Summer essay: My interview with a warlord

ERIC JANSSEN
Last updated 05:00 19/01/2014
eric meets warlord
ILLUSTRATION: ALISTAIR HUGHES

UNNERVING INTERVIEW: Eric Janssen describes his experience interviewing a warlord in the African jungle.

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A goat had already been slaughtered for the feast and was hanging from a tree. Topless, buxom women were baking bread not far away, casting glances our way. All around me, soldiers, well hammered on local brew, were haphazardly firing their AK47 assault rifles at empty tins and unsuspecting birds.

"Stay for the night," said the big man. "You can see for yourself ... we have lots of food, women and beer ... everything a man needs. Then you go home tomorrow."

I declined politely. Business and pleasure don't mix. And besides, potential consequences of staying the night – food poisoning, an STD or even Aids, or perhaps a stray bullet in my head – were not on my bucket list.

But then another man – in fact, the man key to my departure and survival – spoke up. "C'mon Eric, I'm keen to stay ... It'll be safer to leave in the morning, anyway."

Drastic times demand drastic measures. I gestured for the man to step my way. I pulled out a knife, unbuckled my belt and took down my pants.

Six months earlier, Pretoria

The adventures that were to follow started in June 1993. Bored with the daily grind of reporting on crime in South Africa, I'd volunteered for a stint with the Argus Africa News Service. Over the next year I was to spend many weeks in Mozambique, on the south-east coast of Africa, as it slowly tried to heal its wounds from a bloody civil war that had lasted 15 years.

My brief was vague: gather news stories and features on soldiers demobilising, on the stuttering peace talks, on the humanitarian efforts, on the millions of landmines scattered uncharted, on the rebirth of a crushed tourism industry. And one specific challenge: try to secure an interview with the elusive Afonso Dhlakama, leader of the Mozambique Resistance Movement (Renamo), which had waged war against the ruling Frelimo forces.

A hero to many, and accused by many others of blood-curdling brutality and forcing young children to bear arms, Dhlakama had not appeared in public for many years, let alone given a media interview. I accepted the mission – Finding General Dhlakama.

For weeks I plotted and prodded. Called on every contact who might help. Paid a few backhanders to smooth the way. And eventually I made contact with the warlord's most trusted lieutenant, aka Mr Ramos. He'd speak to his boss.

One fine day in Maputo, December 1993

I'd been in the Mozambican capital for about two weeks when the phone in my hotel room rang one day. It was Mr Ramos. "He'll see you tomorrow. Meet me in the airport car park at ten o'clock. No funny stuff. Nobody else. The general does not like shit."

I was there at 10 the next day. Mr Ramos, a heavily armed soldier and an American dude arrived at 11. Africa time, they call it. Hurry up and wait.

They conversed in Portuguese for a while, then led me to a hangar where we got into a four-seater Cessna. Suddenly the soldier gripped my arms tightly and Mr Ramos patted me down. "OK, we just wanted to be sure," he said. "We also don't want you to know where Dhlakama's HQ is, so we'll blindfold you until we are well away from Maputo."

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It was an order, not a request. Within minutes we took off, all while I had a piece of cloth tied tightly around my eyes. For about an hour nobody said a word, until the blindfold was removed. All I could see, in all directions, were miles upon miles of thick bush.

The American dude was the pilot. "Chad's my name, good to meet you, bud. Crazy shit flying out here, but the cash is good," he said, proceeding to tell me he'd flown all kinds of missions for Renamo for many years.

Suddenly a few words in Portuguese, then he turned to me. "Hope your stomach's made for this shit, bud." He signalled for me to look at the ground. Not far ahead, amid almost impenetrable bush, a small clearing could be seen.

"There's our landing strip. But you'll have to hold on tight. Far too many pissed off soldiers still around, and many of them have surface-to-air rockets."

And with that brief explanation he yanked the control column to the left, pushed down hard on it, and sent the Cessna into a dizzying spiral-dive. "No way the ..... can hit us this way," he smiled.

At three hundred feet he jerked back the column to level out the plane for final approach, yet even from that altitude it was clear that the makeshift landing strip was an utter mess ... desperately short, with tall trees at either end and a shockingly rutted surface.

Praise the Lord, this was old hat to Chad. For the last 50 metres of flight our undercarriage lightly caressed the tree tops without getting tangled, and just as we cleared the last tree, he killed the power and landed ever so gently in a cloud of dust.

We bounced through and over potholes, skidding to a halt only metres from trees. "Welcome to Africa, bud," he guffawed.

Dhlakama would join us in a while, said the chief, who offered to show me around the makeshift HQ and explain the joys of war to me.

First up, an ammunition box filled with shrivelled up pieces of something. Freeze-dried rations, I asked? "No, the ears of Frelimo soldiers we killed," he quipped, closing the box as nonchalantly as you would a picnic hamper. Then a light-hearted talk on the ease of gathering intelligence from enemy soldiers. "Many ways to make them talk. We tow them naked behind a jeep ... some last only 50 metres before they talk.

"Some others we push the barrel of the gun up their a... Talk, talk, talk very quickly."

The best part, the chief added, came after the captives had sung like canaries. "We tell them, 'OK, you help us, you can go now, run!' And then they run. And then we shoot them. This is war, my friend. F... the Frelimo bastards."

As we made our way to finally meet Dhlakama, we passed a soldier hanging a goat from a tree. With a rusted axe he split open the belly and ripped out the guts. Blood gushed heavily on to dust. "Dinner," nodded the chief. "We always look after our guests."

Around 5pm, still in the bush

The interview had lasted several hours. It was gold. I could picture the newspaper headlines: WORLD EXCLUSIVE: I killed and maimed for peace, says Dhlakama, in first interview for years.

I could not wait to get back to my hotel and file the article.

"Stay for the night," said Dhlakama. "You can see for yourself ... we have lots of food, women, beer ... everything a man needs. Then you go home tomorrow."

I declined politely. But Chad, the only one who could fly me back to Maputo, said: "C'mon Eric, I'm keen to stay. Trust me on this, you'll have a great time tonight. Besides, it'll be safer to leave in the morning. It's cooled down too much already, don't think we'll get enough lift for the plane to clear the trees."

I deeply suspected safety had little to do with his reluctance to leave. More like an appetite for booze, goat and sex.

Drastic times demand drastic measures. I gestured for Chad to step my way. I pulled out a knife, unbuckled my belt and took down my pants.

Two small cuts later, $5000 dropped to the floor. It was company policy to have that strapped to your inner thigh on assignment – money to buy yourself out of sticky situations in Africa. Chad settled for a $1500 bribe to leave straight away.

I helped him push the Cessna back into the trees for a few extra metres of runway. When the engine was screaming at full throttle, he released the brake and we shot forward. Only metres from disaster, when the speed dial touched 70 knots, Chad ripped back the control column.

Our wheels French-kissed the trees and for a moment the engine made a stalling cough, but once clear of possible rocket fire, Chad levelled out and started a more gradual climb.

A few hours later I was back in the Polana Hotel. I started typing up the yarn with my left hand.

With the right I dialled room service. A dozen oysters, a dozen king prawns, and a bottle of bubbly.

It had been a hell of a day. And I never cared much for goat, anyway.

Eric Janssen is the Digital Editor of Dompost.co.nz

- The Dominion Post

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