Wednesday 18 June 2008

Brush With Death II – The Gun Run

This is the second in my Brush With Death series. It is dedicated to those proud Mozambican people who, against considerable odds, have managed to give birth to a strong, new country on more or less their own terms.

Read Into It
Depending on what you want it to be, this is a story about what the rich will do for their luxuries, what the poor will do for survival money, or what the enslaved will do for even a few moments of real freedom.

The Gun Run
It took place on what was then known as “The Gun Run”, through the infamous Tete Corridor through Mozambique, the scene of a holocaust of devastation during its long-running civil war. The corridor itself is a tarred 263-kilometre road running from Nyamapanda on the Zimbabwean border through the Mozambican city of Tete to Zobue on the Malawi border. The Zimbabwean army (and the Malawian army coming the other way) would take a convoy of trucks through what at the time was one of the most active war zones in the world. The convoy went through once a day, carrying anything that couldn’t get between Malawi and Zimbabwe by other means, which meant anything too big to fit in a small plane. It was pretty much accepted wisdom that everyone who took the trip was either desperate, nuts, or uninformed. What had once been a road was now an obstacle course of blown-up trucks and swimming-pool sized potholes. It was a pretty good bet that the only decent stretches of road left were where the land mines were planted.

Fine Way to Start a Morning
I emerged from my own little haven of filth, among a small strip of equally dingy rooms, to learn that this morning’s Gun Run was going to be particularly on edge, and particularly full, because the one on the previous day had been unsuccessful, and the convoy had been hijacked by RENAMO rebels. A lot of equipment had been destroyed and a lot of people had been killed. As usual, reports that I could make out revealed that half of the rebels had been heavily-armed children, with no direction, no restraint, and very ugly mentors, no less determined but substantially less trained than your typical army in the hands of a government run by its friends.

Ripe For the Picking
On this particular day, we had expensive cargo, a series of brand spanking new Toyota Land Cruisers directly off the boat from Japan via Durban, South Africa, on their way to a few of the few people in Malawi who could actually afford them. This made our particular convoy an excellent candidate for hijacking, so they had added several more army trucks for extra protection.

Marketable Skills
There was actually a small cottage industry that had developed solely around the Gun Run, like insects converging from the night around a single source of light. Except it was daylight that brought this particular swarm. In the three hours or so between the crack of dawn and the scheduled departure of the convoy, the hot, dusty, and virtually barren landscape practically burped up an instant marketplace of goods and services. Food sellers, travelling bartenders, money changers, knick-knack pushers, message carriers, prostitutes, and medical workers appeared, circulated and disappeared all in less time than it took me to find a decent place to take a dump.

Takes Three to Tango
If you wanted a ride to Malawi, which I did, you needed to speak to a self-appointed "agent" to arrange your passage. Everyone was corruptible and looking to get ahead, so I got fleeced by not one, not two, but three separate “agents”, who may or may not have been working together as their own small but effective criminal syndicate. Of course, the agent of demand is not completely without moral responsibility in any economic transaction, criminal or otherwise, so I rationalized that as long as it was within my means, which clearly exceeded theirs, it was a fair bargain.

Countdown to Launch
I learned from the third spirit in this unholy trinity that I was to be placed in one of the Land Cruisers and was told to meet my driver near the vehicle a half hour or so before the scheduled departure time of the convoy. I was assured that the driver would have been informed of the presence of a passenger and the journey would pass without incident. With the world rushing by in all directions, I took my place as close to the earmarked vehicle as the guard would allow at the time that I had been given. I began to get nervous as the convoy’s preparations progressed, the trucks were all started, and the soldiers assembled casually to climb into the backs of the trucks. With all systems seemingly go, my driver was still nowhere to be seen.

Supply & Demands
When my driver finally showed up, as soldiers shouted orders and the first trucks in the convoy started to move, it became immediately clear that he had not been informed he was to have a passenger, but that he would do as the others had done and try his entrepreneurial skills. He staggered up to me and fixed me with two very bloodshot eyes, the smell of moonshine so powerful on his breath that I swooned as he spoke.

“You want ride. I want money!” he bellowed. “Give me money!”

House Rules
I looked around for sympathy or support, perhaps from the soldier who had been guarding the vehicle, but he was now on his way to joining the others in the nearest truck. I don’t know why I even bothered; with chaos the rule and precious little room for exception, it was clearly every man for himself. Seen in those terms, this guy was just following the rules.

Done Deal
I hastily negotiated a rate with him, half of which was contingent upon my actually reaching my destination, and even offered to drive in his stead, given his condition. He was insulted enough to give me a very dirty look but not enough to ask for more money, so it was under a cloud of deep mutual suspicion but not quite loathing that we finally climbed into the vehicle and prepared to hit the road.

Bottleneck Beast
The drivers of the private vehicles were under instructions to fall in behind the first three army trucks. It wasn’t much of a surprise when my driver immediately took it upon himself to do everything in his power to be the first non-army vehicle in the convoy. Engines roared and mechanical bodies swerved as several like-minded would-be rally drivers funneled into the two-lane wake of the army trucks. As the road was only one lane each way, I wondered for a moment what would happen if we encountered traffic coming the other way, but then realized that was impossible. This convoy was the only traffic on the entire 263-km stretch of road. So, like a python that had just swallowed a cheetah, the convoy, bulging at the middle with cars and trucks jockeying for position and given a head and tail by two sets of three army trucks, slithered awkwardly onto the Gun Run, with me nervously ensconced in the belly of the beast.

