December 1, 2015 | Rome, Italy | Partly Cloudy 9°C

Once upon a time

The Memling Hotel, a staple in Belgian Congo days, still exists in today's Kinshasha.
By Vittorio Jucker
Published: 2015-11-22

ome 50 years ago I began spending a great deal of my time traveling in the Middle East, North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa. It was a powerful, indelible experience that lasted some five years in all. Recent events have brought back memories of those days, some bitter, some sweet. I hope you'll indulge me.

In a hotel with my former wife in Leopoldville, as Kinshasa was called until 1966, transiting through the troubled Congo on our way to South Africa, we awoke early to the sound of machine gun fire. The shooting was coming from outside the hotel (the Memling, I still remember) and bullets had shattered our room window and hit the ceiling. We dived under the bed as plaster began raining down.

After a while I picked up my courage and went to see what was happening outside. There were soldiers in a Jeep with a machine gun mounted on top, aiming at the Memling. When the firing stopped we dressed and went downstairs. A body lay under a bloodied sheet in the lobby directly in front of the restaurant where many patrons were calmly eating breakfast. It was the body of a journalist killed by the Congolese military, we later learned.

The Belgian Congo became independent in 1960, opening the door to five years of bloodshed.

It was my first taste of the turmoil just beginning to brew in Africa. In shock, we found our way to the airport, where I witnessed something else that gave me pause. All flights had been halted because several U.S. cargo planes with American crews had just landed from the eastern part of the Congo transporting rebel prisoners captured by government forces. Congolese paratroopers were everywhere, carrying and beating rebel prisoners tied hand and foot to large wooden sticks. Facing the sizeable crowd of waiting passengers were cordons of armed American soldiers who seemed to take great pains not to witness what was happening behind their backs, as if they'd been ordered not to see.

An old Congolese policeman who saw me with a camera asked me with tears in his eyes to take pictures of the scene, and he would cover me by standing in front of me. I'm not much of a photographer, but I did as he asked.

That first encounter with Africa shocked me deeply, but it also made me aware of the complexity of the problems, and the brutality. One day I was on the beach near Mombassa in Kenya. I had taken a very long walk, found a huge rock by the shore, and climbed it to sit on. I began smoking a cigarette and watched from afar as a man, also walking on the beach, approached me. When he climbed the rock and sat beside me I offered him a cigarette. There we sat, side-by-side, silent, just smoking and looking. After he finished the cigarette he got up, shook my hand and continued his march, soon disappearing into the distance. He left me with a feeling of brotherhood such as I have rarely felt.

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