Thursday, May 27, 2010

To Beni we go..

     We leave for Beni on Friday after my Neuroscience course is finished. Dusan tells me we will leave around noon, but he doesn't return to the compound until after one. I sit in the garden while I wait, drinking coffee and reading National Geographic magazines from 1980. There's an article in one of them about the Chesapeak Bay and I'm happy to see they had already started with the Old Bay seasoning and blue-crab eating festivals.
     Ange joins me when he returns from his class at the secondary school. He's an elusive personality, sometimes very present, sometimes impossible to find for several days. Today he has decided to be present. We laugh about the usual topics. He chides me about becoming a nun, I tell him no, jamais, it could never happen, but I still haven't figured out how to explain why. We stay on the outskirts of the topic where it is still amusing, not too serious.
     He brings out a an old photo album that is barely maintaining its shape. The front is light pink with pictures of diamonds and colorful cartoons. I imagine it originated somewhere in Chinatown in New York City ten years ago. Inside are pictures of him from infancy to present day. All of the pictures are the same, either him with family friends, or him with a group of children (“mes enfants”) or him with several priests in decorative robes. I can see that the entirety of his life has revolved around the church. He is exactly where he's supposed to be.
     Just as we are finishing the last of the photos, Dusan calls me on my phone. I've been ready for hours, so I am able to grab my small backpack and jump into the truck. The letters UN, are written in huge black letters on all sides of the car. I know that these will allow us fast access to anywhere that we want, but would become targets in the event of the so-called chaos that he references. If (or when, as he says) the Rwandan forces and the Congolese forces cross the lines that are dividing them and move forward with their pieces, they will specifically target international organizations, and possibly the Catholic church. Anything that provides a semblance of structure is contrary to chaos and will have to go.
     On the way out we pass the primary school. The kids are running around outside, possibly for recess of some sort. They are all so tiny and move so quickly, they look like a million little ants in blue shorts. We pass many of the brothers returning from the Institute on the long road that connects the compound to the school. I wave at them and feel sort of proud (and subsequently extremely shallow) for riding in this big important truck with important letters on the side; I also feel guilty leaving with this distant mzungu, like I'm choosing sides. The Crosiers react to Dusan with a mixture of intimidation and confusion, which is exactly how I reacted at first. The harshness of his personality on the surface, plus their non-existent English result in his softer side eluding them completely. I could tell the priests were not too pleased when I told them I had met him. They were shocked when I said that I actually liked him, that he was nice, but they also expressed the common knowledge that I would be safe with him.
        -If you are going to go into the bush, he is the one you should go with, said George. He can go places that we cannot go.
        -Yes, and I think if anything were to happen, he'd be the one to know what to do.
         -Yes, this is true.
     I still feel like a bit of a traitor as we leave the compound but I let the feeling pass.  We stop in Lubero briefly at the UN office to pick-up some confidential documents and two of his translators. The office is a small building, large compared to the houses, but small compared to buildings in the states. It is painted white and blue, the colors of the UN and is closed off by a couple broken pieces of wood laying across the road. Once inside the “compound,” there are broken-down cars and trucks everywhere, and Nepalese soldiers walking around in camouflage and baby blue helmets. The baby blue makes it difficult to take the camouflage seriously.
     The car is much bigger than the Crosier cars and Dusan swings it back and forth across the rocks in the road with expertise.
         -Biggest expense for me is cars, he says. I can barely hear him over the sound of the metal frame shuddering across the road. There is a spare tire in the back that adds to the noise. He doesn't seem to notice and speaks at a normal volume.
         -I destroy cars all the time. But this is it. This is job. These cars are shits. And the roads are shits! So of course, the cars do not last long at all. And when I am going into the bush, the roads are not even roads. MONUC sends the cars that have already seen several wars. Why send a new car with roads like these? But this means we are constantly needing repairs and it is very expensive.
     The inside of the car is clearly not new. There is a no-smoking sticker on the dashboard that is almost completely rubbed off; only the image of the cigarette remains. I look over at Dusan putting the never-ending cigarette to his mouth and can't help but laugh.
     I feel so free on the road under the mountains, wearing my silly sunglasses and listening to a weathered military man tell stories about the war in his country or the war in this one. I don't hear eighty percent of what he says, but simple head nods from me provide him with enough fuel to keep going. Once in a while he interrupts himself to ask me a question and I have to make him back-track several sentences to respond. I'm back in high school not paying attention and getting caught by the teacher. Again, he doesn't seem bothered by this and continues with his monologue.
-In Croatia, former Yugoslavia now Croatia, we have best fish in world! The shrimps are my preferred. And we don't use any seasonings, except maybe some pepper and a bit of salt. I never understand how people like you Americans eat with so many seasonings on the food. It's disrespectful to the meat.
     Living in a foreign country, food is what seems to cause the most nostalgia. Of course, we all miss our family and our friends, but when I'm bored in Church I'd be lying if I said I didn't fantasize about pizza and pesto ravioli.
         -I love shrimp, I say, eager for the chance to show him for once that I am actually listening.
         -No you don't.
         -Huh? It's my favorite seafood.
         -No, it is not your favorite seafood, because you don't know what shrimps are. You have never had shrimps.
         -They're the little curved crustaceans!
         -Yes, yes. But just trust me in this. You do not like shrimp, you cannot like shrimp. Because, unless you have had shrimp from my country, you do not know what shrimp is.
     There's no point in arguing with him. There's really never any point in arguing with him, which is partly what makes my time with him so exhausting. I like arguing. Not arguing, for me, is like willingly eating rocks. It's not comfortable.
     He has three packs of cigarettes in between our seats and he moves through them quickly. Every now and then he shoves one in my direction. After politely accepting a few times, I'm afraid I'm going to throw-up and have to quickly start telling him no, even though I can tell he's a bit offended. The Congolese culture of offering and taking has clearly seeped into his skin. Saying no to food, drink, and with him, cigarettes is simply not acceptable.
     I feel like I'm in Spain when my host mother would give me 4 times the size of a usual serving. I would tell her enough and then attempt not to finish the monstrous portions, but she would get offended or simply tell me straight out to keep going. I suspected a conspiracy and at the end of the trip she confirmed this.
         -When you came, you were like this! She says and holds up her pinky.
         -Now, you will have to pay extra on the plane for your baggage and yourself! She breaks-down in happy laughter.
     We arrive in Beni without any complications, something that seems to be possible only on the way to somewhere. It is gradually moving into evening when we arrive, and we go directly to the UN headquarters. The gate around the headquarters is painted the same blue and white and has the same contradiction of baby blue and soldier walking around inside. Next to the high walls, rimmed with barbed wire, there are several stations on stilts with one baby-blue helmeted soldier on each. The stations are rimmed with bags of sand and a large machine gun on each. As I often do, I feel like I'm in a movie. But there's something that seems almost comical about the sandbag stations. They're so typical of a movie I feel like I'm watching a cartoon. The baby-blue doesn't help.
As we are pulling in, a slightly overweight Congolese woman leaves one of the small trailers within the compound.
          -This, is perfect person, says Dusan. Absolutely perfect. I trust her with everything. Not just actions, intentions. Everything.
     Considering how astute and guarded he is (with everyone except me, somehow), I'm surprised that a plump elderly woman would be the center of his trust and what seems to be bridging on affection.
         -She is crazy, I am telling you.
     I don't believe him. She's wearing a floral print shirt and her pants fit a little too tightly showing the hang of her belly over the restriction. When we get out of the car, she walks up to us directly. She shakes my hand, but I can tell she is wary of me. I'm walking on sacred ground and nobody has explained to her or to me why they're letting me do it.
         -This is Amy. She is my neighbor in Mulo. She is there, and I thought it will be nice for her to leave and see Beni so now she is here.
