Convoy Catastrophe!

Spring 1992 – Vol.7 – No.2

The day was clear and sunny, unusual for March which comes in the middle of Mozambique’s rainy season. A mixture of excitement and foreboding hung in the dry air as I pulled up to join the menagerie of trucks and cars waiting at the rendezvous site just a few miles out from Nampula’s city limits. Shortly the soldiers would arrive and our convoy would start its way to the port city of Nacala 125 miles to the east.

This was my fifth trip with an armed convoy, the safest way to travel overland in this country, but I looked forward to it with more concern than usual. Until 18 months ago, very few expatriates would even think of driving to Nacala because of danger from guerrilla ambushes. RENAMO, an opposition movement fighting against the government, had made the road one of their prime targets in an attempt to limit the usefulness of the port to northern Mozambique.

Apparently they had been effective in their campaign of terror. When we arrived here one year ago the road had been relatively safe for months. Only occasional motorists traveling alone, perhaps at night, perhaps stranded beside the road, were being attacked. But unpleasant stories still circulated from former days and lingering fear held many captive within the city.

From what we have learned, the guerrilla’s strategy was to destroy one of the lead trucks in a convoy using a bazooka. If they succeeded, the wreckage of the truck blocked the narrow road jamming up cars and vehicles behind. From their hiding places in the grass or trees alongside the road, the bandits would begin strafing the cars with machine gun fire, intending to wreak maximum destruction to life and property. Drivers and passengers would pour from their vehicles, diving into the bush, hopefully running away from the guerrillas. Sometimes the government soldiers fired back from their positions on the trucks. Other times they were the first to flee, leaving the civilians defenseless.

Because of a change in political strategy, RENAMO had called an end to such attacks not long before our arrival. So we had grown accustomed to traveling freely to and from the port as we arranged transport of two sea containers shipped via Nacala. Now our church in San Antonio had sent three barrels of food and more medical items which had just arrived and needed to be claimed.

But an unexpected turn of events made this trip quite different from previous ones. Peace talks between RENAMO and the Mozambique government had fallen apart. RENAMO responded by intensifying the war in the bush. In the two months since our barrels had left the States, the Nacala road had been ambushed five times. In one of the attacks a foreign relief worker was killed when the armed convoy she was traveling in was strafed by enemy fire.

Upon hearing this I met with one of the senior Canadian relief workers in Nampula. His trucks loaded with grain from donor nations were particular targets of RENAMO and had suffered in two of the attacks. More than anyone else, he knew what was happening in the “war zone.” He said that while the guerrillas were indeed ambushing small armed convoys, there had never been an attack on the large, heavily armed convoys organized four times a week. He was confidant that as long as I went with a large convoy there would be no problems, but traveling alone was out of the question. This advice, along with the fact that I was “providentially” able to round up an additional 20 gallons of diesel at a time when fuel was hard to get, persuaded me to make the trip.

So here I was, parked in the shade on the outskirts of a large clearing with twenty-five to thirty trucks and cars, awaiting the soldiers whose arrival would signal the start of our journey. With me in the Land Rover were nine passengers from all strata of Mozambique society. I had picked them up at various places beside the road in an attempt to fill every seat before reaching the rendez-vous point. In the past my car had been pressed into service as a troop carrier, something I later learned was particularly dangerous. The enemy aimed their biggest shells on vehicles carrying soldiers in order to decrease their ability to respond.

As we awaited the arrival of the soldiers I went over my checklist again: tool kit, spare parts, fan belt, fuel filter, tire repair kit, air pump, cans of fuel (unavailable in Nacala), extra water. The tires, oil, battery, radiator, and clutch fluid had all been checked and topped up before leaving home. Car problems en route had to be avoided at all costs. As I went down the list, however, I was mindful of Proverbs 21:31, “The horse is prepared against the day of battle, but safety is of the Lord.”

