Friday, January 14, 2011

The Commander

                Interacting with soldiers is like balancing on a weak and unsturdy wire.  Bulambo is a village located next to Isale.  It is next to Graben where the NALU rebels from Uganda are working to sink roots into the ground, so Bulambo is speckled with governmental soldiers, in order to combat the rebels.  They are walking green blotches of humanity, lost and left behind.  Rebels such as NALU have no rules, and if they were in Bulambo, we wouldn’t be able to go there at all.  Governmental soldiers have to at least pretend to be controlled, but it doesn’t mean much.
                While walking through the market of Bulambo, checking on the women starting the petite-commerce program, I take a picture of a soldier and get caught.  There’s no real need for the photo, I know what soldiers look like and I know I’m not supposed to take pictures of them.  But for some reason my hand itches and I do it anyway.  There are no other soldiers around me at the moment, but a large man in a black track suit and leather sandals approaches me.
                -You see there is a problem, he says.  You see, I am the Commander of this unit, and you are taking pictures of my soldiers without their permission.
                My adrenaline spikes immediately.  The man is more or less 3 feet taller than me.
                -I can erase the pictures, it’s really no problem.
                -No, you will not erase the pictures.  You will not even touch your camera, do you understand?  Do you understand that you cannot do this?
                -Yes, I am truly sorry, I really can simply erase the pictures.
                -No, come with me.
                We start walking down the main road.  Urbain, one of my COPERMA colleagues, was standing with me when I took the photos and he is asked to come as well.  I look around and don’t see Maman Marie or anyone else anywhere, and hope that she has decided to hide herself and the others.  I hope they’ll all pile into the car and simply leave.  There’s also another American in town.  Sarah Fretwell is a professional photographer who has come to work with COPERMA and do some pro-bono work to help them with fund-raising, possibly score a grant.  She has about $10,000 worth of camera equipment and I hope she’ll stay hidden as well.
                -You are from which country? He asks as we walk.
                He’s speaking sternly, but he hasn’t grabbed my camera yet and thrown it on the ground, and he’s not carrying a gun that I can see so I relax and start trying to work with him.
                -I’m from America.
                -You can’t take pictures of American soldiers ever.  So why do you think you could do this here?
                -Actually, you can take pictures of American soldiers and governmental buildings.  It’s really not a problem.
                -No you cannot. 
                I’ve never understood the whole problem with taking pictures of governmental assets in third world countries.  They seem to think that if I take a picture of a soldier talking to someone I’ll have immediate access to the inner circles of knowledge within the ranks.  The Commander has never been to the States, and I’ve definitely taken pictures of American soldiers before, but I let it go.
                We arrive at a concrete box of an office where there is a short, plump man sitting behind a desk.  The Commander enters immediately and motions for me to sit down on a wooden stool against the back wall.  Urbain sits next to me.
                -This woman was taking pictures of my soldiers without permission.  And she did not come to this office to get permission to take any pictures at all, he says to the squat man at the desk, before turning back to me.
                -In this village you must register with this office before you can take any pictures of anyone or anything in this area.
                -I’m sorry, I really didn’t know, I say. 
                I say it as kindly and docilely as possible.
                -It is not your fault, says the Commander, still speaking sternly.  It is really the fault of the person with you who knows the rules.  He’s looking at the ground in front of him motioning with his hands, signalling emphatically from Urbain to the ground.
                -I can erase the pictures, I say again.  It’s really not a problem.
                -Who do you work for? Asks the Commander.  Why were you taking those pictures?
                I think he thinks I’m a spy.
-I’m a humanitarian and a teacher, I just took them to amuse myself, because I’m interested.  I really have no problem erasing them.
I want them to let me erase the pictures and go on my way but the Commander won't even let me touch my camera.  He has placed it on the wooden desk, but I don't get the feeling anyone is trying to steal it. 
-Write a letter, apologizing for the pictures, says the Commander. 
He stands up and gets a pen and a piece of paper and hands it to me.
-Write it in French and in English.
Not one of these men speaks English, but I do it anyway.
I am sorry I took a picture of soldiers without permission.  It was not my intention to show disrespect to the Commander or the community of Bulambo.  It will not happen again.
