The following is excerpted from mom’s recently completed manuscript for her historical memoir, Vaccines & Bayonets: Fighting Smallpox in Africa amid Tribalism, Terror and the Cold War. www.vaccinesandbayonets.com
MUSICAL MINISTERS – AGAIN
Excerpt from November 19, 1970 letter to William Foege, M.D., Director, Smallpox Eradication Program, CDC, Atlanta,
From Carl Bloeser, Operations Officer, Equatorial Guinea
Once again we’re having a week of ‘musical ministers,’ something we’re all getting used to. The Minister of Health has been appointed Minister of Mines and Industries. The Minister of Mines and Industries is the new Minister of Justice, and of course that means that Dr. Rafael Obiang, the Minister of Justice and head of the Juventud, is the new Minister of Health.
I think it would be fair to say that Dr. Obiang would win hands down any contest for Equatorial Guinea’s most sinister man.
He is out of the country now. I doubt I’ll have the chance to see the new Minister before next week….
Certainly in the months to come, we will have to consider the political override to our programming in Equatorial Guinea. I will keep you informed of developments in the monthly activity reports.
* * *
November 24, 1970
“Don’t speak. Just listen. Grab the kids and an overnight bag. Be ready in ten minutes.”
Carl was calling from his office at the American Embassy. My husband could be a bottom-line person if he had to be, but this time his voice sounded different, wooden.
Questions whirled in my brain.
What’s happening this time? Who’s coming for us? Where are we going?
No opportunity to ask. Not safe to ask. The phone clattered back into its cradle as I ran to get our children and a few essentials.
Minutes later our family and Chargé d’Affaires Al Williams rode in palpable silence through the sultry equatorial afternoon. The pungent smell of moist earth and decomposing undergrowth hung on our clothing and stuck to our skin. My preoccupied stare settled on the
American flag fluttering from the miniature flagstaff of the embassy car, its presence announcing that either the ambassador or the Chargé was in the car. In theory that would give us diplomatic protection. I counted on more than theory.
No one spoke until we were safely inside the Embassy Residence and out of earshot of the driver, who we were sure worked for the police.
Answers to my questions came soon enough. We would spend at least this night under the protection of the flag. Dr. Obiang, the new Minister of Health, had let loose his gangs of armed youth against the Portuguese community, and they were slashing their way through the street three blocks away. Their clubs and machetes were demolishing shops and bludgeoning any Portuguese they could get their hands on.
Minutes earlier Carman had phoned the alert to the chancery. She had just left it herself and stumbled into the attacks as she walked the few blocks to the Residence. She escaped harm only because her hairdresser spotted her and rushed from the shop screaming to the mob.
“No es portuguesa! Es americana!”
We learned that farther up the West African coast, the citizens of Portuguese Guinea (later Guinea-Bissau) fighting for independence from Portugal believed they had sighted a submarine off their shores. On the heels of a November 22 Portuguese-led attack on their neighbor, Guinea-Conakry, the sighting triggered a massacre there. So Equatorial Guineans would also go after the Portuguese—a show of solidarity.
Our embassy residence with its spacious entry hall and curving staircase stood on a slight rise a block from the harbor. Across the street sprawled the hacienda-style police station. The juxtaposition was jarring—serenity and hospitality on one side of the street, official torture and murder on the other. But on this night, most of the killing was a few blocks away.
Al telephoned President Macias and told him he had gathered all the Americans at the American Embassy Residence, and that we were under the protection of the United States Government. He expressed confidence in Macias’s ability to make sure no harm would come to us.
It appeared that nothing could ruffle either of the Williams. Carman liked to “let her hair down”—I often pictured her in a hippie commune—but when she needed to observe protocol she did it with flair. Al epitomized the calm and collected diplomat. His stance when in peril: It’s just part of representation.
Now he and Carl periodically cracked the door for an instant to look and listen for any up-to-the-minute sliver of intelligence. They otherwise talked, smoked Cuban cigars, drank the Spanish brandy Fundador and looked for things to laugh about. Gallows humor. One had to distance oneself in order to survive this place.
The Residence had moved from smaller quarters a few weeks earlier. I helped Carman hem new draperies for the massive windows to the accompaniment of her upbeat conversation and laughter.
Charles and Ginger drew pictures and devised paper creations, hopefully not hearing enough conversation to be aware of our situation. (Later I would learn of Charles’s being traumatized by his memory of human screams coming from the police station.)
Just now, he looked over at his dad at the sound of furtive conversation and hollow laughter coming from the far corner of the room.
Al and Carl were discussing the embassy’s Escape and Evasion Plan.
Seriously? This was our E and E plan? We would sneak down the arm of the bay to the Bahia, and swim thirty yards to that tiny button of land that peered above the surface of the water. Al lowered his voice and I strained to hear the hushed exchange. I wondered at the few words I could make out.
