It’s been six months since I’ve written here, and I think I expected to not write here again. Today marks a year since I returned to the US from Congo. I’ve been busy with my life as an artist, making things, going places, thinking thoughts and trying to reify them in a way that people will like, and perhaps want to buy, contributing to my comparatively low-key bohemian existence. I’ve been trying to return to writing about Congo and my experiences there, but something has been getting in the way. The story of my time there, the context of my time there, and the developments since, is so full and rich and strange that I find it hard to distill into the bite size morsels that this format prompts. Instead i spend a lot of time waving my hands through it, like through a scented fog, watching the turbulent boils of history and violence. This is an initial attempt to break the spell.
Terrible things have taken place in the village of Obenge since I left. The deposed chief of the village, the inestimable Guillaume “Kapere” Molangi, has been killed. The village is now almost completely depopulated, and functions as a base for a detachment of about 100 troops from the FARDC, Congo’s national army. They are in pursuit of the murderous rapist tyrant of the region, a bandit known as Colonel Thoms.
Thoms came to power in the sparsely populated riverine region of dense forest surrounding Obenge during the big war, when any pretext of central authority in Congo utterly collapsed. He rose up as everything left behind by the previous thirty years of Mobutu’s cynical kleptocracy was falling apart. At the height of his power, he was the cloaked terror of an area of approximately 60,000 square kilometers. The UN estimated that he and his gang had been responsible for over 135 rapes. After one particular episode of mass rape in the village of Yawende, forces were, apparently grudgingly, assembled to do something about him. That ended up taking the shape of tricking him into coming to the city with an offer of a military commission, arresting him, and sentencing him to life with hard labor in Kisangani’s colonial-era redbrick prison stockade.
Three years later he escaped. Some of his associates had escaped before him. Collusion with elements of the police and military was presumed; after all, he was a successful poacher of elephants, a man of means, and the means of generating significant piles of ivory for the people in the Congolese army who are in charge of the illicit ivory trade. I say that with a shrug. Business as usual.
I met Thoms, briefly, if you want to call it that. We greeted each other, at least. He was on his way upriver after a two day parley with the team of park workers and the ICCN guards from the Obenge camp. I was sitting at the rough bamboo desk at riverside where I spent a lot of time writing and drawing and watching birds during my two months in Obenge. Everyone from the camp was gathered at the upstream end of the “beach”, as streambank loading spots are known, to offer a formal goodbye. I had stationed myself at the desk to try to take a picture of him as he went past.
When Thoms was in the village, I had asked if I could meet him. Maurice and Pablo and the Lieutenant all said no. “He’s a barbarian” said Maurice. “He’s an impossible person to deal with. If he likes your shirt, he will demand that you give it to him, and threaten to shoot you if you demur.”
Later that day Maurice described how he’d mentioned to Thoms that there was a white person in camp who’d expressed interest in meeting him. Thoms laughed. He’d never met a white person, he said, and didn’t know what he’d do if he did. He might have to kidnap them. Laughter all round. Serious, then, Thoms explained that he didn’t want to meet any white people. He knew that they had secret cameras that could take pictures of you.
So I sat next to the river and watched him go past in his dugout, with his team of six men and one woman, several sacks of manioc flour, a couple of jugs of moonshine and five AK-47s. When he saw me he smiled. I smiled back and waved. “Enchanted,” he said in French.
The paddlers pulled the dugout over to where the crowd stood on the beach. Thoms ranted for a while, gestuiculating, and then the small tree-trunk craft pulled out into the big brown muddy mainstem of the Lomami, heading upstream. I snapped a couple of pictures as they moved away- I’d been too chickenshit to click when they went past.
"What was he saying?" I asked Maurice.
"Rehashing what we’ve been talking about. That he’s reformed his ways, doesn’t rape and kill and rob anymore, but needs to be left alone to poach elephants. He’ll refrain from troubling our forest if we refrain from troubling his."
I left two weeks later.
More will be forthcoming soon.