“No, God, I Can’t Believe It”–A Ducudrama Of The Forced Ukrainian Famine

April 28, 2009

[First published in May 18, 2005] In 1932, Stalin went to war against Ukrainian nationalism and resistance to collectivization. His weapon of choice was enforced famine. Stalin won. The “war dead?” About 5,000,000 Ukrainians who starved to death or died of associated diseases. Want to know what it was like for a Ukrainian villager then? Here is one possible story.
***

“We were starving to death,” Viktor suddenly blurted as I placed another beer before him. “My father, Petro Pynzenyk, was powerless to do anything about it, which made him very angry. I remember him shaking his feeble fist in the air and yelling to my mother Olena, ‘How could he do this to us? How could he starve us to death? God, why? What have we done to him?’

“My mother wouldn’t answer. Skeletal and weak with hunger, she could no longer leave their bed.”

Ignoring his beer, his eyes turned inward, Viktor finally let it all out.

***

Drought had brought famine to the Ukraine. But this famine was nothing compared to what Stalin, the absolute dictator of the communist Soviet Union, or USSR, was doing. He had launched a total blockade that prevented any food from getting into that Soviet republic. The communist cadre even searched travelers to the Ukraine to make sure they carried no food with them.

According to Stalin’s fanatical communist reasoning, Ukrainian peasant nationalism was a danger to his power that had to be subdued. The peasants also had strongly resisted giving up their homes, farms, and livestock to be collectivized into factory farms. Stalin’s weapon against such stubbornness and nationalism was starvation. He sent the communist cadre, activists, and security forces into the region to enforce his own man-made famine.

Petro Pynzenyk’s anguished outbursts against Stalin would almost exhaust him. He had been a handsome man in his youth, taller than most other peasants, with a round, open face and a strong brow. Even when age had grayed his hair, he had been well muscled, as heavy farm workers usually were. Now his ribs showed and his stomach was caved in; his arms and legs had grown bony, their muscles raped by his body for sustenance.

Viktor remembered watching him pry the soles off his shoes and then drop them into a pot of boiling water hanging in the fireplace. “Maybe they’ll add some flavor to the tree bark,” he rasped. It seemed that he could no longer say anything normally.

He was nonpolitical, tried to stay out of trouble, and did what the local communist functionaries asked. Except that, with all his being, he dreaded the demand he knew would soon come from Kiev—that he give up his one-acre farm and small home to collectivization. His father had worked all his life to develop and build this small farm. Petro did not want to give it up, but if he resisted, the communists would shoot him and his family.

Viktor was fourteen at the time. He spent the days hunting alone, because Petro, much to his shame, had grown too weak to join him. With a long-handled net, Viktor tried to catch any animals he saw around the village or in the unplowed fields, even former pets that the communists had missed when they came through, shooting them and stuffing the dead ones in sacks to be carried or trucked away. They’d also taken all the livestock, and had gone house to house looking for food, even seizing warm bread off the tables. When they learned that the villagers had started catching birds to eat, the communists again came through, shooting the birds out of the trees and bagging their little bodies.

When they came to the Pynzenyk home, they poked around the grounds outside the house with long rods, searching for buried food. They thus found the seeds Viktor’s mother had hidden by the pump, which they’d planned to use for planting if they survived.

Finally, as much as he didn’t want to believe it, Viktor realized they would not survive much longer.

One late afternoon when Viktor returned empty-handed to their house, he was just pulling the door shut behind him when he heard a distant scream. Alarmed but too weak to move himself, Petro waved Viktor outside to find out what was happening. Petro and Olena waited in tense silence as Viktor left the house. Viktor could tell they were scared. He followed the sound of the screams, which were soon punctuated by loud moans and gasps for breath.

When Viktor discovered what had caused the screams, he vomited up what liquid lay in his empty stomach. Sickened, revolted, he ran home and lay by his house and wept until too exhausted to cry anymore. Finally, he staggered inside.

He pushed the door shut behind him and stood there, swaying as if cornered. He could only gape at his parents, his mouth working. He started crying again, fighting to gulp air into his lungs, but dreading the news he had to tell his parents.

“What is it?” Petro demanded weakly.

Viktor ran over to his mother’s bed and threw himself down beside her, his whole body shaking. Olena put her bony arm around him, murmured some soothing words, and waited.

Finally, still trembling, Viktor blurted, “They ate her.”

“Ate who?” asked his father.

“Yana.”

“Yana? What are you talking about?” His mother looked from Viktor to Petro in confusion.

Viktor calmed down enough to explain, although tears still flowed. “Little Yana down the road. She went missing, and her father searched the woods and finally checked that crazy man Taran’s house on the other side of the stream. She was . . . ”

“What, Viktor?”

