Civil Affairs

(Glimmer Train, Issue 93: Spring-Summer 2015)

I arrived in Rwanda in June, a couple of weeks after graduation. As I stood in the airport’s baggage claim area—there was no carousel, items were tossed into piles—I was greeted by a white man in a camouflage uniform. He was about forty, average height and build, with a military haircut. “You the intern?” he asked. He identified himself as Larry, the embassy’s defense attaché.

We loaded my bags into his Land Rover and drove out of the parking lot. He explained that he was going to drop me off at the American Club, then go back and pick up the de-miners, who were on the same flight, but who had to deal with their gear. I didn’t know what he was talking about, but said that would be fine.

It was evening and the city struck me as very unlit. There wasn’t much traffic, and Larry sped down the avenues. After about ten minutes, he turned into a driveway and stopped the vehicle. There was a gate with an American flag painted on it, which a uniformed guard opened. Larry told me he’d return in a while and to leave my luggage in the back. I got out, entered the compound, and walked downstairs. There was a fair size patio with tables and umbrellas, and a bar sheltered by a canopy. I took a stool at the bar and drank beer until he came to get me, quite a while later.

***

I lived with Larry for a little over a month. He had a big place, situated near the summit of one of the capital’s hills. The yard was enclosed by a high wall, the top of which was made treacherous by cemented rows of broken glass. The house was extravagantly large for one person. It was newly constructed and originally leased for the ambassador’s deputy, but he didn’t like it because it was not in the tonier neighborhood near the embassy. From what I could gather, the embassy had worked out a deal with the military whereby Larry could live there on the cheap as long as he took in the occasional transient. My internship was scheduled to end on the last day of August. I hoped to have something else lined up by then, but if not, I had a return ticket.

During my first month in the capital I spent a lot of time at the American Club. Larry went there after work, and I was dependent on him for transportation. His house was several miles from the embassy, which precluded walking home. Plus, I didn’t know anybody. I figured it would be a good place to meet people. In retrospect, I suppose it was, although the more people I met, the less time I spent there.

Larry and I settled into a routine. He would bang on my door shortly before seven and we’d leave for the embassy a half-hour later. After work, we’d head over to the American Club for dinner. Unlike many expats, he didn’t employ a cook. He did his eating at the club, which had a decent, though expensive, restaurant. Every night it served a buffet, but I usually ate soup and bread, which went for two dollars. The lady who ran the restaurant was very sweet and sometimes told me to help myself to other, costlier dishes, for which she wouldn’t charge. Larry’s habit was to stay a few hours, hanging out with contractors and Tribunal staff. Then, by nine or so, we’d head home.

***

Larry was a bit prickly, but he was a good guy. In addition to putting me up, he always made sure to take me along whenever he left Kigali. I was grateful for that because it took a while for the embassy to figure out what to do with me. Much of my first few weeks was spent sitting at a desk, reading cables to look busy, hoping someone would take me up on my offers to help. Larry liked to get out of the office.  “You gotta see it, smell it, feel it,” he said. I wound up seeing a lot of the country thanks to him.

I enjoyed riding along with Larry on our outings. He had flown submarine hunting planes in the navy, and he drove like I imagined a pilot would drive, aggressively and precisely. Rwanda is crammed with hills and its relatively good roads make for active motoring. He seemed to relish the continual descents and ascents, and made a habit of accelerating as he took curves. He always played a Doors tape during the drives. More to the point, it was a Doors song, “Land Ho,” which he’d rewind and play again. It was a favorite from his Annapolis days.

***

One Monday we drove up north through steep, farmed valleys to where there was a de-mining project underway. We stopped at the brigade in town, where we met a Rwandan army team of around a dozen men. Most of the men got into the back of a dark green Toyota pickup and sat along a metal rack of benches welded to the cargo bed. We followed them several kilometers out of town to a field by a brick house, which, though not visibly in disrepair, appeared abandoned. We stood by the road while an armor-clad soldier and his sniffer dog walked up and down the length of an area marked by red flags. It was a sizable field, and the dog and his master moved very slowly. The excitement I’d imagined de-mining to be was not forthcoming, and the morning passed at a glacial pace.

