So here I am sitting on the couch alone on Christmas eve-eve watching some stupid movie with George Clooney or something when the power goes out. “Oh great,” I think. The power had been going on and off all night. Once the drone of the air-conditioning units silence, I can hear pistols and rifles being discharged not far away. Closer than I’ve ever heard unless I was at a shooting range. It sounded like maybe 100 meters.
After several minutes of quiet, a vehicle pulls up in front of our building. I creep out onto the balcony and stoop behind the concrete wall that surrounds it. “It should stop bullets,” I think. The vehicle is a police pickup truck with what would amount to a SWAT team back in the US in the bed. A dozen police armed with AK-47’s jump out of the back of the truck and gather behind the wall of our compound. The policeman that stays in the lobby of the building seemed to be directing the rest towards where the problem was. After that, ammunition was distributed and they lock and load their rifles. I have gotten used to seeing a lot of different weapons around since being here in Congo. It’s not something that normally concerns me. But this evening was the first time that I have ever seen or heard them being chambered. When I heard the distinctive sounds of the actions opening and closing on the AK’s, I knew this was far beyond ordinary.
After several minutes of chattering in Lingala, the group splits up on either side of the street moving forward one at a time while being covered by the others. They slowly and carefully move towards the five-way intersection that is about one hundred meters down the road from my building. I lost sight of the squad of heavily armed police as they went behind a building and a large tree. When they made it to the intersection, they fanned out around the perimeter of the roundabout, taking up strategic positions around the circle. It looked like a scene from a movie. I should have been behind walls, as deep as possible inside my apartment, but I couldn’t draw myself away from what was going on outside.
Seconds later, they jumped up in unison and charged towards the bank building while firing their weapons. I dropped down behind my concrete barrier again. I almost tried to go back inside, but I figured that I was safer next to the concrete. The frenzied gunfire continued for about a minute and then stopped. The same voices who were chattering just below my balcony minutes earlier were yelling back and forth. I can’t speak Lingala, but it seemed to me that they were saying, “we got em,” and “OK, make sure.” Several minutes later, the shouting stopped and the police truck that had been in front of our building sped off towards where the shooting was.
A few minutes after the shooting stopped, the police truck, with its payload returned in front of the building where I live to pick up the reinforcements that had remained behind the wall. The lot of them were chattering excitedly about what had just happened and seemed to be congratulating each other on what they had accomplished.
Soon after this, a military jeep rolled in and stopped in front of the building. The soldiers in the jeep all bore the red berets of the presidential guard. They all deployed and took up the same formation that the police had earlier. This is when I started to worry. Maybe I should have been worried a bit before this, but this did it. Maybe this was more than a simple case of banditry and the police that had gone down earlier were laying dead in the street killed by some hostile group. The military didn’t fire a shot when they went down the block. The truck came back with soldiers onboard and sped off into the night.
A few straggling policemen that had missed the truck slowly made their way towards the our building. These seemed to be the police that I have seen regularly on the street taking care of these buildings. It had been quiet now for about a half an hour. I walked down the stairs that run through the heart of my building with several jars that I have been using as glasses and the bottle of whisky that was in the apartment. Before rounding the corner into the lobby, I make the standard Congolese call, “Tsssstt! Tsssst!”. The gateman and one of the police came to the stairwell.
I put the jars down on the table in the lobby and start pouring shots telling them, “good job” in my worst French. The bottle was only half full, and there were five of them, so I figured the benefit of having a group of grateful men with guns outweighed the risk of a few tipsy guys with AK’s.
They were all happy for the present and began retelling to me what had transpired in a mixture of Lingala and French. I think I might have got about five percent of the conversation, but their miming actually worked wonders for my understanding. It was like a live silent movie being shown in the lobby of my apartment building. They held imaginary rifles (even though the real ones were still strapped to their backs) and enacted the assault with two of the police playing the part of the bandits. Apparently, several bandits had attempted to rob the bank that is about one hundred meters down the street across the five way intersection. The bank, which is next door to a pub that is run by a Portuguese guy that we all frequent (called the Porta-bar by the South Africans and Apero by everyone else), normally has a small contingent of police fully armed sitting in plastic chairs in front of the building twenty four hours a day. These were likely the first shots that were heard.
Before too long they had exhausted the whisky bottle and it was time for me to leave. I once again thanked them for their service and they thanked me for the whisky and I made my way back up three flights of stairs to my apartment which was gently illuminated by candlelight and the glow of my laptop screen. The street kids were back to sleep on their sheets of cardboard next to the air conditioner compressors at the building across the street.