29 Jul 92 - Lome, Togo
PREVIOUSLY HANDWRITTEN NEWSLETTER TO SPONSORS AND FRIENDS
Before, it was too hot; now, there is too much to tell. I’m sitting at a little table beneath the wing of the plane. The President just flew in from the north; one of his political opponents was shot and flown to Paris a couple days ago. They’ve all been talking about Democracy.
Yesterday, I was shown the voodoo market outside of town. There was a fresh supply of gorilla skulls, chimpanzee hands and elephant skin. Democracy means, if the people choose to shoot all the animals in the park up north, they can. The President generally hunts from his helicopter, but recently, he shot a whale from his helicopter and was criticized for that.
I received my first mail in 7 months in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. It was strange. It was as if it didn’t matter anymore. I think I had made myself feel that, so as to avoid disappointment; it had missed twice before. Abidjan was many things: spare parts, to fix a very tired airplane; a time to think and relax after the horrors of Liberia; and a place for my Zimbabwean artist friend to fall in love. I’m pretty sure he’s going to marry her, but he’s going to have his hands full - she is American.
We took off from Abidjan with a thousand pounds of fuel, which had been donated by a friend, and slowly climbed out over the Gulf of Guinea. I tried to use the HF radio to get a message home, but wound up talking to a Russian in Finland. Down through the clouds, I could see splashes of light reflecting off the sea like in some old naval war film, and for three hours we avoided expensive Ghanaian airspace.
I have finally bought a computer - a used Toshiba 1000 from a missionary in Bamako, Mali - and it is completely organizing my life. One of the first things I did was to construct a list of all my sponsors, by country, to put up in the back window of the plane. I also have a map and a few photographs. When I was refueling the ferry tank in Abidjan, and African named "M’be" was helping me. His friend explained what the list was. When we finished, he handed me 1,000 CFA ($4). He told me he was sorry he was poor, but he had 12 children and 2 wives. He thought my job was very hard, so he wanted to help. We took the list out together and added his name to it. As I look up at the list now, I smile and feel very strange; there are so many people from so many places.
We have a new passenger. His name is "Smith." I am always intrigued by African zoos. In Niger, the lions got out and ate one of the antelopes, then the cubs escaped and were playing with the children. One of the hippos died because he wasn’t fed, "but it’s okay because there are two," I am told. None of the staff had been paid for three months. The assistant director tells me to watch this. Sabastian the chimpanzee, reaches through the bars of the cage, opens the assistand director’s pants, and begins inspecting for lice. Then the assistant director climbs into the hyena cage. The hyena runs and hides in a box. "he doesn’t know me yet," he says. The assistant director climbs down into a concrete basin and begins slapping the water with a hose. The remaining hippos surfaces and slowly climbs out of the water to be handed a fistful of grass. Hippos are responsible for more deaths in Africa than any other animal - with the exception of the anopheles mosquito (that carries the malaria parasite). This feels a bit like a circus, but the zoo is clean, and for someone who isn’t being paid, the assistant director is certainly enthusiastic.
Smith lives under the airplane. He is a three-inch tortoise and is extremely low maintenance. He was a gift from a zoo keeper in Mali, who thought we might give him a better home. In the plane, Smith lives in a pretzel can labeled "navigator," and although a dear friend, he is a valuable distraction at potentially hostile airports. The only problem is Smith’s parents weigh 300 pounds each, so he may have to get off at some point - depending on how fast he grows and how long Tom takes to get home.
As I write this, it is now the 30th. Last night, the political guy died in the hospital in Paris. Three of us were drinking tea in a restaurant when the owner came up and asked us to leave; there were riots in town and he wanted to close. How do you explain that sudden instinctual knot in your stomach. You ask everyone you see for every particle of information; it’s incredible how fast news travels by mouth. It was dark - 9:15 PM - and we took the back roads to the airport. Every sense was piqued to receive any clue of trouble. Along the dirt rutted streets burned the tiny kerosene lanterns of African shops. Ahead down the road were projected silhouettes of people and dogs against the dust by oncoming lights. It was so eerie and calm; none of us spoke a word. But that feeling - that guttural feeling of visceral tightness - I felt like an antelope in a field watching and aware that a lion was out there. I felt hunted.
Today, there are road blocks and in the distance we can see the black smoke rising from burning tires. We have been assured that it is safe, but the plane is packed, and instead, I find I have a strange energy to write.
I didn’t know how I was going to explain it; I’m still not sure I understand it. In the end, it was too much, and I just had to stop. Till then, I had been filming like crazy, everything, in utter disbelief. It had been just like a movie - Monrovia, Liberia. It was safe to go there, I was told by the American Embassy in Bamako, but as I landed ... that curious knot in my stomach appeared. I half-wanted to push in the throttle, keep rolling and take-off again. A huge four-engine Russian Antonov whizzed past the window. It said "Air Guinea" on the side and had crashed off the side of the runway. There was a man standing on top with an ax cutting it apart. Then a child passed the window. He was standing in the grass with a pile of sticks on his head. The aircraft radio crackled and the voice said, "welcome to Liberia." There were people everywhere - as if they emerged out of the grass. There were guys with guns. On their sleeves were different flags - Ghana, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and others. Everyone had a badge, some said "plane boy," some said "customs," some said "mechanics helper." They all said we should come to their office first. They began to argue with each other and look at me for answers. The guys with the guns were there too. Major Fisher from Nigeria said that they had not heard we were coming. I had sent a request (2 of them) from Bamako, and in Kankan, Guinea, I had re-confirmed with Freetown, but that was by HF radio in a control tower with no windows and in a language I didn’t understand.
