Dead Babies and Censorship

Everything was going fast in Kinshasa, last year, days before what was being billed as the first free and fair poll in four decades. Everyone, for escapist reasons, was still talking about Muhammad Ali coming here more than 30 years ago, but a post-war election, a new rumble in the jungle, was also taking place.

Final rallies were chaotic. Journalists were being dressed down by protesters, equipment and clothing taken from them. Churches were being burned. Musicians who supported one candidate over another had their outdoor bars smashed up.

I was trying to file on deadline, when a French Mirage fighter jet whizzed at low altitude, shaking the decrepit city’s windows.

Then a loud bang. Then my fixer called me to tell me there was a fire at the barracks of the militia of one of the main candidates, former rebel leader, businessman Jean-Pierre Bemba.

The European Union denied any link between the Mirage and the fire. It said there must have been faulty wiring. I was thinking about conspiracies in every direction, even Bemba self-induced. Another Mirage would crash several days later, killing several innocent bystanders.

On the scene, people did not seem that distraught. In the rubble, women were half-wailing but also warming water. One of them took me to a corner of the rubble, where what appeared to be the calcified remains of two smoldered babies.

A militia showed me a third baby, calcified, behind a post.

I refused to believe them, engrossed in my anti-Bemba conspiracies. I refused to believe. I didn’t take any pictures. I refused to look. I did not want to see. I yelled at the two other journalists, no that’s bs, man, those aren’t babies, that’s something else that was burned. Believe me. They want to be viewed as victims.

Walking away, the other journalists listened to my rambling, but you could tell they thought those were babies.

Their pictures and video never made the news either. It was too unexplained, or difficult to explain. The news was moving at macro speed.

Internally, I prayed for those three babies, whenever they may have died, or whatever caused their death, or whatever they were, hoping they had found a better place, and I think about them from time to time, that they became something entirely different than the child of a militia of a rebel whose candidacy seemed doomed from the start even if he was very popular. This was resource-rich Congo where the Belgians and the CIA killed popular independence leader Patrice Lumumba, who was demonized in western media as a whore-mongering evil communist.

Some things you just cannot write or talk about in the news. One editor once emailed me writing I must have dropped acid in my morning coffee. It was after he read a script in which I wrote about an anti-Lebanese riot in Yamoussoukro, Ivory Coast, after the daughter of a maid had been found dead in a pool, just hours before a visit by peace mediator Thabo Mbeki. Stick to the Mbeki visit he said.

It’s like when the editors take out the reference of the dictator wearing sunglasses during a speech. Or rumors that the marabout put a spell on the soccer field. It seems you just can’t make passing references to such things, even if that really is the story.

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