I was the Deputy Chief of Mission, American Embassy Kigali. The title was somewhat grandiose since it was a very small embassy — just a handful of officers, two American secretaries, two communicators, and a few dozen Rwandans working in the motor pool and the warehouse and doing other support tasks. I was the ambassador’s second-in-command. We operated out of a nondescript single-story building that was sometimes referred to as the butcher shop because there were ‘meathooks’ on the wall of the inside corridor. I didn’t know the history of the building, but no one suggested that we remove the meathooks; They were the most distinctive decorative feature of the simple building.
My boss was Ambassador Townsend Carrier (not his real name), a talented and ambitious career Foreign Service Officer just a few years older than me. I was the immediate supervisor for a young political officer, and for the post’s young administrative officer, and for Melanie the more junior of the two secretaries. Melanie was around my age or a little older. She had grown up in small-town America, worked in clerical positions in the private sector for a number of years, and then, just a couple of years earlier, decided she’d rather have a life of adventure than her life of quiet desperation in the corporate world. She ended her marriage (no children), joined the Foreign Service, and volunteered to serve in remote places. She was attractive in a businesslike way: down to earth, very smart, very self-sufficient, and real good at adjusting to life in a challenging place like Kigali. Melanie would have made an excellent reporting officer instead of being a secretary, and if she had entered the Service a few years later that’s no doubt what she would have done — not that she was complaining.
Melanie told me the details of her desperate personal situation. Her boyfriend was a South African businessman based in Kigali — I’ll call him Martin Forrest — who was selling communications equipment in that region of central and eastern Africa: Rwanda, Burundi, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. (From what Melanie told me I was immediately mistrustful of Martin Forrest because legitimate businessmen for East Africa normally set up shop in the cosmopolitan city of Nairobi or possibly Dar es Salaam. Kigali was a backwater — and Rwanda was a very poor and undeveloped country; not an attractive market for communications equipment.)
Melanie read my mind and told me she wasn’t sure herself that Martin’s business interests were altogether on the up-and-up. She shrugged as if to acknowledge that one could question her judgment in falling in love with Martin (which is how I interpreted her shrug).
Martin Forrest had gone to Uganda a couple of weeks earlier (before my arrival in Kigali) on what Melanie understood to be a routine sales trip. He had telephoned Melanie a couple of times after reaching Kampala. Then the calls stopped. Melanie didn’t have a number to reach him. No one Melanie knew had heard from him. She didn’t know where he was supposed to be staying. Martin had said he’d be away just a few days, but he had disappeared.
At that time the mad and thuggish dictator Idi Amin ruled Uganda. The U.S. had severed diplomatic relations; we shut our embassy down. Any necessary business was conducted through the Swiss who maintained an embassy in Kampala and agreed to handle American interests (for which the U.S. government paid a fee). American citizens were officially advised not to travel to Uganda because of the security situation, and American officials like me were strictly prohibited from traveling there. (One time when I was on official business in the north of Rwanda we drove up to the border and looked across into Uganda. And another time my family and I no doubt briefly stepped across the unmarked Rwandan border into Uganda on a muddy mountainside inhabited by mountain gorillas but no people. We were visiting Dian Fossey’s gorilla research station in the Virunga mountains.)
Melanie told me that her boyfriend continued to include Uganda in his sales circuit despite the risky security situation. Martin must have been familiar with the culture of corruption and intimidation; more than that, he must have been good at operating in the shadows. It’s easy to imagine that he was good at dealing with sleazy characters from inside the Idi Amin regime and sleazy characters who claimed to be well connected to the regime and sleazy characters who would try to outsmart him to get money from him. They might make promises. They might threaten that bad things would happen to Forrest if he didn’t do what they wanted.
Because I have a cinemascopic mind it also occurred to me that Forrest might be an intelligence agent selling information to interested governments — maybe even our own government. In fact he could be doing that on the side while pursuing sales leads. I had read pretty good novels about espionage and I had a lively imagination. But Melanie Webb was a pretty savvy person in her own right. She also understood that there was a shadowy side to her lover Martin. Not to be overly philosophical however, there are mysteries or the possibility of mysteries about everyone we know. And one of the most profound mysteries is how we decide upon whom to bestow our love.
That was the situation in a nutshell: Melanie loved the guy — not necessarily wisely — and he had disappeared without a trace in Uganda. Could I help find out what happened and help figure out if he could be rescued?
