Raiders of the Congo

November 30, 2012

How does the ongoing massacre of tens of thousands slip off the radar? Why? Is it because the what is going on in the Congo is too complicated to easily explain or is it because what is going in is too clear with little or no room for discussion- and that may force us to sit up, take notice and act?

These questions and others like them force us into an uncomfortable corner. How do we decide what outrages us and what doesn’t? Why don’t we seem to care about almost 50,000 victims in Syria with over half a million refugees but obsess over a hundred plus dead in Gaza? Why are the 1.7 million Palestine in Gaza the focus of so many while the many million more Palestinians languishing for decades in camps in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and elsewhere forgotten?

Does race play a role? Does it matter who the victims are who the perpetrators are?

GQ:

A few years ago, a pair of white security contractors embarked on a journey deep into the African bush. Their mission? Unknown. A week later, a seemingly innocent man lay dead on the side of the road, and the two soldiers of fortune were the targets of an epic manhunt through the Congolese jungle. James Bamford retraces the strange odyssey of Tjostolv “Mike” Moland and Joshua French—and discovers that more than one hundred years after Heart of Darkness, some things never change.

The white men seemed nervous. There were two of them—one tall, one a few inches shorter, both conspicuously “other” from the sea of African faces. The tall one with the goatee carried a green nylon bag that he kept suspiciously close to his body, peering into it several times as he and his partner negotiated with the locals in the dusty parking lot.

The muzungus—that’s the Bantu term for foreigner or, in the literal translation, “aimless wanderer”—needed a ride. That much was clear to Kasimu. But they were struggling to communicate with his boss, the driver of the white Toyota Land Cruiser the white men had singled out among all the beat-up trucks and sedans as big enough and rugged enough to transport them and their broken-down motorcycle across the jungle. At first the muzungus balked at the driver’s price. Then they complained when they realized that Kasimu and his friend Kepo, who needed a lift home to his village, would be riding along. Finally, at about 6:30 p.m. on an early-spring evening in the crumbling colonial city of Kisangani, Congo, all five men piled into the Land Cruiser and settled in for a long drive through the jungle. Kasimu and Kepo shared the open back of the vehicle with the motorcycle—a white Yamaha trail bike—and the tall muzungu. The shorter one rode up front with the driver.

Everyone was quiet as they made their way east across the city, lurching and braking in the evening traffic. Known as Stanleyville a century ago, Kisangani was the centerpiece of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the remote “Inner Station” during the days when Belgium’s King Leopold II was the ultimate gangster, running the Congo as his private rubber plantation. More than a century later, it remains isolated and forgotten, a brooding, malevolent town of demons and diamonds, dreams and decay.

As the Land Cruiser cleared the outskirts of the city and continued east through Equatorial Africa, the group passed lopsided trucks piled high with cargo and a dozen or more Congolese sitting precariously on top. After a half hour or so, the vehicle made a brief stop, and the tall man moved up to the cab to join his friend, leaving the two Congolese alone in the back.

Now only the dim glow of the moon and the occasional fire from an isolated settlement illuminated the rocky dirt track that spanned the dense and sweltering Ituri rain forest. Soon the villages of thatched huts thinned out, leaving long stretches with nothing but watery puddles and gray-black shadows. At around 8 p.m., about sixty-five miles east of Kisangani, the driver slowed down and pulled over.

Kasimu and his Kepo were surprised. Another stop? At this rate, the journey would take forever. The white men got out and stood by the vehicle for a few minutes, conferring, seeming to argue, growing more and more agitated. At one point the shorter one walked toward the back, and Kepo took the opportunity to ask for a light for his cigarette. The man said he didn’t have one. He turned to ask his taller friend, who gestured dismissively and shouted to leave him alone. Moments later, according to both Kasimu and Kepo, the tall muzungu erupted in rage, screaming at the driver: Get out, get out, get out!

Then, suddenly, gunfire.

What the…? Kasimu leaped from the truck bed and tried to flee into the thick bush, but the shorter man grabbed hold of his jacket and yanked him to the ground. The two men tussled, Kasimu struggling to loose himself from the man’s grip. But the muzungu was strong. Finally the tall one motioned to his partner to release the African so he could get a clean shot. And the instant Kasimu felt his attacker relax, he bolted. The tall man raised his weapon, aimed, fired…and missed. Kasimu escaped into the blackness of the jungle.

Kepo, meanwhile, was paralyzed with terror, kneeling by the cab of the Land Cruiser. As the shooter shifted his attention to him, Kepo rose to run. The white man fired, but the shot whizzed over Kepo’s head. “I thought, If I lose control now, I’m going to die,” Kepo recalls. Like Kasimu, he managed to escape into the jungle as the white man fired a last errant shot into the dark.

The driver, a 42-year-old husband and father named Abedi Kasongo, was not so fortunate. His limp body now lay in a pool of blood in the middle of the dirt track. Within hours, word would go out to every pygmy village and thatch-roofed hut in the jungle that a local man was dead—and that the two muzungus who’d committed the murder were still out there, somewhere, in the vast green hell of the Ituri.

That’s the Congolese version, anyway, of a deeply strange African murder mystery. It’s a tale of the modern-day eastern Congo, a lawless dystopia ruled by brutal warlords and built on the stooped backs of their enslaved subjects. It’s a war story, too, played against the backdrop of a bloody and seemingly endless conflict over land and minerals—specifically gold, diamonds, and coltan, a metallic ore that’s inside your smartphone and a vast array of other electronic devices. And it’s a story of two white Europeans who, like generations of their colonial forebears, saw nuggets of opportunity amidst the chaos.

On Saturday, May 2, 2009, a pair of former soldiers from Norway named Joshua French and Tjostolv “Mike” Moland pushed their white mud-splattered motorcycle into Kisangani after a 600-mile trek across the eastern Congo. (The bike had survived about 599 of those miles before finally succumbing to the relentless pounding of the jungle roads.) They checked into room 23 at the Riviera, a small $65-a-night white stucco hotel with free breakfast and a pleasant outdoor café along the tree-shaded Avenue Bondekwe. What was their business in Kisangani? The answer to that question remains as murky as the Congo River. But a few days later, they were urgently looking for a way out—a search that led them to Kasongo and his Land Cruiser.

Mike Moland was a 28-year-old veteran of the Norwegian military with right-wing views, a hot temper, and an imposing six-foot-plus frame to back it up. After leaving the army, he’d bounced around the world on low-level private-security jobs. In Arizona, he worked on the construction of security fences near the border with Mexico; in Zambia and South Africa, he did some anti-poaching gigs; he says he got his first taste of the Congo in 2005, as a bodyguard for an Austrian businessman…

Read it all.

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