by Travis Oltmann
Nyiragongo looms in the distance. There are beggars that look like scrap metal, children with yawning machete scars across their faces, and women that walk around sterilized and lifeless.
All while Nyiragongo chortles and coughs and spits out vaporous clouds of smoke.
Kevin stands on his balcony and examines the leftover damage from the last time it got agitated. Veins of charcoal stained ruts are apparent in the countryside. Bonte traces a path in the air with his finger. “When it erupted in two thousand two, the lava flow through the city and buildings disappear. Smoke was everywhere. We were running and running, people were screaming and falling because they choke. It causes a lot of damage, my uncle had a shop and it burn to the ground. He lost everything in less than one day,” he tells Kevin.
“How come you didn’t leave?” Kevin asks.
“This is my home. I never leave. I did not leave when CNDP fought the army in the streets and I will not leave when it happen again.” Bonte leaves some air in his lungs so his chest puffs out slightly.
“Well, let’s hope it doesn’t.”
“It will, it always does. The only people who can stop it make too much money from it.”
“They’re saying Achibe is going to make a move soon.”
“Yes, I hear the same things.”
“Do you think he can do it?”
“I don’t know. Maybe. He will need a lot of guns. The Army has the UN and they help with helicopters and troops.”
Kevin nods and thinks for a moment. “Can we move the meeting with Osei to tomorrow? With him knocking at the gates I should probably speed this trip up.”
“I will check and see. I will call you in the morning.”
Bonte exits the room and the door shudders when it closes. Kevin locks it and pulls a satellite phone from his bag. Day fades as the sun eases itself into Lake Kivu. The remaining shreds of light creep through the windows and broken shutters, coating the back wall in streaks of apricot and umbra. Kevin squints as he dials.
“Hello?” Colleen answers.
“Hey sweetie,” Kevin says.
“Hi! Oh, what a relief! I was starting to get worried.”
“Yeah, sorry honey, we had a few problems crossing the border. Greedy fucking guards.”
“But you’re there and safe?”
“Yes. I’m trying to move the meeting up with the General. A rebel group is threatening to take the city and I want to get out of here as soon as possible.”
“Jesus Christ. Is this the last time? Ghana was bad enough, but the Congo is even worse. I don’t like it when you go over there. I become a nervous wreck. I haven’t slept for more than a couple of hours and my stomach is a rollercoaster.”
“We’ll see, we’ve got a lot of bills. How’s she doing?”
“Still asleep. The new medication helps with the pain but it knocks her out. The doctor’s appointment is tomorrow so I’ll see what he says.”
There’s a knock on the door. “Okay, I’ll call you tomorrow or the day after to see how it went. Love you. Give Jen a kiss on the cheek for me.”
“I will, love you too.”
Kevin hangs up and stuffs the phone back in his bag. The person knocks again. He shuffles over the worn concrete floor and fumbles with the lock. A blossoming Congolese woman stands on the other side, wearing an orange shawl and a multicolored dress that brushes against her threadbare slippers. Her skin is vibrant and continuous, a tranquil pond in a cloudy night.
“Come in,” Kevin says.
She walks to the bed and sits with her back straight. “Can I get you anything?” Kevin asks.
Methodically, she unwraps her shawl from her torso, revealing her breasts and gaunt stomach. She rises from the bed and pushes on the edge of her dress. It falls with a whisper and lands in a heap. She uses her foot to move it over.
Horns beep outside in succession. Shouts and whistles and loud conversation beckon from the street below.
She stares at Kevin. When he goes to kiss her she pulls back and lies on the bed. Creaking springs reverberate as she shifts her weight around. “Can you take the headdress off?” Kevin asks.
She nods and brings her delicate hands above her head.
Kevin answers the rotary phone in his hotel room. “Hello?”
“Hello, it is Bonte.”
“How are we looking?”
“It is not possible to do the deal today. I cannot reach the General, my friend say he is in Masisi on business.”
“Shit, are we still on for tomorrow?”
“Yes, yes. Tomorrow is good. I pick you up from your hotel at eight o’clock in the morning.”
“Alright, thanks Bonte. See you then.”
Kevin answers emails on his computer during the morning hours and decides to explore Goma in the afternoon. An associate of Bonte’s follows him at a close distance and watches for potential danger.
Garbage fires burn street side and the acrid smoke seeps into his nostrils and throat. Kevin strolls along the densely packed Boulevard Kanyamuhanga and watches hordes of soldiers moving ammunition and equipment to defensive positions throughout the city. Not one of them looks over twenty. Dust from the road gets kicked up from their boots and gives his mouth a chalky feeling. Needing water and shade, he stops at Hotel des Auvergne for a bite of lunch. The restaurant is empty except for an auburn skinned woman eating by herself. Kevin sits a few tables away.
