Authors: Larry Johns
Tags: #Adventure, #Thriller
Smart apparently spent four agonizing months at The Place of Bones before Pasha was finally ready to move westward.
There is a note in Smart’s diaries - preserved in the archives of a famous Boston, Massachusetts, museum - to the effect that he and the other members of his party made several attempts to: “...escape...Once, myself, Dean and Hornsby, foolishly decided to attempt a southward exit...the waiting was unbearable...the smell of that evil place tore at the mind, the very substance of one’s being...Poor Hornsby sank to a cloying death almost within our grasps...” Eventually, however, the trek was made and the coast reached. Smart makes no mention of whether or not he honored his promissory note but it is clear that he wiped Africa from his list of continents upon which to seek his fortune, turning his attentions to the American west.
Mohammed Pasha died in 1841, apparently taking the secret of Kanyamifupa with him. But the link between The Place Of Bones and present-day Camp-One is obvious, for, a little over a century later, a German major called Claus von Zetterheim records in an official report dated 1913:
“...Our craft(?) was lost to us some considerable distance upstream of a small settlement known locally as Lulonga and we were cast ashore in swampland...several of my command were lost to crocodiles and other river beasts (one presumes he uses that term in its derogatory sense) and others to the deep, sometimes unperceived swamps...Finally, myself and leutnant Han came upon firm ground where we were greatly surprised to find amongst the prolific vines and ferns a large number of branch-constructed cages, strewn about in confusion amongst dry, human bones by the veritable pile...”
The report goes on to say that out of his original command of over forty trained troops, all of them familiar with jungle fighting and survival, only seven managed to join Zetterheim at what could only have been Kanyamifupa, where they were to remain: “...for five long months, living off the land whilst searching a way out.”
Of his eventual escape and return to civilization, von Zetterheim writes:
“...We had traced, by God’s Grace, plus diligent quartering and mapping, a foot-firm passage, sometimes as wide as two tanks side by side, a distance of some ten kilometers...a slow, tortuous task, over a period of months...Then, quite by chance, Hardenburg(?) noticed a recurring peculiarity about the undergrowth...The blue Dicindra vine, which grows in profusion in the soft, sucking mud, was not evident upon the firm clay we were tracing...Reliant solely upon this freak of nature we eventually entered the elephant grass east of the swamplands, and made our way into the rain forests, which seemed paradise compared to the unholy land we had left behind us...”
It was to be another four months, however, making a total of nine, before von Zetterheim and two un-named survivors, having turned inexplicably south and east - they were headed west! - came upon a native village on the bank of the then Congo River, just across from present-day Mbandaka. Barely seventy kilometers downstream of the place of the original disaster! von Zetterheim’s report - oddly enough still listed as classified information - was the basis for the next and subsequent “users” of Kanyamifupa.
In 1962 the German mercenary commander, Heinz Behr, charged with the task of organizing nuisance raids into the Mongo territory of the Congo - now Zaire -, the strategy of which was to keep the Simbas occupied in the north so that less attention could be paid to the cities of the south: Kinshasa, Libreville and Brazzaville, remembered having once seen and read von Zetterheim’s report during his - Behr’s - stint in the New German Army. He reasoned that a forward base so close to the proposed area of operations would be invaluable, especially in view of the fact that most Simbas distained utterly to enter the rain forests. He also knew that the swamplands were some kind of a taboo area for the northern Congo tribes, all of which underscored the strategic importance of a place like Kanyamifupa.
Behr’s method of location was simple if painstaking. He hand-picked a team of Kikuyu and Bantu soldiers and scoured, from north to south, the tract of elephant grass which divided the rain forests proper from the swamps. Knowing exactly what to look for he eventually, after no less than three complete sweeps over a period of eight days, located Zetterheim’s: “...tract of Dicindra-free clay...” Three days after that Behr stepped into The Place of Bones. What he found there, or how many men he lost along the way, is not known, for he made no notes - his clinical mind obviously on a different plain from that of an explorer, or a regular army major. At all events, Behr considered Kanyamifupa ideal for his purpose, and he immediately renamed it “Camp-One”.
Helicopters were less than useless as a mode of transport into and out of Camp-One, as the trees, though far from rain forest sized, were sufficiently tall and thick-knitted to forbid all methods of vertical approach. He was forced to truck his men and equipment down from Makanza. The huts and portacabins were barged up-river some time later; after Behr had realized that, in fact, the tract of clay stretched all the way from the elephant grass to the river, and that the area of “Kanyamifupa” was merely a widening of that tract.
Later still, after Makanza had fallen to the Simbas, he wrote a friend that he had over-flown the camp, with knowledge of its precise whereabouts, and had still been unable to see any signs of it through the foliage. Behr was killed during the raid on Basankuzu, June 3rd., 1963, and his replacement, an American called Robert McCann - “Robbie” - saw Camp-One for the first time one month later. There were no traces now of bones or cages. At least not in the camp itself. Occasionally though, in the nature of living swamp, some bones do come to the surface south of the camp. It is not known who gathered them up and buried them there. Probably Behr.
The following story is not an epitaph to The Place of Bones; it is an episode in a continuing saga. For reasons too complex to go into here, “Robbie” has been allowed to tell his own story. The others, those who could be contacted, expressed no such desire.
I woke up to a tinny voice informing us that we were about to land at Brazzaville International Airport and would we fasten our seatbelts and ensure that our seats were in the upright position. My head ached and my eyes were scratchy. My nerves jangled and demanded that I go back to sleep. I have never liked over-night flights. I looked out the window. The sky sat on Africa like a red-velvet cushion with blue-white trimmings. I did not say: “Hello again, Africa” or anything like that, not even in my mind. I just looked down at it.
