When I applied to become a Peace Corps volunteer in 1984, the application form asked if there were any countries in which I would refuse to serve. At the time, the Reagan administration's dirty war in Central America was going full bore, and as a personal protest I declined to serve there or anywhere in the Caribbean. Had I known more about a faraway African country called Zaire (recently renamed Congo), I would have never agreed to go there, either. But my education came too late for that.
For two years I was a volunteer in the Kasai region of central Zaire, amid mud huts and barefoot people and poverty as heartbreaking as any on the planet. It was -- and is -- a very, very dark place, where human suffering and American geopolitical intrigue have always been inextricably linked. In those two years I attended more than 200 funerals, most of them for young children who died of malnutrition or a wide range of curable diseases. I helped dig some of the tiny graves myself, helped lower the bodies into the ground. And with each new grave, my shame grew.
I saw with my own eyes, in the late 20th century, people forced into slavery at gunpoint, compelled to grow cotton to fill the coffers of now deposed dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. I watched other men, hungry and desperate for money, dig diamonds in unstable mining pits that routinely collapsed, crushing the diggers' bones and suffocating their lungs while Mobutu Sese Seko, America's longtime Cold War friend, pocketed more and more mineral wealth. Now that he is gone, the newspapers pass along accounts of his kleptocracy and the favor he enjoyed in Washington. But to have lived in the midst of Mobutuism, to have seen, heard and felt the effects of our country's collaboration with him, is to know how inadequate these accounts are.
How do I describe, for example, the feeling of holding in my arms a child half-dead from lack of protein, his hair a sickly orange, his face bloated and puffy, his abdomen an overstretched balloon? How do I explain to myself, as an American citizen, that this very same child was but a bit of collateral damage in my country's calculated and long-standing foreign policy?
My job in Zaire was to help children stricken by protein deprivation like that one. I built village fish ponds, bringing supplemental nutrition to rural communities so poor that a single aspirin taxed family budgets. But my work was purely symbolic. The poverty was too profound, too widespread, too deep -- and the American aid dismissively small. I helped a few individual families.
Zaire has been called "a rich country of poor people." Rich because of its raw mineral wealth -- diamonds, gold, cobalt, copper. Poor because Mobutu siphoned off that wealth for himself and his thieving cronies, while most of the rest of the country's 40 million people went naked and unfed.
It's widely known that the United States helped grease Mobutu's rise to power by facilitating, with CIA involvement, the assassination of the country's first and only democratically elected president, Patrice Lumumba in 1961. In 1977, 1978 and 1984, the United States and France, directly or indirectly, helped rescue Mobutu's regime from reformist uprisings similar to the one that finally -- thankfully -- toppled his government two weeks ago.
It was the Cold War rivalry with the Soviet Union and its allies, of course, that motivated American support for such a monstrous strongman for so long. As it turned out, communism never did lurk behind every shadow in Africa, a fact underscored by the ideology's overnight collapse all around the world. But through all those years of American military and financial support, Mobutu stayed in power and his people sank further into a Conradian heart of darkness.
The fact that Mobutu is now gone will bring few immediate improvements to the lives of average Zairians. The hole that has been dug for them is too deep. But for us Americans, real change is possible now. We can decide -- today -- that we will no longer tolerate our country's misdeeds in poor, vulnerable places like Zaire. But before we can say "never again" and mean it, we must first acknowledge what actually happened all those years in the jungles and grasslands of the Congo.
God (or his absence) is in the details. Details like the sobbing faces of village people who came to my house looking for help with their rotting teeth. Even by African standards, medical care in Zaire has been appallingly bad, almost nonexistent. Medicines donated by the United States and other Western countries were routinely hijacked by Mobutu's forces and resold on the black market at prohibitive prices. Even when aid reached targeted groups there were no guarantees. I once saw an overweight Zairian soldier -- clad in a mismatch of French and American military clothing -- take a cup of UNICEF rehydration formula from the hand of a girl suffering from diarrhea and drink it himself.
In my tiny village, when people were ill, I gave what little I had: aspirin, malaria pills, bandages. And when they came with aching teeth, I gave them what they asked for: gasoline. I'd pour a half-inch shot from my motorcycle carburetor and then watch the 70-year-old woman or 15-year-old boy put the gas to their lips, pour it in and swish it around. By the grim standards of Zaire, this constituted dentistry. A little gas this way, according to the locals, helped kill the infection and reduce the pain. The idea repulsed me, but people kept coming and coming to me -- some walking tens of miles, crying, begging, mouths swollen. So I became a tooth doctor. It was better than nothing, I suppose. At least American tax dollars, which for years went to support a regime that stole medicine from children, also helped numb the pain.
In central Zaire where I lived, it was particularly important for villagers to stay healthy so they could meet the government's demand for conscripted labor. Every adult male, already struggling to cultivate enough food for his family, was required to plant roughly half an acre of cotton and sell it to the government. Those who wouldn't or couldn't plant cotton risked severe fines and savage rifle-butt beatings from soldiers sent out to enforce the rules. It was a system transplanted wholesale from the Belgian colonial days. A Mobutu-controlled monopoly set cotton prices at artificially low levels, then routinely rigged the scales at purchase time to cheat villagers again. I know all this, because in my village the cotton sales were held in my front yard. I watched it all, including the myriad beatings, from my doorstep. But much more than cotton, it was vast mineral wealth that accounted for Mobutu's estimated $5 billion personal fortune, allowing him to own chateaux in France and a castle in Belgium. That wealth came in part from sprawling government-controlled diamond mines 100 miles from my village. The open-air dirt pits, hosting a grim, Hobbesian display of filthy male bodies and pickaxes, drew sad hordes of young village men willing to risk their lives for small sums of money.
The problem was that the diggers were almost always hungry, unsure of where their next meal was coming from. This led to accidents. The safe way to dig was for a team of men to fashion a large hole with a series of terraced steps leading down to the diamond vein. But the fast way to dig, the way to dig when you were hungry, was to go straight down, creating a 15-foot-deep trench with extremely unstable walls. Most of the diamonds mines I saw in Zaire were of this type. Dirt avalanches regularly buried men alive, snuffing out their lives before their weak partners above ground could pull them out. In the villages where I lived and worked, diamond mine accidents like this were the leading cause of death for men in their late teens and twenties. It is perhaps possible that such grotesque layers of privation and injustice could have survived without American support -- but not for 30 years.
Laurent Kabila, leader of the newly installed rebels and fresh from victory over Mobutu, now declares that a new era of democracy and respect for human rights is dawning in the former Zaire. Already, however, there are policymakers in Washington who anonymously tell reporters that Kabila is nothing more than another Mobutu. This strikes me as terribly presumptuous, especially coming -- as it has -- from some officials within the American government which, for 30 years, helped keep Mobutu in power. Of course, any resistance to significant reform on Kabila's part should be vigorously and constructively criticized. In the meantime, we would do well to subject our own country's policies, past and present, to the same light of scrutiny. Mike Tidwell is the author of "The Ponds of Kalambayi," a memoir of his years as a Peace Corps volunteer in rural Zaire.