No waiters seem to be around. For fifteen minutes he suffers quietly. “If you’re waiting for service, you’re going to be sitting there a while,” the woman says.
“Where are they?”
“Gone. Tell the front desk what you want. They’ll talk to the chef.”
“But I don’t know what I want.”
“American?” She asks.
“Get a sandwich and tell them to cook the fuck out of the meat, anything else will have you sweating on the toilet.”
Kevin walks to the desk and converses in fragmented English about a club sandwich. The woman studies him when he sits back down. “Thanks,” he says.
“You see the army outside?”
“Tough to miss them. They’re everywhere,” she responds with a mouthful of food.
“Do you know where they’re going?”
“Most of them will go to the airport; some will be on the major roads.”
“They’re so young.”
“The older the conflict the younger the soldiers,” she says.
“Is Achibe going to attack?”
“In the next week or so.”
Kevin stands up and moves to her table. “How do you know so much? Are you with CNN or something?”
“CNN is a pile of shit.”
When Kevin sits down, the woman narrows her features and pushes her chair back so she can rest her left leg on top of her right.
“This isn’t twenty questions. I’m a reporter, yes, and I don’t really feel like telling you where I work. Is that alright with you?”
“Aren’t all of you supposed to be out of here by now?” The woman chugs from her beer and wipes her lips.
“Wait, who am I supposed to be?”
“A cockroach. Most of your type has left. They get scared when there’s an all out war. They can handle the violence on a small scale; say rape or disfigurement, because money keeps them out of those situations. But war, war usually scares you people off because there aren’t any rules when the fighting gets messy. Bloodthirsty savages lurking around every corner. So you leave and come back after the dead are cleared from the streets to resume stealing whatever you can from this country and their people.”
“Whoa, calm down there, you don’t know me.”
“Yes I do. If you’re not here for that, what are you doing?”
Suddenly, Kevin finds his shoes interesting. “Exactly,” she says.
“Their leaders are already stealing from them,” Kevin suggests without meeting her gaze.
“Just because someone is getting fucked doesn’t mean it’s alright for you to fuck them too,” she says.
“I’m just trying to support my family, I got a sick kid.”
“Not a good excuse, either. Take a tour of the hospitals around here and tell me about sick children. At least your kid, if you’re not lying, has access to doctors and medicine and machines.”
“I’m not lying.”
“And I don’t care.” She slams the rest of her beer and leaves.
Kevin eats his dry clubhouse sandwich underneath a squeaky ceiling fan. Inside the freshly painted walls of the International hotel, a footstep would seem strange and emphatic. Outside they prepare for war.
Rain fell during the night, drenching the city and the already treacherous roads. It is lighter in the morning, but the metal roof on Kevin’s building still catches droplets and sends them pouring into the street. He avoids them when he gets in Bonte’s truck.
As the water streams toward the lake the people stream toward the exit. In anticipation of Achibe, residents pack belongings on their shoulders and slog through the mud and debris, heading for the countryside or the Rwandan border. Both have their perils. “Cowards,” Bonte says as he swerves around them and honks the horn. Loss of traction almost takes them into a crowd of people on the N2.
Kevin stares out of the window. Goma used to be renowned for its nightlife before the civil wars tore the country apart. There are still relics of more peaceful times around the city. Cinderblock walls show fading advertisements for extinct bars and restaurants. Bright, colonial houses randomly appear amongst the destitution. The architecture tainted by razor wire and callous looking fences.
Once out of the centre Kevin begins to see rickety wood houses, trembling under their own weight. Further still and the refugee camps come into view. Large boxlike structures covered in tarps protrude from the trees. As they drive past he sees the thousands of tents that litter the unforgiving landscape. Entire families sleep in the space of a western closet with piss and shit on their doorstep.
“Holy fuck,” Kevin plugs his nose.
“The smell is very bad,” Bonte says.
They pass through a UN checkpoint and the guard advises them to turn around. Next are two rebel checkpoints where Bonte tells them Kevin is a journalist. Money changes hands, teeth are shown, and men move out of the way so they can proceed.
Bonte’s truck jostles and groans as he steers it north. They follow the N2 to the outskirts of Sake and turn right. The roads become worse; a fallen tree in front of a crater forces Bonte to brake and swerve to keep them out of the ditch. The countryside astounds Kevin. He’s familiar with the filth and contamination of third world cities, particularly the areas where his transactions usually take place. But the swollen emerald fields and saturated foliage make him think of postcards and summer vacations.