     The woman extends her hand, holding her elbow with her other hand in the typical Congolese custom of respect. I do the same.
     I've already read the name tag around her neck, expecting an unpronounceable African name. She moves quickly from me back to Dusan.
         -Patrique, what is happening with that?
         -Yes, I think he is pushing to hard. I am telling him, you must be gentle, but I cannot tell him more than he wants to hear.
         -He is pushing too hard. It's not going to work.
    Her English is impeccable, much better than Dusan's.  I find out later she is a former Nigerian military officer.
         -Yes, this is how it is, says Dusan. But he does what he wants, he's not good at being gentle. He is going to spoil the everything.
     Leanne's eyes are flicking back and forth between her conversation and me. It's obvious she's resolving her instinctual distrust of me with her fundamental trust in Dusan. I look around at the trees and the walls of the compound, pretending to be innocently engaged in other things. I'm practically whistling and rocking back and forth on my heels. I don't necessarily want to be hearing this, I'd be perfectly happy walking away but I know Dusan would object or interrupt the conversation to accompany me. Of course, it's interesting and I'm paying close attention to every word and every name, but I'm here to work with survivors, not play chess. As the conversation progresses, the details quickly becoming too confidential for my ears, even Dusan is starting to look a bit uncomfortable and I recognize my exit cue.
         -I'm going to use the toilet.
     I walk towards a wooden structure that clearly states Toilette, but Dusan yells at me.
         -No! Do not use that! It is for soldiers it is always dirty.
         -It's okay, I'm not picky.
         -No! Do not use that toilet, I will not have you using something so dirty as soldiers use. There is toilet for people over here. He points in the general direction of a different collection of trailors and small buildings. The urgency in his voice makes me turn around. I'm surprised I'm listening to him. The stubborness I've accumulated over the years seems to dissipate when he's around. I guess I'm practising for the possibility of him instructing me to run or duck for cover.
    He walks to the car and takes out two wheels of Crosier-made cheese for Leanne. The simple pleasures in life. I'm a little bummed because that means there are two less wheels for me to sneak from the stash when I'm dying for something semi-American.
     Dusan has work to do, so I amble off to the bathroom avoiding eye-contact with everyone in sight and he heads towards an office in another trailer. I don't actually have to use the bathroom, it was simply an attempt to leave the conversation without provoking social etiquette and causing them to stop it. I stand in the concrete room filled with mosquitos for a few minutes before heading back outside.
The compound is filled with people of Nepalese, Middle-Eastern or African decent, Dusan and myself.  I can trll by the tension in their stares that this is a small community. Everyone knows I'm here, and everyone is wondering why.  
    There is a small cantine, of sorts, where Dusan and I eat Tilapia and french fries, with a side of cabbage and mayonnaise. This is gourmet. The fish arrives with head and eyeballs in tact, but I'm excited about it anyway because of the french fries sitting next to it. In the States, I don't even like french fries. The first night I met Dusan he gave me a chocolate bar which I devoured within minutes, discretely, of course. I really don't like chocolate. It's interesting to watch how taste changes based on supply and demand. Dusan seems offended when I begin to pull apart the body of the fish the wrong way. Again, letting him take over rubs me the wrong way, but I've already succumbed to his alpha-male presence so I let him show me how to tear apart the fish.
     We stay there for a few hours, Dusan smoking a pack and a half of cigarettes, me drinking two beers, and at least four people coming to speak with Dusan. Each person approaches with the normal formalities, but while they are speaking to Dusan I catch their eyes flicking curiously at me, hoping I won't be looking back. I'm just as much of a novelty here as I am outside of these walls. It's exhilirating and frustrating at the same time. I love attention until I have it and then I want to hide under the couch I'm sitting on.
     After everyone has left, Dusan and I are still sitting in the cantine. I'm exhausted and want to go to bed, but one of the reasons Dusan mentioned for bringing me was so he could show me a Congolese club. I prepare myself for a long evening.
           -Can you teach me how to use a knife?
     My word-vomit is acting up again. Dusan doesn't react strongly to anything I say, unless it's completely common place, so he seems to bring it out of me.
         -Sure, what kind of knife?
         -Um... I dunno, it's about this big. I show him about two inches with my fingers. I know it's silly, it's purely out of habit and psychological security, but I sleep with a knife under my pillow.
He laughs for about a minute.
          -It works, I say. But, for the “just in case” situations, it would be nice to know what I'm doing. Considering that I know absolutely nothing, someone would take it out of my hand and kill me with my own knife; so I might as well learn..
         -Okay, you will show me the knife, and I will teach you how to use it. Although, you must never use it. If you even pull it out, you must use it. So you must never even pull it out. And you do not need to know this killing.
         -Well. The thing is, I do need to know how to use it. I'm not wanting to use it, and I hope I never do. But, it's different for a young girl traveling and living alone than it is for a man. I'm very serious about this, and he seems to understand.
         -Yes, this is true.
         -When I was in Zanzibar for ten days, I was there for five days with a friend and then for five days alone. I always made sure I got home to my hostel before night time. But, there was a man in Stonetown, a large city in Zanzibar, do you know it?
     Of course. He knows everything.
        -Well, anyway, he wanted to help me with everything, as people often do when they see that you have more money than they do. But then he started following me and staying outside of my hostel at night. One night, when my friend was still there, my friend went into our hostel for one minute, and the guy pushed me against the wall and got very aggressive with me, physically. My friend came out after only a minute or two and the guy backed off, thankfully. But, when he started following me during the day to the hostel, and my friend wasn't there, I bought a box-cutter and slept with it under my pillow. Or in my hand, I add nervously.
     This sounds silly but the fear the box-cutter was able to smooth down was sharp and painful.
            -Purely for psychological comfort, but it helped a lot, I finish.
           -Yes, I understand this.
           -It would be nice to know just how to make someone stop. To hurt them but not kill them, I don't want to kill anyone. I don't know that I could.
          -This doesn't work. I say to you already, I say if you have knife out, you must use it. This is it. It must be like this. You must, you must believe me in this.
     He makes the jabbing motion of stabbing a knife into my side. Quick and forceful.
         -You must use it, and you must finish job. This is why, you must never take it out. If you are to slow someone down and not kill, you may do this.
     He slashes the imaginary knife across my torso in the shape of an X. He looks like Zorro slicing his symbol into flesh. I'm listening closely. I realize I'm listening closely and I feel absurdly out of place learning how to cut someone's chest open without killing them.
          -If you need to use the knife, if you are going to finish it, you put here.
He makes the stabbing motion with his hand into my middle abdomen.
         -You cannot block here. Yes? And if you really really want to finish good, you do like this.
He pulls the air knife quickly across his throat.
         -But, you do not want to do this unless you absolutely must. It is too much blood. You know this, I am sure. It makes terrible noise, kkkkkkkhhhhhhhh.
     This seems normal to me, and I conclude that after only a few hours I've already spent too much time with this man. He laughs suddenly, but uncomfortably which is not usual for him.
         -I do not talk about this with anyone. Especially in this way, so lightly.
         -No, I don't take it lightly. I just need to be the realist on the train tracks as well as the optimist, yes?
         -Yes, I understand this. They are closing now, so we go to the club.
     The two guys behind the make-shift wooden bar are cleaning the dust off of bottles, clearly waiting for us to leave. Several hours have passed without my notice.
     After the cantine at the MONUC office we go briefly to Paloma. Paloma is a restaurant that is the most sophisticated space I've seen since arriving in Congo. There are walls, a small pool table and the food is ripe with the flavors of the west. Dusan is eager to order semi-Western food but we're both still full from the tilapia and the carbonation from the beer.
