Last night, my girlfriend, me, her son and her visiting daughter went downtown to the only hamburger joint to get a taste of home. Nice cheeseburger, nice fries, pleasant atmosphere, really high prices. One of the topics of conversation was how acceptable Kinshasa is becoming, with the streets starting to get repaired and more and better food becoming available. Little did we suspect how ugly and terrifying the evening would end.
During the end of the meal, one of our rainy season thunderstorms rolled in. Big booming thunder, crackling flashes of lightning, and torrential downpour like only the rainforests know. Within minutes, the streets were rivers and traffic outside had slowed to a crawl.
We knew we had better get started for home, since the roads often flood so deeply that only 4x4s can get through, so after a quick stop at the market, we joined the frustrating snake of traffic slowly creeping across town. For a place that rains half the year, it’s amazing how poorly people drive in storms. Partly due to the now-hidden potholes beneath puddles, or because of the over-jammed VW busses cutting us off left and right, pretty quickly we were locked in tight, wipers thwapping, headlights glaring, horns honking, and no one was going anywhere.
From our meandering around, we knew of several shortcuts and bypasses to get off the main road, so as we slowly approached Kintambo Junction (a complex nexus of 5 intertwining streets, markets, pedestrians, bicycles, carts, street stalls and dilapidated buses), we took a right onto a side street, looking for a road we knew of that bypassed the intersection by running along the river. We were one street earlier than we usually turn, but we figured it we could cut over somewhere to get onto our regular route.
It was pitch black, the rain pouring down made visibility difficult and dirt roads impassible. The road we had turned on to was not a very promising since it was a dirt alley, but we continued to the last block, only to find it became a cul-de-sac with no exit. Damn, we would have to turn around and go back.
Just then, an army guard materialized out of the shadows of a large gate waving his arms at us to stop. My girlfriend’s son instantly freaked, and her daughter in the back seat began to get panicky. I told everyone to calm down, that the army regularly takes a dollar from people, and I kept turning around. Then it all changed. The guard whipped up his AK47, pointed it at the windshield and yelled something in Lingala. Another guard came up to my door with his AK pointing at my head. I stopped the car.
I told the family to stay calm (useless to say at this point, as the daughter was shrieking in the back seat and the son was starting to cry) and rolled down my window. The first guard came around and started yelling at me, so I played the ‘dumb American’ and tried to explain in my poor French that we were just trying to get around Kintambo. The guard softened for minute, then started asking questions in French, demanding my papers, and waving his gun again. I passed a photocopy of my passport to the guard, who looked over them and demanded I get out of the car. I told the family to lock the doors and I got out. I kept apologizing, reached out and shook his hand and passed him about 500 francs (about $1) with an apology and said it was for a cup of coffee on this cold, rainy night. He looked at the money, pointed the AK at my belly and said it was not enough. He demanded $50 from us. He shouted his demand, and he was very threatening.
Believe it or not, I was not scared. Strange as it sounds, having two camouflage-clad, bloodshot-eyed Congolese guards waving loaded AK47s at you in the pouring rain, at the end of a dark cul-de-sac, next to a river, with no witnesses, fingers on the triggers, shouting things you don’t understand is not really terrifying. I was more irate than anything else. It felt like a bad scene from a war movie, maybe the scene where the leading character grabs the gun, fights his way out, and escapes in a hail or gunfire. Or takes a round in the belly and the credits roll while the audience is left with a feeling of betrayal and that justice will never be served in that god-forsaken place. I felt that whatever way it went was up to me, and I knew enough to know that giving him money would not stop the process. The folks in the car were freaking out, not helping the situation at all, as I was trying to negotiate with the commandant. Whenever I approached him with a conciliatory tone, the other guard would drop back covering me with his gun. He kept demanding $50, I kept insisting that all I had was a few hundred francs and I was sorry for bothering them on this rainy night and please just let us go back to our homes.
The guards demanded that we open the doors, and they started pulling the family away from the car. The son was crying, the daughter was shrieking, the girlfriend was freaked out, and he started rummaging through our stuff. He saw my laptop and his eyes lit up. “A BOMB!” he declared and started pulling it out of the car. My girlfriend took out $50, pulled the laptop out of his hands and gave him the bills. “There, let us go, please please please!” She was crying by now, and another guard in plainclothes came out, apparently realizing that this was going to be a payday.
The commandant counted the money and said no, it was not enough, he wanted $50 from in the car. “50-50-50-50” he said, pointing the AK at each of us in turn. My girlfriend started yelling at me to just give him the money, and I said ‘no, if you do that it will never end. He’ll take everything we have.’ As he started rummaging through the back seat again, I took out my cell phone and called the regional security officer, a friend of mine, and the man who can call out the marines.
“Hey guy, what’s up?” he drawled. “Ed, I have a situation and we need Rescue. We’re being held at gunpoint by army guards and are being robbed. We’re at the end of the street that….”