I feel like I’m in fourth grade getting caught by the teacher, except this teacher can determine the outcome of the rest of my life, in a drastic way.  I don’t feel unsafe; I’m mostly worried about Urbain and COPERMA in general.  Maman Marie and Helen show up at the opening of the concrete room and my heart sinks.  Them being involved in any way will not only increase the risk, but increase the amount I’m sure I will have to pay to smooth things over.  Maman Marie steps into the dark office and starts explaining to the Commander that she’s with me.  I have never wanted so badly to strangle someone.
-No, I stand up.  I’m not with them at all.  This guy is my translator, and they gave me a ride but they’re not actually associated with me.
-Yes, Amy! Maman Marie says, you are one of us.
I am grinding my teeth and glaring at her.
-No, I am not.
I need her to agree and leave.  I can handle getting Urbain and myself out of the situation, but the more people they connect with me, the more lives are at stake, the more people I’ll have to pay for to keep safe. 
-Bring the other American in, says the Commander.
-No, really, she doesn’t need to come in, she wasn’t taking any photos of soldiers.  She doesn’t even speak French it will be useless to have her here.
-It’s okay, just bring her in so you will feel more comfortabele.
The Commander gets up and gives an order to one of the soldiers standing in the doorway.  Urbain leaves as well, presumably to help Sarah understand what’s going on.  They all arrive within a few minutes.  Sarah is a tall, thin woman with dirty blonde hair and a lot of traveling experience under her belt.  I’m not worried about her, but also want as few people involved as possible.  She sits down next to me.
-Don’t worry, I say in English.  They just brought you in to make me feel more comfortable.
-Can I take pictures? She asks.
I almost laugh.
-No!  Don’t even try it.  That’s why we’re in here.  I took a picture of a soldier and got caught.
-Oh, these are soldiers? 
She looks around and chuckles.
-I thought they were the men we were going to be interviewing.  Damn, I really wish I could take pictures now.
-Maybe you should smoke a cigarette, she says, watching the Commander pull one after another out of his bag and inhale the grey smoke.
When we arrived in Bulambu I bought a pack of cigarettes in case of exactly this type of situation.  The idea is more to give them out to soldiers to break ice and create bridges.  I slide a cigarette out of the pack in my bag, lean forward and casually ask for a light.
Everyone in the room turns to me and looks at the Commander.  He stands up as if he has just received the most important order in his life and says something in Swahili or Lingala to one of the soldiers in the doorway.  Within moments matches are procured.  The Commander takes out a cigarette of his own, lights it and then offers it to me.  Within the span of seconds, the tension in the room deflates.
-You are becoming truly Congolese! He says, laughing.  You even smoke our brands.
-Yeah, it’s my favorite, I say, puffing on my cigarette.
I don’t mention that I hate this brand and only have it for schmoozing purposes.
-You know, I am the Commander of this unit, he says.  Unfortunately, I’m out of my uniform.
-Oh, don’t worry about it.  You don’t need a uniform I can tell you are strong.
I feel like slapping myself in the face for such obvious and gross ego boosting, but it's necessary.  Insecurity is it's strongest among men who deal in war  He eats it up.  The room explodes with laughter and he puffs out his chest.  The situation seems to be winding down a little.  I should be a spokesperson for cigarette companies.  Smoke Cigarettes, Save Yourself From Soldiers.
-So, the squat man behind the desk says.  In this letter you say that you are asking for our pardon.  I think in order to give you that pardon, maybe you can help us some.  Give us a little something.
-Something like what?  I ask, pretending not to know exactly what they’re indicating.
-Something, he repeats, and everyone chuckles.
-I’m sorry, I’m not from this culture I don’t really understand what you’re saying.  I can give you cigarettes and maybe buy you some sodas?
The entire room laughs again.
-That’s not what we mean.
-Well, what do you mean?
I want him to say it outright because this is totally against the rules.  Everything the Commander has done has been a façade of proper action, following the law.  Now they’re trying to squeeze a bribe out of me to ensure the safety of COPERMA and nobody wants to actually say it because they’re all still trying to pretend this is legal.  At one point The Commander even says that this is a "professional army."  If I had my way I'd ask him how professional included rape, stealing, and now, a miniscule but entirely unprofessional bribe. 
-You know, you can give us something to help out.
This is taking too long.
-Since I wronged the community and the soldiers, maybe I can give twenty dollars to each of you.
Again they laugh.
-That’s too little.
The Commander walks outside again and seems to pull Maman Marie aside.  We’ve been sitting in this room chatting about my errors and apologies and cigarettes for over an hour.  It has to end soon.  I follow him outside to make sure the repercussions land on my shoulders and not on Maman Marie.  When I walk up to them the Commander casually walks away. 
-He wants you to give them $200.
-What? I don’t have that much money.
I have three hundred dollars tucked into my bra, but I have no intention of paying them so much.  I have no intention of doing so, but in the end there’s nothing I can do; there’s no higher authority to go to, this is the higher authority.  I know that if the situation doesn’t end in a fully closed circle, the soldiers won’t create problems for me but they could and would be a serious threat to COPERMA. 
