It was a bad idea to be on the road after dark. In fact, it was a rule that all vehicles had to be parked in the driveway by six. I made it a point to always head back to base, as it was called, by five. It wasn’t out of respect for the rule that I did this; it was out of a healthy fear of being out after sundown.
For one thing, it was easy to get lost. Cyangugu was a remote puzzle piece pressed between two neighboring countries and a large lake. It had maybe a half-dozen signs total, and they weren’t very specific; they were the sort that, at a fork, said “Zaire” over one arrow and “Burundi” over another. Most of the region, like the rest of Rwanda, was a constant succession of hills, and if you weren’t on top of one, it was difficult to get your bearings. Furthermore, attacks generally didn’t happen during the daytime.
My first breakdown occurred on Cyangugu’s main road, an unpainted strip of asphalt that wound through the Nyungwe rainforest and terminated at Zaire. I was driving up a hill about a mile out of town when I felt the vehicle’s momentum begin to wane. I pushed further on the gas pedal, but the slowing continued. I downshifted repeatedly until I was in first gear, and extended my right leg until the accelerator touched the floor. The engine stalled and the vehicle rolled to a halt.
I was peering at the instrument panel when the horn began to honk in a rapid staccato. I flung open the door and ran across the road. I stood in the dirt between the asphalt and the grass and faced the vehicle. It was a brand new Land Cruiser, smooth and white like a bar of soap, with the blue letters “UNHCR” on the doors and hood. It had anti-mine matting on the floor, a protection only one other of our vehicles possessed. I was worried, not as much by the vehicle’s behavior as the prospect of it going out of service on my watch.
Then I realized I had hit the carjacking button. It was situated not far from the clutch. I cursed the Toyota engineers and wondered if its treacherous placement was the product of their idiocy or malice. I returned to the Land Cruiser, reached inside, and depressed the small metal nub. Silence returned as abruptly as it had left.
I asked Oleg about body armor. I had heard there were some vests in the house, stored in a closet that was stocked with provisions for an emergency.
I wouldn’t have known about this unusual feature had it not been for several scotches a few weeks prior. Oleg, UNHCR’s security officer, had joined us for dinner. He had been a Soviet military advisor and had spent much of his career training tank crews in Libya and Syria. I heard he spoke Arabic fluently, and his English, though prone to clumsiness, was quite good. He must have been around fifty, but he had a younger man’s body. Every morning he went for a swim in Lake Kivu despite the risk of bilharzia.
I had met Oleg a few days after my posting to Cyangugu. After lunch one afternoon, he came over to the staff house to give me a security briefing. We sat in the garden and Oleg asked the cook to bring us a pot of tea.
“OK, land mines,” he began. These were one of the region’s main dangers. “Well. I should say, first!” He chortled and looked intently at me. “Is better never to hit land mine.” I dutifully laughed and nodded at this precious alloy of wit and truth.
He then ran through the basic preventative measures: scan the road while driving; avoid potholes, puddles, and fresh mounds of dirt; stick to paved roads whenever possible; try not to be among the day’s first motorists on a road; and plan your travels to more distant communes on market days, when traffic would be heavier. These last two struck me as rather unsporting.
I asked Oleg about body armor. I had heard there were some vests in the house, stored in a closet that was stocked with provisions for an emergency. I asked if we could lay claim to them. Oleg smiled and waved his hand dismissively.
“Such vests will not even slow penetration of a fragment,” he said crisply. His English was especially good when discussing military matters. He said that the garments were of Bulgarian origin, and their steel plates were heavy and offered feeble protection.
He then got into a tale about some soldiers he knew who drank pepper vodka and took turns doing jigs on top of an anti-tank mine. “To show they are brave,” he explained, folding his arms and bobbing like a Cossack dancer. “Such mines need more than two hundred kilos pressure to detonate!”
But back to the digestifs. After this particular dinner, Oleg produced from his knapsack a bottle of Johnny Walker Red. Pouring a small amount into each of our tumblers, he told us that today was his daughter Anastasia’s birthday, and that she was now ten. He said this with ceremony; it was obvious their separation pained him. We raised our glasses and toasted Anastasia. Oleg lifted his head, poured the contents into his mouth with a quick tilt, and swallowed in one gulp. I repeated his actions.
Then Godlove, a Tanzanian monitor in his thirties who looked a lot and acted a bit like Cassius Clay, proposed a toast to all daughters. His wife and children were back in London. Abdoulaye, the head of our field office, an older Senegalese whose children were in Nairobi, vocally agreed. The glasses were duly refilled and emptied. A toast to all children followed thereafter, and the solemnity gave way to gaiety.