Melanie surmised that probably Martin Forrest had been picked up by Idi Amin’s security people. And if so what then? Was he dead? Was he being held in jail? Was there any way to find out and was there anything we could do about it? Maybe he was alive and would be released if only the right button was pushed and the right people paid off the right amount. That was what Melanie was hoping. She had let it be known on the streets of Kigali that she was looking for information about the welfare and whereabouts of Martin Forrest, and some people had come forward either with information — rumors actually, nothing more — or offers or plans on how they could obtain information in Uganda. “Of course,” Melanie said, “these people tell me they have expenses. I can’t expect to get information about Martin’s situation — which can only be obtained at great risk — without covering their expenses. And yes I know, Larry, that they may see my search for Martin as an opportunity to make money off me. Some people may pretend to have information or to be able to get information — to lead me on. This is a very poor country and people struggle to make any kind of income. I know that most of the men approaching me won’t produce any information of value; they may take my money and never even make an effort to get information. But it’s the only thing I can think of to do to locate Martin and hopefully arrange for his rescue.” She continued: “The guys who approach me are Tutsis, since many self-exiled Rwandan Tutsis live in Uganda and they have their networks of people moving back and forth across the border with Rwanda. They’ll tell me they have sources in Uganda but probably their fellow-Tutsi sources could never possibly have the kind of information I’m asking for or wouldn’t dare try to obtain that kind of information because Uganda is a paranoid place nowadays and they could get themselves killed if they got too curious. I know that; I understand that. But I think I have to go along with some of these guys so that the word gets around that I’m serious. And then there’s a chance that someone really can find out where Martin is and will come forward and let me know. And if they hear in Uganda that someone wants to rescue Martin maybe they won’t kill him if they haven’t killed him already and maybe they’ll ask for ransom money or something like that. And if I don’t pursue it, no one will; there’s no South African embassy here or in Uganda. As far as I know Martin worked free-lance and wasn’t — I mean isn’t — an employee of an international company. Apart from me there’s no one. Martin doesn’t deserve to be forgotten and just left to his fate. I really don’t have any choice, whatever Ambassador Carrier says.”
I was impressed at the insightful comprehensiveness of Melanie’s analysis.
There was another thing Melanie thought she’d better tell me: Martin Forrest was a married man, but separated. His wife and kids didn’t come with him to Rwanda. They were living in South Africa.
“Well, Melanie,” I asked, “what did Ambassador Carrier say?” “Ah,” said Melanie, the ambassador had told her he thought there was nothing we could do officially or unofficially to trace Martin Forrest’s whereabouts or try to get him out of Uganda (if he was still alive). The U.S. government had no legitimate interest in the man. He was not a U.S. citizen nor was he related to a U.S. citizen. And we had no idea what he was up to anyway. It wasn’t the business of the U.S. government. The ambassador had advised Melanie in fairly strong terms to back off, because she was a U.S. government representative and there was a risk she would get us all into a diplomatic mess. Melanie told me she had asked Ambassador Carrier what if she stepped outside her diplomatic status and acted as a private person. He told her she didn’t have that option; she was stuck with the privileges and immunities of her diplomatic status whether she liked it or not.
Melanie told me she understood all that, but it was impossible for her to follow the ambassador’s strong advice. She said, “Larry, I know you just arrived at post and I understand that Ambassador Carrier is your boss, but I’m counting on you to help me.”
Well OK, let’s figure out what we can do. I think we can agree that there was a humanitarian impulse to try to do something to rescue Martin Forrest if possible. Or at least try to ensure that he was being accorded his human rights. (This was after all during the Jimmy Carter administration.) Or at the very least try to find out what happened to him. We would want to do that even if we didn’t know exactly what Forrest himself was up to. The Idi Amin government had turned its back on civilized values, but those of us in the rule-of-law world had an unending obligation to press for restoration of those values. So for starters I saw a rationale for our taking some action, even if it might turn out to be quixotic.
I needed to talk to Ambassador Carrier. He was a terrific diplomat and well established on the local scene: fluent in French (our lingua franca with the Rwandan elite); personable in that American way that Africans mostly prefer to the typically condescending European approach; and at the same time able to ingratiate himself with the Belgians and French who dominated the Kigali diplomatic community, and with the Germans and Soviets and the handful of diplomats from neighboring African countries and the World Bankers and UN development folks and American missionaries… and the world-famous but notoriously eccentric Dian Fossey. Ambassador Carrier had very good people skills.
