I had gone several paces down a broad asphalt avenueby far the smoothest in Banguibefore I realized the voice screaming in angry French behind me was screaming at me.
I turned around. A man wearing a white suit rushed over and flashed a handwritten document covered in ink stamps and encased in plastic. After two minutes, I understood the word gendarme and he understood that I spoke extremely poor French. "Your passport," he said in English, and I handed it to him. "Come with me," he said, taking me by the arm and leading me inside the gates of the presidential compound. "What is the problem?" I asked, trying to keep my voice casual. He didnt answer. He had an almost perfectly circular patch of white hair on the back of his head.
We walked up a grassy mall, up a flight of steps, and into a formal waiting room with marble columns, a chandelier, and a large oil painting of President Bozize on the far wall. This was apparently the antechamber to the presidents office. There was something wrong with the electric lights in the room; they kept flickering on and off, and the room flashed from light to dim. I sat in a leather chair and watched as the policeman in the suit gestured angrily to another policeman and pointed over at me. Then they both disappeared.
I had a five-minute wait before I was taken outside the gates to a police station and made to stand against a plaster wall. Beside me was a rectangular hole where a light switch had been ripped out. "What did you think you were doing?" a man in a uniform asked me in broken English. "I dont know," I said. He shrugged, and turned away.
What had I done? I had just refused to pay a fee to the Ministry of Mines. Was that the problem? Or could they have somehow known that I had been sitting on a patio in the suburbs when a smuggler and his friends tried to unload three diamonds from the Congo? That would be a year in jail for me.
The man with the patch of white hair came out of a room with a padded door. He took my hand in a limp morticians handshake and said in careful English: "My work here is done. Good-bye." And then he smiled for the first time, showing me his teeth. Another policeman took my arm. He and two soldiers in camouflage led me out of the station, through the streets of Bangui, where the roadside market was in full clatter. A few of the vendors stared at me.
"Can you tell me where were going?" I asked, again in the friendliest voice I could summon. I got silence for an answer.
We walked south toward the port of Bangui, the one the French had built in the 1880s to ship cotton and diamonds down the river to the Atlantic. It looked like it had not been used in decades. There was a blue-barred gate in front and soldiers standing sentry at the edges.
"Why are we going into the port?" I asked my escorts. They only waved me forward impatiently, across the concrete tarmac and around the back of a two-story warehouse. There was a door wide enough for large cargo that led into a dim chamber. Dead electric bulbs hung from wires in the ceiling.
The two soldiers behind me unslung their rifles. They were held casually, but the muzzles were pointed at the approximate region of my ankles.
"You want me to go in there?" I asked. For the first time since being arrested, I began to get frightened. I could feel my hands start to tremble. Visions of an impromptu execution and a river burial began playing in my mental cineplex. They must have somehow found out I had met with diamond smugglers.
The policeman urged me forward, and we walked into the cargo hold together, down a dark hallway, and through a series of rooms. They were filled with trash, and loose wires hung from the ceiling.
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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