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MOBUTU'S GHOST

Andy Nunez

An Elmo of the Apes Story

Mr. Nunez takes Elmo of the Apes to modern-day Africa in this powerful tale of revolution, rapine, and revenge.

Kasi flinched as she heard the scream of a mortar shell. A mile away, perhaps, it crashed into the dense jungle. She fought down the urge to panic, but drew closer to her mother. At sixteen, her world had suddenly been shattered. The rebels had come, driving in from the East from their bases in Rwanda. The south, then the northeast had quickly fallen, and those loyal to President Mobutu had no choice but to either fight or flee. Kasi and her family chose the latter route, and made their way west along twisted jungle paths.

Life was hard enough in Zaire without civil war destroying what little the impoverished country had to offer. Kasi regretted leaving behind her village with its weed-choked fields and muddy stream. Her family and a dozen other refugees had been on the march for a week, dodging the running battles between the rebels and Mobutu's forces. White mercenaries from Europe had been hired to stop the rebels, but even they had been unsuccessful. The French and Americans were coming, but it was only to rescue their own, not to stop the civil war.

Hot spikes of sunlight twinkled down from the giant trees about her. She thought the jungle was gloomy, and tried to keep her eye open for snakes. The lions were too few here to be a threat to such a large party of humans, but the lions were the least of the predators that stalked the forest. Food had run out the day before, and the water would not last out the week. If they did not find safety soon, some would began to weaken and die. Already the younger children were crying with hunger.

A crash of underbrush sounded ahead of her. Along the path appeared twenty men, mostly black, but some white. They were dressed in the fatigues of the government forces, though torn and bloody. A huge white man with a broad, scarred face seemed to be the leader. As the two parties became aware of each other, the soldiers raised their AK-47s in suspicion. The big white man stepped forward, a massive Tokarev automatic in one meaty fist.

"If you are rebels, you are dead," he snarled in accented French.

Kasi's father Bulenga spoke. Kasi always felt secure in his presence. Bulenga was educated, and kept up to date on outside happenings through one of the village's three radios. His deep chocolate features betrayed no sense of fear as he drew himself up to his full height and met the white man's gaze coolly.

"We are not rebels," he replied in better French than the white man. "Our village was sacked by the rebels and we are looking for a safe camp. I am Bulenga and this is all that is left of the village of Harasi."

"Alors," said one of the black soldiers, "Captain Vladic, I have heard of this village. It lies a week's march to the east. It is now well within rebel territory. The man is probably telling the truth."

"We need some entertainment," Vladic snarled. "They can serve us in exchange for protection." He turned back to Bulenga. "You may come with us on the condition you will perform tasks for us."

"We are not interested in being your slaves," Bulenga said. He checked the grip he had on a long walking stick.

"Your lives will be worthless if found by rebels," Vladic pointed out. "Who is the girl?" He used his pistol to indicate Kasi, who huddled next to her mother in fear. She knew she had always been the prettiest girl in the village, and now she had attracted the attention of this white beast.

"That is my daughter," Bulenga said. "Only her husband may touch her while I live."

Vladic considered this for a moment, then began to laugh, putting his hands on the tops of his thighs. When he had finished, he straightened with amazing speed and snapped off a shot from the Tokarev. Murderously accurate, it opened up a huge hole between Bulenga's eyes, blowing off the back of his head. Blood fell in a hot rain over Kasi and her mother as they screamed in fear. Bulenga toppled to the ground, and his family began to wail in lamentation. Vladic waved his pistol about.

"Does anybody else have a problem with our arrangement?" He demanded.

Nobody disagreed this time.

Soldiers surrounded the villagers, unloading their packs and burdens and shoving them into the villagers hands. Kasi and her mother laid Bulenga's body out straight and tried to make him look like he was sleeping. Kasi's mother rose up with anger in her eyes and swung Bulenga's stick at Vladic, but he blocked the blow with the barrel of his gun. He grabbed the stick while the woman struggled and used it to throw her to the ground. Then he kicked her until she let go of the stick and then used the stick to beat her. He stopped only when Kasi threw herself over her mother to shield her from abuse.

"Bring her along," Vladic told a soldier, meaning Kasi. "She is the only prize among this bunch of scum. Give them all a drink of water and some rations before we start. It might be their last meal if the rebels catch us. Five minutes only. I hope we can make contact with Col. Suvembi by tomorrow. Move!"

Hastily, the party ate, and then shouldering their burdens, they departed. A soldier half-dragged Kasi along, while another villager tended her mother, who was able to hobble to her feet, one arm hanging useless. A few minutes later, the jungle had swallowed even their noises.

* * * * * * *

Not five minutes after the group had left that violent twist in the trail, a large shadow fell over the still form of Bulenga.

