Book Excerpt – Drone Child: A Novel of War, Family, and Survival

Drone Child: A Novel of War, Family, and Survival
by David H. Rothman

    Publication Date: Dec 04, 2021
    List Price: $19.99
    Format: Hardcover, 194 pages
    Classification: Fiction
    ISBN13: 9798985181807
    Imprint: David H. Rothman
    Publisher: David H. Rothman
    Parent Company: David H. Rothman

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    Copyright © 2021 David H. Rothman/David H. Rothman No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission from the publisher or author. The format of this excerpt has been modified for presentation here.


    People called me “The Fix-It Boy.” I repaired broken radios and TVs around our village of Zange.

    Our huts and ramshackle shacks could have used fixing on a grander scale. But I was too busy tinkering, helping my parents, and being 15 years old to care.

    Maybe someday I’ll write up all the details of my Zange days and my rags-to-riches journey. Still, this is my war memoir, and I need to start with Mpasi, so you’ll know why my sister and I left.

    He lied often. But the tremble in his voice and the slight shake in his hands told me there could be only truth in the story he shared months later after we met.

    * * *

    Mpasi recalled everything. His father was a kind but half-crazy fisherman. People nicknamed Mpasi’s parents “Mama and Papa Boule-boule” because most everything they wore had polka dots in it, just like clowns’ costumes, even if the dots were smaller. Back then, he must have smiled as much as his parents did.

    It all ended the day the rebels shelled Mpasi’s riverside village, which, like mine, was about 120 kilometers from Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

    The men drew nearer to collect their bounty. They stole not just food, TVs, and cellphones but also boys and girls to be child soldiers in the war with the central government.

    Mpasi was 13 at the time, wide-eyed and thin, small for his age. His parents were wearing white clothes with just a touch of polka dots, and the white might have been what killed them—they were all too easy to spot.

    Two vile rebel officers, dressed in khakis with the insignia of the Congolese Purification Army, closed in on Mama and Papa Boule-boule while they were hiding Mpasi and the two baby boys in the tall bushes just up the road from their village.

    I would be unlucky enough to run across these repugnant beasts in time on my own, so I can tell you more about them. “Tiny’s” name was a joke. He was really a hulking goateed man with a little bald spot on top. Tiny was middle-aged and the Purification Army’s main leader, fond of going out to do his own killing rather than just watch his soldiers at work. Sako was in his 30s, far smaller, with yellow-greenish teeth the color of vomit.

    Tiny and Sako yelled at the family to come out of the bushes, which they did, encouraged by the sight of Tiny’s AK-47.

    “Sako?” Tiny said.

    Lieutenant Vomit Tooth pulled out a knife.

    “Today,” Tiny told Mpasi’s father, “your boy becomes a proud member of the Congolese Purification Army.” He laughed sardonically and beckoned to Mpasi. “Come here.”

    Mpasi reluctantly moved forward.

    “A good soldier always follows orders,” Sako said. “Your first is to kill your parents.”

    “But,” Mpasi said, “I love my parents.”

    Sako held the knife to Mpasi’s neck while Tiny placed the machine gun in the 13-year-old’s hands. Tiny made certain Mpasi pointed it at his father and mother.

    “Now,” Tiny said, “you’ll have many parents. These first two are just God’s accidents. The Purification Army—we’re your new family. God’s will!”

    Sako pressed the tip of the knife into the boy’s flesh, just enough to make him hurt.

    “Kill us, Mpasi,” begged his mother, still holding the two babies. “Better that they not kill us all.”

    “Listen to your parents,” Sako said in a mock-kindly paternal voice.

    Mpasi’s father nodded.

    Then the boy fired at his parents, who crumpled to the ground, their polka dot clothes stained with blood.

    Mpasi, however, had taken pain not to hit the baby brothers his mother had been holding—he aimed for her head.

    At the moment, all three brothers were crying.

    “Now, now, Mpasi,” said Tiny, “where’s your compassion? Why are your little brothers still alive? Do you really want to leave them behind for the hyenas to eat?”

    Once again, Sako pressed the end of the knife blade into Mpasi’s neck. Tiny forced Mpasi to point the gun at the younger brothers, still clinging to the parents’ corpses.

    “Do it,” Sako said, “and soon you’ll eat cake and watch movies with the other boys.”

    Sako’s knife went a tad deeper to encourage Mpasi to get on with the killing. But then Tiny grabbed the gun away from the boy.

    “We are not cruel men,” Tiny said. “I’ll kill the babies myself.”

    Then he pulled the trigger.

    And so all the others died while Mpasi lived.

    How could that not have changed him? I would like to think he was born without the slightest touch of evil. But sometimes it happens accidentally, like a boulder rolling down a hill to crush you when you’re just walking by.