“She was . . . cut up in his . . . in his food pot. Her father grabbed a shovel and killed Taran and his mother with it.” Viktor’s stomach heaved at the memory, but nothing would come up. He whimpered, “She was such a fun little girl. She was always laughing and trying to trip me. She would make believe I was a horse.”

“My Holy God in Heaven,” Petro groaned. “I had heard this was going on, but in our village? No, God, I can’t believe it.”

Olena could only close her eyes and let the tears flow.

The days went slowly by, each a torment of hunger. Petro also grew too weak to leave his bed. Viktor continued to hunt, and captured some rats in the field. With the head of one he saved from the pot, he actually caught a starving dog whose own hunger had overcome its natural fear. His parents always gave him the largest part of any catch. They wanted Viktor to live to remember them, and what had happened.

Olena died two weeks later, and Petro the following week. With the death of his father, Viktor gave up all hope. He was lying on their bed, just waiting for the end, when Stalin ordered the release of grain from the military warehouses.

Local officials soon started going from village to village, looking for survivors. When they came to Viktor’s house, they knocked on the door. Receiving no response, they entered and, one told him later, were nearly overcome by the smell of urine, feces, and death. They found Viktor almost dead, lying next to the rotting corpses of his mother and father on a pile of filthy blankets. Viktor was not the first one they’d seen in this condition; they knew what to do. He was carried outside and propped on the ground to be spoon-fed thin soup.

***

Unlike all but a few in his village, Viktor survived. Five million Ukrainians did not.

Even this did not satisfy Stalin. He decided that the core Ukrainian culture had to be destroyed. And who was at the heart of this culture? The blind traveling musicians, who played and sang the classical Ukrainian music and folk tunes, and recounted tales of Ukrainian heroes. So, Stalin had communist officials call all the folk musicians together for a festival, and then had them all shot to death.

How can we prevent this from ever happening again? Through the democratic peace.


War/peace docudramas
War/democide Docudramas


“Please Now, Rest In Peace:” A Docudrama on Mao’s China

April 8, 2009

[First published May 16, 2005] I was not at home when police arrested my husband, Peng. As I approached our home on my bicycle after shopping, I saw him, handcuffed, being pushed into one of two police cars. I knew immediately that I would probably never see him again.

All the scientists at the institute understood that arrest was a possibility. As scientists, they had interacted with foreigners, had read foreign publications, and therefore were always in danger of having such normal activities misunderstood or misinterpreted by the Red Guards. Peng and I had prepared, as had so many others, for such an eventuality.

I quickly pedaled my bicycle past the police cars and down a side street. I could hardly steer it, I was shaking so much. My feet shuddered off the pedals several times. My breath caught in my throat; my stomach knotted. The devastating thought, Peng, my poor, dear husband Peng, kept beating in my mind. I could barely see through the tears that stung my eyes.

I wonder now how I stayed upright on my bike and didn’t crash into the police cars or a tree. I knew if I did, the police would discover who I was and arrest me. The Red Guards often jailed whole families. I steered the wobbly bike around a corner, around another corner, and into some bushes. I dragged it behind the bushes and fell on the ground, beating the earth with my fists, and sobbed into the dirt for my husband and our lives, now totally destroyed.

Maybe an hour or two later, emotionally and physically exhausted, I used the bottom of my dress to clean by face and wipe my eyes. I ignored the food that had fallen out of the bike’s rear basket. I knew what I had to do.

I headed for my cousin’s small dim sum restaurant on Yunnan Lu Road. There, I hid my bicycle in the rear among the garbage cans. I entered through the back door.

My cousin, Ding Xiaoshuang, was in the kitchen preparing meals with another cook. He was too skinny to look like a cook—cooking made him lose all taste for food, he said. Lack of a good chief’s fat might cast suspicion on the quality of his food, but his friendly, outgoing nature compensated for that. About every fifteen minutes he toured the restaurant, asking customers how they were, what their children were doing, and how they liked his dim sum. He always suggested his custard tarts as a treat.

Ding looked at me without surprise when I came in the back door. This was one of the signals we had planned if Red Guards, soldiers, or some other faction arrested one or the other of us. Otherwise, I would have come in the front door of the restaurant.

No doubt my eyes were puffy and red. “Hello, cousin,” Ding said, as mindful of his cook working nearby as I was in hiding my face from him. Moving towards the stairs to his apartment above the restaurant, Ding added, “I have that present for Peng you wanted me to get. Come on upstairs and I’ll give it to you.”

I had so far not said a word. I followed Ding up the stairs. We moved towards the room at the front, where Ding’s cook and the waitresses hustling in and out of the kitchen would be least likely to hear us.