                The Commander is speaking quietly with someone on the other side of the office.  I walk up to him directly, I don’t want Maman Marie or any of COPERMA to be anymore involved in this than they already are.
                -I hear you want me to give you two hundred dollars.
                Put so bluntly, the Commander can’t deny it without denying wanting the money.
                -Yes, I think that would be enough.
                -That’s a lot of money.  I don’t have the means to pay you that. 
                -You’re American of course you have the means.
                -No, I don’t.  I can’t afford to give you two hundred dollars.  How about one hundred?
                He looks at me skeptically.
                -One twenty.
                I look to Maman Marie.  She looks uncomfortable.  Sarah has wandered outside and is picking up on the conversation; the body language makes everything apparent.
                -If you have any money, don’t even mention it or start to pull it out, I say to her.  They’ll just ask for even more.
                I know she has only large bills and giving them a fifty and asking them to change it would simply mean we’d be paying 150, or who knows, 300.
                -There’s twenty dollars in the car, says Helen.
                Maman Marie gives her a nod and Helen ambles off quickly.  Helen was just telling me how much she hates soldiers, they terrify her.  I’m such a shit.
                I turn back to the Commander.
                -Done.  She just went to get twenty dollars from the car.
                The Commander looks down at my letter of apology and asks me what I actually do in Lubero. I explain that I’m a teacher there.
                -You’re too young to be a teacher, you can’t have finished school.
                -I finished school two years ago, I say, trying to keep the conversation light.
                -Why don’t you put your phone number on here too, to be complete.
                I pull out a pen and write down an inactive phone number on the paper.
                -You know, I’m single he says.  I have four kids but I’m single, and I think you’re single too.
                I laugh to inflate his ego, and completely evade the question.  When Helen gets back with the twenty dollars I hand over a hundred dollar bill as well. 
                -I want to make sure this means there will be no problems for anyone in the future.
                -Don’t even worry, says the Commander.  You are leaving as friends and in good spirits.
                -Thank you so much.  I am sorry again to have disrespected you, it was nice meeting you.
                In the end they make me erase the pictures from my camera but they don't keep it; The Commander even shows me his ID and lets me take down all of his information, even though he just took an illegal bribe from me.
                I feel so disgustingly dirty.  I can’t believe this guy is absorbing all of the transparent shit I’m throwing at him.  We all leave the office and start walking back towards the car.  I think we’re going to leave right away, but now that we have permission from the Commander and the squat guy, Urbain and Maman Marie say we can keep working.  When we finish, an hour or so later, we walk back to the car.
                Sarah sees a hanging leg of some sort of animal hanging from the outside of a hut and goes off to take pictures. 
                -Urbain, I really am sorry for getting you caught in that situation.
                -No, it’s okay.  It’s totally okay.  Fortunately you had money!
                -I know, I went to the bank today just because I had extra time, but I’m so glad I had that.
                -The Commander told me that because I was the person who knows the area, I was responsible and he was going to keep me overnight and torture me.  So thank you for being so supple and quick with the money!
                -He said that?
                -Yes, but now it’s okay.
                I do something small like push a button on a black box and I put everyone I work with and care about at risk.  My skin is a slight protection, but the Congolese people are walking muscles, completely exposed. 
                -I’m so sorry.
                He laughs and punches me lightly, he seems completely comfortable with the entire situation, even though I almost caused him to go through a potentially irreparable trauma.  I think of the two little girls and the wife he has at home and am infuriated by my stupidity. 
                Sarah finishes and we climb back into the car.  The women in Isale are still waiting for us and we stop in the little courtyard for about twenty minutes.   None of the COPERMA workers seem angry at me or especially uncomfortable, I guess they’re just more used to this than I am.  By the time we get home I feel like four days have passed in the span of six hours.  I’m shaken by the experience, not because of my personal safety, but because of the devastating effect my actions can have on everyone else here.  The money ended the situation, I don’t think there will be more problems for us.  But everything here is a chain reaction.  Maybe the soldiers will be able to get drunk tonight with the money, and every human in the Bulambo region will be at risk.  Maybe the Commander will keep all of the money for himself, the lower soldiers will continue to feel frustrated and unsupported, and thus deserving of destroying other human beings.  The images in my camera are gone, but the effects remain.


