Ah, Goma. The city of wazungu, whiskey, and prostitution. After dropping off the bullet man, Dusan and I snake our way through the grey city to the House of the Former Yugoslavia. Understandably, individuals working for the United Nations tend to clump in houses based on nationality and language. In our large green house over-looking Lake Kivu there are two Serbians, one Croatian, Russians and Ukranians in and out, and then randomly two gentlemen from East Timoor. When we arrive Dusan immediately pours us each a small glass of Johnnie Walker Red Label Whiskey. Even if there is work to be done, Goma is always a slight vacation for both of us; friends, fancy restaurants, and flirtations abound.
One of the Serbian men in the house is Zander; a hopeless romantic though married man with children. His story is nothing new. Most of the International men in the mission, once away from their wives and children, relive their glory days or create ones if they never had them. After briefly catching up and settling in, Dusan, Zander and I go out for a quick dinner (lasagna and escalope cordon bleu—with whiskey on the side) then out to the clubs. Most clubs are “off limits” for United Nations workers due to the plethora of sex workers and the inability of the men to resist. Goma is truly a candy shop filled with little boys, each running around gaily picking candies off the shelf. Try one put it back, move on to the next brightly colored sparkling sweet thing.
It’s not like in Butembo; even though the Association of Women Living Alone consists of 6,000 women who are all potential sex workers. In Butembo you can spend hours in a local nightclub and never know that every woman inside is looking for a fare. In Goma you can’t walk through the door without having beautiful smiles and over-enthusiastic laughter clinging to you like smoke. At B-Club we meet up with our friend from a previous trip, Charlie. Charlie is an international who has been living in Congo for several years. The club is full, the dance floor is throbbing and neon lights make everyone glow different colors. Dusan immediately gets to work. He flits through the crowd greeting women he knows; a hug here, a peck there.
-You know, I don’t get it, says Charlie, bringing me a beer. I’ve fallen off the wagon a few times when really drunk and taken home a woman, but I always hate it and it’s never fulfilling. Even if the woman speaks a little bit of English there’s never any semblance of a connection. It’s mostly just depressing.
We both sit on the back of an outdoor couch and watch the gyrating crowd, sparkling under a disco ball.
-Yeah, that’s how it seems like it would be to me. But then again, I don’t know anything anymore. I used to be kind of uncomfortable with all of this but now it’s just like, who cares?
-I can’t judge them. The women. They need to make a living and this is the best way to do it. I just don’t like to be the one helping them make a living.
-Yeah definitely. And I guess for the men, as long as they aren’t abusive or disrespectful, it’s their business. But, I mean, like Zander, for example.
I point into the crowd where Zander is actually speaking to a woman he knows from Croatia.
-I’ve spoken to him a bunch about this. He truly believes that women he takes home are genuinely interested in him, rather than simply looking for money. But the woman he’s seeing right now has a Congolese boyfriend. It’s well known. And she often asks him for exorbitant amounts of money.
-I don’t get it either. Here, let me get you another beer.
He gets up and walks back into the fray. I sidle over to a standing table where Dusan has joined Zander and the Croatian woman. Dusan introduces me as his bodyguard and personal secretary before they switch back into Serbo-Croatian chatter. Every now and then Dusan jumps away from the table to say hi to a newcomer.
-Nice enough legs, normal size, good ass, yeah? He says returning to the table, as we both watch the woman walk into the crowd.
After every woman he inspects her body and asks me what I think. I’ve never checked out so many women in my life. It’s strange, and I feel like I too am treating the women like different shaped pieces of candy.
-I just got offered two free blow-jobs, says Charlie returning and handing me a beer.
Dusan breaks into laughter.
-Both said it would be the best in my entire life, continues Charlie laughing too.
-Yes, always it will be the best, says Dusan.
Dusan is pulled back into the Yugoslav conversation by Zander.
-I told them it would cost them thirty dollars, Charlie says and we both laugh.
-That’s a perfect answer. I bet they were pretty confused.
-Yeah, they thought I meant I would pay them, but I said no, you’ll have to pay me. They declined.
I laugh for a moment and then we both fall silent. I’m tired of talking about sex workers; whether sizing up their beauty or discussing the ethical complexities, it makes up 80 percent of the conversation in Goma.