He put both his arms around me, and I quietly wept into his chest. He just held me tight and rubbed my back with one hand. He had never seen my tears before. He knew what would cause them. He didn’t hurry me, but he risked arousing his cook’s suspicion, so I knew I had to stop. I fought for control.

Peng and I had been married for only a year. I had met him at a conference at the institute, where I had served as a lab assistant. I had a degree in physics and had participated in experiments on magnetic propulsion, his chief area of research. I found Peng, with his tall, athletic build and his strong Manchurian features, handsome; he often attracted the stares and smiles of strangers when we ambled down the street—although he claimed they were admiring my willowy figure.

After we were married, we tried to reduce the risk of arrest. Only Peng worked at the institute, and we cleared our home of everything foreign. We concealed as much as possible from those at the institute the fact that we were married—as I mentioned, whole families were often arrested—and that both of us spoke and read English.

As I pulled back from my cousin and rubbed my eyes to clear them, Ding asked me in a subdued voice, “What do you want to do now? I haven’t touched what you and Peng prepared. Do you want to flee to Hong Kong?”

Wearily, I answered, “No. I first want to be sure about what happened to Peng.”

Ding had to lean forward to hear me. I tried to raise my voice but only increased its quaver. “This might only be a warning or harassing arrest, and he might be home within a week or so.” More firmly, I added, “I must find out. Can I hide here until I do?”

Ding hesitated. He took my hand and held it in both of his. “I think I can find out for you. You know my dim sum is famous,” he whispered proudly, “and I get many prison guards with their families coming here to eat. When one of them gave a party for his son’s graduation, I offered to cater it. There were over one hundred relatives, friends, and their families there. The food was sumptuous, I must admit, and I gave him a big cut on the cost. Now I can get my payment, yes?”

“How often does that guard eat here?”

“About once every one or two weeks, and I think he was here about a week ago.”

I didn’t have to think about that. I wanted to know. Absolutely. “Then I’ll wait. I’m leaving now, so that no one gets suspicious. I’ll come back after you close at . . . when, eleven?”

“Right.” He took a rag out of his back pocket and carefully wiped my face with it, and leaned over and kissed me on the forehead. “Be careful, now. Oh, here, take this package and make believe it’s the present I mentioned.”

I straightened up and went down the stairs first. At the bottom, I turned and yelled up with false cheer, “Thanks cousin, Peng will really like this.”

I headed for the waterfront on my bike, where I could bury myself and my heartbreak among the crowds.

Ding met me at the back door when I returned that night. “Peng’s dead,” he told me, reaching to hold me. “I’m sorry.”

I’d known it was coming. Now it was real. I staggered under the blow of his words, and sagged into his arms.

“You have to escape,” Ding continued. “Go to Hong Kong.”

Through his contacts in the Shanghai harbor market where he often bought fish for his restaurant, Ding knew a fishmonger named Wen who dealt with freighter captains that could be bribed. Much later, in his room, when I had stopped sobbing, he tore a small piece from a sheet of rice paper on his worktable and scribbled a message on it. He brought it back to me and, pressing it gently into my hand, said, “Give this to Wen. If the police stop you before you see him, you can easily swallow and digest it.”

I sought Wen first thing in the morning.

He was easy enough to find. He sold tuna filets at the market in the third stall nearest the dock. After looking over several filets, I asked Wen for one. When I paid him, I included the note. He took it with the money and placed it in the bottom of his moneybox, so that only he could read it. Closing the box, he told me to come back at 4:30, when he could give me a special deal on fish.

When I returned at the appointed time, a thin young boy stood with Wen. When Wen saw me approaching, he said something to the boy, who then moved from behind the fish table. As he brushed by me, he whispered, “Follow me.”

I followed him through the market crowd, out onto the Shanghai docks, and into Dadong Warehouse through a small side door. I found myself in a small room that smelled of long-dead fish and rotting wood. Rope, hooks, canvas, and bags of all descriptions were heaped in corners and against two walls. The place was so dirty that I halted and flinched back as I entered.

The boy spoke for the first time since we’d left the market. “Turn around and face the door and be still.” He studied me for a moment, eyes curious. He twitched his shoulders as though shrugging, turned, and swiftly disappeared out the door.

I could hear muffled sounds from the warehouse and occasional yells from dockworkers outside. An engine roared in the distance. I was beginning to worry about Wen setting me up to be kidnapped into the Chinese sex trade. This sometimes happened on the docks.

A door opened and closed on the other side of the room. Softly at first, then louder, I heard footsteps approaching behind me. As the person drew closer, I heard heavy breathing. The person stopped. The breathing got louder. I twitched my nose at the added stench.

