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Congo Journey | The Nation

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Congo Journey

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Like Thomas, the colonel is immaculately turned out. His Kinshasa-issue khaki drills are ironed and pressed, his badges of rank glisten in the midday sun.

Copyright ©2006 David Cornwall

About the Author

John le Carré
John le Carré is the author of numerous classic, bestselling novels, including Absolute Friends, The Spy Who...

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If bin Laden is destroyed, his shadowy armies will grow, rather than wither away.

We are sitting in an open-air cafe. From a sandbagged emplacement across the road, blue-helmeted Pakistani UN troops watch us over their gun barrels. The colonel fidgets a lot, perhaps in embarrassment. Two cellphones lie before him. His heavy French is rich in extraneous additives. Sometimes his language and beliefs seem a bit of a puzzle to him, as if he wants a different role in life but has been landed with this one. Like their forebears the Simba, the Mai Mai possess magical powers--dawa--which enable them to turn flying bullets into water.

''The Mai Mai are a force created by our ancestors. There are races in my country that do not deserve to be here. We fight them because we fear they will claim our sacred Congolese land. No government in Kinshasa can be trusted to do this; therefore, we do it ourselves. When Mobutu's power failed, we stood in the breach with our pangas, bows and arrows. Our dawa is our shield. When you are face to face with an AK-47 that is firing straight at you and nothing happens, you know our dawa is authentic.''

In that case, we ask, how do the Mai Mai explain their dead and wounded?

''If one of our warriors is struck down, it is because he is a thief or a rapist or has disobeyed our rituals or was harboring bad thoughts about a comrade when he went into battle. Our dead are our sinners. We let our witch doctors bury them without ceremony.'' And the Banyamulenge? we ask. ''They can remain in Congo if they accept Congolese law. If they don't, we shall kill them.''

Venting his anger against Kinshasa, however, the colonel comes significantly close to sharing the sentiments expressed by Thomas the night before: ''The Mai Mai have been neglected and marginalized. Kinshasa forgets too soon that we fought for them and saved their arses. When Mai Mai fighters join Kinshasa's army we become kings without kingdoms. They don't pay us and don't listen to us. As soldiers we are not allowed to vote. Better we return to the bush and look after ourselves.'' And as a parting question of us: ''How much does a computer cost?''

In my novel, I have sketched in an armed attack on Bukavu airport. We are about to set off to inspect the reality when we learn that the center of town is blocked by demonstrators and burning tires. It seems that a man mortgaged his house for $400 in order to buy his wife a medical operation. When Kinshasa's unpaid soldiers heard about it, they raided his house, killed him and stole the money. Angry neighbors seized the soldiers, but their comrades sent reinforcements to get them back. A 15-year-old girl was shot dead and the crowd rioted. In our five nights in Bukavu, there were two riots.

After a tortuous drive through uneven back streets we reach the Goma road and drive northward along Lake Kivu's western shore. The airport is under the joint UN protection of Indian and Uruguayan troops. Not long ago, the Rwandans took the place over and remained there for several months without anybody interfering. The Uruguayan soldiers, who are not allowed into town, give us an excellent lunch and urge us to come back for a real party soon. ''What would you do,'' I ask an officer, ''if the airport came under surprise attack?'' His right fist clenches and shoots forward as his left hand closes over his forearm. ''Vamos,'' he replies.

The discothèque is my last and most affecting memory of Bukavu. In my novel, it is owned by the French-educated heir to an East Congolese trading fortune. He is a warlord of a sort, but his real power base is Bukavu's young intellectuals and businessmen. And here they are. There is a curfew and the town is quiet. A bit of rain is falling. I recall no winking signs or bulky men checking us at the entrance, just a gray row of little Art Deco buildings disappearing into the dark, and a rope bannister descending a dimly lit stone staircase. We grope our way down. Music and strobe lights engulf us. Yells of ''Jason!'' as he vanishes under a sea of welcoming black arms.

The Congolese, I had been told, know better than anybody how to have fun, and here at last they are having it. Away from the dance floor, a game of pool is running so I join the lookers-on. Round the table, deathly silence attends every shot. The last ball goes down. To hoots of joy, the victor is swept off his feet and carted in triumph round the room. At the bar, beautiful girls chatter and laugh. At our table, while I listen to somebody's views on Voltaire--or was it Proust?--Michela is politely discouraging a drunk. Jason has joined the men on the dance floor. I will leave him with the last word: ''For all Congo's troubles, you meet fewer depressed guys on the streets of Bukavu than you do in New York.''

Would I have written the same novel if I'd gone to Congo earlier? I wonder whether I would have written a novel at all. The reality of the place is so overwhelming that stories about it seem almost an irrelevance. But then I wasn't really writing about Congo, was I? It was all those other things. Congo was just backcloth.

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