Message from Kinshasa, Part I
Outside the wall of gray fog approached, rolling down the mountain, rushing through the village, blotting out the sun. Inside Ronald sat in a chair, holding a cup of tea in one hand and pointing with the other at boxes of medical supplies in one corner of the room. The supplies had arrived the previous day, allowing him to treat the men, women, and children of Rutshuru in his clinic for another four to six weeks. But he wouldn’t turn away others, not even the hollow-eyed child soldiers, regardless of pressure from outsiders, including humanitarian agencies in Kinshasa or Paris. If he ran out of medicines early, he would find a way to obtain more.
“Everyone in these mountains,” Ronald said, glancing out the window at the fog, “is trapped in a cycle of violence from which few have hopes of escaping.” He looked at Sylvere for a moment before leaning back in his chair and closing his eyes.
When Sylvere himself looked out the window, straining to see through the fog, he could make out the mighty volcano, Nyamuragira, which still erupted from time to time, sending lava flows and noxious-gas clouds down on peoples and animals, including the critically endangered mountain gorillas.
“The only solution to the never-ending bloodshed in eastern Congo,” Ronald resumed, “is a precious metals and minerals industry developed by our people so we finally can provide opportunities for hopeless young men and women.”
Ronald, who sat next to a set of double doors at the front of the room, leaned forward in his chair and looked across the room at his young daughter who sat at a table at the back of the long space used as both a warehouse for the storage of the clinic’s supplies and an office for the administration of its operations. She was reading a book, probably acquired in Kinshasa, which appeared to be a textbook of either scientific or medical content from an academic institution.
“When Claudette grows up,” Ronald commented, gazing at his daughter, “she will become a doctor too, an even better one than I am.” His face beamed. “She will take over the medical practice from me when I am too tired to work any more,” Ronald added.
Suddenly, a noise, the loudest sound Sylvere ever had heard, pierced the air as six men, three who wore military fatigues and three who wore faded soccer jerseys, crashed through the set of double doors and burst into the room, firing automatic weapons. Sylvere didn’t move and couldn’t make a sound. Claudette screamed, and Ronald fell to the ground, his life gushing out of him in a pool of blood which expanded rapidly across a hard, concrete floor.
Sylvere awoke with a start. He raised his head from his pillow and looked around. A heavy, red curtain extended the length of the sliding-glass door of the room, holding the darkness in place. A gathering of light, although faint, was visible at the edges of the curtain. He replayed the pictures of Ronald, his closest friend from school many years before. It was all a dream, a terrifying scene which haunted him.
Still it was true. Ronald was dead.
In the darkness, already giving way to encroaching light from a rising sun, Sylvere rolled over in the bed and reached for the digital clock on the night stand. The tips of his fingers just touched the back corner of the clock. Pushing it slightly so he could view its face, Sylvere saw the time—5:38. Early Saturday morning.
Sylvere noticed his violet-colored polo shirt and gray trousers, with the dark-blue suit jacket to one side, spread out neatly on the other half of the king-size bed. He recalled falling asleep on top of the covers still wearing his clothes around 9:30 the previous night. He also remembered taking off his clothes, putting on his nightgown, and crawling under the soft layers sometime in the night.
Pushing back the sheet and the gold comforter above it, Sylvere shifted his body to the edge of the bed and raised himself to a sitting position with bare feet planted on pale stone tiles. The tiles were not too cold. He looked once again around the room. It was, more precisely, a suite. Comfortable but not extravagant, it was a structure which occupied the southern side of the roof of Hotel Rastelli in the heart of Tervuren, a town in the Flemish section, also known as Flanders, of the land now called Belgium.
In his dream, Sylvere realized, Ronald was a younger man and his daughter, Claudette, approximately ten years old.
The date on which Ronald was killed by a group of heavily armed assailants in eastern Congo surged to the forefront of Sylvere’s mind. Less than a month earlier.
“What was I doing when Ronald was shot to death?” Sylvere asked himself in Kikongo. He tried to think, but he couldn’t recall. Most likely, he was relaxing in his recently renovated and newly enlarged house on Rue Gustave Hervé in Combs-la-Ville, or maybe visiting the cottage of his pal, Pinto, several streets to the west.
