by Frank Scozzari
The big C-130 Hercules came thundering down through the clouds, its broad, silver wings glistening in the African sunlight. The four, huge Allison engines roared as the plane found its altitude and leveled. Jake Henley sat nervously in the pilot seat. Through the narrow cockpit, he could see far ahead now, to where the mountain pass notched down in the ridge in the shape of a ‘V.’
“Is that it?” he shouted back.
Kamifu, his Tanzanian aide, leaned in over his shoulder and stared out the windshield. “Yes Mr. Jake. That is it.”
“How far from there?”
“Minutes, Kamifu. How many minutes?”
“Not many minutes, Mr. Jake.”
Jake looked back at Kamifu’s black face, but could see only the scraggly white hairs on his chin and the whiteness of his eyes flashing, and the whiteness of his smile.
“About how many?” Jake asked.
“You’re a good co-pilot,” Jake shouted.
“Thank you Mr. Jake!”
They had left Nairobi four hours earlier, at the crack of dawn, and now the sun was high and bright, and shone sharply off the silvery nose of the plane. The glare caused Jake to squint, even from behind the shield of his dark sunglasses. Kamifu, however, seemed unaffected by the sun’s brutal rays. A lifetime beneath the Savannah’s hot sun had hardened his pupils. Out the side window, Jake could see the African landscape streaming by below. And now the land was beginning to rise beneath them, sloping up toward the mountain pass ahead.
“You stay low,”” Kamifu said. “Must get very low. Or they shoot us from the sky. Boom! Wafu. We dead.”
The plane dipped suddenly in a downdraft and Kamifu lurched forward and held on to the back of Jake’s seat. The four Allison engines roared and the plane pulled back up to its cruising altitude.
“That was good, Mr. Jake.” Kamifu smiled broadly, white-toothed.
“It wasn’t intentional, Kamifu.”
“I go now. Get ready for drop.”
“How will I know? How will I know where to find the mark?”
“You will know, Mr. Jake. There will be a space, wide as the Savannah itself. No problem. Trust me.”
“I get ready, Okay?”
“Yeah, you do that.”
Kamifu’s tall shadow disappeared into the darkness of the cargo hull while Jake locked both hands onto the steering wheel, nervously, and fixed his hazel eyes out the cockpit window.
He felt flush now and warm, hot even. His heart was pounding in his chest. He pulled open the side window to let some air rush in, and it did, blowing his sandy-brown hair wildly. Slowly, behind his Ray-bans, the vintage plane rattling all about him, the engines humming smoothly on either side, he began to bring the plane down into the gap in the ridge, watching faithfully as the altimeter dropped.
Back in the cargo hull, Kamifu cranked hard on the bomb bay door opener. His lean, wiry frame leaned into it, putting all his muscle behind it. The rear doors slowly widened, and as they did, the sound of wind, and the four engines booming, increased in volume and ferocity. He was dressed only in shorts and a green army tunic, and the wind coming in the bay door began to whip the cloth material against the sleeve of his arm.
He turned the crank one last time, long and hard, and then locked it in place. Then he staggered to the edge of the opened ramp and looked down, the wind blasting against his determined stance. He could see the good African earth rushing by beneath – rugged terrain speckled with green acacia trees and the gnarled tops of baobab. Above, stacked on freight pallets and lined in a queue on huge roller coaster rails that led out the rear ramp, were the cargo bins. He walked back to the first bin in line and patted its plywood side. He breathed deeply, his eyes laughed, and a tight smile came to his face.
“You go down to my people, now,” he said. “You make them well.”
Then, taking a place near the drop lever, he looked out the gapping rear doors at the dry countryside rolling past.
“Tufanye sote bidii…,” he said in Swahili. “With hearts both strong and true.”
* * *
On the ground, just beyond the notch in the mountains, dug in trenches beneath large camouflaged netting, were several members of the Hutu militia Interhamwe. They were all former regulars of the Rwandese Army and fought now against the new government, the Forces Armees Rwandaises. They had all taken part in the great genocide, that which had split the country into civil war. Their hands, which had once wheeled machetes and hacked thousands of Tootsies, now held guns against a lone steel beast.
High on a mound of earth stood their young Lieutenant, Kayomba, who held a pair of binoculars in one hand and pointed skyward with a handgun in the other.
They could all hear the plane coming.
“Sikisa! Hapo!” he shouted in Swahili. “Over there!”
The soldiers, some still in war-torn uniforms from the old régime, positioned themselves now – their rifles and their one vintage model Browning fifty-caliber machinegun pointed skyward to the southeast.
“Ngojea angu amrisha!” Lieutenant Kayomba yelled. “Wait for my command!”
His large black hand was sweating and held tightly to the grip of his gun.
Louder and louder came the droning of the turboprop engines. Then, out of nowhere, flying barely above the acacia trees was the sleek, silvery belly of the C-130.
