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Nightly Messages in The Congo

by Dan Danyluk

It was April 1961. Two miles south of the airport, heading into Albertville in what was then known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo. My driver pointed left, slowed the jeep, and spoke: “Yesterday. That’s where they killed and ate the Irish patrol.”

“All 13?” I asked, confirming the news I had heard earlier in the capital city of Leopoldville.

“Yup! Hacked them up with pangas–you know, machetes. Guess they were hungry–those Balubas.”

The driver’s casual reasoning startled me. But being exhausted, I said nothing. Instead, my tired mind retraced the events of the past several days: The
36-hour journey from Trenton, Ont., to Leopoldville via Pisa, Italy, in a Royal Canadian Air Force North Star; a quick acclimatization in steaming Leopoldville; the disturbing horror stories I heard along the way; the major’s hazy request to send back any “information” that may be useful to him or the United Nations; the gruelling six-hour flight from Leopoldville in the west to Albertville on the shores of Lake Tanganyika in the east.

At the northern edge of the city, squealing brakes jarred my senses. “Your hooch, Captain,” said the driver. “Sergeant Mac’ll pick you up in the morning, around seven.”

In my new home, a spacious seven-room apartment, I introduced myself to my domestic staff: A cook, a houseboy, and a laundry man. In my broken French and Swahili, I issued limited instructions. The bed beckoned–my daily routine would start tomorrow. But sleep did not come easily. Noise! Noise? My mind screamed as surging waves of hypnotic drums alternately caressed and disquieted the night.

And then the sudden, magnificent African dawn. The sharp knocking at the back door. A sleepy trek with key in hand. A hot shower. The aroma of breakfast seeping into my bedroom. My houseboy, carefully holding a freshly laundered, pressed uniform, smiling broadly. My cook, standing as close to attention as his weather-beaten feet would allow, greeted me in the dining room. “Jambo. Bwanal!” they chorused. My “mayai mbili”, sunny-side up, tasted as good as they looked.

I asked the two to explain the “noise” last night. A pause, then the cook, obviously ill-at-ease, scurried into the kitchen. The houseboy, Kijani, mumbled incomprehensibly.

“Kijani?” I reprimanded gently. “What drums say?”

“Moja, kubwa, kitu,” Kijani stammered. All I understood was “one.” One? One of what? A strained flurry of three languages interspersed with my riffle of flipping Swahili/English phrase-book pages produced the improbable “moja” which means one, “kubwa”, big and “kitu”, thing. “One big thing?” Damn! Was the phrase-book wrong, or did I expect too much from my broken Swahili and French? A bleating jeep horn hurried me outside. “One big thing?” Maybe…maybe not a mistake. I then told myself to forget about it, and it’ll go away.

Sgt. Mac, my second in command, pointed out the landmarks as we drove through the city: The Coca-Cola bottling plant stood idle and deserted. The locals, I was told, drank either Coke or a gut-wrenching beer made locally from the pulp of palm trees. A make-do shelter of corrugated-tin walls and a palm-thatched roof served as the most popular local “pub” in town. A dirt sidewalk, the main seating area, teemed with locals, some looking like bony skeletons and some drinking that palm beer. Then there was the Continental Hotel and its luxurious veranda from which a few white mercenaries, resting between assignments, raised their bottles of beer in salute as we passed with a crimson rooster tail rising from the red earth behind our vehicle.

At the city’s edge, the street, now narrower, took on a somewhat pleasant character–quiet, tranquil–almost pastoral. Brightly clothed women mortared manioc and tended pots on small charcoal fires beside neatly thatched circular huts. The smells of breakfast filled the air. Behind the huts, banana trees provided a little variety to the ubiquitous manioc diet. Beyond the banana trees the shadowy forest loomed deep and dark.

Just south of the city, located in the breakaway, rebellious province of Katanga, was the detachment site. Set atop a prominent feature overlooking serene Lake Tanganyika, the once posh resort villa for the wealthy colonialists now served as the operations centre and the living quarters of the Albertville detachment, 57 Canadian Signal Squadron, United Nations Organization in the Congo, ONUC. I savoured the sweeping eastern panorama offered from this beautiful perch on the Mugila Mountains. The view was impressive. Directly east, the distant shore was barely visible. A bit to the north on that shore nestled Ujiji, the village where New York journalist Henry Morton Stanley met Scottish missionary and explorer David Livingstone. The vista of the breathtaking Rift Valley, stretching endlessly into Tanganyika expanded the imagination. “Beautiful, eh! Go inside, Captain?” suggested Sgt. Mac.