Then a new thought entered Sylvere’s mind: Ronald had become a father only once in his turbulent life. Now Claudette, Ronald’s only child, might be dead too. Just the day before Claudette, who recently had turned 20 years of age, had gone missing somewhere in the untamed mountains outside Goma, the largest city in the eastern Congo, on the opposite side of the country from Kinshasa.
It was a beautiful but violent region, home to fragile communities of oppressed peoples and exotic, endangered animals under attack by heavily armed militants moving back and forth across borders.
A motion on the bed caught Sylvere’s attention.
Looking for the source of the motion, Sylvere focused on the suit jacket folded on one side of the bed. He realized the vibration had come from his mobile phone in the pocket of his suit jacket. His thoughts started racing.
“What is it?” Sylvere muttered in Kikongo.
He didn’t make an effort to check his device. He walked over to the table pushed up against the east wall of the room, picked up the half-full bottle of water, and drank the remainder of its contents. His glance fell on a second green bottle of water on the tabletop. This one he had not yet opened.
A scene from the previous evening appeared before his eyes.
On the roof-top deck, Chérubin, holding a glass of scotch in one hand, had revealed he and his bosses, Anna Adenuga and Carolina Dokolo, needed help from somebody in finding Claudette. As Chérubin spoke, he looked directly into Sylvere’s eyes.
Now Sylvere, turning back toward the bed, considered the possibility Chérubin was suggesting Sylvere should offer ideas regarding the whereabouts of Claudette.
Sylvere realized at no point on the previous day did he let it slip that his friends, Dikembe and Pépé, had been sheltering Claudette in Goma in eastern Congo after the attack in Rutshuru, 70 kilometers to the north. It had left the father dead and the young woman clinging to life. Didn’t Chérubin, Carolina, and Anna already know about Dikembe and Pépé and, therefore, that Claudette no longer was in the care of Dikembe and Pépé?
Sylvere admitted he never revealed any of this information, which he himself had learned only the previous afternoon. The question became, Sylvere realized, what should he divulge about his friends to Chérubin, Carolina, and Anna?
Anna, one of the richest women in Africa, and her personal secretary, Carolina, had arranged for Chérubin to bring Sylvere to Belgium for a meeting to determine how to rescue Claudette from eastern Congo.
Walking back over to the bed, Sylvere considered what might happen at the meeting, which was to be held that afternoon. He lifted up his suit jacket from the gold comforter covering the bed and removed his phone. When he looked at the screen, he saw a notification of an incoming text message from his wife, Josephine. Then he saw a second, earlier notification of an incoming text message, which had arrived while he was asleep. The earlier message had been sent by his second-youngest daughter, Kandgela. The time stamp showed 1:09am.
Sylvere opened the message from Kandgela. It was a complete surprise. She never sent text messages to him.
“I have more information regarding the man from Kinshasa, Justin Kabumba, who reached out to me through Facebook yesterday,” Kandgela wrote in French. The rest of her message contained details which came directly from the man in Kinshasa himself in addition to data Kandgela had collected from the man’s social-media account.
Sylvere looked up from his phone. As he allowed his gaze to drift toward the sliding-glass door covered by the heavy curtain, he started moving his bare feet across the pale stone tiles of the floor. His thoughts, too, started moving, at first slowly then very quickly.
Abruptly, Sylvere called his wife, Josephine, who now was awake and in the kitchen of their home in Combs-la-Ville. He wanted to assure her he was okay. “What do you hear of Serge and Penelope?” Sylvere asked instead, speaking in Lingala, the primary language of Kinshasa, where the two of them had met many years previously.
“Serge et Penelope Ntaganda? Les intolérables?” Josephine responded, speaking in French and using a popular description for the couple in the Congolese community. “Since when do you care about them?” she asked, switching to Lingala.
For the first time, Sylvere realized his wife knew nothing about his current activities nor about the people involved. He decided to ask his friend, Pinto, for his advice. For the moment, though, Sylvere remained silent.
“Well,” Josephine resumed, “now that you mention it, my friend, Berenice, just yesterday told me something interesting.” She paused for several moments, as if she wanted to build up the suspense and provide as much dramatic effect as possible for her husband’s benefit. “According to Berenice,” Josephine continued, “Serge and Penelope last week bought a new house in that recently completed gated community on the other side of town.”