The Nation (Nairobi)

Congo-Kinshasa: Inside Mobutu's Head And House - a New Look At a Former Dictator

(Page 2 of 7)

book review

Soldiers in the Congolese army stationed in Leopoldville broke into the armouries and went of the rampage. Reports of murders and rape spread across the city. Bands of armed soldiers roamed the streets stopping Belgians or pulling them out of their vehicles in a frantic search for firearms and valuables. A massive exodus of Europeans occurred from the city. Close estimates that some three thousand Europeans, boarded ferries and barges from Leopoldville heading to Brazzaville, capital of the Republic of Congo (RC) just across the Congo river.

Meanwhile, Close looked for some way of putting his medical skills to good use. He had heard that the majority of the Belgian doctors had also fled the chaos and there were no Congolese doctors for the simple reason that none had been trained by their colonial masters. Darting through the besieged streets of Leopoldville Close managed to push his way through an unruly mob and into the Hopital des Congolais, the city's largest hospital.

During that first day, Close was given a crash course in developing and fixing film for x-rays by the long suffering Belgian doctor Marcel Pirquin. Close, Pirquin and other hospital staff took care of the numerous victims and perpetrators of the violence, both Congolese and Belgian alike.

In the weeks that followed Close went from taking x-rays to making plaster casts for fractures and eventually to surgery. However, hospital conditions were appalling. There was no blood in the blood bank. Used gauze pads were retrieved from the bins, washed and re-used. There was no laboratory to speak of. However, Close quickly became a master at surgical improvisation. He concocted his own gas-oxygen-ether anesthesia and taught Makila, the floor sweeper, to push on the balloon in rhythm with his own breathing to administer the anesthesia. He would use a brace and a drill bit from a carpentry shop to make a burr hole in a small boy's skull to relieve the pressure on his brain- "primitive craniotomy," he called it.

During these turbulent days Close and the surgical staff were conducting many of their operations at gunpoint. Once a Congolese soldier who had been shot in the thigh by a Belgian paratrooper was stretchered into the operating room by three fellow soldiers dressed in full combat gear. When Close tried to get more catgut from an adjacent room

Two of the soldiers blocked his way with one declaring: "You can't leave. If you don't save our man, I'll kill you."

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