I jumped at a sudden, unpleasant sound.

“Name?” a man’s voice rasped in the most awful Chinese. I thought I recognized a Portuguese accent.

“Gu . . . Gu Yaping,” I said, trying to keep my voice firm.

“Got jewel?” the voice grated.

“Yes.” In the emergency store that Ding had hidden for us, Peng and I had included most of our family jewels, especially several antique jade rings and miniature ivory statues left to us when our parents died. The items were worth thousands of dollars on the black market.

“Give me.”

I spun around and saw an older Caucasian man in a dark blue coat with two stripes on each sleeve. He wore an officer’s cap with salt-tarnished, fake gold braid. His face was barely visible, but its red complexion and his bulbous nose could not be missed.

“No,” I said, speaking pidgin Chinese, “you get when go on ship.”

The man asked, “You go Hong Kong?”

“Yes.”

“You fuck on ship?”

I gasped. I felt my face get hot. I suddenly shivered in the warm room.

The man stared at my hips, trying to imagine me naked, I guessed. He then unhurriedly raised his eyes to my blouse, apparently judging my hidden breasts. I wore a shapeless white blouse and it hung loosely over my gray slacks. I had done my best to hide my femininity, not only out of traditional modesty in public, but so as not to invite any propositions in the docks, where many prostitutes worked their trade. But, I couldn’t hide everything.

I forced myself to stand still, stop trembling, and endure his lusty inspection. I had to. I was not dumb. I knew that, once aboard his ship, he could take my jewels, kill me, and throw my body in the Huangpu River as the ship traveled to the sea. All that would keep him interested in keeping me alive would be sex and the promise of more sex.

Now blushing at what I must do, I lowered my head a little and looked at him demurely out of the corner of my eye. I whispered, “Yes.”

“Do now. Take off clothes.”

Well, I thought, what choice do I have? This was not going to be a strip tease. I promptly set a personal speed record in taking off my clothes, and let them fall anywhere. I stood naked with a straight back, head high, looking into his eyes, willing my knees not to shake. He probed me with his eyes, hurriedly took off his coat, tossed it on the dirty floor, and motioned me to lie down on it.

As hasty as he was to gratify his lust, I was more anxious to get this over with. I dropped down and spread my legs, turning my head away from him. He did nothing more than pop the buttons on his trousers to spring his erection free and fall on top of me. Straightaway he tried to enter me, but I was too dry. It was painful. I motioned for him to stop. I might have had more success in halting the charge of a bull. I had to grab his shaft in one hand to get him to stop long enough for me to spit on the fingers of my other hand and moisten his penis as best I could. Then I guided him into me.

As he vigorously pumped back and forth, my body jerked in unison. It was nothing to me but forced physical exertion, but I knew to save my life I had to fake pleasure. I moaned and put my legs around his back and moved my hips in rhythm with his. Fortunately, the time he took to ejaculate was almost shorter than it took to pronounce the word. I had to rush to lower my legs, reach between them, and pull his quivering penis out. I slid down and managed to put it in my mouth a second before he came.

Damned if I’ll get pregnant, I thought, spitting everything out.

Afterwards, he lay on me and stroked my breasts. Finally, getting his breath, he murmured, “Good.”

I pitied this man’s frustrated girlfriends.

He got up, helped me to my feet, and again devoured my naked body with his eyes for a few minutes. Finally, he picked up his coat, shook the dirt off it, and motioned for me to get dressed. While watching me cover myself, he said, “Go to Longwu Port dock by Longwu Road. At 1 AM. You know?”

I felt sick and dirty. My tears seemed to have a will of their own. I struggled not to show them, but I felt one escape down the side of my face. “Yes,” I whispered.

“What?”

“Yes, I be there,” I said, more loudly than I’d intended.

The man disappeared without another word.

***

When the Portuguese freighter Bartholomeu Dias docked in Hong Kong, among the many boxes unloaded was one labeled “Toys” in Chinese. Customs passed the box, as did a British inspector who beat on three sides of the box with his baton to make sure it was full and not hiding a refugee. A small truck picked up the box and took it to the bustling market on Tung Choi Street. There, two men unloaded the heavy box in front of a small women’s dress shop and lugged it through the front door and into the rear, where they dropped it on the floor with a loud thunk.

The owner of the shop, Wu Jin, a thin man in his thirties whose thick, black-framed glasses dominated his face, signed for the delivery, and then impatiently waited on two women in the shop. When they left, Wu closed and locked the front door, then rushed into the rear. He pried open the box, flung aside the toys and stuffed animals inside, and then saw me.

