Though it was ridiculousI had done nothing wrongI felt twitchy all over, my back especially. If they were going to shoot me, would it be here, without warning? Or would I be talked to first, made to understand, spun around to face the rifles?
The soldiers led me to a cement staircase and I was motioned to climb. On the second floor, I was led into the dim office where a sign on the door proclaimed secretariat of police. The man behind the desk had rheumy eyes, the sunken face of an AIDS victim, and hesitant English that was still far superior to my French. He wanted to know where I was staying, who I was working for, what my mothers name was, why I had walked in front of the Presidential Palace.
"The palace?" I asked.
"That road is forbidden for passage," he said. "There was a sign there."
"I am very sorry," I said. "I didnt see it."
Before I had left for Africa, a friend supplied me with an emergency tool: a letter written on some stationery from Time magazine with a nonexistent editors scrawl at the bottom, identifying the bearer as a freelancer on assignment. I had used it the day before with a low-level official at the Ministry of Communications to convince him I hadnt come to Bangui to smuggle out diamonds, even though appearances probably indicated otherwise. In a nation without tourists or a U.S. Embassy, there were few other reasons for me to be there. What the letter was really intending to say, of course, was: "This person has friends concerned for his whereabouts. Please do not kill him." I was certain Time would forgive me this case of petty misrepresentation in a tight spot. It was a magazine I had always enjoyed, that much was true.
I pulled the letter out and showed it to the secretariat. He studied it for several minutes, eyes flicking up at me frequently, as if he were trying to reconcile the inflated person referenced in the letter with the one before him.
"It is very lucky for you that you were not taking photographs," he said finally.
I was handed off to another police official, this time by guards with Kalashnikovs safely behind their shoulders. He sat me down in front of his desk and began writing out a lengthy document in French. This was to be my "statement," he explained. I could see my name, my birthday, my hotel room number, and my parents names in the jumble of words I couldnt read. Behind the policeman, through a dirty louvered window, was a view of the Oubangui River. It looked as far away as Miami. Fishermen in canoes paddled close to the Congo shore. I wondered what they were carrying. I thought of Anne, my lost fiancée, and the ring I had given her. Had her diamond come across this same river, in the shadow of a dark warehouse that was really a police station?
This, of course, was the Central African Republic personified: The government was too preoccupied with remaining in power and fighting off counterinsurgents to do much about the smuggling. This was a world where a lone person walking outside the walls of the Presidential Palace was of much greater concern than illicit diamonds coming over from the Congo. The French had left the nation with almost nothing, except for their language, their bread, a few rotting military bases, and their rigid legal system, which strained out gnats while entire camels were swallowed. It was like the diamond registry book that Joseph had showed me: so easy to sleepwalk through the motions, so oblivious to what was really happening. Around this carefully inefficient house of law, a vast green anarchy groaned.
After an hour had passed, the policeman finally put the finished document in front of me, lettered carefully in French. It was three pages long. He handed me a pen.
Copyright © 2006 by Tom Zoellner
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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