…if we…rescue team…
Then I think I heard something about a submarine rescue. Would they really come for us?
Carl leaned forward, his balding head shiny with perspiration. He rubbed a hand across his chin, further muffling his voice.
…don’t like it, Al…kids…sharks…rather try rainforest…
I’d read somebody had invented an inflatable life boat. If only we had one of those.
So here we were, the six permanent Americans on this small island where tropical foliage and black sand beaches camouflaged the struggle for survival under a brutal and xenophobic government.
I felt oddly unafraid, and Al and Carman took their “just part of representation” attitude. But after they concluded that we should all go to bed for what was left of the night, a stealthy disquiet settled beneath my calm exterior. I was thankful for one thing—this was not, at least, one of the few times when Al had to be away and left Carl as acting de facto chargé d’affaires. I’d have hated for him to have to deal with such a touchy situation.
Sleep eluded me that night as the hands of the clock made their rounds. Thoughts picked their way through streets and alleyways of littered memories. I searched. I teased out threads.
Why on earth had Carl agreed to come to this place after reading all those cables? And what did he see when he came and investigated in person?
I knew he couldn’t share all that he learned. But whatever it was, he had said he was needed here. Being needed seemed to override everything else in Carl’s mind. He welcomed tasks that no one else would take on and thrived on accomplishing the impossible. It seemed to be something he could not resist.
In a high-ceilinged guest bedroom Carl’s quiet, regular breathing told me he was sound asleep. I was wide awake.
Can’t get comfortable. Will try not to wake Carl.
The brain that I could not turn off ruminated in a continuous loop. I worried about our UN friends. They were no longer allowed to have contact with embassy people. Where could they find a safe haven tonight?
I turned my pillow over. The cooler surface soothed me. Maybe now I could sleep.
But no. President Macias was on his way to slaughtering, imprisoning or driving into exile a third of his people. Amnesty International would attach the nicknames Dachau of Africa and Auschwitz of Africa.
Have to put these dark visions out of my brain. I need to pray. Why can’t I pray?
I slipped out of bed and wandered in silence through the darkened expanse of the Residence. Sometime in the wee hours of the morning, I finally fell into a fitful sleep.
Despite the night’s anxiety, neither escape option had to be employed, and in the morning Al deemed it safe for us to return to our own house. We exited the embassy into a sunny day and surface calm. There were no sounds, as yet, coming from the police station across the street. So far as I know, no one ever learned the body count for the night just passed.
Carl put the crisis behind him and pursued his objective with even greater resolve. At home, we continued with what passed for normal. Carl and I added more pieces to the jigsaw puzzle on our dining room table. Ginger played with her dolls. Charles played in his fortress, barricaded behind its walls.
* * *
Two days later, Carl wrote in a follow-up to the November 19th letter to Dr. Foege, that despite repeated requests to meet with the new Minister of Health, he had not yet succeeded. In understated bureaucratic-speak, chilling as I look at it now, he said:
“Dr. Obiang is just not available at present. He seems to be quite occupied at this time with Juventud activities. On Tuesday, November 24, the Juventud was unleashed on the Portuguese community of Fernando Po. It now appears that I may be able to meet with him on Monday, December 7….
“I would suggest that authorized personnel review two classified cables concerning this matter at an early date: [Carl listed two classified cable identifiers.]”
A representative from the International Commission of Jurists would report a few years later that the Juventud was responsible for much of the looting, killing, execution, torture, burning of villages and “informing on anyone.” His report says that they practiced “violence as a line of conduct generally aimed at terrorizing the population.”
The new Minister of Health was efficient.
The foregoing is excerpted from mom’s recently completed manuscript of her historical memoir, Vaccines & Bayonets: Fighting Smallpox in Africa amid Tribalism, Terror and the Cold War. vaccinesandbayonets.com
Image attribution: Seal of the United States Embassy, public domain; Mask of death from “Africa’s Greatest Dictators,” Vice.com (July 15, 2010); image of 1978 EG coin featuring Macias Nguema as “President for Life,” public domain.
About the Kid From the Fortress
Charles Bloeser is a lawyer and the researcher behind the creation of combatresearchandprose.com, a new open-source applied research initiative examining combat and those marked by it. His most recent publication, in August 2018, reports how a cancer-stricken, combat-haunted Vietnam veteran fell between the cracks in a modern jail. It’s an account that, from that warrior’s deathbed, he asked this author to share with those best able to prevent the same thing from happening to others. STRIFE, at the Department of War Studies, Kings College London, gave him a way to do that. http://www.strifeblog.org/2018/08/02/henry-a-wounded-soldier-forgotten-by-all-in-an-american-jail-by-all-except-his-brothers-who-fell-beside-him-in-vietnam