    * * *


    I hadn’t yet met Mpasi, but his family’s fate was exactly what I feared for my parents, sister, and me. Family first—especially when soldiers kill, rape, and pillage!

    This being my war memoir, I’ll write of AK-47s, machetes, drones, blood, and charred bodies. But please refrain from dismissing the people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo as simply murderers and victims. Killing each other—is that all you think we’ve done, other than die of Ebola? We also are a country of dreamers, artists, musicians, and other creators, and you can start with my precious family.

    Michel Adula, father of me, Lemba, was a farmer-fisherman somewhat like Mpasi’s papa. He was also an orphan married to another, Heloise, who helped him grow bananas and other food. The orphanage that raised them was but a vague memory in time, its records lost just like so much of our country’s past.

    The orphanage staffers had not shared the slightest hint of my parents’ origins, or other children’s, lest this distract the wards from connections with them. Institutional ties above all, in deference to the bizarre theories of a racist Belgian childcare professor! “The children’s pasts,” he had pontificated in a jargon-infested tome which certain orphanages used as a bible, “must never be permitted to distract professionals from their goal of human perfectibility.” Years later I would read how this man’s work had been subsidized by our country’s colonizers to help rationalize the destruction of Congolese families and the promotion of child labor. Children—another resource to be exploited as avidly as timber and diamonds!

    Both my parents were short, with narrow faces and soft voices, the kind of people bullies love to push around. Meek and obscure, intelligent but no geniuses, they seemed destined to be that way forever. But my parents still urged my twin sister and me to dream, and I’d like to think we all succeeded. The very language of this book suggests that I have reached a certain level of schooling far beyond Mama and Papa’s. I’d hope that my French—the original or in translation—would not disappoint you.

    In birth and spirit, Josiane and I were still our parents’ children, but to their delight, the Almighty somehow had willed that we be different. We were bully-proof, both tall for our age, with athletic bodies as well as sharp minds.

    By the time we were 15 in the year 2025—that’s when my memoir really begins—Josiane was already drawing stares from some older men. I am uncomfortable writing of this, especially when she was so young. But her shape and her voice helped make her who she was or might be. Josiane dreamed of becoming a professional singer of Congolese rumba, the sweet dance music you heard everywhere. She spent hours watching music videos on our ancient color television.

    YouTube music was a different matter, a rarity at first in Josiane’s life. We were too poor then for the Internet and cellphones or a satellite dish to pirate TV programs.

    Except on cellphones, the Net had yet to reach our village. I would borrow a phone from any friend who owned one. At first, I could just mooch a few minutes here and there. But I had such a knack for technology that before long, my friends were pleading for me to accept their loans.

    After all, I could help them figure out this glitch, that software app, or the secret of moving to the next level in a game. I couldn’t get enough—I’d found my niche and even could earn some stray Congolese francs to augment my Fix-It Boy money.

    I imagined the software apps as animals, each with its own terrain and set of habits. Mastering the software was like hunting. I would make mistakes, analyze my failures, and in time puzzle out the patterns to succeed again and again. In ordinary life, that was exactly how I learned to trap and shoot bushmeat for myself and my family—not for sport, not for killing’s sake, but rather to help survive lean times. By nature, my gentle parents themselves were more farmers at heart than hunters.

    * * *

    Not every village in the Congo is or was like ours in its ambitions for its sons and daughters, but the condition of the one-room wooden schoolhouse hinted of something. It was the best-built, best-maintained building in Zange, as if the villagers were trying to tell the teacher to care as much about the children’s minds.

    I would soon see the cruel handiwork of Tiny and Sako, the thugs from the Congolese Purification Army, after they rudely interrupted my school day. Thank God I didn’t meet them face to face when they and their Purifiers raided—such horrors would come later.

    Monsieur Songa, the buck-toothed village teacher, had been lecturing us that day on the great inventors of the world, or at least doing a reasonable job of parroting from the textbooks.

    Thunderstorms had raged earlier in the week, but now it was sunny and clear—too halcyon a day for anything to go wrong. I was wearing tattered shorts, and Josiane was in a simple cotton-print dress, both of us ready for some goof-off time with friends after school. The boys would kick around a football while the girls watched.

    “And who,” asked Monsieur Songa, “was the American Thomas Edison, and what did he invent?” Oh, please, Monsieur! A little more of a challenge! Bored or not, however, Josiane and I raised our hands. No one else did.

    Monsieur Songa shook his head. “No, no, give the others a chance.” Silence. “Okay,” he said, “Lemba?”

    “The first practical light bulb,” I said. “Not everyone agreed on that, but—”

    Suddenly a loud bell rang from the village’s center, and Père Kasongo, our priest and the village leader, burst into the schoolhouse. “The Purifiers are coming! Run home and tell your parents.” A man in a village nearby had phoned in the warning.