I was curled up in the box, my chin touching my knees. I turned my head slowly and looked up at him with what must have been weary, red-rimmed eyes. Suffering and fatigue had etched years onto my face, I’m sure. I whispered huskily, “Hello, third cousin. I see you got Ding’s message.”

I tried to get out of the container, but fell back. Wu bent over me and, with a grunt, lifted me out. I moaned and put a hand over my abused crotch as he carried me over to a Chinese low chest and set me down on it. I must have lost ten pounds.

Weakly bracing myself with my hands to stay upright, I looked over at the container and saw the label. “Toys from China,” I murmured. Yes, I thought, how appropriate. I had been a sex toy for half the ship. But I’m alive.

My hand trembled when I raised it to my lips. I kissed the palm, then tilted my head back and blew the kiss toward the ceiling. That’s for you, my sweetest. I made it and I will never forget you and what was done. Please now, rest in peace.


Kill Them, Or We Will Kill You–Rawandan Docudrama

December 26, 2008

[This is a fictional ducudrama on the Rwandan genocide first published on June 5, 2005]

I met him at a dinner party. I will never forget him. Even years later, when I see blood, mine from a shaving nick, my wife’s from a kitchen knife, or in a TV drama, I can’t help but think of him and his experience in Rwanda. There were ten of us at the dining room table, and he was a thin black man with a narrow face and large eyes who sat on my right. Soon after we sat down, he leaned toward me and said, “I’m Dr. Laurent Nkongoli.” He paused and smiled. “I’m head of medical research at the Samoeun Institute of Medicine in New York.”

He knew about my research on democide, and soon told met he had been in Rwanda during the Great Genocide. So, when a month later I was about to write an article on the genocide, I invited him to lunch. Laurent was open and frank about his experience, and oh yes, what a story he had to tell. I soon learned that he and his nephew had barely escaped with their lives. I remember well what he told me:

***

At the beginning of the genocide in April of 1994, Laurent’s nephew, Seth Sendashonga, was a student at the National University of Rwanda in Butare. There was some concern among Tutsi students and faculty at the university about massacres of Tutsi unleashed by the Rwandan Armed Forces in Kigali, the capital. But by Rwandan standards, that was a long distance away. Few worried about it.

So all were taken by surprise when, on the morning of April 10, the Hutu Interahamwe paramilitary militia and Hutu Army soldiers surrounded the university. Once assured that no one could escape, the head of the militia, Stanislas Munyakazi, passed out lists of the Tutu and moderate Hutu students and professors who must be murdered. Each name had a building and a dorm room or office number designated next to it. Consulting the list, squads of three men each entered the buildings and searched from room to room.

Soon, Hutu professors and students whose sympathies lay with those instigating the massacre joined the squads and helped identify those to be killed. They took up machetes themselves and joined the search, using their knowledge of the campus to seek out possible hiding places. Larger squads broke into the classrooms where classes were in session and forced Tutsi professors and students out of the classrooms, marching them through the building and into the university parking lot, where a large group of militia waited.

The militia had the greatest trouble in the university’s Leopold Library. Most had never seen the inside of a library and were unaware of the maze of book stacks. When they discovered that these provided an ideal hiding place and started to search them, they lost themselves in the winding, narrow aisles between the stacks.

This delay saved Seth. He was then a gangly young Tutsi who wanted to be a doctor like his Uncle Laurent, and work at Butare Hospital. Seth was in his second year of premedical courses. He’d been looking for a United Nations book of world health statistics in the Government Documents section on the first floor of the library when he heard shots fired in the parking lot. He rushed over to join other students who were staring out the windows. They could see the parking lot, the trucks parked there, and the militia and some soldiers moving around—all armed. Several large objects lay on the ground. They looked like bodies. Seth opened his eyes wide and gasped.

One of the students at the window called to another, “What’s going on?”

“I don’t know.”

But Seth knew. His parents had heard about the genocide in the capital, but Laurent’s cousin, who was in the local Butare government, had said that this was a minor outbreak by Hutu extremists, and not to worry. Nonetheless, they’d told Seth to take a knife with him when he went to school.

Most of the students at the window looked like Hutu. As soon as Seth realized what was happening, he backed away, whirled, and tore back through the stacks. In his haste to escape, he bounced and pushed off one shelf after another, until his flight was marked by the sound of falling books. He slammed out the rear fire escape door into the dumpster area behind Florence Hall and dashed across the pavement to the dumpster. Panting, he looked into it. No good. It was barely large enough for him to hide in. He would be trapped if the militia searched this area, which they were sure to do.