-So, Charlie, I say. You’ve been in the mission awhile right?
-Yes ma’am. A few years.
He takes a cigarette out of his pocket and lights it; another characteristic of United Nations living. He hands the pack to me and I slide out a bad decision and light it.
-Well, I continue. So many people in the U.N. talk about what they don’t like about working in a mission or how hard it is. And I know it’s not easy, it’s a very solitary life and your job is everything. But then people also stay in for so long. And I’ve heard you say that you missed out on things in your country, for example. I guess what I’m getting at is, do you regret it? Or, if you had the chance would you do it differently?
Charlie takes a drag from his cigarette and thinks for a moment.
-I don’t think even if I wanted to do it differently that I could.
-What do you mean?
-I think to live this kind of life you have to have something a little off. Emotionally, chemically, I don’t know. But people who live this kind of life and do this work are people who maybe seek out being alone or solitary. They’re able to handle loneliness but maybe they also seek it out.
-Do you feel like an outsider even when you go home?
-Of course, he laughs. This is a parallel universe. How am I going to have small talk at home about talking to murderers and rapists?
-Yeah, I know what you mean.
-It’s hard for people to understand because… this is Congo. We live here. And it’s not sensational and it’s not thrilling and it’s hard. It’s living and it’s up and down but within a parallel universe. I mean, I’ll spend the day with rebels who are murderers and then go kill people in a game on my Xbox.
-It’s fucking weird, man. But to be honest, I don’t feel anything anymore; unless I decide to.
He looks at the ground and then gives me a c’est ca look.
-I think I’m starting to understand that, I say.
-Oh well, that’s life my friend. But I need a break.
-Baby! Dusan says, prancing over to us.
He leans over and gives me a kiss on the forehead. He always gets a little fatherly-affectionate when he’s drinking.
-I think we must to go to another club. The titty situation here is not so good.
He and Charlie laugh.
-Were you doing titty reconnaissance? I ask.
-Yes! Exactly! Titty reconnaissance, I’m liking this. But let us go yes? It is good idea?
-Sure, I say. The titty’s all look the same to me anyway.
We walk to a nearby club with an outdoor bar under a gazebo. Again, Dusan greets various women, but there’s a problem. Zander’s current love interest is present and she’s ignoring him. He sits at a table and starts glaring at her.
-Uh oh, this is not good, says Dusan making his way back to me. We must to watch him all night. I am not understanding this, it is not good. You know, I am telling him he should just have fun talking to these women and such but not bring them home. You know, I am not bringing them home. I am dancing and enjoying but then I am giving them money for taxi and saying, go.
He makes a shooing motion with his hand.
-I will give them some money to helping them but I don’t want to take them home with me. But Zander, no. He must not only sleep with them but get emotionally involved. This is terrible business, I am telling you.
-He looks pretty angry.
Dusan walks over to the plastic table where Zander is sitting and glowering at a woman. Zander’s face is dark; he looks exactly like a little boy who’s lollypop was stolen. The woman is a girl, she’s only 20 according to Zander. But she’s tall, slender, has an eyebrow piercing and holds herself as if the entire scene will disappear on her say so. She’s beautiful but I can see that she’s calculating her movements and directing them at Zander.
-He needs to stay away from that, says Charlie offering me another beer.
-Yeah. He’s kinda like a child even though he’s almost 40. Most of the men are in Goma.
Suddenly, I’m enveloped by dark wavy hair, the thick smell of perfume, and arms around my waist. I lean back and see a woman who’s famous as a sex worker in Goma. While the 20 year old Zander is staring at thinks she is controlling the room, this woman is always in control.
-Hey baby! Glad to see you, she yells.
She starts to sway her hips and dance around. I join her for a few half-hearted minutes before telling her my legs are tired. She practically sashays off to someone else she knows. She knows everyone.
-She’s impressive, says Charlie leaning against a wooden pole of the straw roofed gazebo.
-You mean attractive?
-No. Well, she’s okay. But she is the Queen Bee, the Mother Hen and she has been for years. It’s amazing these women stay alive at all; it’s a dog eat dog business.
It’s true. Even though there are no pimps in Goma, it’s not an easy business and there’s a strictly regulated hierarchy.