Living the Dream
But a cheetah was born to run, and so apparently was my driver. As soon as we crossed the border into Mozambique, his destiny as a Formula One star apparently took over completely from any sensibility he might have once possessed, and he began passing by any means possible the few vehicles that had managed to slide between us and the trucks leading the convoy. Our heads hit the truck’s roof at least twice and I was violently slammed into the passenger door several times again, as we crashed through potholes and careened through the branches of roadside trees. I can only imagine what his eyes were seeing, but pretty soon, he had achieved something equivalent to pole position in his dream world, and, in the world I was seeing, we had assumed position right behind the army trucks.

Clowning Around
When he began to zigzag side to side in plain view of the soldiers seated in the army truck directly ahead of us, I assumed he was just clowning for their benefit. They clearly thought the same thing, as they began to point and laugh as we swayed back and forth and he pretended to be trying to overtake them. They were almost certainly as amused by the smile of nervous terror pasted on my face as by the look of maniacal abandon on his.

The Pass
It was then that I was not only witness to but unwilling participant in what I then considered one of the stupidest acts that I have ever witnessed from another human being. Whooping like a male baboon showing his dominance in the troop, my driver kicked the gas pedal to the floor and swerved hard left in the beginning of an attempt to overtake all three army trucks. In other words, he decided that we were the ones who should be leading the convoy and clearing the road of mines and all the other potentially fatal obstacles that it was known to contain.

Losing It
All my previous attempts at civility and cultural tolerance instantly vanished, and I began to yell at the top of my lungs at him to stop immediately. At the same time, I began to calculate as quickly as I could how to render the idiot inert and commandeer the vehicle’s controls.

Bump In the Road
As I screamed and schemed, he tightened his grip on the wheel and shot us clean past the three trucks and out into the front of the convoy. I saw a shadow of panic cross his face as a couch-sized concrete barrier loomed suddenly before us, but he was so locked into the moment that he instinctively yanked the wheel and our front right wheel just grazed the barrier in passing. The fact that someone was waiting for this truck in mint condition at our destination was now no more than a distant memory, as my driver’s concentration focused anew on a fresh stretch of chewed-up quasi-pavement.

Good News, Bad News
As I considered whether the wiser course of action was to knock this guy over the head or try somehow to reason with him to halt the vehicle, I looked wildly back and saw two of the army trucks hurtling along side by side. They swerved apart to avoid the barrier, but then converged again and began to gain rapidly on us. Catching us was probably what was best for our own security, but I became suddenly less certain of that when I saw the soldier on the passenger’s side in one of the trucks leaning partly out the window and pointing a handgun in our direction, clearly prepared to fire.

Assault on the Senses
I instinctively ducked my head as low down as it would go, simultaneously and involuntarily glancing sideways so as not to miss the unholy spectacle of my driver potentially meeting his fate against a blood-spattered windshield. When his head was still there after a few seconds, and we were clearly still hurtling forward, I heard the roar of a truck’s engine pass not more than an arm’s length from the outside of my passenger door, and I heard the driver of the army truck screaming at my driver, quite audible even through my closed passenger window. I'm guessing that the only reason my driver still had brain matter in his skull was that, in the eyes of Zimbabwean army, the vehicle he was driving was worth more than he was, and the final customer might have had some issues with permanently blood-stained upholstery.

Dem de Brakes
It was then that my driver seemed finally to realize, at least momentarily, how seriously he was endangering his own life, not to mention mine. He looked over at me, really seeing me perhaps for the first time, wearing the type of expression that you might expect from a close friend with whom you had just made a narrow escape. He gave a sort of shrug, then slammed on the brakes, sending me forward into the dashboard. Our truck came scraping to a halt in a cloud of ochre Mozambican road dust.

Laughing Matters
As we sat in the middle of our dust cloud and waited for the soldiers to descend on our now-battered Land Cruiser, my driver did an odd thing. He began to laugh as if he had just been given the best news of his life, apparently having once again regained his obliviousness to my presence. He had come perilously close to being terminated by either land mines, a high-speed impact, or soldiers, but he seemed then to have found the whole thing wildly amusing. Quite against my own will, I started to laugh with him. You might wonder why. I know I certainly did. Clearly, an impulse of which I was not fully in control visited me as I chortled along with him in those elongated moments

Cry Freedom
I was probably laughing mostly because I was alive, but I think I did so at least partly for another reason, which had everything to do with my driver. I think I realized that, in a life that had clearly seen its share of hardship and injustice, there must have been precious few opportunities for him to memorialize his frustration at all of it in any but the crudest fashion. What he had just done was to craft a work of art with personal revolution as the theme and that perilous Mozambican road as a canvas. In one fell swoop, he had thumbed his nose at all of his commercial masters (the owners of the vehicle), a heavy-handed segment of his fellow Africans (the soldiers), his imperialist colonizers (me), and, most importantly of all, the hopeless economic and social determinism of his own existence. One part of me hated him for what he had just put me through, but there was clearly another part of me that recognized that, during those few minutes, hurtling in real life through the silhouetted void of the unforeseen, he had been completely free.

And you can hardly fault a guy for wanting that.

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