The Ambassador explained to me why he didn’t want us to get involved with the Martin Forrest matter (and he couldn’t help being a little condescending with me because I must have come across to him as somewhat naïve): “There’s nothing but downside in it for us, Larry. Let me review for you why we shouldn’t take any official interest in the fate of Martin Forrest. First he isn’t an American. Second it seems that he has disappeared in Uganda — a country which is governed by a murderous madman and where the U.S. has no direct diplomatic presence. Third we know very little about what Forrest is up to or how he makes his living. And fourth — don’t forget this — we’re ostensibly going to pursue the question of what’s happened to Forrest because a member of our embassy staff has a personal relationship with him, but Forrest is a married man — never mind that his wife and children aren’t with him here in Kigali. Let me put it this way: if the U.S. government expresses an official interest in Forrest it would probably confirm to the Ugandans and anyone else paying attention to such things that Forrest is a spy for us. And he isn’t. I would know it if he was, and he isn’t.” (Spoken like a true political officer — analytically impeccable but bloodless.) I said I understood how all of that was true, but the Ugandans already think paranoid thoughts about the U.S. government so there’s nothing really new if we express our honest humanitarian concern about the guy’s fate, and wasn’t there also a downside if we decline to do anything for this fellow human being who appears to have been denied his human rights? “It may be that the damage is done and there’s no remedy. But Melanie is family to us; we have to support her in her anguish.”
Well it so happens that Ambassador Carrier didn’t think much of Melanie Webb. He didn’t like it that she was conducting an illicit affair with a married man. Right there she was very close — in 1977 — to crossing the line of acceptable behavior for an American with diplomat status. And on top of her irresponsible behavior in her affair of the heart she was putting the embassy at risk in her dealings with inappropriate people to try and rescue her lover. The ambassador was concerned that Melanie couldn’t be trusted to behave discreetly now, when she had already been indiscreet in getting involved with this married South African of questionable character. (Ambassador Carrier had met Martin Forrest a couple of times at social occasions escorting Ms. Webb. “Face it, Larry,” the ambassador said, “the people here and the government are as poor as church mice. No foreign business person in his right mind sets up shop in Kigali unless he has some angle that couldn’t bear the light of day.”) If Melanie Webb was in love with Martin Forrest there was something wrong with her judgment. (Or worse.) It could be just that’s what happens when you take a warm-blooded woman and plunk her down in darkest Africa for a couple of years. That’s the most generous interpretation you could put on it. We could go further and say that Melanie’s affair with the sinister South African could be a wedge into the American embassy that constitutes a security risk. But even worse was the near-certainty that Melanie was consorting with the Rwandan and Ugandan underworld in her effort to get information about her lover’s situation. “There’s a strong potential for scandal in what she’s doing, and I’m responsible for the conduct of everyone serving in this diplomatic mission.” I had to agree he had a point.
The ambassador was considering terminating Melanie’s assignment and sending her back to the States, where she would surely have to undergo a security investigation.
I argued that the candor Melanie had shown in laying the situation out in her conversations with me suggested that she would do everything she could not to jeopardize the embassy’s diplomatic status. Her motives were transparent. She was aware of all the factors the ambassador had laid out; she was, like us, a sophisticated political analyst. I told him I thought Melanie had the mind of a political reporting officer. He smiled at that; he didn’t disagree.
At the end of our conversation Ambassador Carrier reluctantly agreed that I could take the lead in proposing a course of action that had some possibility of ascertaining the status of Martin Forrest in Uganda. The ambassador had misgivings, but he would like to support me and my secretary in this matter of idealism on my part and something less noble but still not to be trifled with on hers.
I was pleased with the outcome, though also uneasy about the implication that my ass was on the line if something went wrong. (Mind you, the ambassador was also putting his own ass on the line. After balancing the powerful pros and powerful cons he was choosing to yield to the urgings of his DCM and the DCM’s secretary.)
Here’s what we do. We send an official telegram to the State Department in Washington — I draft it and the ambassador signs off on it — briefly explaining the situation and suggesting that the Rwanda desk — if they concur that it’s appropriate — forward our proposal to the Swiss embassy in Washington, which may then in turn transmit a message — if they have no objection — to their embassy in Kampala. And in Kampala the Swiss ambassador, acting as chief of his embassy’s American interests section, will decide whether it’s prudent or advisable to make inquiries in the local
community or informally with Ugandan government officials. That’s how it’s done. And any reply from Kampala detailing the results of the inquiry will take the same circuitous journey back before we find out about it in Kigali.
The cable says that Martin Forrest has friends here in Kigali who are concerned about his welfare, and we understand that we have no official basis for asking about his situation. That’s all we need to say about that because anyone can understand why the concern and why it’s legitimate to express the concern and try to do something about it.
So the cable is sent out and I show it to Melanie who is grateful that the embassy has done something.
Incidentally, we don’t do anything about bringing Martin Forrest’s estranged wife into the picture. We considered it but then left it out of the scenario.
