Sam Dixon writes prose fiction and plays, as well as working in international development and humanitarian aid. He studied Modern History at the University of Oxford, and Violence, Conflict and Development at the School of Oriental and African Studies. Since then he has spent several years living and working in Africa, mostly in the Democratic Republic of Congo. He is currently working on ‘Two Rabbits,’ a novel about aid and rebellion in eastern Congo.
Just before this chapter Gabriel, the narrator, and a Congolese Bishop have been trying to find proof that the UN committed a massacre. Gabriel hopes to interview a warlord called Simba, but has not been able to find him, and he and the Bishop have set out on their way home.
Chapter 15: Simba
We set out on the road back to Boga. It was just after four. On both sides of us mud houses -with their tree branch skeletons partially exposed- lay scattered in a forest of banana plants. The leaves, transfigured by the sunlight, glowed a lambent green and cast dancing shadows on the road. All that sort of stuff. I was frustrated. No Simba, no story. Only the word of a drunken rapist and a village chief who wasn’t telling all he knew. And the displaced women of course, but they were too powerless to make the truth.
The sedan bounced and creaked, but the Bishop, for once, was silent.
‘Do you think there’s any way we can prove it?’ I said. ‘What the UN did.’
He didn’t reply, so I kept on.
‘If we could get evidence, this could be big. Are you sure we can’t talk to Simba? Doesn’t he control this part of the road?’ I looked around. The whole world appeared so peaceful and still.
As we passed through villages, the villagers no longer came out to greet us.
It probably wasn’t true. Just another one of those Congo stories. True in a mythic sense, but not true in the sense that it had actually happened. But then there was the agitated testimony of those women, the newly dug graves. And, God knew, the UN did fuck up more often than they didn’t. This wasn’t my job, wasn’t Better World’s mission. Amnesty, Human Rights Watch, this was more their sort of thing, documenting a massacre.
‘In my opinion,’ the Bishop cut across my thoughts, ‘your preoccupation is not with justice, but with your own career.’ He didn’t elaborate, didn’t take his eyes off the road.
I felt blood rising to my face. Was this what he thought of me? It wasn’t the reason. I mean it might help my career, sure, but it also might not. It definitely wasn’t the main reason anyway. I wanted to defend myself, but couldn’t think of anything to say.
Up ahead we were approaching a dog leg in the road. The UN base was on the joint. A strategic position to see anything coming from either direction. Some soldiers slouched in the wooden guard tower. Had they really done it? They looked too lazy to kill. Did the Bishop really think I was only interested in exposing the massacre to further my career? I decided I didn’t care.
Outside the base was a paillotte. A round hut roofed with straw. Concrete walls reached to waist level and then metal poles rose from there to support the roof. This was where the UN had meetings with visitors they didn’t want to let into the base. Which was basically everyone.
The Bishop put his foot hard down on the accelerator and slowly we began to speed up.
‘You’re wrong’ I said. ‘You’ve become cynical. You think all foreigners are here to screw your country.’ The only way to deal with him, I’d decided, was to go on the offensive.
‘Put your head down,’ he said.
‘Put your head down.’
‘It’s only the UN,’ I said. ‘They don’t care that I’m in the car.’
The Bishop took a hand from the steering wheel, put it behind my head and forced me down. I was so surprised that I didn’t resist. I was almost doubled over in my seat. He didn’t move his hand, but I could lift my head to look out of the windscreen and then sideways at the Bishop. His expression hadn’t changed. He looked relaxed, but the car was now moving very fast and shook violently over the bumps. The banana trees on the side of the road sped by. The dog leg approached. At this speed we’d only just make the turn. The soldiers in the guard tower were smoking. Their blue helmets hung low over their eyes and they watched without interest.
In the shade of the paillotte something was moving.