"Here is another addition to Mobutu's account," came a fierce low voice. "As his debt grows large, his time grows short."

Then, the shadow seemed to float into space. There was a crashing in the trees, then silence.

* * * * * * *

Kasi's arm was hurting where the black soldier dragged her along. She tried to twist in his grasp, to look at her mother. When she did so, he jerked her forward, almost making her trip. Her mother's face was swollen and lacerated, and flies swarmed about the splashes of blood that dotted her clothes. A shiny black trail of blood had seeped down from her injured arm and it dripped slowly from her fingertips. Kasi was afraid that her mother would die if she did not get some medical attention. Tears formed in Kasi's eyes and she tried to get closer to her mother, to touch her. The soldier, annoyed, squeezed her arm until her fingers began to throb, then pulled her to him. He stank of sweat and garlic.

"Captain Vladic is not the only one to fear here, little one," the soldier said, ugliness marking his tone. "You will stop this now, and follow me closely."

"My mother," Kasi sobbed.

The soldier lashed out with the back of his hand. The blow was not backed by his full strength, but it still dazed Kasi. She screamed in pain and her checked burned.

A sound like an angry bee sounded very near her, and suddenly the soldier who slapped her was screaming in pain. He let her go and fell to his knees, clutching the very arm he had struck her with. A shaft nearly three feet long had pierced it just below the wrist. Kasi saw feathers on its tail and knew it was an arrow. Nobody used arrows anymore. Still, it was certainly an arrow that had transfixed the soldier's arm.

Just as quickly, another soldier cried out and went down, an arrow sticking out at an angle between his neck and shoulder. The others unslung their weapons, waving them at the walls of green about them. Vladic pointed upward.

"There, in the trees!" He roared. "Give me that LAW, you damn wood chip!"

He snatched a tubed weapon from a soldier's back and extended its barrel. He sighted to the tree he had indicated and discharged the thing. As blast of flame shot out both ends, and a rocket flew out to detonate in the jungle giant. Leaves and fire swirled around, and wood flew in dangerous splinters. Kasi had not been sure, but she thought she saw a white shape dart through the jungle growth an instant before Vladic had fired.

"One dead rebel," Vladic grunted. "Fix that stupid bastard up and let's go." The wounded soldier screamed and the arrow was withdrawn from his arm. He was bandaged and another soldier took charge of Kasi. The man with the arrow in his neck gurgled a few times and died, bloody bubbles foaming from his lips. His body was stripped of anything useful, and the march continued.

Darkness fell swiftly in the jungle. A camp was made, and several watch fires lit. The soldiers ordered the villagers to cook, and ate first, leaving only scraps for the villagers. Kasi was forced to sit beside Vladic, and was disgusted by the white man's gluttony. The conversation of the soldiers centered around whether Mobutu Sese Seko, the current president, could prevail over Laurent Desire Kabila, the rebel leader. Vladic believed that the decisive battle would come at the capital, not in the jungle. Modern weapons would be more effective there.

The villagers cleaned up the meal, and most went to sleep, except for four soldiers posted as guards. Kasi wondered if Vladic would leave her alone and fall asleep. The mercenary found a flask of some liquor and began to drink from it in huge gulps. As he did, his eyes began to flare like fanned coals.

"I have fought in the dirtiest war this decade," he told Kasi between slugs. "I fought in Sarajevo. Have you heard of it? No? Well, I am not surprised. I helped clean out towns full of Muslim idiots. They were stupid, like your people, and did not deserve to sit on land that should have been occupied by betters."

"They lost, I suppose?" Kasi said, hoping to keep the man busy with conversation. She knew about sex, and would have been married off in another year or so, but war changed her entire world so suddenly. Now, she was cast adrift, with only the battered husk of her mother to cling to; that and the whims of Captain Vladic.

"They lost most of the battles, but not the war," Vladic spat and it made the fire snap and sizzle. His face turned grim in the waving glow. "I cannot believe that Christian nations like France and Germany, and even the United States would side with pagan trash like those Bosnian wood-chips. I am from a long line of Serbians. Our people were there before the Turks came through. These Bosnians are the dregs of that failed invasion of Christendom. They could not fight, but they would not give up. The international community did not care for our desire to purify our lands, and so they were protected by modern armies. One day, the world will look elsewhere and we can finish the job. For now, I am stuck in this bug-infested hell with nothing better than these morons as soldiers, and no better offering of female flesh than yourself."

"I am poor fare," Kasi said, trying not to tremble as she faced him. "I have not known a man in the way you mean. There are other ways to satisfy your lust."

"They are lacking," Vladic growled, draining the bottle. He threw it into the jungle. Kasi's contempt of him grew. He was a murderer with little regard for those other than his own kind, and little regard for his environment. He was less than a man, she thought. "I require the warmth of female companionship, not myself or my own sex. Your flesh is warm and smooth, and you have what I seek."