The signallers were smartly turned out, offices and messing areas immaculate but lacking furniture. The weapons storage room was clean and secure. Sgt. Mac’s daily orders and duty rosters were current and prominently displayed. The detachment defensive plan had been well thought out and all 12 signallers were aware of their defensive roles. Morale was high and disciplinary problems non-existent. Sgt. Mac ran a tight, efficient unit, and I wanted the situation to remain so. Thus, aside from the routine duties expected of a detachment commander, I resolved that any expansion of my role would be non-invasive. I would simply try to enhance the already superb ambience created by Sgt. Mac.

Lunch was adequate. However, the mess obviously needed more furniture, equipment, dishes, and cutlery. Also, the men rotated at the daily shopping, a detested off-duty chore done when they should have been resting. Combining their shopping with mine would be my first of many non-invasive role expansions. Further conversations revealed that the detachment was unsure of the mood, the attitude or the sympathies of the city’s various populations. And with only two jeeps in the detachment, we had a serious transportation problem. Sgt. Mac explained that UN headquarters had been asked several times about another vehicle, but no one in New York listened or heard.

As I was about to leave–next day’s shopping list in hand–Sgt. Mac asked if I had any “information” for the major. I thought for a moment about “one big thing.” However, at the mention of “drums,” I thought the major would surely question my mental state. “No. I have nothing intelligent to send.” Damn! I thought I had put “one big thing” to rest.

A blur of activities enveloped the next three weeks. My first priority was to gain the confidence of the few influential Belgians who, though fearing for their lives, chose to remain because Katanga was home. Despite recent atrocities and dire warnings from the Balubas–the most populous and belligerent tribe in Katanga–the Belgians vowed to remain as long as possible, hoping for peace. To gain their confidence, I held a formal mess dinner in my apartment. The dinner along with the toasts to the Queen, the King of the Belgians, the Prime Minister of Canada, the President of the Congo, and the President of Katanga seemed to impress the four attending couples and pave the way for productive conversation.

Luckily, I had a good supply of quality port. I learned that Coca-Cola was scarce; that, except for a few ruthless, bribe-minded soldiers, no effective local government existed; and that the UN troops were welcome by the locals but not by the surrounding Balubas; and, no, they had not heard of “one big thing.” In return, the guests learned of my problems.

As a result, the manager of the local rail station made furniture and kitchen equipment available. Outside my apartment, I found a recently repaired Renault. So I released my jeep to Sgt. Mac, easing the transportation problem. Choice cuts of meat, the freshest vegetables, and European-style bread would find places in my shopping cart.

Appreciating the Belgians’ help, I reciprocated. At their request, I arranged for their acceptance into the brigade defensive perimeter should the need arise. Additionally, the Belgians feared the lack of Coca-Cola would force otherwise peaceful Coca-Cola-drinking locals to drink the local beer and run amok. So we sneakily flew the Coke plant owner to Usumbura where he paid his outstanding account, ensuring a renewed supply of ingredients. He returned with a few gallons of concentrate to tide us over the immediate emergency. A few additional favours consolidated our mutual collaboration.

But let’s return to the dinner, which ended in the small hours of the morning. I drove my domestics to their villages because the law did not allow locals on the streets during the hours of darkness, although this restriction relaxed during the hour before first light so the locals could travel to places of employment. Near the first village, the drums started up. I stopped the Renault, and listened. Without any prompting, Kijani spoke: “Wazungu toka Lubumbashi.” And, “Hapana,” he added. No, this was not the one big thing.

Wazungu toka Lubumbashi meant: “White mercenaries coming from Elisabethville.” I telexed this to the major before sunrise. And sure enough, around three in the afternoon, who walks into the detachment bar but the legendary Mad Mike Hoar, Honorary Colonel, Katangese Army. He surveyed the mess, nodded to a sofa chair and asked permission to sit, hinting that a drink would be welcome. Canadian rye was his preference even over Scotch. And so with a bottle of Canadian Club tucked beside his chair, he began to talk.

A Scot of noble descent, Mike was a most personable character, replete with stories both disturbing and humorous, but all engrossing. He talked of his “work” in Katanga. Intriguing, horrifying, at times defiant, Mike spared no details in his accounts. I replaced the empty CC bottle. Mike continued to talk: “Something big’s going to happen.” But he refused to elaborate.

Over the next few weeks, Mike, but never any other mercenaries, became a regular at our mess, precipitating a message from Leopoldville that our liquor requisitions were getting out of hand.

