Gorillas, Guerillas & A Truck Hijacking
National Parc de Virunga, Zaïre – Today was the day we were to see the Silverback gorillas – one of the main reasons we came on this safari in the first place. We hiked up to the rangers station in the hills at 7:30 a.m., only to be told that they couldn’t take our whole group that day because another group of people had already headed off to see the gorillas – that thanks to our courier’s management. After talking to the ranger he agreed to get a guide to take Rich and I to meet the others who’d gone ahead, while the rest of our group went and saw a different set of gorillas. We set off with our guide (who spoke no English and no French) and hiked through the Zairean hills for about an hour, then the guide led us through the dense jungle in search of the gorillas. When the jungle was too dense the guide would use his razor sharp machete to chop through the thick overgrowth – the bushes, small trees, you name it, so we could get through. It was really cool listening to the metallic ring of the blade as it cut through the overgrowth. We passed a few gorilla nests made of flattened tree branches before catching our first sight of “Oscar” the 35 year old Silverback sitting atop a tree looking around. It was an amazing sight seeing this massive animal sitting on top of the tree – the tree almost unable to hold the gorilla’s weight. He really looked as though he were on the lookout for us. After Rich and I had found the rest of the group, Oscar decided to climb down and walk off into the jungle, so we followed him into a small clearing where he sat down and let us sit near him on the ground.
Oscar’s daughter and small son came out of the bushes and graced us with their presence.
I was sitting about two yards from this massive wild animal which could have killed me without any effort whatsoever in an instant if he had held such an inclination. His daughter and smaller son (which looked exactly like a small stuffed animal) sat in front of the large male playing in the leaves, making the two youngsters less than three feet from where I was squatting. I was taking photos like mad, and ended up using the macro feature on my wide angle lens because I was so close to the creatures. That was a little unnerving – macro lenses are only used when you’re really close to the subject you’re photographing – things like bugs and flowers, not Silverback gorillas.
There really isn’t any reason to be that close to them, but we were and it was amazing. After sitting with the three gorillas for an hour Oscar decided it was time for us to leave so he got up and walked right through the middle of our group to head off into the jungle.
One of the American girls we were with happened to be standing right in the huge beast’s path, but she couldn’t get out of the way because there was dense jungle on one side and one of our African guides on the other. The guide kept telling her to take a photo of Oscar as he approached closer and closer towards her, but all she could do was scream, “I don’t want to take a photo! I just want to get out of the way!” Oscar passed within a foot of where I was sitting and I didn’t miss seeing one inch of his huge body mass as he passed by. Since our hour with the gorillas was finished we hiked two hours back to the ranger’s station where we said good-bye to the others in our group. During our hike back we saw another gorilla, a younger male who didn’t have his own family group yet, follow us up the path for a spell before diving off into the jungle.
Rich and I headed back to the truck, getting lost along the way and paying a local boy 1,000,000 zaires to show us the way. Everyone else had already returned and were just waiting for our return so we could head out of the country into Uganda before dark.
We jumped into the truck and headed off towards the Ugandan border. We weren’t far, but the roads were shit – our truck bumping and sliding around through the mud and when we were about one kilometer (half a mile) from the border we had our first major encounter with the Zaïrean government. We were driving up a small hill (which caused the truck to go slower) when Mick, our British driver, spotted a lone Zairean soldier, in military uniform and holding a large AK-47 waving at the truck to stop. Mick had been driving through Africa for the past seven years, so he’d had a bit of experience in this, and his instinct told him to just wave at the lone guard and keep driving, while making motions that he couldn’t stop the truck because we were going up a hill.
I was sitting on the raised area at the front of the truck on an area called the stage, I had Stefanie (an American) next to me on the bench and across from us, sitting on the facing bench were Jenni (from NZ) and Rich. The stage is at the front of the truck behind the driver’s cab, and is an elevated area with two benches running horizontally along the front third of the interior of the truck. When you’re sitting in these seats you can see out the sides of the truck rather well, but those outside also have a very good view of you too. As soon as Mick had passed the soldier waving us down the next thing I saw was a second soldier jump out from behind a tree, aiming his gun at the truck screaming “Descendez!”, which is French for ‘Get out of the truck’. This soldier wasn’t acting passive about his command either – he seemed more than serious. Three other soldiers jumped out of the bushes at the same time – all with AK-47s leveled at the truck. Mick brought the truck to an abrupt halt, just as the adrenaline in my body shot up into my brain.