  1. Great post, and an exciting day for you.

    You may disagree, but I think you were a little bit too American in that situation, and not enough Congolese. I'm talking about: "Actually, you can take pictures of American soldiers and governmental buildings. It’s really not a problem."

    In that situation you should have one focus: getting yourself and your colleagues out safely. The Big Man has near-infinite power, and having committed to trying to shake you down, he needs to maintain "face" in front of his men. What does that translate to? Being seen as respected by you, and perhaps feared, and of course coming away with "something".

    The $120 you paid was (as you know) an absolute fortune. The $20 you suggested was probably correct, and I think you could have gotten away with paying that. "I'm very sorry, Commander, but that's absolutely everything I have. If you like, I can get more and come back another day to give it to you." [They don't do that ...]

    In similar circumstances I've paid $20, and of course it was "not enough", but I've insisted I had no more. Eventually, if you look as though you're sticking to your story, the Big Man gets "something", keeps his "face", and gets to move on with his day and buy some beer.

    "Face" is important ... and it's key to getting out of situations like that safely. Remember that these encounters are (hopefully) just business. Be understanding of that, be accommodating. And negotiate from your strength, i.e. your knowledge of what the Big Man needs to exit the transaction with the respect of his men intact.

    Be safe.

  2. I think you handled it far more brilliantly then I ever would have.

    I'll agree with Roberto on part, though... Be safe.

  3. This is a really well-written, brilliant post. You handled the situation as well as you could have, with the reputation of COPERMA and your colleagues to think of. And I've been in similar situations, and they escalate so fast that it's actually very hard to focus on juggling all the fears and ego politics at once.

    I'm not sure I agree with Roberto on a few things: I don't agree that you can handle situations in a more 'Congolese' way, or play more hardball necessarily - it is hard to gauge character and power in a short and fast-moving situation like that, and the idea of haggling over a bribe and focusing on what 'face' a commander wants to get out of the situation with works more when you're being asked for irrelevant paperwork by low-level policemen in less military-run places like Kenya. I don't think it's worth attempting to play compare-the-size-of-your-bravado with COPERMA seniors.

    So yes, it's an opportunistic business shakedown, but it's also $120 in a situation that could have ended up so much worse. You could have got away with less, but I don't agree that - with your focus, as Roberto says, on getting you and your colleagues out safely - you should have, or could have, attempted to get away with less.

    And as for the actual issue in the story - the repercussions of COPERMA 'winning' another little power play, making $120, and taking the money out - you've successfully protected your colleagues and yourself from repercussions, meaning you can carry on with your work, and the wider potentialities - you can't start second-guessing and thinking of worst cases, otherwise you'll not sleep or work as well. Be safe, but also don't take it all out on yourself.

  4. Nice story. Reminds me of a couple of things that happened to me in 1982 driving with a friend (we're both English) in a Land Rover from Nairobi to London, and something that happened to me in Mexico.

    1. Driving into Lagos one night we were forced to stop at an army roadblock. A soldier smelling strongly of alcohol walked up to the vehicle, put a submachine gun to my temple and slurred, "Are you spies?" After some nonsense -- meaningless questions, incompetent passport examination, etc. -- he sent us on our way with the statement, "We are the masters now."

    2. In the Central African Republic on an outing to pygmy country we accidentally joined the motorcade of the Minister of the Interior. Much excitement and shouting, lots of guns being waved by military types no two of whom were wearing the same uniform. We were detained for a couple of hours while a senior officer and some of his pals shouted at us for disrespecting the minister and the country and demanded several hundred dollars as a fine. We claimed poverty although we had lots of French francs, Swiss francs, US dollars, and British pounds hidden in several places in the Land Rover -- $10,00 or so in total, as I recall, plus several thousand in travelers cheques. Eventually a man sporting more gold braid than any of the others entered the room, pointed at us, and shouted "Fini! Allez!" So we went.

    3. Mexico, late 1980s. I'm driving, five or six American friends are passengers in the huge old ford station wagon I've rented. I get pulled over by two Mexican traffic cops on motorcycles for fictitious speeding and stop sign violations. If they have to take me to the station it will cost me $100 or so, they say, so naturally I ask, "What if we don't have to go to the station?" Ah, well, that's cheaper: $20. "How about $10?" I say, and after a quick conference they accept. I hand over the money and drive off expecting to be congratulated by my passengers on my savoir faire, my refusal to be intimidated, and my general manliness. Strangely, this does not happen. What I hear instead is a chorus of obloquy and vilification: "Are you mad?" "What's ten dollars?" "Ten dollars is nothing!" "We could all have ended up in jail, you moron!" Etc. etc. Life just isn't fair.

  5. Excellent Mexico story, gold-tooth. As an American (albeit expatriate for over 20 years), I must apologize on behalf of my compatriots, who were obviously not well-traveled enough to know that one must make an effort to keep prices sensible for those who follow.