When we were half an hour north of the city, I realized I had made a terrible error. I have a sense, when I am overseas, of when I am moving into a situation that is starting to exercise control over me.
It started with the crackling of the radio: and from that cacophony, a voice emerged, uttering something urgent in the language of the south of this land, and I strained to listen. But as the land-rover moved over heavy ruts, it became increasingly difficult to hear what was being said in a language I have inadequate command over. I asked in English for the first time what was the matter. The armed solider turned around. His eyes were wide with fear, but his face was placid, even turgid, in its lack of visible emotion.
I quickly realized that I should use French. I asked him what was going on. He explained, in the mixed patois of the region, that the rebels had blown up a guard post two kilometers from us. He and the driver then discussed other routes in rapid dialect.
I asked in French if Charles was going to meet us in --- and I named the Muslim village. It was an idiotic question, and only exposed my great fear and vulnerability. I unconsciously looked at the handle of the door, to see how easily it could open.
“No,” he said, in rapid French, “the front has moved. The rebels have had a breakthrough. We are turning back to the capital as soon as we find a safe road. Minister Charles is still in the city.”
On hearing this, I sat back deeply in the seat. The sun shone bright on the plain.
We had moved beyond the banana plantations, with their even rows, and lush, verdant vegetation, and into the true open country, a velt broad and flat and stretching north, to the dark mountains.
Quite suddenly, we drove through a village. But something was wrong. There were no people; then a few houses were leveled, and then some more; many were burning. The guard in the front seat drew a weapon: a dull black pistol, and held it out the window and up at the sky.
But no one was about: not the villagers or those who had toppled the homes. A small stucco building with a cross was burning, and in the windows, a few bodies hung out in obscene postures.
Then we were suddenly out in the plain again, and all was quiet. All we saw were some of the leader’s failed initiatives in the bush: a hospital without any windows, abandoned to vines, a water plant without a roof, with monkeys roosting on its ledges, a highway overpass which immediately ended in a field of sugar cane.
The mountains were in the distance, and moved ahead of us continually like the moon fleeing before an advancing car. The land was suddenly broken, the first indication that we had reached the foothills of the mountains.
It was then that I was broken from the spell. I asked why we continued to head north during a military offensive, toward the rebel lines, and not south, toward the capital city, its hotel, its consulates, its airport. The guard told me the capital was being overrun. He mumbled words like fifth column, foreign treachery, or perhaps I just imagined that those were his words. For I could no longer concentrate. Now his gun was pointed at me.