“This is the road here,” Bonte says, turning the truck into a narrow path carved out of the forest. Branches and shrubs patter against the windows and frame underneath.
A clearing appears at the apex of a hill. Barren flatland mixed with white walled buildings with tiled red roofs.
“What is this?” Kevin asks.
“Missionaries build it out here and then abandon it during the war.”
Bonte parks near the monastery. A severed cross perched above the entrance greets them as they go inside. General Osei sits in a fold out lawn chair watching two boys fight while three men stand watch with Kalashnikovs at their side.
One of the boys, no older than ten, dodges a wayward fist. As he is off balance, his opponent quickly drives a fist into the underside of his chin. Fight over. The loser face plants into the dusty hardwood floor.
The General jumps from his chair, “Oh yes Oliver! Good job little man!”
Oliver steps over the unconscious boy and proceeds to the General, who embraces him as a father would and rubs his head. “Just like I taught you. Be quick on your feet and trust your instincts, it will get you out of trouble and you will need it in battle.”
“Merci” Oliver says.
“English my boy, English. We have an American guest here.”
“Report to Regis for drills.”
The General motions to one of his guards for a cigarette, which he takes and lights with a metallic zippo that glistens when it moves.
“General, this is Kevin, from America,” Bonte says.
“It’s an honour to meet you,” Kevin says and holds out his hand.
The General shakes it and smiles, “And you as well. We are always pleased to have American businessmen here.”
“Thank you, glad to be here.”
“So, our friend here tells me you are looking for a coltan supplier.”
“Yes,” Kevin glances at Bonte, “is that something you can provide?”
The General lets out a hearty laugh, “Of course we can my friend! If we didn’t, I wouldn’t have brought you out here.”
Osei walks forward, “Please, follow me, I will show you how much we have and you will tell me how much you need.”
The courtyard between the monastery and sleeping quarters is full of children practicing to march and fight. Oliver, obviously a favourite of Osei’s, gets special attention from one of the lieutenants. Older, battle tested adults shout from the shade and their whistles and chants create the atmosphere of a sporting event.
“These are the new recruits,” the General says, “they are not much now, but soon they will be the steel at the tip of my sword.”
Kevin nods and looks at the assembly. Some shirts announce Super Bowl winners for years where they didn’t actually win the Superbowl. Others show slogans and companies that were fashionable decades ago. Their underdeveloped arms poke out from the sleeves like pipe cleaners.
The General leads them to the top of an embankment that drops into a valley below.
“This is my operation,” Osei says, waving his hand over the area. Workers toil below in the beige, upturned earth as far Kevin can see. It is a mining operation, vast and industrious, but also done without machinery or planning. Paths twist in every direction like an interchange on the Los Angeles freeway.
“Impressive,” Kevin remarks.
The General points to a rectangular shed with a lock hanging between the handles, “And here is our warehouse.”
One of his guards unlocks it and swings the doors open. Rows and rows of clear plastic bags dominate the floor space. The burnished, ashen color of coltan is unmistakable. Osei walks to a pink living room set under a single barred window and spreads out on the sofa.
“Charles, get coca cola for everyone. Mr. Kevin, please have a seat.”
One of his bodyguards disappears while Bonte and Kevin ease into dusty recliners.
“So, how many kilograms are you looking to purchase?” Osei asks.
“Twenty five hundred.”
“Are you the middle man or the manufacturer?”
Kevin squints at Bonte then focuses back on Osei, “The middle man.”
“Yes.” Kevin fidgets in his chair.
“I have heard some agents are getting as much as a hundred and fifty per kilogram in Brussels. But I will not hold you to that. Let’s call it ninety dollars even though you appear shrewd and are probably getting well above a hundred. My price to you is thirty dollars without transport.”
“A hundred and fifty? Not in the last year or so. These are conflict minerals, which are becoming increasingly difficult to sell, I’ll be lucky to get eighty when it’s all said and done. Can you do twenty five with transport?”
Osei scrapes the stubble on his chin. “I can do twenty five without transport. It is a dangerous country at the moment and there are many people to pay off.”
“You know I need your trucks and I don’t think any of the men at the checkpoints would try and solicit a bribe from a man of your stature. How about twenty seven, with transport? That’s as high as I can go.”
Osei smiles and chuckles, “Alright my friend, you have a deal!”
Kevin leans across and shakes Osei’s hand again. “Where do you need it delivered?” Osei asks.
