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.
-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?
-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?
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?
-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.