This process rapidly accelerated when Oleg shared that the occasion was also special because, thirty years ago to the day, he had entered the Soviet army. He withdrew a cassette from his shirt pocket and held it aloft. “We have very big party before I leave,” he said, “and we play Tom Jones music.” Soon we were toasting the lusty Welshman and singing along.
Abdoulaye excused himself to send the daily situation report, leaving just Oleg, Godlove, and me. Merriment now passed to nostalgia as Oleg reviewed his life at arms.
“Do you know, Cambodians are so polite!” he said toward the end of a story of being carjacked in Phnom Penh. “This man bowed at me at same time he points the Tokarev at me.” He made a pistol out of his right hand and joined it in a prayer gesture with the left as he dipped his head. Godlove erupted in laughter, clapped Oleg’s shoulder, and shook his hand vigorously.
Then Godlove lifted his palm as if to confess. “I have been carjacked myself in Nairobi,” he said. He went on to describe the event, during which two armed men took his UNHCR four-by-four. Despite his anecdotal tone, it sounded pretty harrowing to me.
“But there is in such vehicle anti-robbery device,” Oleg said after a pause, and described the very button I would push weeks later.
“Oh!” Godlove snorted. “Only a fool would hit that button. Everyone knows about it! If you use it, they will turn it off. And then they will come back and find you. And then they will shoot you dead!” At the word “dead,” he brushed his hands together in chopping motions, as if to clean them of dirt. Oleg laughed at length and wiped away imaginary tears, then poured us more shots.
I felt very good, notwithstanding my carjacking envy, and not just because of the drink. Everybody said Cyangugu was the most dangerous prefecture in Rwanda, and more than one person had counseled me not to come. But I was thrilled to be here. At the time, I was convinced that obituaries worth reading began with an adventuresome youth.
My second breakdown occurred in the commune of Karengara, but unlike the first, it was not so easily remedied.
Oleg had identified Karengara as a risky commune, one to which we should travel only in convoy, i.e., at least more than one vehicle, and only for the most important business. But I was unconvinced by the logic of convoying. Given the threat of ambush, it seemed to me that traveling in convoy would serve only to increase the body count.
But it was not due to these considerations that I found myself alone. I was working on the monthly summary report when Callixte, a young office assistant, approached me looking distraught. He was supposed to deliver a letter to the bourgmestre’s office in Karengara that day but was unable to go. I assured him that I would drop it off myself. I couldn’t quite understand why the letter had to be there that day, but in this place, asking clarifying questions rarely produced satisfactory answers. So I took his envelope and left, taking the anti-mine Land Cruiser, unexpectedly free.
Karengara wasn’t far. From point to point on a map, it was less than fifteen miles away, and not much longer even on the prefecture’s winding roads. To reach it, you went east on the main road until you hit the tea plantations. Then you turned south onto a dirt road and drove through the fields and up into the hills, where the commune office was.
It hadn’t rained in a few days, and the sun had hardened the ruts. In this condition, when you drove fast, you were in for a rough ride. I was going as fast as I could; it was already half past four. But after a sustained period of bumping on a relatively smooth stretch, it dawned on me that something might be wrong.
I stopped and walked around the vehicle, inspecting the wheels. The right rear tire was completely flat. The rim appeared, to my untrained eye, to be significantly bent.
The spare tire was bolted to the underside of the Land Cruiser, and the jack and tire iron were kept in the back. I opened the interior compartment behind the right wheel well. It contained a first aid kit, all in Chinese. I removed the cover to the compartment on the left and found it empty.
This, I had heard from Oleg, was common in Rwanda. Jacks, like wiper blades in the Eastern Bloc, were valuable by their scarcity and prone to theft. I remembered him saying that you should always check before your journey to make sure you had everything necessary to change a tire.
I sat on the rear ledge of the Toyota and looked out. The sun was beginning to move toward the trees beyond the field to my right. Rows of emerald tea bushes combed the hills into narrow concentric circles, giving the appearance of a topographical zen garden. This was the first I had ever traveled into the fields. I passed them driving into and out of the prefecture on the main road, which cut through the plantations. While the luminous green stretches were striking to behold, they had never interested me much. I preferred to keep my eye out for the black and white Colubus monkeys who ventured from the forest to eat the tea leaves.
I poked around the vehicle to see what it contained. I looked for anything, but found only registration and insurance documents in the glove compartment. My radio handset was useless here in the hills. The Zairean rebels had destroyed the transmitter when they took Bukavu, and it had yet to be rebuilt.