‘Slow down,’ I said and at the same time a gunshot exploded through the air. My body spasmed and I lifted my head with such force that the Bishop was thrown sideways. The car swerved to the right. Another shot. The Bishop pushed me back down. Another shot, loud and rough and mauve. It tore into the air, until, with a slight echo, the sound dissipated. I expected at any moment to see the Bishop slump, dead, towards me. I tried to look up, but his hand was still hard on the back of my head. He had corrected the swerve. We were slowing down. All I could hear now above the noise of the car was the birds, starting to sing again after the mid-afternoon slump. I breathed.
Another shot. Another and another, this time so close together that the tail end of one collapsed into the rushing explosion of the next.
Only the sound of the birds once more. The relative quiet not to be trusted this time.
And then I felt the pressure of the Bishop’s hand release from my head. The car stopped and he turned off the ignition. Was his hand shaking or was it only me? I looked up. Barely a metre ahead of the bonnet stood a boy with a Kalashnikov raised to the sky. He lowered it and pointed it carelessly at us. He was wearing, of all things, a pink t-shirt decorated with rosettes and horseshoes, and a necklace of bullets. The expression on his face looked older than he was. Two other boys, in dark sunglasses, were walking over, one to each door of the car.
‘You may get to meet Simba after all,’ said the Bishop.
The boys opened the doors and we got out. I could barely stand. Fast-pumped adrenaline had killed all feeling except fear. The two boys, one on either side, had to prop me up like a wounded civilian. The Bishop smiled at me but I couldn’t smile back, and -following the child soldiers’ lead- I walked thickly over to the paillotte.
As I ducked inside my hair caught on some straw hanging from the roof and I started. I stepped in after the Bishop. The paillotte was dark and stank of alcohol and cigarettes. There were three full ashtrays on a plastic table. Bottles of Primus lay haphazardly around them like pins. Some beer crates were stacked at one side – in shade, barely visible. Several armed men lounged in chairs, a couple of rocket launchers were propped against the wall and a young boy cradled a watermelon.
At the table sat a man in a military cap. Eyes closed, camouflage shirt half open, sleeves rolled up tight around his biceps. His jaw jutted forwards, like the protective part of a motorbike helmet. He had a machete in his belt.
Two militiamen got up and pushed plastic chairs towards us with their feet. We sat down. I leant sharply forwards, arms folded to cover the nervous hole in my belly. The Bishop lounged in his chair, feet straight in front, arms over the back. He smiled at the man.
‘Vincent,’ he said.
The man opened his eyes. Black and pale yellow, they fixed the Bishop, then jerked around the paillotte, resting momentarily on me before looking again at the Bishop.
The man hit the table suddenly with his fist. It juddered across the earth. A beer bottle wobbled, rolled and fell off. No one reacted. Either this was normal or they were all too drunk. Neither option seemed good. I shifted my chair backwards, the legs catching on the uneven earth.
‘My name is Simba,’ the man said.
The Bishop leaned forwards, looked directly at him.
‘So you say,’ he said. ‘And yet I remember very clearly that when I christened you I gave you the name Vincent.’
The Bishop held Simba’s gaze. What the fuck was he doing? My fingers dug into the plastic arms of the chair until they hurt.
And then Simba laughed. He looked around at his men and they laughed too.
‘My friends,’ he said, spreading his hands. ‘Will you have a beer?’
‘No,’ said the Bishop. I shook my head so little that no one may have noticed.
‘Two beers,’ said Simba. The boy with the pink t-shirt went to a crate, pulled out two bottles of Primus and uncapped them on the barrel of his Kalashnikov. He put them on the table in front of us.
‘Drink,’ said Simba.
‘As I said I don’t want a beer and I don’t think my friend does either,’ said the Bishop. ‘However, I will have a cigarette.’ He reached for a packet on the table, but Simba was quicker and swept it off with his hand and onto floor. The Bishop hesitated, but didn’t bend down to pick it up. Then he spoke to Simba in a different language, Lendu I guessed. I turned in my chair to look outside. What were the UN doing? It took several seconds for my eyes to adjust to the light. Nothing. Just watching from their guard tower. They must be preparing something without wanting to arouse suspicion. I felt slightly better. Thank God I wasn’t wearing a Better World t-shirt: when the blue helmets sent their daily report up the food chain, no one would know who I was or who I worked for. I might get out of this alive and without losing my job.