    Mario is the owner.  He is part Greek, part Congolese with a smile that encompasses both. He's a chubby, happy man with thick hands that swallow mine easily. There are four or five men dancing and singing inside the club, Dusan and I are sitting outside in one of the small huts set up with wooden chairs inside. The music is obscenely loud and the men are painfully bad at singing.  Something starts shrieking behind me; I realize there is a rickety hut made of sticks with a monkey inside. The monkey is very unhappy and his cries fit right in with the screaming of the so-called band.
          -Look at this man, the tall one. Dusan is pointing to a group of two men and a woman who are walking into the inner part of the restaurant.
         -Which one?
         -The tall one, with the African print clothing.
         -You mean the woman?
         -No the man!
     The only tall individual wearing African print clothing is quite clearly a woman.  High heels seal the deal.
         -It is one of these people who have both in one body. Hermaphrodite. He laughs.
     Considering the area of Chicago I live in this is not strange to me, and my hackles begin to rise in front of his laughter. I feel like we're in the 1920s. I know I wouldn't make it a day here without the leniency of forgiveness, and I allow him to continue without putting up a fight about politically correct.
          -I made big mistake once with one of these people.
     I'm fully attentive, waiting for this man who thinks only of war to tell me about accidentally hiring a transgender prostitute.
         -There was person like this, yes? And MONUC people I was with, they are making fun of this person laughing and whatever whatever. And this and that and this and that, I wave at the person and I smile, and I tell bartender to bring this person a drink, but to say absolutely it is not an invitation. Absolutely, I am only trying to be nice, yes? Big mistake, big mistake! This person comes over and tries to have me leave, he is saying to come with me. It took thirty minutes to leave alone without being cruel.
     Damn. Good story, but not the one I was hoping for. Now we're on the topic of prostitutes though, and at least this is a nice break from stealth bombers and torpedoes of earlier in the day.
          -You know why I like Washington, D.C. Very much?
         -Because of Havana Village?
         -Yes, yes. Perfect music, Cuban music. But also because of Hotel Washington. This is where I stayed have you seen this? It's right across from White House.
         -No, I've only been to the White House once. When it's there all the time it's not as exciting to go and see.
         -Yes, this is how it is. But, you know why I like Hotel Washington so much?
         -No why?
         -Two reasons. The first reason is this, great view. You can see White House always from your window. Second reason is next.
He smiles and waits a few minutes to build my suspense.
         -There are most beautiful prostitutes you ever see at Hotel Washington and they approach you always!
     He's quite pleased with this. I'm curious if he's going to reveal that he's hired a prostitute before. We have enough of a care-taker, respectful boundary going I doubt he will, but he seems to have no problem telling me anything. He's not an unattractive man, although the things he's seen are heavy weights in his skin making him look much older than forty-six. There's no way he hasn't hired prostitutes. It's the way of his life. He's not a monk or a priest, and he lives away from home 9 months out of the year. He works all the time, dealing in life and death and somehow has managed to not kill himself or succumb to severe alcoholism. He must know the body of a prostitute, I think. But then again that startling kindness and vein of respect he has for other humans makes me wonder.
     For an instant I imagine what it would be like to make love to him. The thought makes me nervous and completely confused. I can't imagine what part of his personality he would make love with, his heart, his head or his gun. I have a feeling no matter what the combination of the three it would be as surprising as the rest of him.
         -Yes? He's asking me a question. And I haven't heard a word.
         -I think now it's whisky time, yes? You agree?
         -Umm... okay.
     I'm not sure what that means with him but I'm already on the plane, I can't depart mid-air.
We drive a few blocks in the dark empty streets to a small explosion of light and laughter. The club is a building like any other here, tiny, falling apart, wouldn't pass the slightest inspection in the States. Inside there are neon lights floating from person to person and their dancing has a similar effect of being airborne. Dusan never drinks, unless he drinks whisky, or Draft Guinnes, and never ever Vodka, since it's made by “the Reds.” When we walk into the club the “bouncers” take my bag from me and make the motions of checking it. I know they didn't check well because I have a two-inch knife inside, but nobody would expect a female mzungu to carry such a thing. Not even Dusan.
     Inside Dusan orders two whiskys; he's refused to let me pay for anything so I don't even try. The young man who parked our car comes up and stands with us; Dusan orders him a beer. I'm wary of him at first, as I must be with everyone while sipping on whisky in a dark club in an on-again off-again war zone. I can quickly see he's harmless. He smiles at me with huge teeth and dances around me trying to get me to move my body as well. I'm already so much of a spectacle, I don't want to bring more attention to myself by trying to dance. The music practically stopped when I walked in. Pause. Mzungus! Play.
     On the walls of the club there are painted women. I wish I could take out my camera without literally  making the music stop. The women are big, busty and of course, very beautiful. Paintings like these would close down a club in the anorexic-States. They make me feel better about the abundance of curves I seem to have picked up along the road.
         -Whisky is not whisky without a cigarette! Let us go.
     Incredibly, you can't smoke in the club, Dusan asked before he ordered our whiskys. We make our way back outside and stand in front of an odd painting in french depicting pregnant women yelling at their husbands. There are many people outside either smoking or just milling. The men all stare at me openly. One man, standing about four feet from me, is looking at me like he wants to cut me up with a knife and fork and chew the pieces slowly and carefully. I'm grateful for Dusan's towering presence.
         -So, you want to work with sexual violence.
     Dusan tries hard to talk about me, but the conversation always manages to turn quickly into his monologues about weapons and war.
         -Yes, this is good. This is big problem.
         -It's interesting because a lot of the people whom I speak with in Mulo, for example the Crosiers, don't really admit that it's a problem. It's confusing.
         -They don't admit this because they don't really know. They know, but they don't know enough that will force them to admit. But this is big problem, I know this.
         -I'm really eager to start working in Magherya with the girl-mothers.
         -Yes, this child thing is too much. I had big problem with this once.
     My ears perk up again, but I know the following story will probably follow the footsteps of the transgender story and not be as personally revealing as I'm hoping.
         -When I was stationed in Ethiopia, there is poverty there like you never saw. I mean poverty not just money but never even food. They live in desert, yes? They search with these scrawny beasts looking for the smallest pieces of grass that maybe grew after the two days of rain they had that year. I mean, you cannot even believe. You cannot believe. But, it is like this. I give Coca-Cola once to small girl who brings message to me. I give her small money and Coca-Cola. The next day, she comes back again and waits by the back-door. This is normal, I know this. You feed something hungry once it will come back hoping for more food. It is like animals once you get to that level of hungry. This is it. One day I tell the woman who cooks for me that she should tell the young girl to start looking somewhere else. I am working always and I cannot keep giving out Coca-Cola's and money everyday to every child, yes? You understand, this is how it is. The woman that is cooking for me says to me, she thinks you are her husband. Because of this! Coca-Cola which she has never tasted before, now she thinks I am her husband, and she is coming everyday just in case there is something I will need.
     Women there do everything. You see man walking empty hands and wife carrying baby here—he motions to his back—baby here—he motions to his front—and everything they own up here—he makes a movement around his head. It is like this here as well, you see this.
I do see it. Women my Grandmother's age walk for hours carrying two young children and a monstrous load of wood on their heads. It's awe-inspiring, depressing and hopeless at the same time.
          -So now, this little young girl, maybe eight only! She is coming to help me because she thinks I am her husband and her mother is telling her to do anything I want. This is not good. This is not good at all, but this is it. Yes?
         -Yes, I've seen this. It's terrible.
         -So, have you been paragliding?
         -What? No.
         -You must go this is best! I'm telling you, this is best! Parachuting is like, adrenaline and noise, but para-gliding is closest to being bird. It's so quiet and peaceful. There is nothing like this, you must do it as soon as you have chance.