Meanwhile — you could say ‘just as we feared’ — Melanie has been out on the street in Kigali letting people know that she will pay for information about the welfare and whereabouts of Martin Forrest. She tells me what she’s heard but we never talk about how she obtains her information — because she was asked not to do it. So on that count her own ass is on the line. Melanie relies on her wit and intuition to distinguish between credible offers and bogus ones, but she calculates that she has to give the benefit of the doubt to a person who says he has information or can get it if the offer is in any way plausible in the bizarre world of Rwandan abject poverty and Ugandan official and informal thuggery. Melanie tells me she’s heard that Martin was abducted from a restaurant-bar in Kampala and spirited away. That’s plausible. Someone else has told her that Martin was thrown in a solitary-confinement type of jail cell. Both of these sources say he’s alive. One person says he knows where Martin is being held and thinks he can make contact with him indirectly; this source told Melanie he’s about to travel quietly to Uganda, and that he might be able to bring back a message from Martin.
I don’t remind Melanie that everything she’s heard and everything she’s being promised can easily be made up just to take advantage of her. I’m confident that she knows all that.
As for our diplomatic initiative, we get a cable from the Department in Washington after a few days saying that the Swiss ambassador welcomes the opportunity to approach the Ugandan authorities concerning the disappearance of Martin Forrest. The Swiss embassy likes having something specific to ask the Ugandans about rather than talking about abstract principles like human rights and the rule of law. The Swiss ambassador has decided that he won’t mention that it’s the Americans who have raised this particular question; he’ll just say that sources in Kigali have expressed concern about the welfare of Forrest because he should have returned from Kampala by now and he hasn’t been heard from.
So how did it turn out? I want to say that our cable had a mighty effect and resulted in a happy ending. The Swiss and the South Africans in Kampala (South African diplomats made periodic trips to Uganda and fortuitously a South African circuit rider came to Kampala at the right time and the Swiss embassy brought him into the low-key effort to find out what happened to Martin Forrest) jointly asked the Ugandan authorities — in this case the chief of security/intelligence — informally for information about the welfare and whereabouts of Martin Forrest. The security guy didn’t promise anything but several days later Martin Forrest was dropped off at the Rwandan border and crossed back to safety in Rwanda. He showed signs of having been beaten, and he needed some time to recover his health, but he was basically OK.
Melanie Webb looked after him for a couple of weeks in Kigali, and then he left Rwanda for good.
Ambassador Carrier and I guessed that the Ugandans decided to be merciful to Forrest because of some idea that it would gain them good will with the western nations, no doubt including the U.S. We guessed that they had an exaggerated idea of the significance of the informal Swiss and South African diplomatic inquiry and also an exaggerated idea of how much good will their gesture could gain. We guessed that Forrest might have been the victim of a squabble over money with his Ugandan business contacts and that was why he was abducted in the first place, but since they hadn’t killed him and they didn’t care about him they were willing to set him free when respected diplomats inquired about him.
Forrest expressed his gratitude to our embassy in Kigali for taking action. He was of course most grateful to Melanie, who had pushed us to do something. Even so, the romance with Melanie ended quietly and Forrest left the country. I don’t know whether his marriage survived the strains.
Would that it had been so. Because this is a fictional story I’ve been able to furnish a happy ending rather than the unsatisfactory trailing-off ending that really happened.
The fact is we never found out what happened to Martin Forrest when he disappeared in Uganda. Probably he was killed right away by Idi Amin’s goons or by his underworld business contacts. We could speculate on why they would kill him: Was he killed on the street or did he die in captivity? How long after he was snatched up did he die? Did anyone other than the killers and co-conspirators ever speak with him or see him after he was arrested? Was there ever any accountability?
The Swiss embassy in Kampala sent word back that, after discreet inquiries, coordinated with their South African colleagues in Nairobi, they were unable to obtain any reliable information about Martin Forrest. They had never heard of him before receiving the State Department’s inquiry; no reason they should have known him, of course.
There was no follow-up effort. The Swiss reminded us in their reply that Forrest was just one of perhaps dozens of unresolved disappearances in that lawless nation ruled by a tyrant. I never heard any clarification about what Martin Forrest’s business was.
Melanie Webb finished the remaining weeks of her tour in Kigali and was transferred to Paris by way of home leave. Paris is an appropriate reward for service in remote and hardship Kigali. A few years later, when she was serving in Madrid, Melanie was named Secretary of the Year in the Department’s annual competition.
Ambassador Carrier and I both completed relatively uneventful tours in Kigali and each of us came out of the experience with grade promotions.
Idi Amin was eventually overthrown and went into comfortable exile in Saudi Arabia. That didn’t solve all of Uganda’s problems but it was a big improvement.
And Rwanda, where nothing much happened during the time Townsend Carrier and I were there, descended into darkness and chaos a decade and a half later as the majority Hutus committed genocide against their Tutsi neighbors and the world stood by unable or unwilling to prevent it or to make it stop: unspeakable horrors were visited on the population.