The request went to the other airport, I was told, and the rebels have that one. I had to leave immediately; this sounded good to me. I was told we were the first civil single-engine plane to land there in two years. Stuff was happening pretty quickly. So may people, everywhere, was what bothered me - complete chaos. Then just like some miracle, two white guys appeared, and all was okay. We pushed our plane down to the JAARS (Jungle Aviation and Radio Service) hangar and stuck it next to the Helio-Courier. They were still patching all the bullet holes in it, but they were back and ready to start again. I started to see what was all around me. There were little airplanes everywhere, full of bullet holes, they looked like Swiss cheese. There was a brand new Buffalo, 2 Yak-40 jets, a Beaver, a couple 180’s, a Cessna 402, a 421 - plenty, more than 20 airplanes. The 421 had a rocket hole through the tail; one guy stuck his head through it to show me. I was still nervous and exhausted. We stayed with the JAARS pilots. I thought the next day I would feel better, but I didn’t. At the end of Runway 23, a young boy held up a skull for me to photograph. His brother told me their older brother and father were killed here. Red ants were biting my ankles. They had come up through the sand where they had been feeding on the remains of thousands of human bodies. A UN bulldozer had recently plowed them into the ground and pushed them into the swamp. Some were still visible. One skeleton was still wearing socks, but no flesh. The ants were now biting the child. Our friend Louis had fought on Doe’s side at the airport. I asked him how many; he said 20,000. I thought of my time in Greenland. The population of the capital, Nuuk, was only 12,000. It was Louis’s comrades who had been part of the death squads here. He showed us nylon straps between the branches of a tree where suspected rebels had been tied then cut, cut open, dismembered, castrated. I surely thought this could not all be true, but you only had to look into Louis’s eyes to know that it was. In the St. Peters church, 600 people were machine-gunned. 30 children had managed to crawl out from underneath the dead bodies. 100 children were dropped down a well in the back of the church. The alter was still stained by blood. Children were made to scream, "there is no God" as they lay on it and their throats were cut. The whole place smelled like an abattoir. They had all rotted there, and were just recently buried in the sand courtyard in front of the church. People talked so much, as if they had to, like a catharsis. Samuel Doe had been over to see Reagan. Reagan had called him "Chairman Moe" by accident (I was told). The stories were wild and the same. Pregnant women were cut open. Soldiers placed bets on whether it was a boy or a girl. 100 Liberian dollars (US$ 12) was a normal amount. The woman would grab her stomach and try to wrap her open womb as the soldiers laughed; she was not from their tribe. The child was slung like a ripe tomato against the wall or, as I heard many times, into the air then skewered on a bayonet. My adrenaline pumped so hard as I heard these stories. I filmed them because I really simply couldn’t believe them. Yet, you could see it, everywhere you looked. In the streets, you could buy a video tape (from Nigeria) that showed Prince Johnson interrogating Doe after they captured him. They were almost affectionate toward him by touching his head as he pleaded, then they cut off his ears and began. He was eventually put in a wheelbarrow (in pieces) and pushed around the streets of Monrovia. Even now, as I write, most of this sounds like an exaggerated story of some sick nightmare. People ate people. Not because they were hungry, but because they were scared; it makes you strong if you eat your enemy.
Liberia had been a friend of the United States. 5% of the population are descendants of freed slaves. They were such a strong trading country, supplying so much of west Africa. It happened so quickly. Everything is destroyed. Entire government buildings were stripped of everything from roof to window frames and floor tiles. It really did get to be too much. After seven days when we left, the huge crashed Antonov had been completely broken apart, by hand. Within a week, it would be shipped back to Guinea to be melted down into aluminum pots. The same thing had happened to a DC-3 in Niamey, Niger.
In Yamoussoukro, Ivory coast, I walked into a Basilica - the finest imported marble, wood and stained glass. Above the alter hung a 50 kilo (110 pounds) 22 carat gold cross; above that a hung chandelier - made of plastic. I was told it cost 700 million US$ to build this. No one really knows; it was the President’s personal money. He was born in a village near here. It costs one million dollars a year to maintain the grounds and run the climate control system that keeps rain clouds from forming inside the dome. The jungle is just outside; green stuff was growing in the cracks. I thought of what it must have felt like to stumble across the ruins of an Aztec civilization. Maybe someday.
My brother was married last month; the other one graduated from college. It’s now raining. After so many months of heat, sand and righteous Muslims, it’s just good to get rained on. I’m told this is nothing compared to the storms in Zaire and Congo; I wish I had a stormscope.