     He's been telling me he's worried about me driving the motorcycle alone to Magherya and now he's telling me to jump off of a cliff wearing a bird suit.
         -I'd love to, but in the States it's really expensive, I haven't had the opportunity. But I promise you, as soon as I have the chance, I will.
     Dusan is on his third or fourth cigarette and we're both almost finished with our whisky. A girl with a soft round face and a slender body wrapped in a homecoming dance style evening gown walks up to me. She is stumbling as she comes up to give me a hug. She is too drunk to be a threat and I let her hug me.
         -Mzungu! Hello. She says. I love you, you see? I love you so much sister. You are my friend.
Her words are slow and slurred and her head is drooping in unison with her eyelids.
         -Yes, I am your friend.
         -You are my friend. You are my very friend. Me, I'm Sonya. I'm Sonya. From Kigali.
         -Hello Sonya, I'm Amy. You're Rwandese?
     I take a small step back and move her hand from its proximity to my pocket. I don't think she'd try to steal anything but there's no point in risking it.
         -Yes. Kigali. I see you at Mario's! You are with him.
     She motions slowly and happily towards Dusan. He's smiling and watching her silently.
         -Mario is my friend, she says. He's my very friend.
         -Yes he's very nice, I met him.
         -Mario is a very good man, says Dusan. One of the best.
     Almost at the exact moment he says this Sonya interrupts him.
         -Mario is telling me he loves me. But I'm saying, Mario! Mario! How can you love me you are married!
She points to her wedding finger which also has a ring on it.
         -You are married Mario! You no love me! Why you say you love me if you are married?
Dusan is clearly embarrassed.
         -I have mzungu! She says suddenly.
         -You have what?
     She burps a little and rubs my arm with a smile.
         -I have mzungu, like you! He has four years. Do you know Sergio? He's from Ecuador. He worked with you. MONUC.
    Dusan looks extremely uncomfortable now.
         -Yes, I knew him. He is back in Ecuador.
         -Yes, he is back in Ecuador. I have mzungu baby! Like you.
She comes in close to me again.
         -I love you, baby. I love you so. I don't like when Congolese touch you. They can't touch you, baby. Congolese is craaaazy.
She's holding my hand now.
         -When you walk by, Congo women is saying nya nya nya nya, and I say, why? Why are you mean to my sister? I like you mzungu. Do you like me?
         -Yes, absolutely I like you Sonya, you're great.
The man who parked the car ambles out of the club and comes up to the three of us. He stands there shaking his hips smiling at Dusan.
         -Time for another! He says.
         -Okay, okay. Dusan says laughing. We will have another whisky?
     He tries to move me quickly in a way that would brush Sonya off, but I can sense the resulting hurt feelings and I soften the movement. She's drunk, but not drunk enough not to notice disrespect. She follows us in, still clutching my hand.
         -This is something I don't understand, says Dusan on the other side of the bouncers. How do you have baby with a woman and leave? She is prostitute, yes, but this is changing nothing. Especially in a place like this where she has no way to care for the child. And now, can you believe? She's happy because she has lighter skin baby. Can you believe?
     He's working very hard to contain his anger. It's endearing.
         -Come baby. Sonya is pulling on my arm, trying to drag me away from Dusan. My feet stay planted.
         -We sit here! She explains with a hurt expression on her face, motioning to distant couches in the depths of the club.
         -Okay let's go and sit.
     Dusan is clearly getting annoyed with Sonya but he's containing it for my benefit, I'm sure. We sit in the dark corner, where the music is still loud enough to feel like a small needle in my ears. I can hardly hear anything else and have to scream to say anything. Sonya easily corrects this problem by yelling directly into my ear. Dusan keeps talking and I have trouble filtering out his voice from Sonya's ramblings about how Congolese is crazy, and the pumping needle of the music.
         -Let me give you another story. There is woman here, and she is absolutely beautiful. Yes? I give her ten dollars for helping me with some food one time, because I don't know how to cook anything. I'm telling you, anything. Omelet, maybe. Omelet is only thing I make. I only owe her six dollars or something like this and I tell her keep extra four. It is like this yes? Four dollars is not a lot, but she is so happy. When I go into the bathroom, she follows and starts taking clothes off! Like that! Simply because four dollars. It is like this. It is not good, it is not right, but it is like this.
I'm nodding attentively, leaning towards him in order to hear. All of a sudden I am yanked backwards. Sonya has decided to pass out, and wants me to come with her.
         -Come baby, we go to sleep now. Let's sleep. I love you so. You're my very friend.
The sadness of the situation is on the fringes of my mind, but I'm too exhausted to allow it to focus. The whisky is helping me avoid thinking too much and I let myself laugh. I dis-entangle her arms from around my neck.
         -You go to sleep. I'll be right here you can rest a while.
    I want her to sleep for a bit so hopefully she can wake up a little less drunk, and so I can try and take in what Dusan is telling me. She sits up suddenly and thrusts her phone into my hands.
         -Look baby, look. She's laughing with an evil underlining.
The background of her phone is an image of a naked man with a very large appendage and tiny women walking on him like little fairies. I laugh with her about the image but am baffled by the motivation behind it.  She drops quickly backwards onto the couch, overcome once again by the alcohol but manages to maintain her grip on my hand.
         -It is not good you know. He's looking at her with pain in his eyes. Every woman in here is prostitute if you offer the right amount of money. And right amount is not big amount. When my son is here, he saw everything we see. When he left I ask him, 'What do you think about people here?' He says, 'They are same as us just with a lot less money.'
         -Sounds like a smart boy. He's only fourteen?
         -Yes, he is twelve when he says this. This is good answer, so I don't ask anything else.
     Sonya wakes up a little and curls her body around me. The feel of a human form next to me is surprisingly comforting. Congolese culture warrants three touches on the forehead, but hugging is unknown and strange. And, of course I can't exactly cuddle with the Crosiers. I realize I haven't touched more than another person's hand or forehead since I left Uganda. The rest of my body is suddenly aching.
         -It is sad, but this is it, says Dusan still contemplating they way women live here.
     I laugh suddenly and unexpectedly. Dusan gives me a seriously confused expression. I reach down and remove Sonya's hand from my left breast. Dusan sees the motion and smiles slightly.
         -It is sad though, no?
     I readjust my face.
         -Yes, it is sad.
     Of course it is sad. It's terrifying and endless. But if he can laugh when he talks about people being murdered by the thousands, I can laugh about a drunk prostitute grabbing my boob in her sleep. And if I don't laugh at things like this I'd have to be at home right now sitting on a big couch being served chicken soup by my mother.
         -How quickly can you move from that seat?
     I know he wants me to break off from Sonya, but I still feel the indignity of trying to “escape” from her and don't like it. I'm worried about her sleeping on a couch in a dark corner in a place where people don't seem to think before treading on each other.
         -Pretty quickly, I respond.
     I have no intention of effectively moving away from her. I know how to subtly nudge her into consciousness without him seeing. I do exactly that as we get up. She's up in half of a second clinging once more to my hand and walking groggily with me out of the club. At the door it's necessary to separate from her. As much as I'd like to pay for her to have a big bed to herself and a decent breakfast in the morning I know it's not possible. I lose her briefly as we make our way to the car but she's back in a flash.
         -Please, I drink much. I drink much please drop me.
     I give Dusan a pleading look and after a bit more begging from her he agrees. When we get to her room, it is a wooden closet dropped in the middle of nowhere, like a vault in a road-runner cartoon. She wants me to come inside and look at her room, but I have to be forceful now. It takes at least ten minutes to convince her to get out of the car without me. I can tell Dusan's patience is almost completely gone. Finally, after giving her phone number to Dusan so that I can call her in the morning she gets out of the car and we leave.
         -You are too polite, Dusan says when we're alone again.