Finally, the dog sat down, signaling that he had found something. Another soldier with a metal detector came out and, after it beeped, slowly dug a hole around the offending object. It turned out to be an unexploded mortar shell. Larry walked out to take a look, stepping down the de-miners’ path as if on an I-beam. He yelled for me to join him, a proposal I declined. The team placed plastic explosive around the shell and everyone retreated behind the vehicles for the detonation. I crouched by the rear wheel of the Land Rover. The blast was stunningly loud.

The next week, a small air force passenger jet came through en route to Nairobi. Larry had been talking about the plane’s visit for a few days, and I could tell he was looking forward to spending time with fellow pilots. He invited some senior Rwandan brass aboard for a joyride and took me along. We spent the afternoon flying literally around the country. When we passed a town at the lower end of Lake Kivu, he pointed to the 737 parked at the end of the airport’s sole runway. He explained that this was an Air Zaire plane. Its pilot had thought he was landing in Bukavu, the city next door, just over the border. The Rwandan government, at odds with Zaire’s, had seized it. But they couldn’t move it: while the runway was long enough to land on, it was too short for such an aircraft to take off.

***

The air tour of Rwanda was a trip I almost didn’t take. On the day of the plane’s arrival, Larry and I had an errand to run before going to the airport. His new vehicle, a Jeep Cherokee that had been on order for over a year, had arrived overland from Mombasa, so we went to customs to get it out. Clearing it took awhile—the clerk was new and did not know how to process diplomatic vehicles—and Larry’s cheer did not emerge unscathed. He drove the Jeep back to the embassy and I followed in the Land Rover. Upon entering the compound, I parked behind him, and we walked up to his office.

About an hour later, he asked me for the keys to the Land Rover, which he wanted to move so he could drive the Jeep to the airport. I reached into my pocket and found none. I realized the keys must be in the vehicle. We went down to the motor pool and sure enough, they were in the ignition. I tried the door, but I’d locked it, the reflexive habit of a city dweller. The other doors were locked as well.

Larry shook his head slowly, as if working to control himself. “You never lock a vehicle inside the compound,” he said. He curled his arm in front of me, and I thought it was a gesture of insult until I realized he was presenting his wristwatch. “You have ten minutes,” he said, softly spacing his words, “to get this out of my way.”

I was thoroughly flustered. I’d never seen Larry angry before, and I felt the dual shame of stupidity and letting him down. I walked around the vehicle, wondering how to extract myself from this predicament.

Then I noticed that the right rear passenger window was slightly open. Looking inside, I saw that the locks were the kind with flat tabs. If I could find something long and thin, I could try to push it up against a tab’s indentation. I scanned the lot for a suitable tool and saw a bale of concrete rebar off to one side. I pulled one out and within seconds had the doors open. I was hugely pleased with myself, not least because I was unaccustomed to such quick-wittedness. That evening I met the aircrew at the club. “We heard a lot about you,” the chief said, laughing and slapping me on the back. Larry paid for all my drinks.

***

Larry didn’t seem very happy in Rwanda. His wife was in Kenya, where his daughter attended an international school in Nairobi. He was expecting to be posted there soon, but wasn’t sure exactly when. This uncertainty rankled him and he was prone to bad moods. During these, he became quiet. A sign of his ill temper would be silence broken by dyspeptic comments about Rwandans, especially those we passed on the road. In Rwanda, rides were solicited by an open palm, not a raised thumb. Peasants walking by the roadside would often extend their arms in hope of laying claim to one of our empty seats. “Typical Rwandan thing to do, stand around waiting for a handout,” he’d say. Or, when passing work crews clearing brush with machetes, he’d invariably exclaim, “Hey look! They’re practicing for the next round!”