Bonte slides a piece of paper to Osei, “My compound at this address. No more than two trucks and four men. The money will be ready.”
The bodyguard arrives with the bottles of coca cola. Osei takes one and holds it up, Bonte and Kevin do the same, “Here’s to the beginning of many successful business transactions.”
On the third attempt Colleen answers the phone. “Hello?” she says.
“Hey baby,” Kevin says. He sees a forgotten headdress on the floor and moves it around with his foot.
“Hey,” Colleen responds, high and uneven.
“She had an attack last night. I just came home from the hospital to grab some things and go back.”
“Oh no,” Kevin says as his ribcage slumps into his belly.
“What did they say?”
“They don’t know. They’re doing a bunch of tests.” Colleen sniffs into the receiver.
In the dark of the night Kevin studies the missing flakes of paint on the wall. “Our baby…” He trails off.
“Yes,” Colleen sniffs again.
“Well… I’m flying back tomorrow night. So… I’ll see you in two days,” Kevin tells her, his voice sounds as if it’s traveling through a clogged air filter.
“Love you,” Kevin says. Colleen hangs up without another word. Tears hit the floor between his feet and retain their spherical shape. Before long there are many, sitting like miniature snow globes on the dust.
The phone rings in Kevin’s room and startles him. He looks out the window and sees that it’s early; the horizon is muffled and indistinct. Crackling is heard, like pigskin over an open fire. Kevin picks up the phone.
“Hello, Kevin. It is Bonte.”
“Yes, what’s going on?”
“Do you hear the guns? They are fighting a kilometre from the city.”
“Fuck. What do we do?”
“I’m coming right now. Pack your bag. Osei’s men will meet us in one hour. I am hoping the Army is busy and we can sneak behind.”
“Do you have the money ready?”
“Yes, the transfer goes through and I have it waiting here.”
Kevin hangs up and throws all his clothes and satellite phone into his leather travel bag. The attendant downstairs is absent and doesn’t answer when Kevin rings the bell. He waits and waits but no one is around. Army men rush by outside and shout to each other.
Bonte’s vehicle slides into the curb and the front right hubcap scrapes against the pockmarked concrete. “Get in!” Bonte screams through the open passenger side window.
As they speed off down the street, more men in fatigues scramble in every direction. The boulevard, once dense and clamorous, is absent and hushed. Doors and windows are shut and locked. “They have broken the front line,” Bonte says as he recklessly speeds through a crumbling neighbourhood.
“How long until they’re in the city?”
“It depends if the UN can get more government troops here. If they cannot, Achibe will take the airport by noon.”
They get close to the fighting on the northeast side of the city as they drive. The sound of heavy rifle fire echoes nearby. An explosion shakes the plastic interior of the car and the hairs on Kevin’s arms stand to attention.
“Holy fuck,” he says.
“Mortars. We will be away from this soon.”
A young man runs in front of the hood and Bonte slams on his brakes, barely missing him. Blood fountains from a wound in his belly and he tries to cover it with his hand as he continues down a narrow alleyway. A dozen men follow behind him, holding Kalashnikovs loosely in their hands as they flee. “Cowards!” Bonte shouts.
As they proceed north they leave the variations of exploding metal behind. Soon they arrive at Bonte’s compound, a flat, two story structure on the outer ring of Goma. Barbed wire welcomes visitors from the top of an eighteen foot fence. Where the other houses in the area are held up by splintering posts and loose gravel, Bonte’s has been constructed with girders and tapioca colored sheet metal.
After laying on the horn, two women pull the entrance open.
“Are we still OK with your contact at the border?” Kevin asks.
“Yes, he expect us. We will load the coltan into my trucks and go directly there.”
The gate closes behind them. Kevin gets out and sees two makeshift guard towers and teenagers keeping watch. “My sons,” Bonte remarks, opening the garage to reveal a pair of beaten up two-ton trucks.
Bonte checks his buildings and locks them while Kevin paces back and forth. After forty-five minutes the two women open the gate and Osei’s trucks rumble in. Twenty men pour from the bed of the covered vehicles.
“Whoa, whoa! Only four!” Bonte shouts. He signals to his sons who aim their guns at the men.
“The General sends his apologies, friend. We needed more men in case we encountered any trouble on the roads,” the leader of the group says, “it is not safe out there with Achibe and his rebels attacking the city.”
“I said only four men!” Bonte says.
The man nods at Bonte’s two-tons, “Will we be loading the minerals into these trucks?”
Bonte sneers and looks back at Kevin, who hasn’t left the garage yet. “Yes,” he says through clenched teeth.