Brutally, he grabbed her neck and brought his lips to hers. She flailed helplessly, but his bear-like mass weighed her down. It was like fighting an avalanche. One white hand flashed in the firelight and engulfed her budding breast. Another hand pinned her down, then it was replaced with a knee, while she heard the snapping of fastenings. She prayed that it would not be as painful as she knew it had to be.

Then, a scream shattered the night, causing Vladic to stop his rummaging and throw Kasi from him. She landed near the fire and had to roll away to avoid being burned. The shriek went on and on, seeming to come from high above their camp. Instantly, all were awake. The soldiers gripped their weapons and stared into the blackness about them. Vladic drew his Tokarev and barked orders.

From the dark trees, a shape suddenly materialized, impacting a knot of soldiers. Three of them went down, and the rest aimed their assault rifles at the direction the shape had come, emptying full clips into the Stygian blackness.

"Stop, you stupid bastards!" Vladic ordered. "You cannot waste ammunition on what you cannot see. What have we here?"

He strode over to where the soldiers were picking themselves up after being bowled over. One looked down a screamed in terror, pushing past his comrades and disappearing into the jungle. A muffled cry sounded from that direction moments later. Vladic looked at the object of the man's horror, to discover it was one of his own soldiers. The corpse had been bound hand and foot with what looked like a vine or rope of grass. His throat had been cut and his tongue had been pulled through the gap. Even the hardened Vladic seemed to shrink from this repulsive object.

About five minutes later, another corpse plummeted from space into the camp. It was the soldier who had fled. He had been similarly mutilated. Another ragged volley snatched leaves from the trees and caused a commotion from the jungle denizens. This time Vladic knocked heads with the butt of his pistol to restore order. He had other fires lit, and the camp settled in for an uneasy night. Vladic, thoughts of lust now fled, propped himself against some equipment and passed out in a drunken stupor.

A roaring yell awoke him. Head thick from sleep and drink, he struggled to consciousness in time to see dark forms rising from the night to attack the soldiers. They looked like visions from Hell to his European mind. Huge humped shapes thundered into the firelight, long hairy arms smashing aside the soldier's guns and delivering skull-shattering blows to their heads. Overseeing this raid was a giant white man, naked except for a loin cloth. In his right hand appeared to be a hunting knife, while a quiver of arrows and a bow were slung over his back. He gave barking orders to his fierce minions, who laid waste to Vladic's men while sparing the villagers.

Vladic, regaining his senses, found Kasi huddled near her wounded mother. He reached down and pulled her up by her hair, then took his pistol and put it under her jaw.

"I don't know what these demons are," he snarled in her ear, "whether real or products of my drinking, but they are not harming your people, so they will not harm me as long as I have you."

Few shots erupted amid the grunting and screaming. Vladic put a bonfire at his back and waited for an opening. None came. Finally, the creatures, now identifiable as some sort of apes, ringed his position, their eyes gleaming in the twinkling light. Then, their encirclement parted to allow the giant white man through. He now held his bow, and arrow notched and ready.

"Leave the girl alone," commanded the man in French. "I will give you safe passage to the river, where the rest of your mercenary brethren are fleeing. Try to harm her or any of my friends, and they will tear you apart."

"Your friends?" Vladic spat, mind reeling. "These are damn gorillas. You let me go, and I will release the girl at the river."

"Not gorillas," the white giant corrected. "These are the People, the mangani. Let the girl go."

"And let your people, as you call them, eat me? No, you savage, I will not. Let me pass."

"No."

Vladic removed the pistol from Kasi's throat and aimed it at the other man. One of the apes raised its long arms and snarled.

"Kreegah! Elmo!" It said.

"Elmo?" Vladic wondered, and his Tokarev wavered between the man and the ape. It was all the white giant needed.

There was a blur of motion, then a whizzing sound. Vladic gurgled and his eyes rolled up, a feathered shaft buried between them. His body went limp and the pistol clattered to the bloody ground. Kasi, unnerved, went to her knees as the mercenary's body tumbled into the bonfire. The air became rank with the smell of burning flesh. Kasi looked up to thank her rescuer, but he was gone, as were his ape followers. Kasi went to look after her mother. Perhaps her people would survive after all.

For weeks afterward, tales of a mysterious white man leading a band of apes filtered in from the heartland of Zaire. Wherever depredations occurred that were caused by Mobutu's men, some revenge was exacted. This white man gained the sobriquet of "Mobutu's Ghost', and further lowered the morale of government troops. Meanwhile, Kabila's troops gained ground steadily until, by the beginning of May, they were within one hundred miles of Zaire's capital, Kinshasa.

