Assani felt naked as a baby on his arrival in Kinshasa. For years he’d been driving around in the east in a pickup with eight soldiers, armed to the teeth. Now he stepped off the plane with just a few bodyguards. The sky above the city was milky white. He’d forgotten how hot it could get here—the tropical heat fell like a clammy blanket and he was struck by the sickly reek of palm oil and putrefaction. The asphalt gave slightly under his army boots.
Sirens blaring, the convoy drove the miles-long boulevard to the city center. The overpopulated cités* with their labyrinths of narrow sandy streets were hidden behind garish billboards for Vodacom and Celtel telecom services. Minibuses shot past, so full that legs dangled from the half-open back doors and children hung their heads out of the small windows, gasping for air. One bus stopped to pick up a maman* carrying a basket of baguettes; the passengers somehow made room for her.
Then suddenly he was in the Grand Hotel, formerly the Hotel Intercontinental, his bodyguards warily investigating the corridors while he inspected his room. Through the window he could see the Congo River, water hyacinths bobbing toward the rapids, and the skyline of Brazzaville in the misty distance. He’d recently learned to swim. In the high plains in the east of the country where he’d grown up the rivers ran fast and cold and he was always horribly sick if he had to travel by boat, but now he’d overcome his aversion to water. No more traipsing along a riverbank trying to devise a way across.
That afternoon he was driven out to Camp Tshatshi to meet the others. Some had phoned him while he was still in Goma. He had no idea how they’d gotten hold of his number, but as soon as his nomination was announced the calls started coming. People complained about their superiors, saying they couldn’t wait for him to arrive. That subservient, singsong tone—he couldn’t stand flattery, and nothing they said made the slightest impression on him.
The guards at Camp Tshatshi peered in through the car window as if he were a revenant, a ghost. The camp was in a euphoric mood. His arrival had been postponed so many times that no one really believed he’d ever turn up. He recognized some of the soldiers who flocked to greet him, men he’d last seen here five years ago when he fled the city. They were thrilled and wanted to know everything: How had he gotten away? How had he survived those first few months? This from people who would gladly have lynched him at the time.
As soon as he managed to get himself a car, he drove into town with his kadogos—little ones—cautiously, the way he was used to moving about, on the alert for an ambush. The signs of authority he’d been expecting weren’t much in evidence. The situation felt fragile; no one could guarantee anyone else’s security.
He and his bodyguards wore Burundian uniforms and big slouch hats. In the past they’d have been conspicuous dressed like that, but to his surprise the Kinois* paid little attention. It seemed they had other things to worry about. It was only when he stopped at a sidewalk café in the cité for a drink that a few inquisitive people came up to them. The soldiers from the east were mibali, real men, they said. They’d been told the soldiers were all dead, but here they were, alive and well! It was a good thing they’d come. Maybe they should take over again; those who’d stayed behind hadn’t achieved very much.
Driving back, he got lost. He didn’t know Kinshasa very well. He needed a map, but how could he get one? Surely it would look suspicious if a man with his history asked for one now.
He was incorporated into the reunited national army, along with other high-ranking officers. Everybody was there, and he saw Joseph Kabila again. When Joseph’s father was alive they’d been young soldiers together, and even after the war broke out they’d occasionally phoned one another, but they hadn’t spoken since Mzee Kabila died and Joseph stepped into his shoes. Assani had his number, but you needed to keep statesmen at arm’s length; you never knew who else they might still be talking to.
The thirty-two-year-old president had bags under his eyes—presumably the presence of all those rebels in town made it hard to sleep at night. His father’s friends must have told him they’d come here to kill him and that Mzee Kabila would turn over in his grave if he knew his son had made peace with his sworn enemies. Representatives of the international community who’d dragged the young president through the peace negotiations, from one compromise to the next, looked down from the podium with satisfaction. They’d saddled him with no fewer than four vice presidents.