I did what I had to do with the seat and tried to ignore the fact that I needed a smoke, despite that my mouth tasted as if I'd been eating graves. And now I felt cold. I told myself it was because of the cabin air conditioning, but was really not so sure.
The aircraft lurched and shuddered as the flaps went down. Outside the window, Africa tilted sideways. I closed my eyes and wished I was somewhere else. I thought: If wishes were horses... All in vain. Africa was all I knew. And if I was not exactly over the moon to be back in the reins, I was not, in truth, desperately unhappy either. This was me. My choice. Always had been and always would. I shook myself mentally. This was a good contract. It was a better one for the Chinese. Contracts are always better for the employer. Negative thoughts again!
I studied the scene unfolding outside my window. Down there somewhere were three hundred mercenaries; the largest clandestine force I’d had under my command for some time.
As the aircraft sank shivering out of the sky I heard “Cat”Souchet’s voice in my head: “They’re over there, Robbie. I’m sure of it.”
In my mind’s eye, we were standing on the west bank of what used to be called the Congo River - now the Zaire River - and Souchet was referring to a group of Simbas that had been after our blood for weeks.
“Over there,” I said sardonically, but knowing exactly what he meant, “are three thousand square miles of rain forest. So, yes, I guess you could say that.”
Souchet was his usual humorless self. “I mean
over there! Waiting for us to cross.”
“So what do you suggest? We
Souchet sighed deeply as only a French man knows how. He sank down onto his haunches and rested his unshaven chin on the barrel of his A.K.assault rifle, his blue, sad eyes scanning the forbidding wall of trees on the far side of that swirling watercourse. “I suggest,” he said softly, “we think about it.”
I grunted. “And we all know where thought gets us.”
Which was never so true. Not then, not now, as the aircraft made messy contact with Africa and the engines screamed in reverse thrust. I did not look out of the window again. I waited until the crush of travel-weary bodies had thinned. Then I sucked in a deep breath and let it out slowly. Here we were. Then I rose up and retrieved my briefcase from the rack, sorted out my passport and papers and, since there was now a comfortable gap between the tail-end of the jumble of people and my row of seats, I stepped out into the aisle. Yes, for good or evil, I was back.
It is true that I had not expected to be back so soon but, now that the plane was on the ground, I realized, or thought I realized, that did not matter. In recent years my self-imposed spells of Rest and Recreation had proved less and less efficacious. This latest break, for example, had been an unmitigated disaster during which I had been utterly unable to rid my mind of the faces and the voices of dead men; men I had killed, men who had died alongside me, and men who apparently wanted nothing but to be left alone. It got so bad at one stage that I seriously thought about diving under the limpid waters off Crete, and staying there. I did not do that, of course. But I had seriously considered it; which speaks volumes.
At the time, I was quite pleased to have received my visitor; the “official” of the Bank of China. I remember shaking his hand warmly and saying yes to all he had to offer. The second thoughts came later. When it was too late. Which was probably just as well.
So, here I was back in the Congo. Two months before I’d planned to be. Was I glad to be there? Perversely, I thought now that I was. Certainly, I looked forward with interest to see how Camp-One had stood the test of time. I thought about that and my mind took another skip backward. Except that this time the recalled incident held no dark connotations. It was Souchet again. Why was his memory so predominant lately? He was talking to Mblindi, the Nigerian sergeant.
“Where there’s garbage, there’s rats.”
“Rats do’n scare me, bwana.”
But where there’s rats, there’ll be a Black Mamba nearby!”
I smiled at the mental image of this gangly sergeant chivvying a force of battle-hardened irregulars into camp-cleaning details. Then the smile faded with the memory. No amount of cleaning would ever fumigate Kanyamifupa - The Place of Bones.
I nodded at the usual platitudes of the cabin staff and stepped out into the damp warmth of the African dawn. And there it was; the smell. Africa’s Chanel No.5. And the memories threatened to flood back yet again. I pushed them aside. A woman in front of me crinkled up her nose and pulled a face at the man with her, who merely raised non-committal eyebrows. I vaguely wondered what they were doing here. Holiday, maybe. Business? Just passing through? Whatever their reason, it would not be as detrimental as my own. Or would it? Africa, after all, was there to be taken advantage of.
I had a wild thought that perhaps they ought to start again with this continent. Failing that, placing an immediate ban on people like myself would be a damned good alternative.
I descended the steps and squeezed myself aboard the airport bus. The door hissed shut behind me. I felt dirty and disheveled because I was. I ignored the other passengers and they ignored me. Which was fine. Inside the terminal building it was immediately obvious that the Brazzaville Airport Authority was conducting another of its time-consuming and annoying spot checks and body-searches; aimed at the fortuitous apprehension of anyone from the smuggler to the insurgent. I had been involved in several of these in the past so knew what to expect and was not unduly concerned. I carried no weapons and my passport and papers were in better order than they had ever been - my sponsors, for the supposed four-day visit, being the highly esteemed Bank of China. The sponsorship forms proclaimed that I was their Middle East Investment Coordinator.
Some of the more voluble passengers were already protesting and arguing as the uniformed immigrations, customs and security people, some two dozen of them, men and women, moved amongst us, randomly selecting victims for the body searches. I looked around for a seat. I was in no desperate rush and the people waiting for me would do just that; wait.
In the event, I did not need the chair. I was among the first batch to be chosen. Which suited me fine. And I was as relaxed and at ease as was possible after a long night flight as I was directed to a door marked “Visas” by a young Congolese officer with a pock-marked face, and shown politely inside. I even thanked the man for opening the door for me.
I knew something was wrong the instant the door closed behind me. Inside were not the uniformed officials I was expecting, but three white men in civilian clothes. One of them, a thin man in a grey suit, stepped forward as one of the others, a big bull of a man in an engineer’s coverall, stepped behind me and locked the door.