Our hero knows he’s in serious trouble.
The problem is, there are familiar faces and a question of who is a friend and who is foe made all the more difficult because of the enemy, if it was the enemy, simply because it didn’t look or sound or act like the enemy.
Now, it appears, his problems stem from another operation he participated in, and because of it, he has now been roped into what might be called a suicide mission.
I was not sure how the Congo commander was going to react when four cars with people who looked more like mercenaries than a film crew turned up at the front gate.
Not that we had the film equipment to use as a cover. I guess that was the reason the kidnappers had removed it from our cars. One less reason to believe our story. I would have been curious to hear just how the commander had described us to his Congo counterpart.
Or what sort of treatment we were going to get. I don’t think the hostages were going to like the idea of becoming hostages again, albeit with a new set of ransom demands, and probably a lot of harsher treatment. Mercenaries could be rough, but they needed resources, and trying to negotiate with overly damaged goods wouldn’t set much of an example.
The Government military, on the other hand, would not be too particular. And capturing an invading enemy force, spies if you will, well, that was going to be a feather in the cap of the airfield commander.
But would he tip his hand at the gate or wait till we pulled up outside the headquarters building. If there was one.
We were about to find out. The gate was in sight and flanked by two very bright lights which we had all seen for about the last half mile, flickering through the undergrowth. The road was well made, and we would have made good time, but I deliberately slowed down to give Monroe time to get into place.
Another brief report from the Colonel told me they reckoned on 20 troops deployed at different parts of the field, just in case we decided to ‘sneak’ in on foot.
At the gate the road widened into a large turning circle for turning back cars.
I stopped right on top of the gate. A non-commissioned officer came out of a small shack by the gate and joined two men standing either side of the gate. Weapons weren’t pointed in our direction, but that could change quickly.
I was going with the film crew going home story first.
“Who are you?” I noticed the officer had a clipboard and made a show of looking at it, and the page underneath. “You are not on my list.”
“Probably not. We have been filming a documentary, and it’s time to go home. We have an aircraft coming in tomorrow morning to pick us up.”
One of the guards came through the gate and went down one side of each car, then came back up the other side, peering in through the windows. Back at the gate, he spoke to the officer.
“You have weapons. That is unusual for a film crew isn’t it?”
Highly, if we were anywhere else in the world. “We were warned about militias. Luckily we didn’t run into any.”
“Then, before you enter the airfield I suggest you, and your men, surrender any weapons.”
“Of course.” I relayed the instruction back through the cars. The soldier then came down the car and collected the weapons in a bag. As I’d assumed, we were not going to gain admission to the airstrip armed. It was probably also a law which in any country made perfect sense.
Once the soldier returned the officer had the gate opened, and came over to me.
“Fill in the form, and we’ll get you on your way soon enough.”
He handed me the clipboard, and then stepped away, taking out a radio unit of his own and spoke into it in a language I didn’t understand. Perhaps we should have kept Jacobi with us for a little longer so he could interpret.
When I filled out the form and handed it back, he said, “Drive up the road about a half-mile to a hanger and park your cars out the front. I suggest when getting out of the cars not to make any sudden or suspicious moves.”
Like we’d been told almost word for word back at the commander’s camp. Interesting.
The men at the gate didn’t follow us, but I did see, coming from two separate points back from the runway, or what looked to be the runway, two groups of five soldiers in each, in a proper formation. That was not the actions of a motley militia.
Serious soldiers perhaps.
It didn’t take long to reach the hanger, quite large, but in a sorry state of repair. Beside it was two old army huts that were in better repair and lit up. At the top of the steps of one stood the commander, a Captain. Clean, fresh, snug-fitting uniform, looking the part. Newly promoted, with something to prove.
With him were another six soldiers, armed and ready. That made 16 plus him. Where were the others?
Another non-commissioned officer came out of the hut and briefly spoke to his commander. Then he went back inside, and the commander came down the stairs to greet me. The rest of the team stood together, in front of the third car, and about 20 feet away. They were trying their best to cover the two hostages.
“Good evening Mr. James.” Reasonably good English, polite, but there was a slight edge to his tone.
“May I ask, which way do you come?”
“From Faradje, on the way to Nagero. I was going to drive into Nagero but changed my mind. Best to get here and be ready.”
“I heard there were some elements of the militia on the road. Did you meet any?”
“No. I was told that this country is quite safe and that we would not be harmed, thanks, I’m told to the good services of the Government’s military. You will be pleased to learn that it is quite safe, a point I will be spreading when I return home. Hopefully that will bring in more tourists.”
“If, as you say, you’ve been making a documentary, it seems odd to me that on one hand, you don’t have any equipment, and on the other, that you have not included Garamba.”
“A valid observation. We had to call the shooting off because two of our crew are ill and need to be returned home, and we left the equipment back in Faradje, our last stop, ready for the replacement crew who will be scheduled to fly in, in the next week or so.”
I had considered what I might say and tried to make it sound plausible, but in the end I don’t think it mattered what I said, especially if the other commander had forewarned the Captain of our impending arrival.
“Yes. That may be true, or it might not. I’m assuming the two sick members of your team are over next to the film crew. In that case, I believe both of us know that those men do not belong to your crew, but are escaped prisoners.”
He gestured towards his men and they went over to the group and extracted the two hostages.
Seemingly it was game over.
“So Commander Ntumba called you after we left?”
“Not a lot happens here without my knowing it. It was in his best interest to inform me.”
Something in the distance caught his eye, and I moved my line of sight to match his. Shurl, hands in the air, with two more soldiers behind him, coming from the bush line on the other side of the runway.
Commander Ntumba would also have told him about our sniper, as I’d surmised, and there was no mistaking the look of glee on his face. Outsmarting what he would consider a crack team of mercenaries from the United States.
I turned back and shrugged.
“Yes, he also told us about your sniper Mr. James. You didn’t think he was going to sneak up on us like he did Commander Ntumba did you?”
“It was worth a try,” I said in my best-defeated tone.
“Right. For the time being you will be kept in detention until I speak to my commander. You will not be leaving this airport. Your rescue plane, when it arrives, will be detained. I will have further questions for you later. Film crew indeed. Take them to B Block,” he said to the officer, then headed back up the stairs to his office.
As far as he was concerned, it had been all too easy.
© Charles Heath 2020