Before we’d entered any of the French speaking African countries I’d been instructed by our courier not to let on that I knew French when we were dealing with any official-types. That way we could act like ignorant tourists who didn’t understand the language if there were any problems. This was one of those times, but being able to understand most of what was being said and having a better idea than the others in the truck of what was going on didn’t help either. Boz, the courier, and Mick got out of the cab to talk to the soldiers while the rest of us sat in the back. We’d been instructed not to get out of the truck no matter what the guards said. The guards kept looking into the truck (mostly at the four of us sitting up on the stage) screaming “Descendez!” At one point the craziest guard of the lot, who I’d originally spotted jumping out from behind the tree, walked to the opposite side of the truck, stared at Rich, leveled his gun at him then screamed “Descendez!” once again. Rich was a little frazzled having this guard pointing a gun at him and screaming so he turned to me and asked me what he was saying. I told him I didn’t know French.
The first reaction animals have when truly scared is to form a group – strength in numbers being the idea. Well immediately after the crazy guard jumped out from behind that tree both Stefanie and I instinctively moved towards the middle of our bench until we were touching so we’d have each other for comfort. I don’t know why it felt better, but just sliding myself closer to someone else felt like the right thing to do. I can’t remember consciously thinking I was going to do it, it just occurred. I can remember thinking that that action truly felt like one of the latent animal instincts humans have.
While the crazy guard was screaming at Rich to get down out of the truck, two other guards had climbed up onto the hood of the cab, not four feet to my right, and proceeded to load their clips with bullets – very slowly – one by one. The crazy man was still screaming “Descendez!” at the top of his lungs when our courier came over again and told us not to get out of the truck under any circumstances. The crazy man then walked down the small hill he was standing on to go find something else to do. The guards on the hood had a massive pile of bullets on the folded down windshield and continued to load their clips. They’d occasionally drop a bullet onto the windshield or drop one into the small drawstringed bag, also on the windshield, so we could heal the metallic ‘clink’ and judge how many more bullets they had left in the bag.
I could hear our driver speaking in broken French to the soldiers’ leader saying we were tourists and were causing no problems. Well when the one standing on the hood loading his gun heard that he started screaming “Passeports!” Our driver, in an attempt to distract them from having us hand our passports over, turned to the guards on the hood and asked if they would please get down – they were scaring the women in the truck. After many pleas from our driver the guards got down, but the ‘lively’ one on the opposite side of the truck switched his call from “Descendez” to “Passeports!” I could hear him calling that out every once in a while. I heard another guard saying “argent” and “cadeaux”, indicating that they wanted gifts and money. He screamed it a few times over and over, so when Tom, who was nearby, asked what it meant I translated for him. Mick, Boz and four of the five soldiers were all standing out in front of the truck so I could more or less see what was going on. They’d stopped a local and were trying to get him to help translate what the soldiers were saying. Involve as many outsiders as possible was the plan.
A majority of the time we were all looking at the floor, each other, anything not to make eye contact with the soldiers. I kept my brain busy by analyzing the way the staples in the bench across from me had been applied with a factory precision. I didn’t think thoughts like “Am I in danger” or “What happens if someone gets shot” because my brain had begun to slow down and get mushy; I was becoming drowsy. I did have a fleeting thought of, “As a lifeguard I’ve been trained to deliver a baby, but I’ve not been trained in first aid for gunshot wounds.” That amused me at the time, strange things go through your mind when you’re in these situations.
I looked out the front of the truck at our courier, and saw that the guard was pointing his AK-47 at Boz. Boz said something then the guard quickly pointed his gun away from our courier towards the forest and let off one shot. When he did that the crazy man, who was just opposite the truck’s door let off two more shots into the air. This jolted those of us in the truck, and the first thing I can remember doing was looking outside to see if anyone I knew had been shot. Nope, not as far as I could see. After this display of firepower our courier came and climbed into the truck saying he needed a $100 bill quick. One of the girls pulled one out and gave it to him, which in turn passed it on to the soldier’s leader. Once they’d been paid the guards said they wanted to “escort” us to the Ugandan border 1k away to protect us from Rwandan bandits. On that note two of the guards climbed into the cab with Mick, one held onto the outside of the passenger door and the fourth perched himself so he could see into the rear of the truck as we were driving. Of course he had to be closest to me and our courier, who’d joined Stef and I on the bench. The fifth guard (the crazy one) climbed into the back of the truck with everyone and balanced himself on the door with his loaded gun on his lap between him and us. He sat there for about ten seconds then decided it was too uncomfortable and moved someplace else on the outside of the truck.
So then we started off towards the border with all these Zairean soldiers hanging off the side of the truck. The road ahead of us, which ten minutes before had been full of locals walking along going about their business was completely deserted at this point. We didn’t see a soul until we pulled up to the immigration check point where all the guards jumped off and walked down the road to their military post down the road from the border. Our courier went into the office and noticed the immigration officer was visibly shaken, for he knew what had transpired down the road. He came out to the truck and in very clear English vehemently apologized for what had happened. He said his country had no government and that these things happened from time to time. He seemed truly sorry, and definitely scared. He then said we should give him our passports to process, drive the truck over the border to Uganda, then he’d bring us our passports over on the other side; he didn’t want a truckload of Westerners who’d had a run-in with the military waiting outside his immigration check post. It was still Africa and we told him we’d wait for him to stamp our papers out. The officer grabbed his assistant and the two of them furiously began stamping our passports an quickly as they could; he wanted to help us and get us out of Zaire as quickly as possible.