So far he had kept his backpack with him. With his heart pounding against his ribs, he knelt and opened it and tossed aside his books and notes, leaving his knife, water, and the lunch his mother had made for him. He pulled out the nine-inch knife. Sunlight trembled along the length of its blade. He swung the pack over one shoulder so that he could easily drop it, if the need arose. Hugging the building’s wall, knife in one hand, he crept on shaking legs around the corner of the building and into a narrow lane between it and the library. This led to the woods that bordered the parking lot.

His body had known. His instincts had carried him this far. Now his laggard mind caught up. As he slowly crept along, he suddenly realized how very near death he was, as close as if he were about to stumble into a pride of hungry lions. He knew that if even one militiaman or soldier with a rifle came into the lane, he was dead. His whole body started shuddering with the hammering of his heart. He had a hard time getting his breath; he almost fell away from the wall. But it was keep moving or die.

He glimpsed a sliver of the parking lot at the end of the lane. He slowed. Now he could see two militiamen with guns standing at the edge of the lot, obviously stationed there to prevent anyone escaping the massacre. Seth didn’t realize he had been holding his breath until it came out in a wheeze when he realized he was in shadow between the buildings, and the militiamen had not seen him.

Little by little, Seth slinked backwards until the parking lot was out of sight, and then he lay down and sprawled in the lane as though he had been shot. He kept his right hand with the knife in it tucked under his stomach so that he could rapidly pull it out, and he partly covered his head and one eye with his backpack. Trembling, his stomach knotted, he waited.

Now he heard distant screams and cries, gunshots, yells, and cheers—the rumbling symphony of mass murder. A slight breeze carried the acrid odor of gunpowder, the unforgettable smell of blood, and the stench of human excrement evacuated in death or deathly fear.

The cries and shouts, the gunshots and screams grew louder—they came from the parking lot now. Seth slowly inched himself forward so he could see whether the commotion would cover his escape. The two militiamen had joined others who were shooting and hacking with their machetes at a group of men and boys. The militia showed no mercy. Some seemed to enjoy the Tutsis’ pain, and cut open their stomachs or hacked off their legs or arms so that they bled to death in agony. Within minutes all the male victims were on the ground, some writhing in pain and covered with blood, some moaning.

Part of Seth’s view of this slaughter had been obscured by a large group of female students and older women the militia had separated from the males. Now they turned on the females, who were huddled together, screaming and crying. A few fell to their knees, begging for mercy. One woman cried, “Please, kill me fast. Now. No torture. Please.”

More here


Leopold’s Congo—A docudrama

December 20, 2008

I just provided the cold statistics on King Leopold’s democide in his Congo. But, how did it become his? Unfortunately, King Leopold of Belgium was an intelligent man. He used his brilliance to wield his kingly authority and prestige in conjunction with lies and deception to convince the major nations of the world at the Berlin Conference of 1885 to grant him exclusive ownership of the Congo in Africa. He was so deceptive that these nations did not even know at the time that this was what they were doing. They had no idea they were giving this man an area that was larger than that of England, France, Germany, Spain, and Italy combined. They thought, as Leopold deceived them into believing, that they were acting against slavery and promoting the humanitarian development of the African natives.

With his control over all land in the Congo, which he cleverly called the Congo Free State, no native could own land; tribes and native empires that had worked and farmed certain land for centuries no longer owned their land. Leopold owned it all—every stream and lake, every mountain and hill, every farm and plantation, every town and village. His!

Leopold granted rights to companies in which he secretly held at least 50 percent ownership. And they proceeded to exploit the Congo’s resources without competition—Leopold would allow none. He set up police forces and a governance of the Congo under his total control, and each of the companies were encouraged to set up their own company police. From then on, profit for Leopold and his companies were the first, second, and third goals of his administration.”

At the point of a gun, Leopold turned the Congo, over seventy-six times the size of his own country of Belgium, into a prison of slaves. No native had any rights. Their only purpose in life was to serve Leopold’s greed. They were forced to build a railroad for him; to transport his ships, disassembled into thousands of heavy and clumsy pieces, to inland lakes; and to produce ivory and rubber for his companies and his vast ego so that he could buy or build villas for his teenage mistress, a former prostitute, and build throughout Belgium monuments to himself.

But, these words like the statistics of his incredible democide are cold, heartless. So, to give some feeling to this horror, I wrote the following docudrama. It is based on actual reports and stories of native life under Leopold.

The Congo Free State, 1906

The white man came at midday. My wife Gili and I were weeding the village field planted with cassava and maize, while outside her hut, my sister Abo was making banana flour by pounding up dried bananas. We saw two men hurry to the Chief’s large hut in the village and soon Liamba, our Chief, came out and had the drums beaten to summon everyone from the fields.

When we all gathered around him, he told us that soldiers with red caps and guns and accompanied by white men were coming to the village.