I turned back around. The Bishop was still talking but Simba was restless in his chair.
‘Enough,’ he said, and then ‘you’. He was looking at me. ‘I want to talk to you.’ He pulled the machete from his belt and summoned the boy with the watermelon. There was something sexual about the way he cut it, the way the machete sliced through the pink and green flesh. My dick tingled until the two hemispheres fell apart and rocked gently on the table.
‘Drink,’ he said, pointing to the beer.
I took it from the table. As I did I felt damp sweat under my arm. I only pretended to drink but a gob of warm and frothy liquid slipped down my throat nonetheless. I swallowed and felt the skin of my neck stretch and release with the movement of my Adam’s apple.
‘I want two things,’ he said. One of his men took the watermelon halves and the machete and began to cut them into smaller pieces.
‘First, I want you to tell the UN that I will accept a mixer. Not this UN,’ he said indicating the small base nearby. ‘The top of the UN. Your country?’
I didn’t understand. I could feel sweat on my forehead. The Bishop seemed to have frozen.
‘Your country?’ Simba said again.
I understood this time. Something stopped me from saying England. I thought of Patrick in Bunia.
‘Ireland,’ I said. I’d left my passport in Boga so they couldn’t check.
‘Then you know about colonisation. You know about injustice.’ He lifted himself from his chair and reached across the table. He wouldn’t stop looking at me. Red veins had appeared on the fringes of his yellow irises. He seemed to be bleeding into his eyes. He extended his hand.
‘We are brothers,’ he said.
I was too slow in extending my own hand and Simba caught only my limp fingers. As soon as he let go I wished I hadn’t touched him.
‘Yes, you will tell the international community that I will accept a mixer into the army. But they must recognise my rank. I am a colonel. Look.’ He thrust his sleeve towards me. His large jaw made him look sane but his eyes were full of empty madness.
‘The government lie,’ he said. ‘Their promises are empty. Empty. They say I kill my own people. The Lendu. How is this possible? I am a Lendu. Why would I kill my own people?’
His voice was rising in anger. His face was so close to mine I could smell his breath. He pointed to the UN base.
‘But them, they kill them,’ he said. ‘They kill them and they blame me. I only want what is my right. The right of me and my men. Tell them I will be a colonel.’
He sat back down and drank some beer. How could I explain to Simba that I didn’t represent the UN, let alone the whole international community? I decided it was too complicated and said nothing. My throat was dry. Some flies had settled on the last pieces of watermelon. I wanted one but the machete had not looked clean.
‘Well we are en route for Boga’ said the Bishop suddenly, as if he were concluding a social visit. ‘Thank you for your hospitality Vincent, but it is time for us to go. We have to be back before dark.’ He got up. One of the militiamen moved in front of the exit.
Simba laughed again. His eyes wouldn’t stop moving. It wasn’t clear that he was seeing anything at all. His body shook falsely with his laugh.
‘I am the warlord of these roads,’ he said. ‘No one else. No one. While you are with me no one will hurt you.’ He reached down for the cigarettes and offered one to the Bishop. I took one too. The Bishop had to light it for me because my hands were shaking. Simba, however, seemed suddenly calm.
‘The second thing I want,’ he said ‘is soap.’
He looked at me. Why the fuck did he want soap and what the fuck was the UN doing and why the fuck had they not ended this? I didn’t know if I could deal with much more. Tears rose inside me like water against a dam but I couldn’t cry. It felt like something would break.
‘Do you have any soap?’ Simba said to me.
I didn’t reply, couldn’t.
‘No Vincent,’ said the Bishop. ‘We do not have any soap.’
Simba stood up, pushed the table over scattering glass, beer and ash.
‘My name is Simba,’ he said. ‘Drink. You will drink. Even the army drinks with me.’ Both the Bishop and I had stood up with Simba. His men had got up too, now drunkenly alert. He lifted a World Food Programme sack from the floor, heavy with watermelons.