While we were waiting for our passports Boz told me what had prompted the gunshots. Boz had learned from the immigration guy that these soldiers were members of a rebel faction of the Zairean army. Zaire had had so many governmental problems (including a coup d’etat two weeks earlier), and as a result the military men, along with other government people weren’t being paid their wages on time, if at all. The soldiers’ leader asked for money so Boz told then we didn’t have a lot of money and offered them US$20 (36 million zaires). The guard responded by pointing his AK-47 at Boz, so Boz quickly offered US$50. Still unsatisfied the guard quickly pointed his gun away from Boz into the forest and let off one shot. When he did that the other guard joined in with his two extra gunshots. After this display of firepower the leader told Boz he wanted US$100 (180 million zaires); an unprecedented amount of money for these Africans in their economically ravaged country. The $100 they extorted from us would pay all five men’s wages for over a month.
The passports were finished, the truck’s customs clearance stamped and we were all accounted for so we could finally get the hell out of the country. Mick went to start the engine but we only heard a dry “click” when he turned the key. He tried again. . . “Click”. This was the last thing we needed, especially since we’d finally gotten clearance to leave. It turns out that one of the soldiers had accidentally kicked the switch which disengaged the battery from the rest of the engine. Mick figured this out, flipped the switch, then the engine roared away and we drove on through the customs barrier into Uganda – we were out of Zaire (each paying a $10 departure tax to the military). So much for dictatorships.
Twenty yards down the road we met three women who’d been with us during our gorilla trek earlier that morning. Erin, this tall, blonde, Canadian girl told me what the locals’ reaction to the incident was. She said she and her friends had been walking towards the border when some of the locals went running by (after the shots had been fired) saying that the military truck was coming down the road; in actuality it was our truck with all the guards hanging off the outside of the cab. She and her friends started running to the immigration post so they could escape Zaire before any trouble began. She said the immigration officer met them at the entrance, snatched their passports out of their hands, stamped them and told the women to go across the border – “Quickly!” This entire incident showed me, up close and personal, how corrupt a dictatorship can be, and how scared the people living under that sort of governmental system really are. The whole stop plus the “escort” to the border must have taken about twenty minutes, but it felt like it was a hell of a lot longer.
The Ugandan border took us about an hour to sort out all the bureaucracy and red tape, but we made it through and drove another hour into the frontier before stopping. We wanted to get as far away as possible before setting up camp, just to make sure the Zairean guards couldn’t sneak across the border and hassle us some more. Everyone on the truck had a few stiff rum and cokes (no I wasn’t pouring) in an attempt to relax before retiring to sleep. Later that evening when we were talking about it, Stefanie had a great quote – something like “We saw the passive gorillas this morning and the active guerrillas this afternoon.”
We parked our truck and began to set up camp when Rich called me over and began walking away from camp. He said, “You know that list of “Things You Don’t Want to Know”?. “Yeah”, was my tentative response. “Well I sort of brought something through the border that I probably shouldn’t have.” It dawned on me and my eyes turned big as plates. “You mean the jay fay’s in Uganda?” I then was sitting there incredulous to the fact that Rich had had that stuff, especially with what had just transpired not a couple of hours before. Jenni came over and laid down on the grass next to me when Rich grabbed one of her feet and acted like he was going to take off her shoe. “You don’t want to do that” was her facetious tone. She said that the jay fay was inside her shoe. I was totally surprised, again, for she’d pulled the same trick that Rich had. No wonder she looked so nervous when we’d been stopped by the military men. Later that evening we all got together and had a wee relaxation session in our tent to relieve the stress of the day’s activities.
The Nation (Newspaper), Nairobi, Kenya, 30th Dec 1992 –
Kinshasa: Zairean soldiers angry over low pay resumed looting in two eastern towns as President Mobutu Sese Seko prepared to hear army grievances yesterday. Residents in north Kivu provence on the border with Rwanda and Uganda, said by radio that troops began looting in Butemo early yesterday, a day after men from the Kasindi base went on a rampage in Oicha.
That is exactly where our truck was when we were hijacked!
27th March 1993 – Pokhara, Nepal – Zaire Update –
I met up with Cameron, a Kiwi we’d met in Egypt, who told me the situation in Zaire has gotten worse since we were there and that overland trucks are no longer going into the country. He said one of the trucks apparently went missing. They also had passed through Nairobi after us and said the situation in Kenya didn’t get any better – every day at Ma Roache’s some traveler had a new horror story about being robbed.