Twisting the Truth
by Gabriel Timar
When I defected from Hungary in 1956, the Red Cross hired me as a temporary interpreter as soon as I arrived at the first refugee center in Eisenstadt.
They did not mess around: they put me on a bus with fifty fellow Hungarian refugees; we were bound for the Schwartenzesee Camp in the mountains of southern Austria, near the Italian border. Arriving after dark, the Red Cross ladies greeted us with hot cocoa and cake.
I had a small room, not much larger than a clothes closet. Thus, I did not have to sleep in the dormitories. Next morning, I awoke early, long before the rest of the inhabitants. Although it was cold in my room and the washroom, I took a nice, long, hot shower. As I started dressing, I realized that because of my father’s wisdom, I had spare underwear and a half-clean shirt to wear. The old man had suggested wearing two shirts and two pair of underwear before heading for the Austrian border.
Nevertheless, before my first meeting with the free world, I splashed on a generous amount of aftershave, hoping to mask my possible body odor. It had been supplied to every refugee by the U.N. in the little blue bag of toiletries.
After breakfast, a police officer arrived and began registering the new arrivals. “I might as well register you first,” he told me.
I filled out the form and handed it over.
“I can see you took part in the actual fighting. Did you?”
“Yes, sir, I did.”
“How many Russian tanks did you destroy?”
“None. I don’t even know if I killed or wounded anybody. When you are in a battle, you try to stay alive. You don’t count the bodies.”
“Would you believe that the people who have gone through this camp so far, claim to have destroyed one hundred and thirty-six Russian T-34 tanks?”
That shocked me, but I remarked flippantly, “If it were true, the Hungarian Revolutionary Army would be entering Red Square in Moscow just about now and starting the liberation of the oppressed Russian people.”
The policeman laughed. “I believe I’ve just met the first real freedom-fighter in Schwartzensee Camp.”
“Be careful with your semantics, sir. In the eyes of the other side, I was a terrorist...”
The questionnaire was simple and by ten o’clock, they were through. The number of people claiming to have taken active part in the fighting reached fifty percent, and between them, they destroyed twelve tanks.
“If it were all true, you guys would have taken Stalingrad as well,” said the Austrian policeman with a wink.
The lack of truthfulness of my countrymen bothered me, and decided to undertake a little investigation. In the end, I realized that many of the new arrivals came from a technical school reputedly supplying many courageous revolutionary fighters. They were known to have destroyed a single T-34 tank.
After talking to these kids individually, they each claimed playing a major role in setting the Russian tank afire. Therefore every one of the twelve kids claimed to have destroyed the same tank.
* * *
To run an engineering firm in Africa was not an easy task. Apart from having to handle the technical and business development problems, dealing with the ingenuity of the staff kept me on my toes.
Africans in their own environment are genuine, straightforward people who do not worry about their image. If I caught them doing something they were not supposed to, they just smiled, shrugged, and did not try any contrived explanation like most Europeans. This is why I left my heart in Africa.
It took a long time to figure out how their mind worked. They had many ingenious schemes of squeezing money out of the softhearted mzungu — as the locals call the white man. The con worked like this: if an employee claimed one of his close relatives was dying, the unwritten code of ethics would compel the employer to give the worker at least two days off with pay, and some advance to help with the funeral costs.
For a while I observed the unwritten law, but when Lupo, one of the survey technicians started burying his father with amazing regularity, I became suspicious. The clincher was Lupo’s father walking into our office looking for a job. I employed the many-times dead guy as a rodman but fired him when he claimed that his only son had died.
Following this fiasco, I listed the living relatives of all staff and from that point on, they could not bury a mother every month. Nevertheless, Lupo came to me one day with a sad face claiming his father died.
“You’ve killed him off a few times already, buried your mother twice, and your only brother several times,” I replied looking at his list of living relatives.
He stood motionless for a while then asked: “Tell me, Bwana, do I have any sisters left?”
Can you blame him for trying?
* * *
In Nigeria I made friends with the Colonel commanding the city garrison. He was a highly influential person, and I let him beat me on the squash and tennis court. I bought him several drinks; to reciprocate, he invited me to a “big do” in the barracks. It turned out to be an execution. Since I ran an engineering consulting firm, I could not turn the invitation down, because the Colonel played a key role in awarding contracts.
Steeling myself for a grisly spectacle, I took my place on the tribune reserved for the dignitaries. I looked at the crowd surrounding us. The mood was not somber; in fact, a carnival atmosphere hovered over the parade grounds.
“It looks like the final match of the World Cup,” said Akin, a High Court judge sitting next to me, as martial music filled the air. The army’s marching band appeared and took their place below the tribune.
A company of soldiers appeared wearing their Sunday best and marched to the tribune. They took up a position with their backs to the guests, facing four tall wooden stakes, backed by sandbags. As they stopped and stood at ease, adjusting some of their equipment, the limo of the garrison commander pulled up.
The soldiers stood stiffly at attention while the Colonel wearing his dress uniform and all the decorations from the government Medals Cabinet, got out of the car, waved to the crowd, and, flanked by two adjutants, marched up the stairs to the presidential box. He shook hands with the dignitaries, and whispered something to the adjutant. The young officer saluted and marched down the stairs conveying the orders to the commander of the firing squad.
After a few minutes of silence, a black van appeared. The back door opened and a number of soldiers came out followed by four half-naked, manacled men. They formed up and, while the band struck up a sad tune, they marched the men to the stakes.
The condemned men did not look frightened at all; they were talking to the guards and waving to the crowd. One of them was laughing, and gave the one-fingered salute to the people on the tribune. The soldiers tied the condemned to the stakes and removed the handcuffs, leaving the prisoners’ hands free. The four men were still talking and laughing as if they were going to a party.
The officer on the ground barked an order, and eight soldiers stepped forward, each carrying an assault rifle. They took their position about five meters from the condemned men. An officer stepped up to each of the condemned men, offered them a blindfold, which they refused, and a cigarette. They all took it and smoked.
Suddenly, the music stopped and a single drum started a rapid beat. On the officer’s order: “Fire!” the eight soldiers emptied the magazine of their rifles into the condemned. Blood soaked the dirt on the parade ground. In a few minutes, the music started again, and a bus rolled in front of the tribune offering a ride to all of the honored guests to the officers’ club.
With trembling knees, I followed Akin to the bus. The Nigerians around us were not upset at all by the gory spectacle, although Akin looked a little bit worn.
“These guys were certainly courageous,” I remarked to Akin when we reached the officers’ club.
“It wasn’t bravery, my friend. Their families made Ju-Ju, and their village medicine men assured the condemned men that the bullets would bounce off their bodies. They were sure nothing would hurt them.”
“Did they believe the medicine men?” I asked incredulously.
“Of course. Medicine men have tremendous power over the people. Last week, one of them allegedly turned a thief into a black goat on the Lagos Market. The cops grabbed the goat and took him to prison.”
“What happened to the goat?”
“As he did not revert to human form, the cops sacrificed him to Owiwi, the god of the forest. The widow of the thief is sueing. The hearing is on my calendar for next week.”
Wanting to have power over others is an age-old quest of humanity, but promising someone a bulletproof body is taking things just a little too far.
* * *
We all lie occasionally. It may just be a slight twisting of the truth, or something to put the mind of a dying person at ease. The range of less than truthful statements is broad, and it is hard to condemn a liar if his lack of truthfulness does not cause any harm. However, anyone who claims he doesn’t lie is biggest liar of all.
The Military Mind appeared in issue 267.
Copyright © 2007 by Gabriel Timar