‘Vincent…’ the Bishop said. Simba dropped the bag to the floor and struck him in the stomach. He doubled over breathing heavily and coughing. Panic rose in me, but the Bishop stood up again and looked unblinkingly at him.
Simba picked up the bag from the floor and reached inside. He pulled out a human head. The hair was short and curly and he had to dig his fingers and nails in to hold it. The face was livid. The lips hung loose. The eyes were hideously lifeless. My stomach retched.
‘Give me a beer,’ Simba said. One of his men went to the crate, pulled out a Primus and opened it. Simba turned to the face.
‘Have a beer on me my friend,’ he said. ‘Have a beer on me in heaven.’ And he thrust the bottle into the mouth. The glass sounded as it caught on teeth and the brown liquid spilled from the lips and ran down the dead man’s chin. A second later the beer started to drip from the severed neck too. Some of it ran down what remained of the spine, which hung out a little lower than the neck.
I turned and vomited over the wall of the paillotte. The dusty brown earth looked serene. The road, the trees and the air were calm and still. The birds were singing as if what was happening in the paillotte didn’t matter at all. I vomited again. Saliva dribbling from my mouth like beer from the head. I convulsed but no more came up.
When I turned around Simba and the Bishop were sitting down, someone had righted the table and the head rested on it next to its beer.
‘Have a drink,’ said Simba. One of the boys passed me a new beer and I accepted it, almost dropped it to the floor. The Bishop refused the bottle offered to him.
‘No thank you Vincent,’ he said.
Silence for a moment as Simba’s mood teetered between opposites. Then he laughed again.
‘Go,’ he said. ‘Both of you go. I am your friend. Nothing will happen to you.’
The Bishop got up, pulled me to my feet and pushed me to the entrance of the paillotte. The sun was setting now but my eyes still squinted at the brightness. I looked around and saw the two UN soldiers in their guard tower. They waved at us. Were they smiling? I retched again and bent over, hands on my knees.
‘On y va,’ said the Bishop.
‘My friends,’ again. Words I didn’t want to hear. Another wave of nausea broke through me. A hand grabbed my forearm. I was still bent over, surrounded now by legs in camouflage trousers. I looked up. Someone had stopped the Bishop too. Simba was walking out of the paillotte.
‘We were leaving Vincent,’ said the Bishop. There seemed no end to his calm. His voice was soft and firm, did not falter.
‘My men have not eaten,’ Simba said. ‘And they must eat. A good leader feeds his men’.
They’d eaten watermelon I thought and then almost laughed at how ludicrous this was. Simba wasn’t talking about food.
The Bishop was speaking to Simba in Lendu, more hurriedly now. I kept looking at the ground, hands resting on my knees. I wanted to stay in this position forever, but I forced myself to stand.
Simba gave an order to his men, but they didn’t move.
‘What’s happening?’ I said.
‘Take off your clothes,’ said the Bishop.
‘Take off your clothes.’
One of the boys stepped towards me. The one in the pink t-shirt.
‘Start getting undressed,’ said the Bishop.
‘Why?’ I said, panicked.
‘Because they want your clothes.’
The boy started to pull at my shirt. Instinctively I pushed him away. Then someone took my hands.
‘Do it yourself Gabriel or they’ll do it for you,’ said the Bishop.
I undid my shirt. My hands were trembling and fumbled on the buttons. The Bishop was unbuttoning his own shirt. The boy in pink reached into my pockets and took my wallet and phone. Another took off my shoes and found the hundred and fifty dollars of security money I had hidden under the in-sole of the right one. He started undoing my trousers, pulling at my belt. I pushed him away. I looked over at the Bishop. Against his black skin all I noticed were his light blue briefs which crinkled thinly around the elasticated strip. I took my own trousers off and stood now in socks and boxer shorts in the road. The Bishop was, by now, completely naked.
‘You will have to take off everything,’ he said to me. I pulled off my socks, slid down my underwear and covered myself with my hands. A boy wearing a sash of bullets over his shoulder walked forwards and picked them up. The boy who’d been undressing me turned and grabbed them too, and for a moment they tussled over my underwear until the bullet boy won and returned to the edge of the circle.
