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House for Rent in the War-torn Congo–Three Baths, no Squatters

Housing for FSOs was not always provided on assignments abroad. Francis Terry McNamara had to find housing for himself and his family in many different places, some under unconventional situations. McNamara tells about his house-hunting in Elizabethville (now Lubumbashi), Congo in 1962 after the city had been ravaged by an attempted insurrection and continued unrest since independence in 1960. With the help of an Indian Gurkha colonel, McNamara was able to secure a fixer-upper, but one with some drawbacks.

For more on tough times in the Congo, see Mike Hoyt’s Captive in the Congo. You can also read about Terry McNamara’s evacuation from Vietnam and when his wife gave birth to twins while in the Congo.

 

“He ordered the Gurkhas to fix bayonets”

McNAMARA:  After the December battles, the situation remained relatively calm for some months.  Tension started again to build up some three or four months after the fighting had ended.

At this time, my family and the other families from the consulate had been evacuated to Rhodesia and were staying there on a temporary basis. As relative calm was restored, I began looking for a house, to bring them back. One day Colonel Mitra and I were talking to a Belgian man that we knew who had a house in an area that had been badly damaged. It was just south of the UN headquarters where there had been some of the heaviest fighting.

Most houses in the area were damaged. Since the UN controlled the area, Balubas from the refugee camps had filtered in, occupying many of the large villas in what had been one of the town’s most affluent suburbs. Sensing Katangan weakness, the Balubas became aggressive. It was dangerous to go into areas they dominated. They assumed that any white civilian was Belgian and sympathetic towards the Katangans.

They had good reason for their animosity. The Balubas had been butchered by the people from the south Katangan tribes that supported Tshombe. In any case, no South Katangan would have survived five minutes, and neither would any Belgian who wanted to occupy his house in the area north of Elisabethville.

At the same time, I was finding it difficult to locate a house. A Belgian told me, “I’ll rent you my house if you will protect the people who are doing the repairs and guarantee the safety of the house after it is fixed up.”

Colonel Mitra immediately gave assurance that the house would be protected by his Gurkhas. The Belgian then agreed to repair the house and rent it to me at a reasonable price paid in U.S. dollars. Details were agreed upon and a lease signed.

M

itra got a squad of Gurkhas and we went around to the house. There were about 40 or 50 Balubas squatting in the house. They had their cooking fires set in the middle of a marble floor in the living room. The house was a mess but had great possibilities, if it could be cleaned and fixed up.

Mitra and I went in with the Gurkhas. We asked the Balubas very politely to leave, but they were reluctant to do so.

Finally, Mitra lost patience. He ordered the Gurkhas to fix bayonets. The Balubas got the message. Then Mitra summoned the chief of the clan. He took out his kukri, a deadly curved knife that all Gurkhas carry. A Gurkha is not supposed to take it out without drawing blood. The only way he can do it, if he doesn’t draw somebody else’s blood, is to nick his own finger and put blood on the blade.

Putting the razor sharp blade next to the Baluba’s throat the colonel warned him that if anything happened to me, he would come back with his Gurkhas, and kill his Muluba interlocutor with his entire entourage. Mitra assured him that his death would be neither quick nor painless. “Get out of this house and don’t come back. You are personally responsible for my friend’s safety while he lives here. Do not allow anything to happen to him.” The poor man gave hasty and repeated assurances of my safety.

The house I rented had been badly damaged during the fighting and during the subsequent occupation by the Balubas. A small guest house attached to the larger house was not damaged. I lived there while they repaired the main house.

The Balubas had moved out of my new house and its grounds, but they remained in all of the surrounding area. To reassure myself, I took a .38 Smith & Wesson pistol from the consulate. Every morning when I left the house to go to work, there would be people lining the fence watching me.

As a silly act of bravura, I occasionally fired a couple of shots in the air warning them not to cross the line into my property. “Colonel Mitra,” I said, “will be back with the Gurkhas to fix anybody that I do not get.” Whether these melodramatic warnings had any effect, I do not know. In any case, no one ever bothered me.

Ultimately, the house was fixed up, my family came back from Rhodesia, and we occupied the main house. We were the only non-Balubas who lived in that area for months.

Ultimately, the UN cleaned out the area, pushed out the squatters and allowed the people who owned the houses to come in and fix them up. But there were two or three months when my wife, three small girls, and I lived a lonely existence.