by William N. Dale
Many and varied are the experiences of diplomats serving abroad. The author recounts one admittedly unusual episode during his assignment as U. S. ambassador in the Central African Republic, 1972-1975. Certainly it is to be hoped that this vignette is out of the ordinary. —Ed
One Sunday morning in late April 1975, the Swiss pastor of the Lutheran church in Bangui, capital of the Central African Republic, asked to speak to me privately after the service. After we found a quiet corner, I could readily see that his usually sunny countenance was clouded with concern. He ruefully remarked that he was afraid he had solved a mystery that had been a common subject of conversation in Bangui’s diplomatic and other foreign circles for the past six months.
At that time President Bedel Bokassa, the nation’s ruthless leader, had announced a new regulation requiring local school girls to wear blue uniforms like those worn by young French girl students. Unfortunately for those affected, the Central African Republic was only partially a money economy and parents needed cash to buy the uniforms. Those who sustained their existence largely through barter, rather than wages, could not always find the means to buy such manufactured goods as uniforms. Parents in such circumstances had to just continue sending their daughters to school in whatever clothes they had been wearing before.
At some point thereafter illegally attired young girls began to disappear, one by one. Nobody knew what had happened to them. Quite naturally the parents were distraught, but nothing could be done about the mystery in the circumstances of the Central African Republic of the day and the brutal regime of Bokassa.
The Lutheran pastor was afraid, he told me, he had at least part of the answer. The day before we talked, he had visited Bokassa at his sprawling farm at Bobangui a few miles south of Bangui. There he had spied at some distance a couple of school girls not wearing uniforms roped to a tree. The pastor feared that Bokassa was imprisoning them at Bobangui—and perhaps even worse.
The pastor’s report reminded me of two earlier incidents: At the time I presented my credentials to Bokassa as U. S. ambassador nearly two years earlier, he had remarked in passing that his grandfather had been a cannibal and sometimes he believed he had tendencies in that direction himself. He then gave me a big smile. I confess I had no ready response at the time, nor was I able to think of one later. On another occasion, shortly before my conversation with the Swiss minister, a report circulated in the diplomatic community that Bokassa had laughingly commented at one of his boring, all-too-frequent palace dinners—one that I thank goodness didn’t have to attend—that he sometimes wondered whether his ambassadorial guests realized exactly what they were eating. He did not elaborate and as far as I know, no one questioned him on his meaning at the dinner table.
When I put these three reports together, the ghastly thought occurred to me that perhaps Bokassa was actually dining on parts of the school girls, and was possibly serving them as a routine matter to his dinner guests. It was hard to believe. I left Bangui on transfer before I could pursue the story further, however, which was probably best for my peace of mind.
Only much later did I learn through press reports that French investigators had indeed found identifiable pieces of school girls hanging in Bokassa’s huge meat locker at his farm. Ever since, I have wondered…
Amb. Dale, a member of American Diplomacy’s board of directors, holds degrees from Harvard. Since retirement from a long and distinguished diplomatic career, he has been active in UN affairs and his written extensively on foreign policy questions.