         -Yes, I know. I have a lot of trouble being...
         -Yeah, rigid. I need to work on it.
     I know this is true. In a place like this etiquette is more than half of the cultural battle. But being too polite can get you into very serious situations.
         -This is not aloud, you know. I cannot be dropping women at their rooms late at night. If she had screamed or said anything, that we had hurt her or something like this, whatever whatever, this would place MONUC in bad situation. He pauses a moment and then starts laughing.
         -This is not how I saw the night going! His laughter makes me feel better about practically being reprimanded, even though it's not clear what I did wrong. I was too nice.
         -Normally the problem is that they won't leave me alone! I never thought she will attach to you. I hope you had a good time anyway, this is case?
         -It was great! A good learning experience for me.
     I've had a wonderful time. Her situation is devastating, but if I keep the gravity of the negative at bay her personality shows through and it's luminous. And it was a good learning experience, I'm not just being polite. I can see exactly why Dusan has his rigidities. They serve a very serious purpose that I constantly have trouble visualizing.
     The watchmen at the hotel are asleep when we arrive and it takes at least ten loud honks to bring them to the gate. They have two rooms available. I'm grateful I don't have to deal with the awkwardness of being forced to share. My room has a large bed that's clean and already made. I wasn't expecting this much and I'm ecstatic. I'm eager to brush my teeth, but the luxury doesn't go as far as water, so I change in the dark, open the mosquito net and fall asleep.
     I have a dream about the Crosiers and it's wonderful and warm.
     In the morning I wake up at 8 am. I have pegged Dusan as a restless sleeper and an early riser, so of course he does exactly the opposite and sleeps until noon. The hotel staff serve me a breakfast of fried eggs, bread from a can and sharp instant coffee. The hotel owner has a young pet monkey that he tells me he bought for $200 and I spend the morning watching the creature dart back and forth across the lawn. The owner also tells me that the monkey comes on call, but when he calls, the monkey doesn't even turn his head.
     When Dusan wakes up I am sitting in the garden, contemplating asking for more coffee even though I've already had at least 6 cups.
         -You didn't wake me!
         -I didn't know I was supposed to.
         -I tell you last night, I will call you at nine and we will go. If I do not call you, you wake me.
He absolutely did not continue past “we go at nine.”
         -Oh, I'm sorry. But it's not a problem for me, I had a rather nice..
         -Yes, but it's problem for me. I have meeting with FDLR.
         -You're meeting with a soldier from the FDLR? Today?
         -Yes, yes of course. This is reason we are here, no?
     He orders a coffee and lights up a cigarette, with the remnants of sleep still clinging to his eyelashes.
         -He is hiding, and I will call him now. He pulls out his telephone.
         -Are we going to pick him up?
         -No, no, he is hiding.
     I'm confused again but I'm completely accustomed to this now. After he attempts to call several people, none of whom pick-up, we sit and he talks to me some more. He explains the theory of controlled chaos, the idea that to have order in most of the world, you have to have what he calls “recycling bins,” where there is chaos. It's necessary, and we're currently sitting in one of the bins. Countries like the United States and most of Western Europe are essentially okay with the presence of chaos in the lives of millions of people, as long as it's controlled, meaning contained in one place. It allows the rest of us to watch football on Sundays and order extra pepperoni pizzas at will. To have ready-made comfort you must have the duality of pain somewhere else. Yin-yang.
     Then he tells me a story about when he was in the military in former Yugoslovia, now Croatia. UN troops were threatening to cross the border between Serbia and Croatia. He was instructed to take his unit to an airport that separated the two countries with a yellow line down the middle. He was told that every single UN soldier who crossed the line should be killed immediately.
         -We are using weapons with long-range and we are trained not to miss. Yes? So, any man who walks across yellow, line, dead, yes? He laughs.
         -Did you have to kill them?
         -No. His face becomes serious again. Thankfully nobody walks across line. But we can see them, on other side of line, and they are in our sights. We are ready to shoots, and you must believe me in this, if we shoots, we do not miss.
     I can imagine the men now, with their families, sitting around a dinner table, or possibly at work. None of them knowing that they were a yellow line away from a bullet to the head. I wish I could find each one of them and tell them this.  I wonder if it would make them a little bit happier in each moment, to know that they were so close to losing something it's not easy to appreciate everyday.  
     I also notice that I don't understand a lot of what he says not just because of the holes in his language, but because I constantly drift in and out. He fills my head with so many images of death, with a light-hearted, happy tinge. I'm not used to making space for dark pictures like these, they can't all fit. Thinking about killing is a muscle I haven't exercised, but Dusan is giving me the weights anyway. It's a muscle I've purposefully let atrophy, and I'm conflicted about the fact that I'm willingly strengthening it now.
         -Ah, here is my friend!
     A chubby man in a stripped button up shirt is walking up to our table. We both stand up and shake his hand. The man has very dark skin, a goofy smile, and is clearly insecure around me. He sits down and Dusan introduces us, the man has a name in Kinande and thus impossible for me to remember. Dusan has not finished his story about the yellow line and continues talking to me. The man gets up and walks to another table and sits down, looking coyly at us.
         -What are you doing? asks Dusan.
     The man makes motions of subordination and inferiority. He doesn't want to sit with us while we are speaking to each other. I wonder who he is, I think I heard Dusan mention that he owes him ten dollars from his last trip to Beni.
         -You crazy? My friend, come back here! Dusan exclaims.
     The man walks back to our table making small bowing motions the entire way. He's a feather of a man. I'm put-off by the extreme inferiority he's showing. I excuse myself from the table to go to the restroom. Dusan is half-way through his pack. When I return, the chubby man is drinking a beer and they are deep in conversation.
         -I know this is how it is, says Dusan. His face is very happy and he's laughing. The chubby man is laughing as well, but I can tell from the awkward timing of his responses he's not catching everything Dusan says. Familiar.
         -So, they are going to push here and there and this and that, and we will need someone who is clean. He is clean. He was in Rwanda and he is Hutu, yes I know, but I know he is not involved in war crimes. He is smart and he is clean. So we will need him, yes?
         -Yes! The man is responding so eagerly I'm amazed Dusan hasn't picked up on the fakeness of it all. But he keeps going.
         -So, I am extracting forty people, and when these forty people are out, I know there will be problems. Yes? You know this as well as me!
     The chubby man looks warily over to me when Dusan mentions the name of a high-ranking official; Dusan has told me he is the leader of the Mai-Mai soldiers.
         -It is okay, she can hear this.
     I absorb the comment as if I knew it was coming, but I'm completely startled. Why? I feel extremly important but I'm totally confused about Dusan's reasons for trusting me so quickly. I know he can trust me, but how does he know that?
     They finish their conversation once the man has finished his beer. He leaves bowing his head.
         -Are we going to go meet up with the FDLR solider now?
     I'm eager to see this person's face and try to understand what's going on behind it.
         -This is the man! Just now, didn't you know?
         -That guy? Who just left?
    I cannot merge the two images of what I thought he would be and the smiling yes-man that he was.
         -Yes. He's FDLR, important man. So, I must to speak with him. It is like this. You know other man that we are speaking of? Head of Mai-Mai's? You know Mai-Mai's?
         -Yes, I've heard of them.
         -This man, head of Mai-Mai's he is very good friend of mine, Patrique. He laughs harder than I've seen him laugh yet. He puts his head on the table and takes a minute to let the laughter subside.
          -He is my very good friend. He is crazy! Absolutely crazy. He is looking like baby! He laughs some more. But he is very very dangerous man. He says, maybe month ago? A few months ago? He takes man and puts his body in the center of Beni, right here outside of hotel. And he sticks man's head on pole down the street, just down there.
He motions to the other side of the hotel.