“Sasa!” he screamed. “Now!”
The plane came in so low that the soldiers could not see it until it was upon them.
A chorus of gunfire spattered out, popping like a long string of Chinese firecrackers.
Lieutenant Kayomba, standing stern and ridged, his pistol arm pivoting with the plane, squeezed off an entire clip of rounds. Likewise his men’s rifles and the pedestal-mounted machine gun, all in unison, tracked the huge plane as it quickly crossed the blue Rwandan sky.
Inside the plane, there was the rapid pinging sounds of hundreds of rounds whacking through the metal frame and ricocheting all over. Jake ducked his head down impulsively, and held tensely to the wheel. He listened, while slowly the pings decreased in frequency, then ceased completely, and finally, he knew, they were out of range. We made it!
“Yahoo!” Jake screamed, slamming his palm against the steering wheel. “Those dirty bastards! Those dirty, dirty bastards!”
Ahead, filling the one-hundred-and-eighty degree view of the cockpit windows was a vast Savannah. And below him now, approaching rapidly and moving on the ground like a giant wave, rippling as if made of velvet, was a vast gathering of humanity. Thousands of Rwandese refugees, who had streamed southeast out of Rwanda en route to the Tanzania border, had gathered here in this valley between the mountains.
It looks like a million ants, Jake thought. It is a million ants!
And there, in the center of it all, as Kamifu promised, was a long wide lane, cleared by the ground crew for the drop.
Back at the pass, Lieutenant Kayomba watched as the tail of the high-winged plane sped away, its wings weaving back and forth and then dropping in low over the hoard of thousands.
“Chafu taka ngurauwe!” he hollered out scathingly. “Filthy pigs!”
He was a devote follower of Kajuga, the great leader of the Interhamwe. He had no tolerance for anything short of victory in their quest to gain control of the Rwandan people. Incompetence is a weakness that leads to defeat, he thought. He walked down to the young soldier behind the machinegun and whacked him in the back of his head with his opened hand.
* * *
Jake dropped the plane even lower. He looked out his side window, the warm air rushing by his young face, and could see the people clearly now, the colorful garments of red and yellows and blues that brought them to life. And skimming even lower, he saw, a tall thin African woman standing out in the crowd, her arms outstretched above her head, holding a baby skyward, up toward the plane.
Kamifu was right, he thought. You have to get low, real low, or the bins would crush the crowd.
Jake took hold of the radio transceiver and called back to Kamifu.
“Get ready buddy. We’re coming up on it. I’ll give you the mark.”
Slowly, steadily, bringing the plane down lower, and lower, as low as he could, still holding the transceiver in his right hand, he leveled the wings and lined her up in the center of the long clearing. The ground, rushing by in a blurry mix of the colorful garments, suddenly parted like the Red Sea had parted for Moses. Then there was nothing but barren earth and the shadow of the plane skirting over it.
“NOW!” he shouted into the transceiver. “Now Kamifu! Let’em go!”
Jake concentrated, holding the plane as steady as he could. He tried to look back from the side window, but the angle, with the huge swell of the plane’s wide body, obstructed his view. He placed the transceiver back in its bracket, widened the window, and removed his sunglasses. Then he stuck his head out the window, so far out that the wind flattened the hair on the back of his head. Behind him, off the tail of the plane, he could see the long clearing, trailing out to the aft, and there were no cargo bins falling to the ground.
His head snapped back around.
Kamifu! What the Hell?
He snapped up the microphone and yelled into it, “NOW! Kamifu! NOW!”
He looked out the window again, waiting, still holding the transceiver in his right hand, but he saw nothing. In front of him, the clearing was coming to an end. Further in the distance was an outcropping of rocks, which rose abruptly from the Savannah.
“Kamifu,” he shouted into the transceiver. “Can you hear me?” He looked at the transceiver and thumped it against the top of the console. “Can you hear me?”
Too close, he thought. Too close to get them all off now. Looking forward, he saw the rise in the earth coming quickly toward him. He knew he would have to turn soon, or raise her up. He shouted into the microphone: “Hold Up!”
The massive river of refugees below, flowing south, suddenly swallowed up the clearing. Ahead came the outcropping of rocks.
“Kamifu! I’m coming back around.”
Jake slapped the microphone back in its bracket. But before he lifted up on the wheel, there was a flash from the outcropping of rocks ahead of him. Then a second flash, and coming at him at a tremendous speed, were two fireballs, each trailing long curly tails of smoke.
He cranked the wheel hard left. The engines screamed, all four of them, the frame of the huge aging plane chattered and wreaked, and both missiles, nearly skimming the plane, went skyward beyond, toward the sun.
Jake was trembling. Sweat poured down his face and neck. He could feel his mouth dry and parched.
“I should have taken that job flying for UPS,” he mumbled to himself.