Often, as I sipped a beer on the veranda of the Continental Hotel, I watched Mike and his mercenaries lead out his armoured jeep column of Katangese Kommandos in search-and-destroy missions against rampaging Balubas. At other times, he commanded armoured trains on the same missions. I duly noted Mike’s strength, column composition, and direction–all good “information” for the major. Mike would return, sometimes days later, parading up the main street and waving the trophies upon which Katanga based his salary. Then it was my turn to raise my bottle of Simba in friendly salute. The empty CC bottles comprised a very small debit considering the returns. The detachment had established another mutual alliance.

Basically, all the mercenaries were in or around Albertville. But I guess UN headquarters did not read our reports that the mercenaries were here–with us–because in early May, the Indian Brigade received orders to move out of Albertville towards Elisabethville. Then with typical UN panache, headquarters in New York ordered the Malaysian Brigade, not yet in Albertville, to arrest all mercenaries in Albertville, from where the Indian Brigade was to leave empty-handed. Yes, I know this leaves much of the logic inexplicable. Nevertheless….

In the mess, Mike sat forlornly, comforted by his CC. The empty bottle clattered, and Mike spoke suddenly, stating that he and his two dozen mercenaries wanted to surrender themselves to us. They would surrender to no one but us, not to the Malaysians, the Indians or Nigerians. I telexed Mike’s proposal to the major. I also requested instructions concerning the securing, housing, and feeding of the “prisoners” should the UN allow us to accept the surrender.

The major said he would telex UN headquarters for decisions. But UN headquarters was not listening. I suppose it must have been a weekend or after 5 p.m. New York time. Thus, the major had no choice but to tell us to decline Mike’s kind offer. We made our farewells, and we never saw him again.

So Mike left, and the Indian Brigade prepared to leave. The Malaysians were somewhere out there to the west moving towards Albertville to arrest Mike and his legion of mercenaries. That night, angry drums rattled the countryside. In the morning, I asked Kijani if the drums were about the one big thing. The answer was no. Drums say: “Many wazungu come, many moran go.” He pointed out the kitchen window to the northwest, towards Kindu and Kongolo.

I telexed the major: “Many foreign warriors (UN) are coming, and many true (Black) warriors going. Coming from the west, I believe.” This disturbed me because the only “foreign warriors” coming my way were with the Malaysian Brigade. Without the Malaysians or the Indians, the city of Albertville was in deep trouble from the surrounding Balubas–trouble I would sooner avoid than confront. It was imperative that the Malaysians get here before dark, or else! I needed to know where they were. So, I urged my Renault, sputtering and coughing up the hill towards the Indian assembly area. The Renault was in running order, but the Belgians could not find a replacement head gasket. So the engine coolant mixed with the engine oil. What the hell, at least the dipstick always showed full.

The brigade major recognized my smoke/steam cloud and met me. I suggested a reconnaissance to the northwest, adding it would be prudent to make contact with the Malaysians and to ensure the Indian Brigade was not being followed as it left Albertville. He thought it was a “capital idea” and ordered up the helicopter, an H-34.

Over dense forest, I spotted a heavily armed column of Katangese troops on a very narrow dirt road leading to Kongolo. The vehicle markings identified the column as Mike’s Katangese Kommandos, but without the mercenaries. We overflew the Katangese and followed the road northwest for about 15 miles where, would you believe, we located the Malaysian Brigade following the same road, but in the opposite direction. Hell! Who would give way? Would anyone?

We turned back and found a roadside clearing, probably a village site abandoned by the rural people when they stampeded into the cities in 1960 to bask in the glory and share in the spoils of independence. The clearing was large enough to take the Katangese column, but not the Malaysians. What I desperately needed now was a lot of luck and some sort of protective deity. We landed in the clearing, scaring several dozen vervet monkeys and a flight of huge, awkward yellow hornbills which assumed higher perches and screeched their annoyance. I jumped out, and the helicopter took off to a safe distance. There I stood in the middle of the road, with only my 9-mm tucked into the small of my back. The whine of engines grew to a loud rumble, and the earth seemed to shake. As I brought my trembling knees under control, the lead Katangese vehicle, bristling with small arms and larger weapons lurched into view.

What to do? I raised my left arm in a traffic-control halt signal and waved my right arm in an underhanded fashion towards the clearing. The lead vehicle braked, and helmeted heads converged in discussion. To my surprise and enormous relief, the vehicle headed into the clearing. The following vehicles closed up nose to gate. We exchanged not a single word.

