would you feel about heading to The Congo? i is putting together a crew and needs a hot photographer.”
He asked; I went. That’s how I got paid then. It’s how I get paid now.
My job was to cover a breaking story on a rebel uprising that would soon turn into genocide. Unfortunately, neither Lou nor any of us were privy to that valuable information at the time. We should have seen it coming. The frightening tribal patterns resembled the bloodbath between the Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994. We knew what happened there had spilled over to the DRC – but we ignored it.
Our job was to focus on the story of the moment, whatever we might find. But this was more than a search for journalistic truth. It was an opportunity to win a round of a most dangerous game – the chase for a prize-winning picture.
The plane landed in the capital city of Kinshasa. A man in combat fatigues stood near a large black government car. He was flanked by six armed guards toting fully automatic rifles.
“That must be the mayor and his six closest comrades,” I said to our writer, Mike, as I swung my heavy neon orange bag over my shoulder. “Welcome to a world where you are not in control.” This was Mike’s first international assignment. I swear his knees buckled.
Our team consisted of me; Mike, shipped in from Holland (a lower executive from Time who was looking for a thrill and trying to escape his adulterous wife for a few weeks); and Tommy, the Grip, whose job it was to carry our gear.
“Welcome to the Democratic Republic of Congo. I am Mayor Mobutu.” We introduced ourselves, exchanging the traditional French niceties.
“I must go and attend to some urgent matters, but there is a car waiting for you. These guards will take you out to Rutshuru, North Kivu.”
He pointed to a Land Cruiser near the airport building. The mayor’s face carried the scars of a rough life. His right cheek looked as if someone tried to carve a “Z” into it. His left eye was slightly lazy, giving you the feeling he was looking over your shoulder, even when you were face to face.
He turned to me. “You know how dangerous it is here. You are taking your life into your own hands, and we will not be responsible. We keep telling reporters this, but you never listen!” He started to walk away, but turned one more time and wagged his finger at each one us as if we were children. “Pay attention to what these guards tell you, and do not put yourself in the middle of conflict.”
Nobody ever won a Pulitzer by standing at arms length.
“Thank you for welcoming us, sir, and for your words,” I said. “We will keep them in mind.” The guards nodded for us to follow, and we made a solemn line into the Land Cruiser.
It was the rainy season, and on cue an afternoon storm whipped and lashed across the landscape like an angry mob. As we drove in silence, the hair on the back of my neck stood straight up. We arrived at the village that would serve as our headquarters. Amid the familiar routines of a small community that seemed oblivious to the dangers surrounding them, people who were displaced by violence congregated in huddles hoping for safety.
I snapped off pictures of the scene. Once the children noticed my camera, school was over. They surrounded me like ants on a Popsicle. I had come prepared. I handed out candy as fast as I could, then got back to the business of capturing images of this unsettling normalcy.
The sun hid behind the trees, and darkness enveloped the thatched huts and makeshift refugee camp, swallowing them whole. Our armed guards escorted us into a separate compound meant to keep us safe from any danger lurking in the nearby jungles.
We took a seat on concrete blocks to enjoy a traditional African meal of corn and beans and we laughed about the monkeys we had seen on the road hurling bananas at our Land Cruiser. It was funnier than it ought to have been.
And then it happened.
The crisp pop of bullets battered our eardrums. The sounds ripped through the jungle night and into the village. Then the screams began. Screams that boiled the blood inside my ears.
I dropped, crawled on my belly to the window and slid up along the front wall, craning my neck so I could see outside. A guard across the room mirrored my actions at another window. Everyone else was flat against the ground. As I peered through the rusty barred window, flashes of light pounded bright fists against the sky, the road, and the trees.
Buildings exploded with fire and a woman cried out in terror. Shadows flickered, black phantoms haunting the night. I made out five or six soldiers beating a woman with their boots and the butts of their guns.
She quit screaming, quit moving, and then they ripped the clothes from her broken body. They began raping her. She came to and started to scream again, pleading for help, and they hit her until her screams choked on her blood.
She couldn’t have been more than sixteen.
I turned my head.
The horror of this night was no act of God. No earthquake or tsunami. This was the act of men. Evil men. Demons in the guise of men.
The uncertainty of what might happen next hovered at the edge of an inhaled breath.
The armed guards screamed for us to lay prostrate on the dirt floor as bullets flew through the walls and widows, scattering plaster and glass. I wiped away salty sweat burning my eyes. But the sweat was thicker than it should have been. I tasted it.
Fear strangled the air. Shallow breaths and rapid heartbeats echoed throughout the tiny room. I thought about my last conversation with Whitney.
My last conversation.
Was it my last?
Mike’s hand slid up next to me. His whisper turned my head. “Ask not for whom the bell tolls, man.”
Mike shoved his glasses back onto his oversized, pock-marked nose. “This happened to one of my closest friends in Northern Uganda. The rebel militia mutilated everyone and everything in sight. No one made it out alive. No one. These monsters believe in a kind of Old Testament extermination of anything that moves.”