The Bishop was speaking again. I turned to the UN soldiers. They were still watching from their base. One of them had leant his gun against the guard tower and was taking photos with a camera. I felt so impotent in my anger, but the Bishop didn’t seem bothered at all. I looked at him and hated him for his vulnerability. He made no effort even to cover himself. He was short, about a foot shorter than me. His stomach sagged. The skin normally hidden under his clothes was lighter than the rest of him, and looked soft and wrinkled as if he had been soaking in a bath. Around his neck hung the large wooden Crucifix which it seemed they had allowed him to keep. On his left shoulder and upper arm there was a constellation of pink blotches, a rash of some sort. His hands hung by his sides, quite naturally. His legs bowed outwards and between them crouched a large penis like a jockey hunched over a horse. It must have been big even for a Congolese because when I realised I was staring at it and looked involuntarily up it seemed to have provoked comment among the militiamen too.
The Bishop stopped talking.
‘What were you saying?’ I said.
‘I was telling him that you are only a stupid European, and that you do not know to hide things in your anus,’ he said.
Three of the men stepped towards us from the edge of the circle.
‘Would you mind turning around?’ said the Bishop. ‘I’d prefer you not to see this.’
I didn’t immediately understand. Two of the militiamen held the Bishop by each arm. A third circled behind him.
And then there was another voice. I looked around to see whose it was. Not Simba’s. Not that of anyone in the circle around us. This voice spoke in polished French and sounded like it hadn’t spoken for a long time.
‘I want to watch this,’ it said. It was coming from the paillotte. A figure stood in the entrance way. A small man about the same size as the Bishop. Simba turned to him deferentially. The men stopped and followed his lead.
‘It has been a long time Elisha,’ said the man. ‘Simba told me you would be here today. I heard that someone made you a Bishop.’
The Bishop looked at him without emotion. He didn’t say anything. Simba nodded. The short man was smiling. I turned away but heard the Bishop grunt in pain as they searched inside him. I tightened my grip on my penis. Tears pushed to my eyes. I wanted to be anywhere but here. I felt like a small child again. My penis started to harden and tingle. I kept it covered, held it down and waited for it to soften.
‘Shall we go?’ said the Bishop. He was matter of fact. ‘I’d like to get home before it’s dark. If we happen to get stopped again there won’t be anything to steal, and it may be much more serious.’
I looked up. Simba had disappeared, and the men were walking away into the forest of banana plants. It had ended silently.
We got into the car. My backpack with all my notes had gone. The cigarettes too, even the cigarette lighter.
I felt the tired fabric of the seat against my back, my bum, my legs. I tried to rest my head between the seat and the window, hands still covering my penis. The Bishop started the car. He put it into gear and we drove off. The full moon was still pale in the late afternoon light. The trees were only just beginning to lose their shape. An old man on a bike pedalled towards us on his way home.
The Crucifix still hung around the Bishop’s neck.
‘How come they let you keep that?’ I said.
‘I told them that taking a Crucifix from a Bishop was like taking a gun from a militiaman,’ he said.
We both laughed in relief. Other questions came into my mind, welcome distractions.
‘Why didn’t they take the car?’
‘What would they do with it? The state still controls much of the road and there are no roads in the forest.’
‘And who was that man who came out at the end? The one who…’ I almost said the one who wanted to see you searched, but I stopped myself.
‘He is an old old friend of mine,’ said the Bishop. ‘We were at school together.’ He paused. ‘It is ironic because we have both become spiritual leaders of a sort. He for Simba and his militia, me for the Catholic Church. As you saw they hold him in great reverence. That was an honour in many ways. He is rarely seen anymore. Certainly not this close to the road, certainly not this close to the UN.’
‘How could the UN do nothing?’
‘They are scared of Simba. What could they do?’
‘Arrest him,’ I almost shouted.
