The Nation (Nairobi)

2 March 2007

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

(Page 2 of 5)

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."

Mobutu enters the scene

Meanwhile Joseph Desire Mobutu had been appointed Chief of Staff with the rank of colonel. The Force Publique would now be called the Armee Nationale Congolaise and according to Close: " Mobutu, addressing the troops in Lingala, the official language of the army, announced that they should elect their officers, designate which white officers were acceptable, and restore order in the camps."

But this did little to prevent the mutiny from spreading to Elisabethville, capital of the mineral-rich Katanga (Shaba) province. Secessionist Moise Tshombe, who was also a client of Close, declared Katanga independent from the rest of the Congo. This move was said to be backed by Belgium and the United States. Belgium's colonial policy cared only for natural resource exploitation and gave no thought to good governance. An estimated sixty percent of the Congo's national income came from the mines in Katanga.

While the Congo struggled with its growing pains as a newly independent nation, Close was having his own personal struggles. His dedication to Hopital des Congolais led to conflict with his MRA colleagues. Peter Howard, who became leader of the MRA following the death of Frank Buchman in 1961 and who had been a political correspondent and investigative reporter for the London Daily Express, wrote to Close saying that he, Close, had an unhealthy obsession with the Hopital des Congolais and advised him that: "You must, can, and will cut with that hospital."

Instead, Close decided that his responsibility as the only surgeon at the hospital greatly outweighed obligations to an evangelical movement and resigned from the MRA rank and file.

Close's first encounter with Mobutu occurred within the background of the unfolding violence in Leopoldville and the Congo generally. "At the time I had just become the physician for the First Parachute Battalion and Mobutu's house was in the paratrooper's camp", says Close, "We were having huge amounts of trauma in the operating rooms and I had been told by the British military attaché, Colonel John Sinclair, that Colonel Mobutu was the most effective guy in the army. So as a sort of typical naïve American, I waved for his car to stop as he was leaving his house and said: 'Bonsoir, mon colonel. I am the surgeon at the Hopital des Congolais, and I wondered if you can do something about all the violence in town so we can catch up in the operating room.' He looked at me and sort of raised his eyebrows and said: 'Oui, c'est possible', and then he rolled up the car window and sped away." Not long after that encounter Close noticed a decrease in the steady stream of trauma cases.

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