December 10, 2023 | Rome, Italy

Once upon a time

By |2018-03-21T19:46:56+01:00November 22nd, 2015|"Foreign Affairs"|
The Memling Hotel, a staple in Belgian Congo days, still exists in today's Kinshasha.

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.

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.

On another occasion I was driving through northern Kenya toward the Somali border across an empty landscape. When I came upon a human being — a European with a rucksack walking northward — I stopped and offered him a lift, which he gratefully accepted. To my surprise he turned to be a fellow Italian who had set out to cross East Africa by foot and was on his way to Mogadishu. We shared sandwiches while sitting on the sand and talking at length about our lives and the continent hosting us. I drove him to the Somali border post and left him to continue his journey. I never saw him again, but he taught me that my countrymen were far more curious and adventurous than I imagined.

Another memory is a dinner in Dar es Salaam in the company of Ruth First, the South African activist and historian, and Eduardo Mondlane, leader of the Mozambican independence movement FRELIMO then waging a bitter war with the Portuguese. It was an enjoyable evening. I left my new friends feeling warm and optimistic. A few years later, in 1969, I was shocked to learn Eduardo Mondlane had been assassinated by the Portuguese secret service PIDE. First was also murdered, in 1982, by South African agents. Only when the Portuguese fascist regime collapsed in 1974 and apartheid fell apart 20 years later did I finally feel they’d been vindicated.

Once, on the road from Tripoli to Benghazi, I stopped to look at the spectacularly beautiful ruins of Leptis Magna, once a wealthy and important Roman city. The site was empty, apart from an old watchman. After a while he came over, his arms full of jasmine, and sat with us. He spoke Italian, and he told us how he loved the place, so exceptionally beautiful at sunset. He begged us to stay on and see the ruins under the stars, and so we did, sharing a cold meal with him. It was dark when we left. We thanked him and he hugged us warmly, adamantly refusing a tip.

On our return, we gave a lift to a young army officer who was hitchhiking back to Tripoli. At one point we had to stop at an improvised roadblock. “Shiftas,” he said. Bandits. He took his revolver out of its holster and went to shout at the men on the road, demanding they move away. They did, and we continued on our journey chatting in a mixture of Italian and English until we arrived at Tripoli Military City. There he left us with warm embraces, telling us that the world would soon change radically.

These highly subjective (and probably sentimental) memories of moments that shaped me deeply come to mind as we watch the recent harrowing events in Paris, Beirut, Ankara, Bamako, and the Sinai. The world has indeed changed radically, and not for the better. The ethnic and religious conflict in the Middle East and Africa, this new Thirty Years War, has become murderous and destructive. A complex process of change is underway, destroying long established equilibriums. The painful birth pangs of a yet indecipherable new world will be with us for a while. Does humanity have the wisdom and skills to handle these transformations, and contain the damages? At the moment there’s not much evidence that we do.

We can only bear in mind that there’s no easy solution to these conflicts, and that the best we can do is keep cool heads, fight hysteria, and try to keep Pandora’s Box at least half-closed.

About the Author:

Vittorio Jucker was the author of the column "The Economist" from its creation in 2012 to mid-2017.