         -And he says, 'no one is to touch this dead man.' And nobody touches man for at least week! Until he says it is okay because it is starting rot and smell like, Ooof. Like bloody hell.
He's still laughing. I can't muster up the smile this time, the image is too heavy. I'm normally pretty good at understanding people's comfort levels. With Dusan I can't tell if he's laughing because he's amused or because he doesn't know what else to surround the story with. I think he's genuinely amused. The depth of what he's seen in his life is brutally apparent and I feel a little sorry for him.
     After sitting for several hours we finally leave. We don't stop at the headquarters and I'm extremely grateful. I want to get home. During the ride back Dusan talks more about anything, everything and all the things that can destroy both. I tune him out for most of the ride. His stories are fascinating but I don't have the energy left in me to absorb the horrible images he breathes like cigarette smoke.
     We left late enough in the day that we are left driving at night. I'm hoping to make it home in time to spend a few moments chatting with the Priests as we do at the end of each day but only twenty minutes from home the road suddenly becomes the river. The water is as brown as the dirt roads and quickly engulfs the car. It rises past the bottom of my door but I watch the water in front of us, more worried about being carried away.
         -Since we have diesel engine, we can maybe make it. I dunno, this is it. But we will try anyway yes?
     I feel out of control in the fast-moving water, even with Dusan at the wheel, but I'm even more eager to get home so I want him to go on. In less than a minute we come upon a broken down camion-the trucks that are overloaded, have no brakes and carry people on top of the cargo anyway. The men from inside the camoion start moving towards our car.
         -I think we can make it around them, I say.
         -No. I cannot see where the road actually ends and the real river is starting. But maybe we will wait here a bit and see. Yes.
     Three men are walking up to the car with the clear intention of speaking with Dusan. Suddenly he throws the car into reverse and deftly swivels it around.
         -We will go and stay with my country-man. A priest in next village, Kimbulu. He will have rooms for the night.
     There is something urgent in his tone.
         -I do not want them to even see that you are woman.
     The presence of the young men didn't make me feel unsafe, but his consciousness about the additional element of what can be taken from me is comforting.
     The village is not far. Pere Elias is already sleeping but invites us into the small Franciscan compound and gives me a clean room with a lock on the door. That's all I need. There's no way for me to contact the Priests, and I have images about them fretting and kicking me out of the community.
     The next day I don't hesitate to wake Dusan at 8 a.m. I'm impatient in a way that feels like there are ants running through my veins. I want to get home. He takes his coffee slowly, accompanied by several cigarettes. I make it clear that I want to leave by tapping my feet and sighing loudly and frequently. He noticies, acknowledges that we should leave and then lights another cigarette. I would try to strangle him if he wouldn't kill me before I could finish formulating the thought.
    When we finally make it home it's late afternoon. I'm greeted with a mixture of welcome and poorly veiled anger. I apologize to the head Priests, though they are the only ones who understand. The younger brothers are offended that I left without announcing my departure. There's not much I can do about it, so I talk to them about the most positive things I can think of and try to bring my mind back to normal. Just being around them is like being plugged into a wall. I avoid Dusan for a couple of days, trying to refill my battery a bit. We're going into the bush sometime in the next couple of weeks, but of course, he hasn't told me when.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Belle and the Beast

     I never expected one of my obstacles here to be happiness. My mind has settled into a comfortable haze and reminders of why I'm here come in spurts if I'm not careful about reminding myself. I wake up each morning on the set of Beauty and the Beast, and somehow I've managed to get the part of Belle. I walk to the Institute in one of the most beautiful places on earth amidst a melodic flow of bonjour. Every morning at some point on my way to the Institute, I have to stop in the middle of the road and can do nothing but stare at the mountains and the sky and try to understand how I could ever forget that the world could be so beautiful.
     When it rains, the fog seeps off of the mountains making it look like the earth is on fire, but nothing is burning. I've imagined capturing the beauty here in a documentary, but it would have to be digitally altered because film would never be able to capture this. It's too thick for a screen.
The Institute where I teach is a small compound of three buildings. The main building is where Sister Celine meets with her patients. Some are rape victims from far away or nearby, some are battling epilepsy and the stigma that comes with, and some are just trying to hold together a crumbling marriage.
     The other buildings are the classrooms. There are five or six classrooms looking out on the mountains, with chalkboards older than me and chalk dust that has been accumulating since they were originally put up. When I reach for a piece of chalk I often have to shake off a thumb sized spider or two, never sure if they are dead. I leave class covered in white dust, fantasizing about dry-erase boards and cursing the person who invented the stupid little white sticks.
     For two weeks I taught an improvised course on English and have now started an Introduction to Neuroscience class. I don't have the necessary teacher-patience to endure my students not grasping the entire English language the second it leaves my mouth. I struggled to contain frustration that quickly melted into anger, and clearly indicated to me that I am not cut out for the job. But the class was always filled with laughter. My status as unmarried and not desiring the life of a nun is confounding to everyone, and my students never tire of probing me for details about why, and how. When I responded with more than a little attitude, “Parceque je n'ai pas besoin d'un homme,” Because I don't need a man, they had to flail their arms around to absorb the overflow of laughter.
     The Neuroscience course I am teaching now is supposed to be in French. I do not speak this type of French. I speak the French of friends and meetings, not the French of neurotransmitters and membrane potential. Papa Kayange is the director of the primary school and has agreed to help me by translating. But his French also stops at spinal cord and I can feel the frustration of the students building as I try to explain what the corticospinal tract is.
     Cultural differences also pose a problem. Science does not care about language or tradition.
         -Here we believe that after a person has died, they can still hear when you speak to them, explained one of my students with a thick streak of combativeness.
         -Well, I explained. That's not exactly possible, as once the brain stops receiving blood and oxygen, it is no longer functioning. What you're saying would be like unplugging a computer from the wall and then trying to type. You can type as much as you want but nothing is going to register on the screen.
     I knew I was walking on delicate territory, and almost edited my response before I said it. But somebody had to represent science. I won't go near Christianity and the existence of God or Christ, but I simply can't lie and say that it's possible the dead can hear what you say. Scientifically speaking, of course. My student wasn't too pleased with my response but I moved on quickly to avoid the start of a cyclical discussion.
     At the end of the first class, the students asked me for the syllabus. Syllabus here means word for word write-up of what you're going to say during the class. Pere Onesfort let me borrow the syllabus from his last biology class and it is at least 100 pages of teacher monologue. I explain that in the United States there would be no point in coming to class if we gave the students a syllabus like that, the idea is simply absurd. Students are expected to take notes in class while the teacher is speaking, and then study the notes that they wrote. The teacher doesn't take notes for you, I explain. I'm almost offended. 
    When I get back to the Crosier compound I explain my predicament to Frere George and try to convey to him how silly it would be. I can't stop myself from thinking of it as an inefficient Congolese thing, that contributes to the Universities here being far below the United States. The week before, my class was pushed back twice and I was never informed. I put the silly syllabus idea in this same category of culturally different inefficiency. Students should take their own notes.
        -That's how the students study, he says. They read what you will talk about and then they come to class so that you can explain to them what they read.
     The idea is still laughable to me, and I think about how things worked for me in College. I went home each day after class, studied my notes and read my textbook to prepare for the following day. I transcribe that scenario into this setting and it finally dawns on me. My students don't have books.
         -You don't have books here, I say to George. So you want me to write the book.
         -Yes. No books.
     I blanch at the thought. Textbooks are like fingernails for American college students, always there. I've never even considered the possibility of not having them. The class on a subject I love, which I was previously excited about, now seems impossible. Not only am I to write-up 45 hours of Neuroscience information, but somehow I'm supposed to transform it into French.