He said that we should put out food for them so that they would eat and pass on without bothering us. So we went into the fields and collected in baskets cassava, plantains, and ground nuts and brought them back to the Chief’s hut. We also collected chickens and goats from around the village.

When the soldiers entered our village they gathered the food, chickens, and goats together, and afterward they surrounded the village and the white man strode up to Liamba and shot him in the head. At the same time, the soldiers made us sit on the ground while they searched each of the huts, forcing everyone out, including even the young children and women nursing their babies. One man tried to escape and a soldier shot him. He cut off the dead man’s hand and put it into his pocket. We learned later that the hand was proof he had used his bullet to kill a native. Sometimes soldiers would kill animals with their guns, and cut off the hands of living people to prove they had not wasted bullets.

Fida, a friend of mine, at first didn’t understand what the soldiers were demanding. A soldier prodded him with a knife to sit on the ground. A white man saw this and commanded a soldier to grab Fida and drag him by his feet to the space in front of us. A soldier told us to watch and see what happened when we didn’t obey.

Fida trembled as he was pulled to his feet by two soldiers and forced to strip. They made him lay face down on the ground, and one soldier grabbed his hands and the other his feet. A third soldier wielded what we learned to call the chicotte. This was a special whip made of a long strip of corkscrew-shaped, sun-dried hippopotamus hide. It had sharp edges that cut into the skin of those whipped with it.

The soldier started whipping Fida’s buttocks. The first stroke left a red line. As more strokes lashed his body, Fida writhed on the ground, and ended up getting his hips and stomach lashed. Some strokes fell on his genitals, and he shrieked with pain. He began bleeding badly in huge rivulets. Finally he could do no more than moan. We lost track of the number of lashes, but surely there were many more than fifty. Long before the soldier was finished, Fida stopped moving or making any sound. Out of breath, the soldier eventually stopped. He grabbed Fida’s hair and pulled up his head. Fida had bitten through his tongue. He was dead.

A man dressed in blue with a white man alongside him told us that each man would have to collect a basket full of coagulated sap he called rubber from a particular vine that grows in the jungle. If we didn’t fill our basket, we would get whipped like the one dead on the ground. To make sure that we fulfilled our quota and didn’t run away, our wives and children would be held hostage.

A soldier handed me a piece of rubber vine so I would know what it looked like, and had me pass it around. We were told the best way to coagulate the sap was to spread it on our body as soon as we tapped the vine. We must not get dirt, leaves and twigs, or stones in it. We were also prohibited from cutting the vine down, and should do no more than make a cut to drain the sap.

We were separated from the women. I saw my wife crying as she and my sister and the other women and children were driven into one of the large huts. The soldiers packed them all in, and they had hardly enough room to sit.

The soldiers gave each of us a basket and pushed us with their rifles, telling us to go. They gave us no food, nothing to protect us from the rain, nothing but a knife.

I went deep into the forest looking for the vine. I could not find any the first day. When night came, I climbed a tree and slept in a fork in its trunk. It rained during the night; by morning, my teeth were chattering. At dawn I started searching again, more to get warm than to find a vine. I ate berries along the way and found a banana patch and filled my stomach.

Toward nightfall, I found a thick rubber vine and made three cuts in its trunk. As the sap came out I cupped it in my hands and smeared it on my body. Night had fallen by the time the sap coagulated. Pulling it off my body was painful—the strips took body hair along with them. I laid the strips in my basket, then searched in the moonlight for tealeaves.I climbed a tree, found a spot to sit, and wrapped the leaves around my body for warmth.

It took me three more days to fill the basket, since I could only find two more rubber vines. On the last one I was desperate. I hacked it down and dug up the roots with my knife to get as much sap as I could. With my basket full, I headed back to the village, which took two more days. When I reached it, I handed the basket over to a soldier sitting at a table with a white man.

The white man emptied the basket on the table and moved the strips of rubber around. He said something to the soldier, who grabbed my arm and took me to the hut where they were holding my wife and sister hostage. Five or six soldiers were sitting around the hut, paying no attention to three others who were raping Oleka, a young girl. One was holding her arms. Another spread her legs. A third raped her. I tried not to look.

The soldier I was following told me to call to my relatives inside the hut. I did so, and Gili and Abo, each very thin and weak, crawled out. I felt weak myself, but I managed to pick my wife up and put her over my shoulder. With my free hand I lifted my sister by her arm and half dragged her to the shade of a tree. I got water in a bucket from the nearby stream and gave it to them, and a soldier gave me nuts and bananas in a pot from which I fed them.