I picked up Callixte’s envelope off the passenger seat and opened it. Inside was an official letter notifying the bourgmestre of Karengera that a delivery of resettlement kits would be made to the commune office in one week’s time. The letter struck me as completely superfluous: the bourgmestre would be content to receive the kits with or without prior notification. Apparently bureaucratic inefficiency held command even in our modest field office.
I tilted back the seat and watched the sky glow orange and then darken. Rwanda was a beautiful country—everybody said so, and I could not argue the point. Cyangugu wasn’t the resort town that Gisenyi, at the northern end of Lake Kivu, was—it had none of the shoreline villas nor the magnificent backdrop of volcanoes. But Cyangugu’s lakeside scenery was, nonetheless, striking, and I could imagine the town, in a counter-factual universe, as a desirable destination.
Sometimes, after the last of the returnees had been loaded onto the buses, I would drive down to the water’s edge with a couple of beers and decompress before heading home. Often it was cool and misty, kind of like the Pacific Northwest, but equally often it was clear, and you could see the refugee camps that spotted the hills across the water in Zaire.
During my third month on the job, on a cloudless, moonless evening with delicate astral illumination, I discovered night fishing. I left the residence to walk down to the office, and saw that the lake was speckled with faintly glowing dots. Abdoulaye explained that the army had lifted the curfew and permitted fishermen once again to go out at night. The lights were from their canoes. I can’t remember if he said they were from actual fires built in the vessels, or from lanterns, but the resulting effect was dramatic: the blackness of the lake was an inverted sky filled with stars. Viewed from the hillside, it was as if the heavens lay above and below.
Smitten with this discovery, I spent the next few evenings seeking the best vantage for the spectacle. I found an excellent location not far from our house, on the dirt road that zigzagged down the hill to the main road by the lake. In order to get the optimal view, I tried sitting on the hood, and then on the roof, but the slope of the hill made for a precarious perch. Finally I settled on the driver’s seat. Now and then I would try to pick up a shortwave broadcast, but mostly I’d just sit in silence, sip my beer, and contemplate the parallel galaxies.
One night I saw the headlights of another vehicle trundling up the hill. As it approached, I could see it was a UNHCR Land Cruiser. I turned on the interior light and waved, and saw Godlove in the driver’s seat. Beside him was an Algerian doctor, who had come down from headquarters in Kigali the previous evening.
“What are you doing here?” he asked, visibly puzzled.
“Just taking in the evening,” I said, gesturing broadly toward the lake.
He grunted, nodded goodbye, and drove on. When I returned home, I found them sitting in the living room, drinking bottles of Mützig. Godlove kept it in crates next to the refrigerator because he disliked cold beer.
“Ah, young man,” he said to me in his brisk East African baritone. “You mustn’t park our vehicle there. If the Colonel sees our vehicle parked above the lake at night, he will think we are up to no good. Already we have enough trouble with the RPA without making any more of it.”
The RPA was the Rwandan army. The army had an inimical relationship with UNHCR, which it believed—correctly—had given aid and comfort to the genocidaires in the camps. The doctor reached over and playfully pushed him on the shoulder.
“Godlove!” she chided. “Don’t bother him. Believe me, you can’t possibly understand the need of the American male to be alone!” She laughed ruefully, as if to inform us that she had learned this the hard way.
Even though my stargazing was through—Godlove wasn’t the sort of guy you argued with—my ego felt a consolatory spark of pride in her remark. It pleased me to be referred to in archetypal terms.
But I didn’t much feel like an archetype now. It had grown completely dark, and my initial concern had developed into acute fear. The fall of Bukavu and the camps had caused a “mass influx”, as UNHCR termed it, of returnees, and among them were many genocidaires and former government soldiers. Now, instead of launching cross-border raids, they attacked from within the villages to which they had returned. These attacks were what frightened me, much more so than mines.
I didn’t mind going up against mines. In fact, though I would never have admitted it, their presence held a certain attraction for me: the probability of hitting one, I believed, was small enough to be unlikely, but it was also large enough to entitle me to feel brave. In my imagination, going out into the communes was like a pilot’s mission over wartime Europe. I knew this was a shameful exaggeration, but I quietly indulged it anyway. Now my easy bravery was deflating.
I snapped awake, as I often did at night. I had become an avid but fitful sleeper in Cyangugu, a development I attributed to the combination of anti-malarial medication and the attendant strain of the job. I sat up and looked at my watch. It was after ten o’clock.
I opened the door and stepped out to let the cool air refresh me. I stood in the road and looked upward. There was no moon, and clouds covered the spangling I was so fond of. From up the road, in the direction the Land Cruiser was facing, I heard the sound of several people walking.