     I felt sorry for Papa Kayanga, thinking the largest part of the task would fall on him, until he told me that he couldn't help me for more than a few days and definitely couldn't help me translate a syllabus. For those few days of expertise, I'm paying his asking price of $3 an hour and helping him with the English classes he teaches to the secondary students. I laugh to myself as I correct sentences like “A watch band is made of leather, plastic or a metal chair,” and “a breast ends in a nipple.” Yes, a breast does end in a nipple, but something about that isn't quite right. Of course, this nuance is almost impossible to explain to Papa Kayange and talking about breasts ending in nipples with a religious man over 80 is not exactly my ideal afternoon.
     Culture reveals itself through these lessons in funny, sometimes frightening ways.
-Pain made him piss.
-I spit on my enemy.
-Thieves walk on tip-toe.
-Ow! You tread on my feet! You hurt my boil!
-Pupils are clad in uniforms. So are soldiers.
-He choked his rival.
-He threatens(ed) to beat me.
There's nothing to correct, even though the students learning these phrases are still children.

When leaves fall, they leave scars on the branch.

     When I'm not teaching, learning, preparing, correcting or practicing my motorcycle skills, I'm typically trying to stop my mind from falling madly in love with every person here. Girlish fantasies are a staple in any situation; they follow me everywhere I go, as they do with all unattached humans not desiring the life of a priest or nun (and even those who do, I surmise). When I first got here I thought it was almost cruel to set a zebra free amongst a group of vegetarian lions. Now I've come to realize these are strong, healthy lions that are quite accustomed to being vegetarian.
    Poor zebra.

     Although happiness is a distraction, the duality of the world is particularly sharp here. There's no real middle-ground. It's either beauty or horror, joy or misery, full or starving, safe or in the midst of being destroyed. I'm reminded of this once again when I meet Dusan.  Dusan very effectively pulls me out of my own happiness. He is exactly what I would imagine a Croat to be, except a bit kinder, slightly gentler and sporadically more vulnerable.
         -Why the internet is not working? He asks as he barges into the Secretariat.
     I am working on the Neuroscience course in the small room with a couple of wooden desks and old desktop computers when he explodes into the room.
         -It hasn't worked for several days, I respond.
     He looks at the box as if he's going to rip it off of the wall, tear it apart and then put it perfectly back together. He wreaks of cigarettes in a way I've never experienced before. The smell is amplified by the fact that I haven't smelled the waft of nicotine on a person since I left the guesthouse in Uganda. The manager there was somewhat similar to Dusan, strangely tall, constantly red and weathered in a way that exceeded his years.
     Dusan is much taller than the manager of the guesthouse; he's at least 6 feet 3 inches tall with not a lot of padding around the pole. I've seen him a few times in the compound, stalking around with no apparent schedule or destination. A white skin walking by is not something anybody misses here, even me.
         -They do not call the provider! He exclaims.
     I've forgotten that providers even exist. The internet depends on the amount of rain, the functioning of the electric generator and a million other factors I don't even try to visualize. It's not something within my control and I've accepted that. Considering our location, it's amazing we have internet at all.
       As he stalks around the room I notice the cigarette clinging to his fingers, providing the strong stench. He doesn't seem to notice he's indoors, more likely he doesn't care. A cigarette is a death-stick, but it can also be a bridge. I ask him if he has an extra. Immediately the separation between us of culture, language and unknown purpose disappears. He's shocked for a second, but then I can see the excitement ripple through his body. People only need an ounce of similarity to cross a large expanse of insecurity
        -Yes, yes of course.  He smiles at me for the first time.  
        -I'm Amy.  I extend my hand and he reaches forward as well.
     I follow him next door to his room. It is a small square space just like mine, with a bed, a desk, a small table, several books and a few pieces of clothing crumpled in small heaps. The remains of his dinner sit on his desk, half of a can of spam, a piece of cheese and a bit of this-morning's bread.
         -I cannot invite you in, he says. It is too messy. I am bachelor, yes? This is man's room, I cannot help it.
     This is a museum compared to what my room in the States was like. And I enter anyway.
         -It's not a problem. I understand, this is nothing.
     I cross through the room to the door on the opposite end of the square that leads to a very small porch at the front of the building. There is a small bench that he picks-up like it's a piece of paper and turns it to face the dark outline of the mountains against the sky.
     I have seen his truck in the compound so I know he works for the UN, which is called MONUC in French. As we sit outside of his room on the small cement porch he tells me scattered bits of his story in mumbled, often incomprehensible English. He is a “demobilizer” for MONUC. He travels every few days by car into the bush to “demobilize” the soldiers.
         -What exactly do you do to demobilize them?
         -I do this and that and this and that, he says. He uses strange English fillers constantly, leaving pot-holes in his explanations and making it difficult to follow his path. He speaks as if he hasn't talked to a human in six years, quickly, with excitement and no provocation necessary.
         -I build relationships, he continues. I extract people from the bush, I keep people safe, or at least try to. It takes a lot of time, yes? When you like or dislike someone, you cannot simply grab them and say 'I like you!'
     He grabs my shoulders and shakes me as he says this. I feel like I'm supposed to have known him for years, but I have no recollection of meeting.
         -You have to slowly show them this and that, whatever, whatever, and then they will slowly like you back. This is how it works. They are not idiots, but they are not clever.
He laughs at this. His laugh is brief, but not harsh and not memorable. It disappears as unexpectedly as it arrived.
         -When I was in the war, former Yugoslavia, now Croatia, I did similar thing. And when it finished, I said, there is nothing to do here! What am I doing here in this office sitting around doing nothing. So I leave. And now I am here four years. You know, I have been to Washington, D.C. I love that city. It has my favorite club, Havana Village. The music is perfect. Absolutely perfect, you must believe me in this.
         -Yes, I've heard Cuban music before, it's very good.
         -No, it is perfect. You must just believe me in this.
    He jumps from war to nightclubs with no transition. I'm taken back by the contradiction of his harsh manners with his kind and open dialogue. He is not what I expected at all.
        -But, he pauses for a minute. This place will touch you. You cannot let it touch you! When it begins to touch you, you must take a time-out, take a break. You cannot become too much a part of it.
         -Do you mean it will touch my heart in a good way? Or it will just break it?
     He laughs when I say this.
         -This is how it is, he continues. Let me give you example. When I extract people, I am talking to many different people at the same time. And they are all trusting me. This is how it must be. If I do my job well, they think I am not on their side but I will not misuse their trust. If I do my job really really well, they think I am on their side but I am also helping others, and they are okay with this. This is how it is. Why are you here?
     I'm not expecting the question, and I still can't tell what exactly he's trying to tell me about living here, and I want to know.
         -Um. I'm teaching a course at the Institute for the Crosiers.
         -To pay for your room here?
         -Yes, I guess so, and to help them out. But the main reason I'm here is to work with the victims of sexual violence, specifically the kids. I'm going to start going to Magherya when my class finishes in two weeks to work at les filles-meres center.
         -Yes, yes. This is good, he responds as if the continuation of my trip hangs on his approval.
         -What exactly did you mean by don't let it touch you?
         -I was giving you an example. The example is this, in the bush, the women are the bottom of everything. A man who I extracted asks me to go and retrieve his wife from the bush. I say, okay. If she is there, maybe I can get her, this is my business. So I go and I ask her, 'Do you want to leave the bush' She says no. She is seventeen years, and has a baby with him that is four years. He took her from her home and raped her when she was just thirteen. And now, since he has been extracted, she is being raped by someone else, regularly. She says she wants to stay, because now she has someone else who is raping her but who might, might, he stresses the word, take care of the two children she already has with the first man.
     He looks at me and sees the shock and anger in my expression. I wear my heart on my sleeve.