    Père Kasongo told us to get our families and go a mile up the road to a hiding place marked by a pile of rocks—no time for packing even a few belongings.

    “Class dismissed!” Monsieur Songa said as if he were the one who most counted, and the students scurried out the schoolhouse door.

    * * *

    And so, not knowing whether we’d have homes to return to, most everyone in and near the village fled to the designated area, muttering curses at the Kinshasa government for failing to protect us.

    No small number of Zange’s adults speculated as to which politicians and military officers might have been bribed to allow the Congolese Purification Army to roam free. Even there in the high bushes, with our voices kept low, we feared that the thugs would find and murder us.

    The government radio station said the Purification Army members loved to experiment with different tools for killing. Typically, the “Purifiers” used a mix of AK-47s, other guns, rocket-propelled grenades, and machetes, for they took special pleasure in dismembering victims and mounting their heads on posts. Again and again, the Purifiers would litter the ground with stray legs and arms. Government clean-up crews did not visit every village post-massacre, but when they did, they often wore gloves to guard against germs from the carnage.

    Hiding from the Purifiers, my parents and sister and I snacked on dried fruit chips. Our dog Kodjo, a pure-bred Congolese Terrier with pointed ears and nose and short black-and-white hair, wasn’t with us. The sounds of his movements through the bush might otherwise give our location away.

    Papa had won Kodjo in a raffle. To be precise, Kodjo was a Basenji, or “dog of the bush.” That meant he couldn’t bark, just grunt and growl, but he was the perfect hunting dog and the terror of the local river rats. We figured Kodjo would be smart enough to reunite with us eventually without the Purifiers having discovered whose dog he was. I hoped he’d keep his distance from them anyway, but to be safe, we removed the bells that normally tinkled on him.

    Mama put her arms around Josiane to comfort her and softly prayed that somehow the Purifiers would change their sick minds at the last minute and destroy another village instead. But when we looked in the direction of Zange, smoke was spiraling up into the sky.

    Like the others, we waited a day before returning. Josiane and I wandered around the village calling out for Kodjo. No luck. Perhaps we shouldn’t have let him loose. The Purifiers just might be sadistic enough to kill him on sight. Of course, they might also have stolen him to be a pet. He was that endearing, with his handsome long-snouted face and soft fur. But no! I just couldn't imagine the Purifiers owning pets.

    We wept over the black remains of the wooden schoolhouse, the source of the smoke. Of course! The Purifiers had attacked our little palace of dreams. They had also urinated in our church. Thoroughly loathsome people. Certain houses were missing TVs, radios, jewelry, and other valuables as well as food, but the Purification Army had set afire just the schoolhouse. A note taped to the bell in the center of the village explained why:

    “Next time we burn everything and look harder for you. Tell the government we will protect you now. This visit, just a warning—only the school.”

    * * *

    The Purifiers hadn’t stolen a thing from us, big surprise. Who would bother? We lived in a small two-room wooden shack with a saggy old couch, mattresses on the floor, a scratched-up dining table, a tin roof, and on-again-off-again electric service from a generator for the neighborhood. No refrigerator. Just a wood-burning stove attached to a chimney. A TV antenna for local reception topped a ten-meter pipe in the backyard.

    Mama flicked on our small-screened television, which struggled to pull in staticky signals from a government station halfway between us and the capital.

    The Purifier story led the news, with mention of carnage from the nearby village of Sambuka: “New horrors, some 120 kilometers south of Kinshasa.” Later, I’d meet Mpasi and learn this was the same massacre where his parents and brothers had died seven kilometers up-river from me.

    As usual, the government reminded us of the Purifiers kidnapping children and forcing them to kill their parents. The rebels’ goal was for the young ones not to have any families to return to. A little like the orphanage staffers wiping out my parents’ past to instill greater attachment to the institution. The Purifiers could turn even seven- or eight-year-olds into obedient killers. The smallest child soldiers so often were the best—less able to tell right from wrong or safe from dangerous, smaller targets for enemies, and in need of less food to fuel their killing. They didn’t even demand salaries. If only the Purifiers had limited themselves to the younger children—bad enough by itself! But they were also in search of teenagers for both military purposes and the provision of “wives” for the troops.

    Mama cranked down the volume. We’d heard enough. Kodjo, who’d returned the previous day, flopped on his back as if in search of another belly rub. I obliged him while we talked on.

    “Where have these people been?” Papa said of the government news reader’s repetition of the obvious. “On the moon?”

    “I’d never kill you,” I said. “I’d die first.”

    “Me, too,” said Josiane.

    “They’re coming back,” Mama said. “I just know it.”

    * * *

    The village elders would have loved to pay off the Central Government’s Army enough to do its job and keep the killers away. But that was for much richer people. So Purifiers could roam free and terrorize us, especially since they were among the most dependable bribers.