-Yeah, I respond. I spoke to a beautiful young girl from Burundi last time I was in Goma. She said she started selling sex to send her younger siblings to school. Both of her parents were killed in Burundi so she and her siblings moved to Goma. When she first started coming out to the clubs she was beaten up several times by the more established sex workers.
-They have to maintain their structures, he says.
I nod my head and watch a rather large man with white hair, clearly over sixty, grind on the dance floor with a gorgeous woman who can’t be more than twenty.
-I’m going to go ask Dusan something, I sigh and walk off.
I’m ready to go home.
-Don’t worry about it, I say patting Zander’s back when I get to his table.
Dusan seems to take my presence as his ticket to freedom and he bounces off towards a young woman who’s dancing very seductively. Zander doesn’t want to talk so I sit with him and watch the young girl pull his puppet strings. Finally, after a few more songs and Charlie’s departure, we’re able to tear Zander away from slender girl with the ‘tude. We walk back up the street to the first club where the car is parked but when we get there the gate is closed. Dusan pounds on the metal and Zander shakes his head, clearly still thinking about the girl.
It happens so fast I don’t even hear myself scream. Within a second someone’s arms grab me and throw me onto the ground. The phone on a cord around my neck was the target but the cord doesn’t break. Within an instant Zander is next to me helping me up.
-Amy! Are you okay? He yells.
Before I can respond he yells, “your phone!” and runs off after the young man and his friends. Zander catches them at the end of the road where there is an intersection. I stumble forward holding my phone in front of me.
-He didn’t get it! I try to yell but it comes out more as a squeak.
Under the dim orange light of a street lamp I can see Zander’s fist rise into the air and then drop towards the man on the ground. The man’s friends are doing nothing, just watching in a stunned circle. Zander is a huge man and his anger has been simmering without climax all night.
He’s going to kill him, is all I can think.
The light from the street lamp perfectly surrounds them like a spotlight; it makes them look like they are glittering.
-He didn’t get it! I try again, but the sound that comes out is still pathetic.
I’m moving too slowly, but Dusan appears from behind me. He moves in front of me and runs to where Zander is still on top of the man. I don’t know if Dusan pulls him off or simply yells at him. Once I see Dusan moving to control Zander I look away from them and start to take inventory. My knee is bleeding and swollen and my left pinky finger is definitely jammed. Both of my hands are bleeding and the left part of my chest is already throbbing.
-Are you okay? Zander asks again when he gets back with Dusan.
He’s breathing heavily.
-Yes, I’m fine. Thank you for helping me. They didn’t get my phone.
I give him a hug as someone finally opens the gate. As we walk to the car Dusan and Zander speak rapidly in Croatian cusswords I understand. Yebenti Matera! Kurats!
-You know, there was a police officer there with a gun, says Zander switching to English. For a second I almost took the gun and killed him. I was afraid I would kill him.
-So was I, I say softly.
Zander gives me another protective hug before we climb into the car and the adrenaline that flooded my system starts to dissipate. I know I’m okay but my body is trembling and I try to conceal it when I start crying. It’s embarrassing in front of these two military officers but with the declining adrenaline it’s completely out of my control.
-Fucking Goma, says Dusan. That police was helping them to attack you. You saw he was right there when they grabbed you and he did nothing. Why were you behind us? You should have been in front of us. This should never to happen. Did you speak to those guys? Didn’t you see them?
-I was only a step or two behind you, I say defensively. And no, I barely saw them. He grabbed me from behind.
I can tell he’s just angry that I was hurt but I’m not so excited about the insinuation that it was my fault a guy tried to rob me. Back at the house Zander uses vodka to clean my hands and knee and then seems to realize he has iodine and uses that. They discuss the situation some more, venting their anger. I finally succeed in calming the trembling in my body.
-Well, I’m okay, you’re okay and you’re okay, I say after a few moments, with a steady voice. And they didn’t even get my phone! So, life is good, yeah?
-Yes, says Dusan. This is good way of thinking.
-Well, thank you for your help gentleman. I think that was enough excitement for me for one evening. Goodnight.
I leave them sitting on the porch, where Zander stays for another few hours hoping the young sex worker will stop by as promised. She doesn’t and the candy shop closes for the night.