         -Yes, this is how it is, he continues. I'm telling you. The women do not marry, they are taken and they are raped and they are children. They are girls, not women. If someone might take care of them, maybe they have a chance of surviving. So, next example, I am working on extracting fifteen people, whatever, whatever. There are two groups of Indians –these men who think they are soldiers but they are not soldiers, they are idiots, the worst—that I am needing to work with. A man comes to me and says, this is my daughter, she is 12. Can you please, make it so that she is raped by only one group of soldiers rather than both. If she is raped by both, neither who rapes her will take responsibility for the child.
     Listen to me, he stands up and faces me. In the dark his long body looks like one of the pillars connecting the roof to the floor. I am not soft man. He laughs his short laugh and then transforms his face back to something more appropriate for the topic. 
    Believe me. I am not soft man. But when you have a father asking you to make it so that this one group rapes his daughter but not the other group, it touches you. You feel that there is nothing you can do. And there is nothing you can do. Let me tell you this now. You must know this somewhat, because you are here. You see that there is too much to do. When it is like this, and it is like this often, then you have to step out and you cannot let it touch you too much.  This is how it is. 
    He finishes and lights another cigarette in the dark. His loneliness exposes him, making it easy for me to see the caring and the coping battling inside.  A South African woman I met in Uganda, named MJ, had never been to the Congo but told me the same thing in different way.
         -You have to focus on the little things, she said. It will feel like you are spitting into the wind. When you stop being able to see the little successes you have, you must come and stay with us. When your heart breaks, and it will break many many times, when you need a beer, a cigarette, a shoulder to cry on, take a break with us for a week, two weeks a day. Whatever you need to pull it back together.
     I think of her and want to tell Dusan the phrase of spitting into the wind, I love the imagery, it's perfect. But I don't have the energy to explain the nuances of the metaphor in roundabout English.
     I have a question, but just the thought of asking it makes my adrenaline spike. I only wait a few seconds and he jumps back into his monologue.
         -The situation is this, he says. Everything is connected, and all goes back to World War I. Yes, this is true. But basic information you need to know. And you need to know, okay? Believe me in this. Rwanda, when this so called genocide happened, whatever whatever, this was a lot of killing. But it was more killing than anyone admits to, and it was less killing than has happened here in the past few years. Okay? So, killing yes, genocide, who knows. Rwanda is a country with nothing.
He laughs again. It's uncomfortable for me to smile in response when we are talking about the murder of millions of people with dull machetes and old rifles.
     I am telling you, they have absolutely nothing! And here we are, in richest part of Congo, no, richest part of Africa. Rwanda needs Congo. Without Congo, without exploitation of the resources here, Rwanda stops to exist, immediately. And this is how it is. So, Rwanda is not going to have elections in August, but they are saying there will be elections. This will not happen, I can promise you. This cannot happen, because here you are either President or prisoner. Kigame does not want to be a prisoner, he wants to be President, of course. It was like this in my country with Miloshevic. President or prisoner. So, they will push back the elections. But when that happens, there will be chaos. This is already starting. I know this. And if you will be here, you will come with me or you will stay absolutely here in this building, yes? This is how it is. You are my responsibility, that is just how it is, okay?
         -Okay. I'm too intimidated to put up a fight, and despite my stubborn streak I allow myself to be comforted by this hardened man taking me under his protective wing.
         -So, there will be chaos. Yes. He takes a drag on his cigarette and stares off as if he's imagining exactly what type of chaos.
             -It is already happening, I can tell you this. I know this, because I speak directly with the people who are planning this chaos. I speak with them about intentions, I know their intentions, so I know what they will do. Many, many people will die. Many people will be killed, and they will be mostly refugees. This is simply how it is.
     He continues explaining that the forces in this region are primarily the FDLR, Forces for the Democratic Liberation of Rwanda. He laughs about the fact that all of these “Indian” rebel groups that are raping women left and right and leaving a population of babies made in fear behind, all have words like Democratic or Freedom in their name.
         -How will you go to Magherya? You can hire a translator and start now.
     Again he makes a complete turn around from talk of chaos and genocide to light conversation.
         -I'm going to go by motorbike. I don't want a translator, I want to talk to the children myself. A lot is lost when you use a translator, and I want to get to know the kids so I can understand better.
         -Ah, yes I see. This is good. But the motorbike is not good. Do you have a helmet?
         -No, but I...
         -You must buy helmet. And you must buy big boots like these.
     He goes into his room and comes out with a monstrous pair of workman's boots.
         -You will buy them in Butembo when we go to Beni, maybe this weekend.
     He has not asked me if I want to go to Beni with him, but apparently it's already on my schedule.  I haven't spoken hardly at all, but I feel completely drained. The question that has been festering inside of me pops out unexpectedly.
         -So, when can I go with you into the bush?
     I wait for him to shut me down, tell me no, never, it's too dangerous.
         -Maybe, next week, he says and throws his twentieth cigarette butt into the dark grass.
         -Next week? Will I be able to speak with a soldier?
     The thought is terrifying but the opportunity is too much to let slip because of fear.
         -No! You will ruin my business. You will have to pretend to be part of my team. I am going on an operation in the next couple of days, but it is too dangerous, you cannot come. After that, I have another operation with FDLR, I am working on extracting forty people. You can come then.
         -But I can't speak to the soldiers?
         -Of course you can speak to them. 
     I'm totally confused again, but I'm starting understand the patience needed to understand the pictures he's painting, so I wait.
        -You must use the translators. They will know how far you can go and when you must stop. If you speak any French or Swahili, it will ruin my business. These soldiers are not very clever. Not stupid, but not clever! They see white and they think, yes, this is good. They like to see that we are wearing things from the Western world, and they must hear only English. This sounds simple, but this is it. Believe me, this is it.
    I can ask my questions.  I don't know what I will ask these soldiers who are living in the forest, raping children and calling it freedom fighting. I have no doubt the questions will come to me in the moment, will jump out of my mouth without even glancing at the invisible line of proper conduct. I'm glad there will be translators to act as my brakes.
         -Have you ever killed anyone?
     Just the thought of my inability to censor my curiosity causes an example to pop out. I'm worried I've crossed a line. I wish I was able to stay on one side of that line.
         -No. Never.
         -Never? Even though you were in the war and you were a Colonel?
         -I do not kill anyone. It is not killing if you are fighting a respectable enemy, or if you are doing this for your own survival.
         -I would call that a distinction between killing and murder, but if you've taken a human life then you've definitely killed someone.  That's definitional.
     I wish someone would tape my mouth shut.
         -No, this is not how it is.  What is this on your arm?
    He changes the subject but I can tell he's not offended, simply following his usual round-a-bout route.
         -It's a tattoo.
     I lift my right forearm in a practiced way and hold it out for him to read my tattoo. He doesn't move towards me, even though the small amount of light coming through the window behind us makes it possible to read.
         -I believe you that it is there. You can stop holding up your arm.
     I feel ridiculously stupid but am not quite sure why, and lower my arm.
         -What does it say?
         -With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. I recite from the Desiderata poem written into my skin.
         -So you are the one who saw the light at the end of the tunnel?
         -I guess so. I don't know, I try to keep it in mind.
         -Do you know the story of the four men in the tunnel?
     I can't tell if I'm not understand his swiss cheese English, or there's some news story I haven't heard..
         -There are four men in a tunnel. The first man looks ahead and sees the light at the end. They are calling him optimist. The second looks at the wall and sees only the blackness, they are calling him pessimist. The third sees the lights of the train coming towards them on the tracks, they are calling him realist. And the fourth sees three idiots standing on the tracks, from the front of the train.
     He laughs quickly again and I follow suit happy for a joke.
         -And the fourth one is what? I ask. Soldier?
     He stops laughing, flicks his latest cigarette into the night and contemplates for a second.
         -I guess, maybe.