    All we could do was pray and distract ourselves with the rebuilding of the schoolhouse.

    Every able-bodied adult and child above a certain age sawed and hammered away. Within a month a new building arose, complete with murals painted on the walls.

    Did I not say we are, in part, a nation of artists and other creative people? My sister’s dancing and singing, of course, won the talent competition held to celebrate the completion of the new schoolhouse. All eyes were on Josiane as she belted out an old classic from Mbilia Bel, “La Cléopatre de la musique Congolaise.”

    “Enjoy Josiane while you can, before she leaves us for Kinshasa,” said Père Kasongo, the village leader.

    “Or Hollywood,” joked Monsieur Songa, the schoolteacher.

    “No, Paris,” said Père Kasongo, and turned to my sister. “Josiane—where to?”

    “How about both?” Josiane teemed with self-confidence, and to everyone in the village, that just made her all the more attractive.

    The others might never escape the mud and the dust and the threats from terrorists, but through Josiane, maybe they could live out their dreams.

    * * *

    A month later the Purifiers burned, raped, and pillaged their way through more of the neighboring villages. Scores more parents died at the hands of their own children.

    Père Kasongo feared he would once again have to ring his bell.

    Our society was sick, and amid a drought, our vegetable gardens and orchards didn’t fare much better. As my parents worked at harvesting the pathetic crop of oranges, Josiane and I went fishing in our little river to help take care of our food needs of the moment.

    “Maybe,” she said, adjusting her net, “it’s time to leave Zange. Too many nightmares. Do you dream what I dream? Of Mama and Papa. Of having to kill them. So far God has spared us. But for how long?”

    As never before, the Purifiers were kidnapping children and forcing them to do the unthinkable. How many more months or years would this go on? Did the Purifiers have a patricide and matricide quota? Even older children, normally just slaughtered without further ado, became forced murderers.

    “But who says it will happen to us?” I asked.

    “The longer we stay,” Josiane said, “the more likely. It’s time to go.”

    “But you haven’t finished your schooling.”

    “What schooling?” she said. “All Monsieur Songa does is repeat his books.” And guess which two students had already borrowed and read most of the books from his small library? He was a good teacher in the eyes of the parents of Zange. It’s just that Monsieur Songa hadn’t that much to teach us.

    “I’ll miss you,” I said.

    “No, you won’t,” Josiane said. “Because you’re coming with me.”

    “To Kinshasa?”

    “You could always find a job fixing gadgets.”

    I nodded. Surely enough televisions and radios were on the blink in a city of millions for me to find work at a repair shop before I opened up my own. I had a vague idea of inventing things, too. A new kind of TV? A cellphone? Thomas Edison hadn’t gone to college. Must I? My 15-year-old self didn’t dream of riches or a university education, just a chance to tinker with wires and printed circuit boards and software coding for video games. I could hunt and fish as well as the next village child, but gadgets excited me.

    Of the two of us, Josiane at the time was the more ambitious. But then again, what’s ambition? In Zange, it seemed remarkable enough just to end up running a TV repair shop in Kinshasa. Forget the inventions. They could come later.

    In other ways, Josiane and I were so alike. It’s said you can separate certain twins and they will grow up with similar tastes in music and art and most everything else in life without the least contact between them. Same for physical mannerisms. Not all twins are that way, but Josiane and I shared a gene-deep twin connection where we could almost communicate without a word spoken. Our blood bond made us care all the more about each other. We even had bluish triangle-shaped birthmarks in the same place near our left ankles—further affirmation of the Almighty’s vision for us.

    Told of our plans at dinner that evening, my parents were skeptical at first; didn’t they need us in the fields?

    “Please,” I said, “the best way to love you is to leave you. No kids around, you stay alive.” In the worlds of both nightmares and reality, it was as simple as that.

    “Two fewer mouths to feed,” said Josiane.

    “And lots of places in Kinshasa,” I said, “for her to sing.” But to tell the truth, the Purifier-related fears mattered just as much as our respective ambitions.

    We all wept at the bus stop. “Here,” Mama said, handing us a small pouch of money for the road. “Not much, but a little more will help.”

    Josiane shook her head. “You need this for yourself. Lemba and I will find work immediately.”

    “No, take it.”

    My sister and I hesitated a second, then accepted the money just as the old diesel bus was pulling up. And then Josiane gave the pouch back.

    I rubbed Kodjo’s belly one last time and wished I could say good-bye and tell him why I was leaving. Though he was a family dog, I liked to think he was more mine than everyone else’s. Of course, all the other Adulas felt the same way.

    Still teary-eyed, Josiane and I reached out to Mama and Papa for our final hugs.

    Read David H. Rothman’s description of Drone Child: A Novel of War, Family, and Survival.