‘Do you think the UN wants that? Your security council, do they really want that? A peacekeeper might be killed. What would his country’s government say to its people? You are all happier when it is only the Congolese who suffer. It allows you all to feel compassion for us.’
I looked at him. His face was concentrated on the road, but he seemed sad.
‘What do you mean?’
‘I mean that you feel good when you can feel bad about our suffering,’ he said.
I didn’t really understand. I felt too sorry for myself now to feel sorry for anyone else.
We were approaching a village. People had come back out of their houses. It was no longer quiet. They saw the Bishop’s car and ran to meet us, even the adults this time. Perhaps they were seeking reassurance after Simba.
‘Monsieur l’Evêque, Monsieur l’Evêque.’
The Bishop did not slow the car as he had before, but sped up until he was forced to slow down by some children who stood in the road waving at him. These children got to the car first and stood on tiptoe to look in at the windows. For a moment they stared in incomprehension, then their eyes widened and they ran away screaming in all directions. Then they came back to check what they had seen and ran away screaming again.
The men had reached us now. They peered in at the windows, the people at the front passing the message in whispers to the people at the back. Eventually the chef du village and the priest pushed their way to the front.
‘Monsignor, désolé,’ the priest said bowing, ‘Desolé, vraiment désolé. Was this Simba?’ Despite all his apologies there was no sense of subservience to the Bishop; the priest really did seem concerned about us. He looked at us and the car. ‘They left you with nothing. Not even a fig leaf? Mon dieu! Not even a fig leaf’ He threw his hands to his temples.
‘Not even a fig leaf Père Constantin,’ said the Bishop. He was smiling. There was something comforting about the priest’s outrage. The Bishop then turned to the chief. ‘Monsieur le chef could you organise some clothes for us? Anything will do. We only need something to cover us until Boga.’
‘Mai oui bien-sûr,’ said the priest. ‘I should have thought about it before. You must have my clothes.’ And he started taking them off.
‘No Père Constantin, that will not be necessary. I have clerical clothes in Boga. All me and my friend need is something to cover us for an hour. We will return it tomorrow morning. Perhaps, Monsieur le chef, you could help us.’
The chief nodded. He had already arranged that everyone should stand back from the car with respect. Someone had chased away the children with stones, and now a boy -his son perhaps- was sent to find us some clothes. Meanwhile the chief and the Bishop talked. The chief kept his eyes straight ahead on the road, careful not to look directly at us. I shivered. It was that needlepoint moment between day and night when it feels as if time has briefly stopped and, in the still light, enemies and friends look the same.
It was dark when we reached Boga. The light of the full moon cascaded onto the football field in front of the mission and Bertrand, the mission servant shuffled out to meet us. He must have been waiting and we watched the shadow of his slow figure cross the field.
The Bishop took off his Crucifix and opened it. There was a concealed hinge at the back and the vertical of the cross was hollowed out. Inside, there was a one hundred dollar bill.
‘This, I believe, is yours,’ said the Bishop and handed it to me.
I looked at it and smiled slightly. ‘What about my Masses?’ I said.
‘When you decide you want them you can give it to me then. But you didn’t seriously think I’d charge you money for information did you?’ He looked at me. ‘Unworthy thoughts Gabriel, even for your black soul,’ he said. He was cast in darkness, but I sensed him smile.
‘Do you think things will get any better?’ I said. Those women, the killings, Simba. The future did not seem a happy place.
‘I don’t know,’ said the Bishop. ‘Why should I worry about that? Today’s troubles are enough for today.’
‘But all that suffering,’ I said. I wasn’t goading him.
‘There will be suffering in this world until the moon fails,’ he said. ‘And as you can see there is no sign of that tonight.’ Bertrand was still making his way towards us. The Bishop changed tack.
‘And you? Are you ok?’ he said. ‘That was not at all nice. And I imagine it was your first time.’
I nodded. The Bishop embraced me. I almost started to cry, but Bertrand had reached us and was looking through the window.
‘I have made coffee, Monsieur l’Eveque,’ he said. ‘Come in.’