Now swinging wide around, westward, he was back on the transceiver to Kamifu in the cargo hull.
“Kamifu!” he shouted angrily. “Come in, damn it!”
Again, there was no response. Jake sneered at the transceiver and tossed it down.
He had gained enough altitude to clear the rugged hills west. He now leveled the plane, heading straight for Zaïre, and looked over at the empty seat beside him. What’s going on? His eyes searched the cockpit frantically. There were two bungee cords holding open the cockpit door, and he took one of them and used it to fasten the steering wheel in place. Then he scrambled aft toward the cargo hull, climbing over cables and boxes that cluttered the connecting corridor.
The cargo hull was howling with wind. The loud, droning sounds of four Allison engines permeated through the walls. The floor was riddled with tiny holes, up through which shined bright pencil-thin columns of light. Kamifu lay flat on the steel belly apron near the drop lever. His blood had been sprayed about the floor and wall, whipped by the wind rushing up through the rear ramp doors.
Jake’s mind refused to believe what he saw. A moment ago, he had seen Kamifu’s white, cheerful smile. Now Kamifu’s lay still, his blood streaming from his long, lean body, his smile gone forever. Jake dropped to Kamifu’s side and shook him uselessly. Kamifu’s cotton shirt flapped wildly in the wind but Kamifu did not move.
“Hold on!” Jake cried.
But it was useless. He is gone, he knew.
Jake found himself having difficulty breathing. Inside, a great anger welled up. But with it came fear. By the time he made his way back to the cockpit, he was sweating profusely and his mouth was dry as cotton. The plane had gone far beyond the pilgrimage of people now – rushing below was only the dry African earth and the wide shadow of the plane’s body and wings. Jake took hold of the wheel and unhooked the bungee cord.
Now, with the wind blowing in on his sunburned face, he was thinking seriously about abandoning this mission. He was alone now. He was not a soldier, only an aide worker, far away from his home, in this wild place called Africa. He felt empty and beaten from it all. He looked at the photograph of his wife mounted on the dashboard. He stared into her beautiful face. He had promised not live a life of sadness. He had promised to do something good – it was why he was flying air relief missions in Africa.
“Okay, Jake Henley,” he muttered to himself. “You’re going to do this.”
Slowly, he began turning the plane back around, in a big, wide gradual curve south. Far out in the distance to the east he could see the huge, rolling army of human beings, spread out on the Savannah like a great felt blanket, interwoven of a million brilliant stitches of every color of the rainbow.
In his mind he began to think of how he could do this; how he could successfully deliver his payload to these thousands of starving refugees without the assistance of Kamifu. He could drop it here and now, he thought, far to the west of the line. But then it might all fall into the hands of the Interhamwe. Or it could cause some kind of stampede he had heard about. The clearing, on the other hand, which spread long and narrow in the center of the crowd, ran north and south. The width there, he knew, was too shallow to make a drop from east to west. Certainly not all the bins would fall inside the clearing and many would be killed. Hundreds had been crushed in an earlier drop going for the food bins. It had practically killed the project. It is why the ground crew was there, waiting, to control the crowd. They had cleared the line to accommodate a drop from the south. They could not reposition everyone now. There was not enough time, nor fuel. To the north were the surface-to-air missiles, and to the south the small arms fire, they had taken coming it, that which had killed Kamifu.
It would be from the south, he thought. It’s the only way.
He turned the plane now, wider and further to the south. He straightened it, heading toward the range of brown mountains from which he had flown in over from Kenyatta Airport. He could feel the sweat running down the side of his face.
In his mind flashed a multitude of images; he saw his wife, standing alone, waving him forward, calling him to her side; he saw Kamifu, his smiling, white-toothed face, then laying dead in the cargo hull; and he saw the African woman on the ground, holding her baby high in the air toward the plane.
* * *
Lieutenant Kayomba stood on his mound of earth at the base of the mountains watching as the plane, a sliver speck on the horizon, swung around in a southerly direction, back toward Tanzania. He tracked it until it nearly faded from sight. Then he saw it coming back, sweeping in a long curve toward his position. As it drew nearer, it disappeared behind a mountain. The sound continued in a southwestern direction until it popped out into view on the other side of the mountain, and he watched it swing around further still, until it was finally gone behind the ridge just west of them. Then he saw the plane again, past them, heading south now. And finally, it began to loop around. Then it disappeared below them.
Lieutenant Kayomba scurried down to the young soldier with the Browning machinegun and shoved him aside. He took hold of the trigger-grips.
“Andaliwa!” he commanded his men. “Be Ready!”
The sound of the engines drew steadily closer. All the soldiers stood poised and ready; their weapons pointed skyward, right there at the top of the acacia trees where the plane had suddenly appeared on its earlier run.
* * *
Coming up in the cockpit windows was the low notch in the mountains. Jake was remembering Kamifu’s words.