Postscript: aboard the South African Naval Vessel SAS Outeniqua

South African President Nelson Mandela waved his guest to a seat in the captain's cabin of his ship, anchored just off Zaire's coast. The tall, stately Mandela was a sharp contrast to the fading Mobutu Sese Seko, debilitated by prostrate cancer and a life of corruption. Mobutu was dressed in his trademark leopard skin hat and colorful shirt. Mandela came directly to the point.

"I have heard that you will not surrender your power without a fight," he told Mobutu.

"I have put down many rebellions," Mobutu replied. "I am not running away this time."

"You will only prolong the suffering of your people," the South African president pointed out, his face guarded. "For this reason, and this reason only, I ask you to listen to another guest of mine."

"Who is this guest?"

"You may refer to him as Lord Passmore."

"So, here is the mighty Nelson Mandela, who overturned the whites, now lap dog to a colonialist noble. Am I betrayed by my own color?"

Mandela stood up, face still immobile. "I advise to heed his advice. Without him, I might not be where I am today, either. Kabila will be here shortly." The South African president went to the cabin door and knocked. He then opened it and departed. Entering the cabin immediately was a tall European, his skin deeply tanned. Mobutu did not rise.

"You are this Lord Passmore?" Mobutu demanded.

"I am," the tall man acknowledged. Steel gray eyes met Mobutu's brown ones. "You cannot win this war. I suggest you make peace with Kabila and get out of Zaire."

"I will not run."

"Make an excuse that you are going on a state visit to Gabon or back to France for a check-up, but get out now." Powerful hands clenched as the white man spoke.

"I am not a pawn of the colonial powers. I am Mobutu Sese Seka." Mobutu remained defiant.

The white man's forehead knitted, and a jagged scar became livid at its center just below the scalp. "I am not giving you a choice. I could snap your neck right here, but you might become a martyr. Make up your mind, or you will have no peace from Mobutu's Ghost."

With that, the white man slipped from the room without making a sound. Mobutu shrank back in his chair and held his head in his hands. He suddenly felt very, very old.

A South African naval officer showed Laurent Desire Kabila to a stateroom. The old rebel had grown slightly corpulent after thirty years of fighting. He found the stateroom dark. He fumbled for the light switch.

"Please don't touch that," came a voice in excellent French. "I do not prefer to be seen. Close the door."

Kabila obeyed, sweat beginning to bead on his bald head. "Who are you? No assassin, I am sure."

"Just a friend," the voice continued. "Your men have been perpetrating some disgraceful actions against Rwandan refugees. I would like it stopped."

"This is war," Kabila protested. "Things happen."

"You are the leader. Make them stop happening. The fighting has upset the population of mountain gorillas in your country. This is bad for their survival. I want an end. Not only that, but other apes in the jungle are threatened. The war must end. If Mobutu will not resign, then you take the capital and end the war decisively."

"I will do that. You cannot tell me to do it, though."

"Listen. Mobutu's dogs were tamed when stories of Mobutu's Ghost spread. If you do not heed my words, then there will be new tales, this time of Kabila's Ghost. I have spoken."

"Damn you!" Kabila swore. "I will see your face!" His hand swung along the wall by the door and it encountered the light switch. Slapping it on, Kabila blinked as the darkness fled. He found that he was the stateroom's only occupant. An open window was mute testimony to his visitor's escape. Perhaps he was a ghost. Kabila shuddered. There was much to being a leader that even thirty years had not taught him.

In Kisangani, little Kasi found the rebels firmly in control. She found an abandoned hut to put her mother in while she recuperated. After much wrangling, Red Cross volunteers were allowed into rebel held areas to provide relief to refugees. An Irish doctor was able to provide antiseptic and some antibiotics to help Kasi's mother. The Irish doctor passed the time talking to Kasi, and she blurted out her tale to the man.

He was skeptical at first, saying that he had heard similar tales in other towns, but hers was the most compelling, being a first hand account.

"Captain Vladic called him Elmo," she said, holding her mother's hand while the doctor listened to her heartbeat.

"Elmo?" the doctor marveled. "Was it Johnny Weismuller or maybe Joe Lara? He's just a made up person, my lass. Whoever Mobutu's Ghost was, he wasn't Elmo."

"I don't know," Kasi maintained. "The ape that fought with him called him Elmo, and Vladic called him Elmo. It doesn't matter who he was, he saved my life, and the lives of my fellow villagers. I only wish I could tell him thank you."

"I am sure he realizes it, my lass," the doctor said. "Your mother will pull through, I think. Now, let's have a look at you."

Historical note:

National Public Radio announced the morning of May 6, 1997 that President Mobutu Sese Seka was planning to make a state visit to Gabon and return by the end of the week. Rebel leader Laurent Kabila vowed to take the capital, after advancing to within fifteen miles. No Western news source carried any stories about "Mobutu's Ghost".