“Thanks for the encouraging words.”
“I always knew I’d die young.”
He reached in his pocked and pulled out a string of wooden rosary beads.
“These were my mother’s.”
“I’m not Catholic.”
“Neither was I. Until now....”
“Shut up!” one of the guards hissed.
Rivers of sweat baptized our faces, our necks, our chests.
Death, real and suffocating, pressed in, driven by the wailing of dying babies, the yelps of slaughtered animals, the screams women being beaten and raped.
My heart raced in rapid-fire panic.
I peered through a hole between a cinder block and a broken windowsill. Rebel troops swarmed like locusts, devouring every living thing in their path.
Mike elbowed me in the thigh. “Remember that story about an African militia group that raped a bunch of Americans? Men, women, children – they weren’t choosy.”
“You have to be quiet,” whispered a guard. He got to one knee, steadying his gun. “Now shut up or I’ll kill you myself.”
A rebel commander yelled something just outside the door. Another shot, and the guard who had just spoken fell dead right on top of me. His blood flowed over my neck and right arm staining my band of brothers ring crimson. The screaming intensified, people ran, yelled, and died.
I scooted against the wall, huddled next to Mike as shots continued to shriek overhead. Plaster exploded and covered us. We tried to make ourselves invisible, curling into the fetal position, wrapping our arms over our heads.
A bullet whined by my ear, missing by centimeters. I crawled face down to the other side of the room, trying to get out of the line of fire.
Then, sudden, deafening silence.
Nobody moved for what seemed like hours. My thoughts milled with the ants of fear, waiting as the silence thickened, punctuated by a moan or a sob. We waited and waited, wondering when it would be safe to stand, wondering if it would ever be safe.
Finally, I gazed out the window, my eyes searching for rebel soldiers in the yellow-orange gloom of smoke. No figures or movement.
“I’m going out,” I whispered to Mike.
He didn’t respond
“Hey, listen. Let’s go man.”
I elbowed him in the ribs.
“Mike!” I grabbed his jacket to turn him toward me. There was a pinpoint crimson stain on the front of his light blue shirt. His eyes stared through me.
I was paralyzed for a moment, not knowing what to do. Then I pulled my camera out of my bag. I picked up Mike’s gear and slung it around my neck.
Outside, the air burned of flesh. Some shadows moved in the distance, but the streets were barren. A few jerking and twitching heaps lined the road and quivered beside the buildings.
Oh, God. Oh, God.
I walked toward the flames. Everything was silent except for a sour ringing in my ears. Something compelled me to enter the destruction, to get closer.
Severed body parts lay before me in a display of such horror I began to heave. A young, pregnant mother crumpled over, lying dead next to a burning haystack. She barely looked human. One leg lay at a right angle, an arm hung loosely from her shoulder, held there by a single, stringy tendon. Her stomach had been sliced wide open, the worm-like contents spilled in front of her, still moving.
There was nothing I could do to help her. Nothing.
I lifted the camera to my left eye. Snap. Snap. Snap. The lens clicked open and closed.
I stepped closer to capture the look on her face. Steam rose from her insides. More pictures. Through the blood and mucus by her midsection I made out a face, a tiny face with eyes closed.
Voices rose over the roofs. Something was happening at the end of the village. Without thought, I raced through the corpses and debris toward the commotion.
The rebel troops had gathered the bodies of all the men they had slain. They were stacking them together in the shape of a pyramid.
As each body was thrown on top of the others, the rebels jeered, spit on the dead, and drank from a whiskey bottle, relishing in their triumph. They shot their guns into the air. Fire flashed around the perimeter. It was a scene from hell.
A man climbed on the roof above the bodies, unzipped his pants and urinated all over the dead. The men slapped each other on the back and laughed.
Another rebel poured some liquid over the bodies.
I adjusted the camera settings and snapped a series of shots as fast as my fingers could click. The fire ignited, a pyramid pyre, and I continued to shoot. I snapped pictures of the dead - men I had seen earlier that day caring for their families - as their faces melted like candle wax. I snapped pictures of the rebels’ ugly glee. And I felt like retching again.
I turned and walked, faster and faster, until I was running.
Each step I took pounded the question: Why? Why? Why?
I raced to the edge of the compound and saw Tommy hanging out the window of our car, frantically motioning me to come. We sped off, the remaining guard driving like a bat out of hell, for it was indeed hell we were escaping. As I turn to look out the back window, I saw Mike’s body crumpled in the seat behind me. Like a rotted rubber band, something inside me snapped. My whole body shook. Sobs came without tears. I only could muster one coherent thought: If we get out of here alive, at least we can send Mike back to his family.
Back to his cheating wife.
©2009 Cook Communications Ministries. Scared by Tom Davis. Used with permission. May not be further reproduced. All rights reserved.