When she gathered her strength to talk, Gili told me that they had been given only some nuts and a little water, and that two babies, three children, and two of the women, Ejum and Katinga, had died in the hut. She and my Abo had been repeatedly raped, as had all the younger women in the hut. Beautiful Kalonji had fought the soldiers, and had been knocked to the ground, stripped, and whipped to death with the chicotte. Her bloody body, “So cut up it looked like bloody strips of meat all entwined together,” Gili said, had been left for days in front of the hut as a lesson.

I wanted to kill the soldiers, but what could I do? They had taken the rubber-cutting knife away from me, and they would shoot me before I could kill one, then as a warning to others they would kill Gili and Abo. So I swallowed my rage, but could not prevent my tears. For one week longer the soldiers waited for more rubber to be brought from the forest. Finally the last man came out of the forest in the morning, but with a basket only partly full. As soon as the soldiers saw this, they took the basket away from him, gave it to the white man, and pulled the man under a tree. They tied his hands behind him with a long rope, threw the other end of it over a tree limb, and pulled him up by his tied hands until his toes were barely touching the ground. They tied the rope to another tree trunk, and left him like that. He watched as the soldiers brought his wife and daughter out of the hut where they kept all the women, pulled them over in front of him, and shot each of them in the stomach so they would die slowly. Husband and father, he could do nothing but watch them die. Before walking away, the soldiers chopped a hand off each of the women for proof that they did not misuse their bullets.

Gili, Abo, and I could only watch, shaking with fear. The soldiers had brought several large baskets with them. Inside were rusty chains. The soldiers told us to line up near the baskets. Then they clamped an iron collar around each person’s neck, and chained us together in one continuous line. We were given large, heavy baskets containing rubber, food, carvings, ivory, and other things stolen from our village, which they told us to carry on our heads. Some of us also carried goats. When we were all loaded, the soldiers led us onto the trail they had followed to our village.

Day after day we walked, stumbled, tottered, and staggered, sometimes pulled forward by our chains, sometimes held back. In the heat, our sweat made the iron collars chafe our necks, and soon we had open and bleeding sores around them. The soldiers gave us little food and water. We undulated and swayed up and down and sideways, like a giant millipede drunk from Tembo, its many legs seeming to move in different directions, but the body nonetheless moving forward.

I moved in a daze, tugging with or against the chains, watching my feet so that I did not trip. The chains made a continuous clinking noise. When one of us fell, others close by on the chain were also pulled down. Some spilled their baskets, and as they got up the soldiers whipped them with the chicotte. Diur, the woman in front of me, had carried her baby for the first two days, but when she started to straggle and slow up the line, a soldier jerked her baby boy out of her arms and threw him into the woods, where the animals would get him.

The older people were having trouble. They steadied the load on their head with one hand while supporting themselves with a pole or branch. Knees bent, they lurched along. The fourth day, our chains pulled us to a stop. Farther back in the line, old Mobyem sat down and refused to move. A soldier jabbed him with his gun, but he just sat there looking at his feet. Finally, two of the soldiers took out their knifes and stabbed him repeatedly, and he fell over with blood gushing from the wounds. They unchained him, took off his collar, and chained together the ones behind and ahead of him. They redistributed the load he had been carrying.

More people died or were killed, and it meant that our loads got heavier. Each day was more horrible than the last. On the most horrible of all days, I lifted myself off the ground at first light to eat a rotten piece of meat mixed with berries, nuts, and squirming larvae that a soldier passed out. My wife Gili would not get up when he kicked her. I leaned over her and gently called her name. “My lovely Gili, I said, “please get up. The soldiers will kill you.”

She didn’t move. She was dead.

The next day my sister Abo went mad and tried to run for the forest, but she only dragged the rest of us off the trail behind her, and fell screaming. A soldier shot her.

After two weeks we reached the large village of Nyangwby by the side of a lake. There were many white men around. The soldiers led us up to a large white man’s boat. Black smoke billowed out of a big pipe sticking out of the top of it. Men on the boat removed our iron collars and chains, and led those of us carrying rubber onto the boat. They told us to dump the baskets into a very large hole.

Different soldiers took us to a large hut where strangers from another village fed us. Afterward, with soldiers standing around us, the strangers branded us on the leg with a hot iron. They also told us we would be slaves of the white men in the village, and that if we tried to escape they would whip us to death with the chicotte.

That evening, members of the strangers’ kingdom attacked the village. They used arrows and knives, and killed many soldiers and white men during the battle. I escaped into the forest. Two days later Mr. Sestok, a white Protestant missionary, and two Congo converts found me on a trail. I was almost dead.

He died three days later from an infection that developed in the wounds the metal collar made on his neck. Before his death, he told his story to Henry Sestok of the Baptist Missionary Society.”


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