It was never entirely clear to me how he had wound up in Rwanda. He held the rank of Commander and had been attaché in Nigeria beforehand. The U.S. had a fair degree of military cooperation with Rwanda, at least for an African country its size. But in terms of naval relations, Larry was probably the whole history right there. Rwanda was smack in the middle of Central Africa; the Indian Ocean was a thousand miles to the east, and the Atlantic much farther west. Once I’d heard a photojournalist make a good-natured crack to the effect of it being characteristic of military illogic to send a naval officer to a landlocked country. Larry visibly bristled, and said, without humor, that the last major battle had been amphibious. This was true: a few months earlier, the genocidaires had used boats to cross Lake Kivu from Zaire.

***

It was safe in the capital. Rwandan soldiers, noted for their relative discipline and skill, were everywhere. Kigali was, for an African city, a pretty orderly place. As for the rest of the country, it got dangerous out on the borders with Zaire, where attacks by the exiled government’s army and its militias were frequent and deadly. But we never really went there. The farthest out of the city we drove was down south to the Burundi border, which was fairly safe during the daytime.

Still, Larry made it a point to always be armed. He kept a Beretta pistol in a black nylon case that looked a lot like a shoulder bag. I don’t think he did this so much due to security concerns, I think it had more to do with maintaining his military identity. He only dressed in uniform for official occasions; otherwise he wore a shirt and tie. The pistol, though concealed in the case, seemed to be his way of distinguishing himself from the rest of the embassy staff.

Whenever we drove any significant distance from the capital, Larry would also bring along a pair of sawed-off shotguns from his office safe. He told me that in case of attack I was to use one. “You ever try one of these?” he asked when he first displayed them to me. My firearms experience was limited to a single afternoon, when I was twelve, of shooting a .22 rifle with my uncle in Washington State. “Everyone always aims high,” he said. “So you’ve got to aim low. Aim for his balls and you’ll hit him in the chest.” From what I’d heard of the genocidaires, shooting our way out of an ambush seemed improbable, but I didn’t say so.

It fell to me to carry his pistol. I don’t remember a formal declaration of this responsibility, but by my second week, he had decided that one of my duties as embassy intern was to serve as squire, and so I kept the gun bag. I was enormously self-conscious about it at first, and expected everybody to ask me why I had a weapon. But no one ever did. I think those who noticed the bag just assumed it contained a radio handset, which were ubiquitous among expats. I did always remain highly aware that I was carrying a firearm, but I became used to it.

***

One night we were gathered around a patio table at the American Club. The umbrella was up because it had been raining heavily earlier. It was Larry, myself, and two of the de-miners. Kent had been an ordinance disposal specialist in the air force, and Raymond had done something similar in the British army.

Larry had told me that Raymond once regaled the club with a demonstration of how to stop a ceiling fan with one’s head. Evidently this was a hazing ritual for recruits in his unit in Northern Ireland.

The smart guys, rather than jamming their heads between the blades, would angle their foreheads up against the hub of the fan. By applying pressure, they could bring the fan to a halt. It would leave a mark,but was considered preferable to the former method.

It was toward the end of the evening and most people had already cleared out. I had the sense that as soon as our drinks were finished, we would leave too. Raymond was seated directly across from me, next to Kent. As I recall, there was a lull in the conversation. Very abruptly, Raymond raised his head skyward, groaned loudly, dropped his bottle,and slumped over the table.

My first reaction was annoyance mixed with surprise. I thought he’d passed out from drinking, but didn’t understand how; we’d only had a few beers each. Then he rolled off the table and thudded on the patio.This spurred us all out of our chairs.

###

Read the exciting conclusion in Glimmer Train Issue #93, out now! Seriously, please buy it. I don’t get a cut – they already paid me – but paying for stories, a worthy practice, has largely gone the way of the prime rib cart on domestic flights. Also, Glimmer Train is run by two of the loveliest people you can imagine.