The Katangese vehicles had not yet cleared the road when the lead Malaysian vehicle–a scout car–appeared. With more confidence now and with more brass than brains, I authoritatively halted the Malaysian column and kept it halted until the last Katangese vehicle had cleared the road. Next, I waved on the Malaysians who streamed by, hardly glancing at the Katangese. Wow, I thought. Why didn’t I bring a whistle?

After the Malaysian Brigade cleared, I waved the Katangese onto the empty road. As the vehicles passed, I shouted my thanks: “Asante, asante, asante sana!”

“Kwaheri,” they shouted back. And a goodbye to you, too, I whispered gratefully.

* * *

The end of June brought me a disappointing two-month posting to ONUC headquarters in Leopoldville to replace a Royal Canadian Army Service Corps medical casualty in logistics. My farewells to the detachment were sincere, regretful, and, in the military tradition, quite fluid. I also found it difficult to
say goodbye to Kijani. The sense of never finding the “one big thing” troubled me.

* * *

Except for a few outrageously wild adventures with then Capt. John Hugill, my stay at headquarters was as uneventful as it was boring. Finally, a reprieve: September saw me in the capital of Kivu Province, Bukavu, a beautiful lake-hugging city tucked away in the most northeasterly corner of the Congo–gorilla country. Wild strawberries the size of walnuts grew on lawns and medians. Bananas grew within reach of the youngest child. Coffee trees, once cultivated, now grew wild and unattended, their bitter green beans being attacked by only the hungriest birds. In better times, Bukavu could have been, and probably was, a paradise. But now it was today country.

An isolated coffee-plantation mansion, a few miles from the city, accommodated the detachment. The living conditions were comfortable, the drums loud and the natives unsympathetic. The warring and the violence throughout Katanga had escalated to frightening proportions and was nearing Bukavu. The atmosphere had become extremely tense and unstable. The major and I urgently needed “information.” Information meant drums.

It took me a few days to find a domestic, Buku, who acknowledged he could read drums. He had a rudimentary ability with French but claimed he spoke no English. Talking to him about the drums seemed pointless, but I was determined to make a continuing effort. I did not succeed soon enough.

On Sept. 15, 1961, headquarters ordered us to full alert. We had no defended perimeter to fall back to. So we rigged the code room for demolition; then, very religiously, we rechecked weapons, ammo, water, rations; reviewed the defensive plan; and ensured a supply of fuel for the generators. We barricaded the doors and windows. Then we waited.

The night of Sept. 17­18 presented the wildest, loudest, most persistent drumming session I had ever heard. In the morning, I questioned Buku about the drums. He appeared horror-struck and would not talk about it. I dropped the subject.

A day later we received a message: Mr. Dag Hammarskjold, secretary general of the United Nations Organization, had been killed in a plane crash near Ndola (in what is now Zambia) on the night of Sept. 18–the night of the drumming. This was sad, incredible news. I retreated to a dark corner of the mess to reflect on and try to find meaning in all this madness.

Somehow Buku found me. I looked up. His eyes reflected our grief. “Buku,” I pointed to my blue beret, “Mzungu. Bwana. Kufa.” The nearest I could get to “Our UN white chief is dead.” Buku lowered his head. I repeated, almost in a whisper, “Mzungu. Bwana. Kufa.”

Buku hesitated, then using English for the first time, said in Swahili and English: “Hapana! Yeye aliulia. The drums speak.” Hapana, I knew, meant no; and, of course, yeye meant he. But aliulia? Never heard of it. My phrasebook provided the answer: “Killed.” Was the UN secretary general killed or was the plane crash an accident?

The next day, Sept. 20, 1961, UN HQ in Leopoldville announced a ceasefire.

* * *

October, and the Rolls Royce engines strained as the heavily loaded North Star clawed its way upward, dodging the fierce afternoon thunderstorms that forever haunted the Leopoldville airport. The aircraft banked and levelled to assume its northward journey, the engines drumming in my ears. Africa slipped by–beautiful, rich, mysterious Africa. I will miss its dramatic dawns, its fragrant flora, its glorious sunsets. But I will not miss its savagery, its pangas, or its chaos. I was leaving a frenzied anarchy. “Leaving that,” I said to myself, “is no big thing.” Ironic! I laughed out loud.

But above the drumming of the engines, no one was listening. No one heard. Years later I still do not know whether Buku was right: Was the secretary general killed or was it an accident?

Editor’s note: A briefcase was among the remains of the plane crash that killed Dag Hammarskjold. It was found intact, and contained two items with which the secretary general always travelled: A copy of the New Testament and the United Nations Charter. In 1961, Hammarskjold was awarded a posthumous Nobel Peace Prize.


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