The guards saw my phone and all hell broke loose. They all started shouting, the guns whipped up into my face in unison, they were falling back covering us and the plainclothes guard lunged at me, grabbed the phone and shoved me against the car. I could hear the tinny sound of Ed saying something, the kids were screaming in fear by now, and I did not realize that my girlfriend had also called someone on her phone. When the guards saw her phone out, too, they grabbed it, and shoved their AKs deeper into my belly as they held me backwards against the car. They were all shouting, it was total confusion, guns were waving and pointing everywhere, rain was pouring down, she was sobbing ‘just give them the money, just give it to them’ and I was still saying “No, damn it! They will just want more. Just get in the car and let me try to deal with them.”
It was bedlam. They robbers shouting in French, falling back, guns leveled at us, and the commandant was still trying to pull our stuff out of the back seat.
My girlfriend then reached out with a handful of dollar bills. “Take this, take it!!” The commandant took it, walked to the headlights and calmly counted out the $250. The guards still had us surrounded and there was a quiet pause in the situation. She reacted instantly. “There, you got your money, let us go. You said you would, now let us go.”
The commandant stepped aside. His entire demeanor changed: he had certainly never seen that much money at one place in his life, and was probably astounded that his terror tactics worked. Wages in the Congolese army are about $10 a month, so this was an unbelievable windfall. My partner now had the wind in her sails, so she demanded our phones back. The guard who took hers held it out; she grabbed it and leapt into the car, locking her door. I demanded mine, but the commandant got in my face and greasily said “a gift from you to me, no?” “No f**king way!” I demanded. “I want my phone!” The plainclothes guard got between us, back to me facing the commandant, and started arguing and conjoling with him in French, leaning into him. He took my phone as he argued and pushed it behind his back into my hand, shoved me toward the car, still arguing with the armed guard. I jumped into the car, dropped it into gear, and prepared to get away, but the commandant came to the window and tapped on it. I rolled it down, furious, humiliated, and biting my tongue, and he asked my name. I asked for name, and he said “Jean-Claude’ and held out his hand to shake hands. I ignored him and spun the tires getting away. The last I saw of him was him chasing us down the road waving his AK47 in the air, yelling something. I didn’t wait to find out what he wanted, although I suppose he wanted to return the photocopy of my passport. We had just been robbed at gunpoint by Congolese army guards for $250. The kids were crying, my girlfriend was shaking, and I was furious.
As we drove out, as soon as we were back on the main road and feeling secure again, I called Ed back. He made sure we were safe, said that the friend my girlfriend was calling had also contacted him, and he needed to get on the other line put out some fires that had just started. He called me back in a few minutes, said that the Marines had determined that it was best not to go down there that night as it certainly would have resulted in a firefight with everyone so edgy, but instead he would come get me the next morning and we would go back there and confront Jean-Claude and the other guards.
The next morning, Ed picked me up, and along with an armed translator and another armed embassy security guard, we went back to the end of the cul-de-sac. We were a full contingent of US Embassy ID-carrying, armed people with radios, the marines tracking our movements, diplomatic and military clout, and I felt gooooood. It turned out that the house there belongs to a General, the chief of the Congolese secret service, who happens to have a strong, constructive working relationship with the US embassy, so Ed said this might work to our advantage. He said he had already briefed the ambassador (also a friend of ours) and things were starting to work behind the scenes.
The commandant of the daytime shift came out, and Ed asked me quietly if anyone looked familiar. Strangely enough, after staring up close at “Jean Claude’s” face for so long the night before, I could not definitively recognize him in broad daylight the next morning. The day- commandant was the right height, but a very pronounced gap in his front teeth, and I was certain that I would have remembered that from the night before, but I was very surprised with myself that I could not be sure of even that noticeable identifying mark. In retrospect, days later, I was certain that he was the same person, but at the time I was not at all sure.
We explained that security guards working this detail last night held up the assistant director of the school, her partner and her children at gunpoint and took $250. He was extremely defensive, guns were unsheathed, and soon several other guards, secret service men and bodyguards were clustered around my contingent. Ed talked calmly and constructively, working to keep the situation capped, then a memo came out from the General inside ordering the arrest our police escort for bringing us there. Ed made a few phone calls, and a new order came out of the house instructing them to release our escort, but instead instructing the day-commandant that his entire detachment would be arrested for robbing us. He suddenly became very nervous and cooperative, and we poured through the duty rosters. Of course, no one named Jean-Claude worked there, and eventually everyone swapped ID numbers, forms were filed, and hands were shook all around. The day-commandant greasily apologized to me for my unfortunate situation, and we left the scene.
Ed explained what happens from here. He said we’ll almost certainly never get the money back (not a problem, as far as I’m concerned) but there will certainly be some backlash at diplomatic and street levels. Guards assigned to protect the person and property of the head of the Congolese secret police just cannot hold the assistant director of the Embassy School and her family at gunpoint and rob them. The entire detachment is now slated to be arrested, so most certainly the General will have ‘Jean-Claude’ brought to him, if his identity is found out. What will happen then is uncertain, but 3 weeks ago some army guards robbed the clientele of a local restaurant, and among them was the local chief of the World Bank. Three days later, the army guards were found dead in a gully across town.
There are limits of what people with guns should be empowered to do, and if this kind of abuse gets untreated, it only gets worse. Despite my sympathies for the plight of the Congolese soldiers, I did not appreciate getting held at gunpoint. It’s out of my hands now, and I know that street justice here is harsh and quick. I only hope Jean-Claude finds himself sent east, and his family appreciates the $250.