“Keep it low,” he mumbled. “Keep it very low.”
He was not going to make it easy for them, he thought. He’d come in slightly from the east this time, angling in. He’d drop in lower and trim the tops of the acacia trees.
Just ahead, approaching at a phenomenal pace as if through the viewfinder of an arcade game was the ‘V’ notched in the mountains. He could see the Savannah opening up rapidly through the cockpit windows. As the mountain walls blazed passed on either side, he throttled up. Then he held the steering wheel straight out before him, tensely, with his hands fisted.
“Please baby, be with me now,” he babbled.
As he entered the gap, he let out a loud, involuntary scream. It was a war cry of sort, in preparation for the mêlée he was about to meet.
The huge silver bottom of the plane, flashing white in the sunlight, came in low over the acacia trees, and Lieutenant Kayomba and his insurgents unleashed a horrific volley of rounds into it, as many as they could in the few seconds they had. Their guns continued pounding steadily as it passed quickly overhead, spitting fire from their barrels like the flashing bulbs of a hundred press cameras.
Jake held his breath and cringed at the sound of bullets ripping through the metal. All he could do, he knew, is hold steady to the wheel and hope he did not get hit. One of the right engines sputtered, tossed some smoke, and then regained momentum. The pinging sound seemed to sustain longer than before. Had he not come in low enough to reduce their angle? But it was that they had locked their guns on the tail of the plane and had continued to fire as it sped away, down over the Savannah.
Must drop lower, he thought, which he did. And then, one last ping against the fuselage and he heard no more.
Now coming up rapidly in the windshield was the huge exodus of refugees, and he could see the long, beautiful clearing opened by the ground crew. He dropped in low above them, holding steady, and lined up the wings. Then evening them so that the plane was perfectly aligned in the drop alley, he quickly strapped the bungee cords to the wheel once again, leaped from the cockpit, and scrambled back to the cargo hull.
The plane bounced turbulently over the hot tropical air, but the wheel held steady with the cords stretched to either side. Jake stepped carefully over Kamifu’s body, to the edge of the bomb bay. The wind flying up from the opening pinned his hair straight back. Beneath, flashing by, were thousands of colorful shawls and tunics, and thousands of black heads all squeezed together. Then came ground, only ground and no people.
He grabbed hold of the drop lever and looked over at Kamifu’s lifeless face.
“This one’s for you, buddy!” And he yanked down.
The cargo bins began to come down the rails. The first one dropped out the rear ramp doors, snapped taught the static line, pulled free from it, the parachute ballooned open, and the crate drifted down to the earth. Then came the next, and the next, each staggered on their freight pallets, coming down on the rollers.
“Yes!” Jake blurted out.
Jake scurried back to the cockpit, climbed into the pilot seat, and unhooked the bungee cords. He kept a nervous eye on the forward horizon. The outcropping of rocks from which the missiles had been fired was not far off. He glanced back, out the side window. Beneath the tail of the plane big, he saw beautiful white parachutes blossoming open, one after another.
Hold steady, he told himself looking nervously ahead. There is time. No need to rush. Finish the drop. Then pull off to the east.
The last parachute opened, its cargo crate beneath it soaring quickly to the ground. Jake watched, giving it time, seeing it hit the ground, seeing it plow up a cloud of dust.
Out the forward glass, the outcropping of rocks was coming up fast. He cranked the throttle, turned the wheel hard right, and up. The engines roared, lifting the huge C-130 directly up into the blue sky. Then the plane flattened into a course due east.
Jake swung his neck around and looked back, out the starboard window, but saw nothing coming from the outcropping of rocks.
“YES! YES!” he shouted, pounding his fist on the wheel in succession.
He could feel his body shaking all over. The adrenalin was still pumping through his veins. He held the wheel straight, throttle all the way down, wanting to get as far away from the rocks as he quickly as he could. When he reached a distance of several kilometers, he began to think about the drop. Did all go well? Did that last crate stop in time or shatter into a million pieces? Unsure of himself, he began turning the plane, turning it in a big half-circle so that it came completely around and was heading west again, back toward the drop site.
Slowly unrolling on the horizon ahead was the massive congregation of refugees – legions of them, now seemingly coming together as one.
Jake dropped the plane down low. Then even lower, coming in and skimming over the top of the crowd. He looked out his side window, the warm air rushing into his young face, and could see the people clearly now, their colorful garments of red, yellows and blues swarming the cargo bins. He could see the wooden cargo crates, broken open, and pails of golden grain and corn being shoveled out. He could see the project workers, one standing atop an opened crate beneath a white safari hat, a thousand hands reaching up to him. He could see all the people cramming together. And there, coming up rapidly off the port nose of the plane, was the tall thin African woman, her baby held high in her outstretched arms, triumphantly skyward.