“This is the day that you could be dead,” he said, and I felt the sudden coldness of the gun against my temple.
I very often have nightmares. Sometimes I think it’s because of the medication I take for depression. Sometimes I sweat profusely in my sleeping bag and I wake up dripping and freezing cold. Sometimes the visions are vivid and I recall every moment, every twist and turn of a sleeper’s story, but sometimes I can only remember a single moment therein, or even nothing at all, I just remember I wake up screaming, ululating, sometimes laughing too.
Last night I woke up screaming and I can recall why. I was in the Democratic Republic of Congo, heading for Virunga, my driver whom I’ll call Samuel negotiating the potholes in the road with great care and dexterity, hardly ever hitting more than twenty on the clock. We were talking, sometimes about the heat though in the distance there were clouds portending heavy rains. He told me a story about when a person comes to visit and it rains it fetches good fortune, healthy sustenance for the banana plantations. Sometimes we talked about what it’s like to be a “muzungo” living in a developed country, and I explained because he asked me. And then he wanted to know about my children, so I told him about them too. I told him stories about their mischief and he laughed. But then suddenly he pulled up the Toyota 4×4 and switched off the engine. Confused, I asked what was wrong? Was there something up with the vehicle or was he just tired and needing rest? Or was there something more sinister? And it was then that Samuel pulled out the gun and held it to my head.
It isn’t easy to put into words how it felt. Cold I guess, not the actual metal touching my skin, but my whole body, cold yet sweating once the initial shock and confusion gave way to horrible realisation of what was happening right there right then.
“Samuel?” I said, barely able to make the word audible.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
I picture the horror on my face and weirdly it’s like one of those shots in a film when they zoom in on a body yet the scenery around them shifts backwards. The body here is mine and this is no film, this is real. Yes I am cold and yes the sweat is dripping down my face as I start believing this is really it, this is really the end.
“This is the day that you could be dead,” he said.
Know what? Nothing can prepare you for this moment, nobody ever said this is how you’re expected to behave when someone points a gun at your head and tells you to get out of the car. There are no pamphlets, as far as I’m aware, that deal with this, and again as far as I’m aware there was no ambassadorial do’s and don’ts at that time. But I’m almost certain that if there were, laughing would not be high up on the list of do’s.
Because that’s what I did. I laughed. I didn’t want to, I didn’t mean to, but my body just convulsed into laughter. Nervous laughter? Maniacal? Uncontrollable? Certainly.
I think the man was thrown. “Why do you laugh?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I said, truthfully. And in that moment I guess I knew instinctively that dialogue was the way, dialogue was the key to any hope of survival. “Sam,” I said.
“I won’t get out of the car. I can’t get out of the car.”
“You’re refusing,” he said.
“I am,” I said, “because I don’t want you to do this.”
“I don’t want to do it,” he said.
“So don’t,” I said, “You have children right?”
“Yes. I have four children.”
“Me too. And think of them should they lose you. Would they be upset, heartbroken?”
“Well of course mine would too, if they lost their daddy. Don’t you think they’d be heartbroken at losing their daddy?”
I wasn’t laughing now, I was just frozen in the moment as I was daring to believe I was gaining control, consciously striving to keep this dialogue going for as long as possible, prolonging the moment and my life as much as I could.
“So Samuel why are you doing this?”
“They told me to,” he said.
“But why?” I wanted to know.
“It is a warning. We cannot go on. We must turn back.”
“And if we don’t?”
“This is the day that you could be dead.”
At the time the politics were beyond me. I was naive I guess, I forgot the advice of my fixer, to cross-reference everything and trust nobody in the tinderbox. I’d placed my trust in this man I barely knew and took him for the family man he said he was when he invited me to his house and gave me soda to drink and banana to eat and I hired him to take me to Virunga… not knowing that while he was a driver he was also a soldier and a spy.
But the politics are not important to this story because I like to think it’s really one of hope. My nightmare last night was vivid because it was real, it really did happen, and what got me through it was hope. I saw my children grieving for their daddy and hoped that wouldn’t happen, I hoped to see their faces again and run to them as soon as my plane hit the tarmac, pick them up and swing them around and never ever let go.
And that’s what happened, because I lived to tell the tale and wake up screaming, ululating and yes, sometimes even laughing.