“Okay,” the man says, whistling at his men and pointing, “I am Lieutenant Regis, pleased to make your acquaintance.” Regis shakes Bonte’s hand as his soldiers lug the bags of coltan past.
“Do you have the money near?” Regis asks.
“Let’s finish loading first,” Bonte says.
“They will be done soon. If you don’t mind I would like to have it so we can be out of here quickly.”
Bonte walks into the garage and takes a briefcase from a lockable storage container. Regis smiles like a father watching his son graduate when they are opened. “Very good. General Osei sends his warmest regards and hopes to continue business in the future.”
“Thank you,” Bonte says, not standing as rigidly as before.
The men finish loading and leave. One of the trucks honks as they drive out and Regis waves from the passenger seat. The women stand on the other side of the gate, leaving it open. Bonte’s two sons come down from the guard towers and climb in one of the trucks. Bonte gets in the driver’s seat of the other and unlocks the door for Kevin.
Once through the gate, the women run chains around the handles and padlock it. They hop in the back of the second truck when they finish. “They’re coming too?” Kevin wonders.
“They can shoot.”
Bonte guides the two-ton east until they meet the national highway and turn left. It’s an unchanging road except for the piles of garbage. Kevin spies Lake Kivu in the cross streets and vacant lots. When he sees the hospital, he knows that the border is not far. A smile creeps across his face.
As they near the airport his breath disappears. Fighting blocks their path. Young men in track pants and fourth-hand clothes spray bullets wildly into the street ahead. Government forces hidden behind sandbags and second story windows return fire sporadically. The rebels have them severely outnumbered. Bonte searches for a place to turnaround but every route is blocked.
Kevin waits for Bonte to formulate a plan, some type of quick thinking manoeuvre a man from the city would know. The gears groan underneath the vehicle as Bonte pushes the shifter into park.
“What are you doing? Hit the gas!”
“No. The army will think we charge them.”
“We can’t just wait here!”
Reinforcements arrive for the rebels, flowing from behind and passing by either side of the truck like river water. Sensing a breakthrough, the men charge forward and scream in unison. Anything in front of them gets peppered with bullets. The soldiers behind the sandbag try to retreat but are cut down without mercy. As they fall, the rebels form a circle around them and stomp on their skulls so hard their skin and bones mash into the damp earth. Kevin’s mouth and eyes become arid and glutinous from being left open too long.
“Don’t just sit there you fucking moron, do something!” Kevin shouts.
Bonte puts the truck into drive and scans the side mirrors for an opening. He moves as if he’s preparing breakfast with a hangover. Kevin slides over on the seat and plants his foot on the accelerator. The car shudders and then barrels toward the rebels shooting their AK-47’s in the air while they sing songs of victory and being a warrior.
Bonte struggles to hit the brake “No! No!”
Only a few have time to notice the before the truck collides with them. Their bodies hit the grill and crumple beneath the undercarriage. Blood splatters on the windshield and the cab rocks back and forth from the uneven ground their shattered corpses create. It’s hard to tell whether the engine is malfunctioning or it’s just the sound of bones snapping en masse.
The men on the side who escaped the slaughter suddenly make sense of what’s happening. They fire into the side of the second truck. The only order Bonte gave his sons were to follow him without hesitation.
Once clear of the twenty metre stretch of bodies, Bonte pushes Kevin’s foot from the gas pedal and steers straight.
“You.. you dumb fuck American!” he yells, “we could have paid them off!”
“No way, they would have killed us.”
“You don’t know Goma, I know Goma. You are a stupid mzungu.”
Bonte doesn’t have any choice but to continue after the carnage they left behind. They ride without speaking. A host of blue helmeted UN peacekeepers blankly stare as they drive past.
Each Army checkpoint they pass is deserted. At the border Bonte hands money to an agent who directs them to an empty lane. He shows no regard for the blood on the front of their vehicle that drips when they stop.
Another, larger, transaction of money takes place at the actual border. Kevin breathes a sigh of relief when the man accepts it and waves them through.
He looks back. Endless lines of cars and people wait in the exhausting heat to cross the border. Every head, hand, trunk or roof rack carries a collection of meagre possessions. A trail of smoke lifts into the sky and Kevin follows its path down.
Nyiragongo looms in the distance.
Travis lives in Calgary and tries to avoid any type of meeting. His work has been published by Johnny America and his short story was a top 10 finalist in the latest AWCS writing competition. Occasionally he writes non-fiction travel pieces for yourlifeisatrip.com.