Assani was taller than the rest, and he slumped down in his seat so the cameras wouldn’t pick him out. From under his new general’s cap, too big for his narrow head, he could look around surreptitiously. The transitional government was an amalgam of stones, roots, and cabbage—how could you ever make decent soup out of that? Long after the vegetables were cooked, the stone would still be a stone.
There was Yerodia. As soon as he was appointed vice president he’d rushed off to Mzee’s mausoleum with a television crew, to invoke his help and to have a good cry for the cameras. He had the dazed look of an inveterate cigar smoker and he’d dressed for the occasion by tucking a silk handkerchief into the breast pocket of his sleeveless jacket.
Next to this tropical dandy, Vice President Ruberwa looked sober in his gray suit. Like Assani, he was a son of the high plains. It couldn’t be easy for him to sit so close to Yerodia, who’d said at the start of the war that Ruberwa’s people were vermin to be eradicated—if only because some of those people would see them together on television this evening and call him a traitor.
As the long, pompous speeches dragged on, the officers caught each other’s eye, whispered, and laughed, like schoolboys forced to sit still for too long. Afterward they had their pictures taken. Another freshly appointed general, a member of the Mai Mai, clearly felt intimidated by the bustle of the city. He pulled Assani aside conspiratorially, spoke to him in their own dialect, and suggested the officers from the east should be photographed together. “Not with the others,” he whispered. “Just us.” To think they’d been archenemies over there.
It was the end of one era and the beginning of the next. No more crouching in trenches while Antonovs shat bombs and the sky lit up, like in an American war movie. No more killing, destruction, shooting at everything that moved—he felt no particular sensation.
At Camp Tshatshi, his new workplace, little had changed. A vague smell of urine hung around the corridors of the main building, rusty springs stuck out of the leather couches by the stairs, ceiling tiles were hanging loose, and some of the windows were broken as ever. They hadn’t even repaired the locks on the weapons depot, which he’d forced before fleeing five years before. How could they have dreamed of winning a war from such a dilapidated HQ?
Responsible for the budget of the armed forces—it had sounded important enough, but the office he was shown to by his predecessor was empty. No table, no cupboard, no chair, and in this oppressive heat not even an air conditioner, only a hole in the wall where it used to be. When they toppled Mobutu in 1997 there had been paperwork, archives, but now there was nothing. How had Kabila’s men worked, for God’s sake—by walkie-talkie?
His predecessor was a surly man, not the type you could ask questions. He handed Assani a cell phone from the insolvent company Telecel and got him to sign for it. That was all: one phone, without a battery—when he tried for a replacement he found none was available anywhere in the city.
While he was on the way back to the hotel his wife called, as she had so often in recent days, probably to check he was still alive. When they met he was head of military operations in Goma, the rebel capital. She’d thought they made the perfect match; nothing had prepared her for the situation he now found himself in, nearly 1,000 miles from home, in enemy territory. She was much younger and the panic in her voice was starting to irritate him. “Leave me alone, won’t you,” he said. “Why keep calling? You people can’t imagine how complicated everything is over here.”
In his hotel room he turned on the television halfway through the program Forum des M’dias. The participants were fulminating against the rebels from the east, saying they’d come to kill the president, that he’d come to kill the president. He sat rigid on the bed. So the people who wanted him dead were still around. They had a free hand here.
Politicians from the east, desperate to secure jobs in government—why had he followed them? Why return to a city where he’d escaped death by a whisker? What was he doing here, in this room, this hotel? He didn’t like hotels. He was allergic to the wall-to-wall carpeting and the air-conditioning was making his nose clog up. He didn’t feel safe in this environment of strangers and diffuse noises.
That night he was up in the high plains, walking down a narrow mountain track toward the city. The great river far below churned and thundered more and more violently, until the wash slopped over both sides of the path. A fine mist soaked his face and the current sucked his feet out from under him.
He jolted awake, groped for his wife’s warm body, realized where he was, and struggled to suppress the fear that was mounting in him again. The violence was cyclical; he’d never known anything else. It had always been wartime.