Instinctively, I jumped inside the vehicle, pulled the door shut, and ducked down beneath the dashboard. Realizing the doors were not secure, I locked both in the front and then scrambled to the back to repeat the action. Deciding that this area offered more protection and less exposure, I lay down in the well between the front and rear seats. I was terrified, but also in a state of unusual alertness. My brain was playing two tracks: one screamed for action, the other calmly noted the absurdity of my response.
I held my breath to listen. I didn’t hear any sound at all for a minute or so, and began to entertain the possibility that I had been mistaken. This hope ended with the sound of raised voices that grew gradually closer. They were speaking Kinyarwanda, a language whose frequent hard consonants made for crunchy mouthfuls. From their inquisitive and energetic tone, it was clear that the Land Cruiser was their topic. Within seconds, I saw silhouettes gathering around my vehicle.
With swift and complete clarity, I realized that I should have just driven away. I knew that a stupid concern for the wheel had prevented my doing so, and this stupidity would be fatal, as well as the subject of much posthumous comment.
The figure directly in front of my makeshift berth began to tap on the window. The sound of his fingers against glass was very gentle, and I remember feeling surprised that he did not use his fist. Then I saw that he wore a Rwandan army uniform. I raised my head and lifted myself into a crouch. The men standing beside him were also soldiers. I unlocked the door and stepped out. There were around thirty men in the road.
I felt a spike of horror when I saw that many were in civilian clothes—I instantly understood that this must be a militia and that the soldiers’ uniforms were captured. Yet that conclusion passed as quickly as it arrived, as I realized the nature of their party. I uttered a greeting, one of the few words of Kinyarwanda that I knew. Then I heard my name being called.
Oleg drove me back. He had come alone, summoned by the RPA brigade in town, who in turn had been contacted by the night patrol’s radio call. (Evidently the army’s transmitter worked just fine.) All of the Rwandan men in the office did night patrol duty. I hadn’t known about this, or even what it was, until one day I asked Abdoulaye why the assistants always seemed to have colds. He explained the RPA’s practice of using local Hutu men as human shields as they searched the prefecture for insurgents. It could get damp and chilly at night, especially during the rainy season.
Oleg changed the tire, using his spare, jack, and iron, in about ten minutes. He had me hold a flashlight, and although he spent much of the task cursing softly in Russian (for one stretch he repeated “pornografia” over and over, rolling the word with his tongue), he didn’t seem angry at all.
When the spare tire was bolted on, he rose and looked his work over. “Is OK,” he murmured.
I thanked him quietly and deliberately, hoping that the measure and hush of my words would convey their sincerity. He turned toward me and capped my head with his palm, as if in benediction.
“You are OK!” he said, grinning like a magician. “This is important!” He released me with a quick flourish and returned to his Land Cruiser.
We parted ways at the compound. The guard had already opened the driveway gate, and I pulled in nose first, though we were supposed to back in, in case we had to evacuate. I knocked on the door to the house, and Abdoulaye unlocked it. He wore pajamas and was without his glasses, but did not appear to have been awoken.
“Good!” he said, holding open the door and smiling. It was a wide smile, knowing but kind. “Please. Go to sleep. Maybe we can talk tomorrow.” I nodded and went to my room.
It wasn’t really a talk. I ran into him as he was walking out of the office with two of the Norwegian doctors the following afternoon. He clasped his hands together at his waist like he was going to make a pronouncement. He was smiling again, but blinking rapidly.
“Please,” he said slowly, making it a two-syllable word. “Always say where you are going. OK?”
I nodded solemnly. “Thank you,” he said.
That was the last we ever spoke of it, and, apart from the briefest of mention by my housemates, the last it ever came up. Everyone was busy; the reach of one day’s drama did not extend far into the next. Within the week, our field office received two new staff members from Geneva, a bookish Canadian and a boorish Sudanese. The teenage son of the RPA’s local commander was hired as an office assistant. In a concurrent but unrelated event, our residence came into possession of a kitten. It wandered from room to room, all of which were now occupied.
And then the security situation became much worse, at least in the sense that it was now much worse for foreigners. A priest was murdered, and then three aid workers. These killings happened in the north, but there was general agreement among Cyangugu’s expatriates that the violence would soon visit us. It was narrowly and improbably escaped one night when an unarmed watchman chased away two gunmen, but three days later we were far less fortunate. The next morning, we lined our vehicles in a lengthy column for the return to the capital. I followed the taillights in front of me for five hours and then flew home the next Saturday.
Peter Sipe has a short story in the current issue of the Green Hills Literary Lantern, and his essay, “Newjack: Teaching in a Failing Middle School,” appeared in the Harvard Educational Review. He currently teaches English at a much better public middle school in Brooklyn.