Looking about at the vehicles parked in the African sun I was struck by what I saw. It could have been a scene from Alfred Hitchcock. If cars had personalities, this was a mean and sinister lot. Most were big, ponderous trucks. Some had heavy steel shipping containers strapped to their beds. Others were loaded down with grain or machinery. All were covered by dirty, dark tarpaulins carefully tied down to conceal whatever was beneath, as if they were part of a gigantic smuggling operation. Indeed the aim was to conceal – but from the guerrillas. No driver wanted his cargo to stand out as particularly tempting.

The trucks looked aggressive. Whether new or old, all bore the marks of hard use. Most were battered and lacking parts here and there, like the proverbial junk yard dog with the missing ear and torn muzzle. One could readily imagine the damage came from angry encounters with others of their own species. As usual, there were the two or three flat beds with rusty, aging gas tanks, dug up from underground, fastened to their chassis by chains and ropes. This is Mozambique’s version of the fuel truck and it looks particularly menacing, as if ready to explode over the slightest insult.

There is in fact good reason to fear these trucks. Their drivers travel foot to the floor over treacherous roads with their heavy cargoes, striving with each other as if the trip to Nacala were indeed a mad dash through enemy territory. Often they travel two abreast on the narrow asphalt, one attempting to overtake his grudging rival. They may continue this way for hundreds of yards, never heeding the great danger to potential oncoming traffic.

The truth is, the overwhelming risk in the journey to Nacala is from recklessness, not guerrillas. This was the other reason for deciding to make the trip despite the recent ambushes. No matter how active the guerrillas are, they have never on this particular road inflicted as much mortality as the drivers themselves, though perhaps the potential is there. So the danger of ambush does not add considerably to the risk one is already taking.

On my first trip, one of the soldiers draped across a tarpaulined flat bed fell asleep and rolled off the speeding vehicle. Miraculously he did not die, at least not at that moment. On my third trip a car only a few places ahead of us failed to hold the road on a curve. Bodies flew across the field as the canvas covered jeep swerved and rolled. The two adults riding in front died at the site. The two little bodies thrown from behind were rushed unconscious back to Nacala from whence they had just left. Then, in the midst of the confusion, as cars backed up along the road and people streamed from their vehicles, a big semi (rare in this country) with no side mirrors and apparently no brakes, came roaring through, horn blaring. That he sliced through the tangled mass of cars and people, averting disaster, must have been purely the grace of God.

Thinking on these things I once again ask for His protection as I have done often this day. Then, after a 45 minute wait as the convoy grows longer and longer, the soldiers come speeding up. Waving their weapons about, the men scramble down over the sides of their military vehicle and up onto the cargoes of various trucks in the lineup. A 35 millimeter cannon and shells are loaded onto an empty flat bed, and in a few moments we are moving out.

No sooner are we on the road than the dangerous jockeying and jostling for position begins. Everyone has his own theory as to which part of the convoy is safest. Some say near the front; in order to slip through before enemy fire takes out a truck. Some say near the back, so you can stop and turn around when trouble breaks out ahead. Some say near the soldiers and cannons since the guerrillas are afraid of them. Some say far from the soldiers and cannons, since those are the vehicles they’ll try to take out first.

I do not second guess the guerrillas. My strategy on these trips is prayer and cautious driving. And to avoid fretting over remote but potential risks, I sing hymns. Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” puts reality back in perspective. “Day by Day” is the one I find myself singing now. “The protection of His child and treasure is a charge that on Himself He laid,” provides welcome reassurance. The hymns, the beautiful African scenery, the warm sun, and a car full of animated passengers keep me relaxed. It does not seem like anything could go wrong.

But at the twenty mile mark the convoy slows to a crawl as it zig-zags serpentine-like through a long section of potholed pavement that continues on for many miles. A good bit of our time we travel with two wheels off the road dodging deep, gaping holes that extend clear across the narrow ribbon of asphalt.

It is during this Mozambican slalom that I first hear a rhythmic hissing that seems to synchronize with the revolution of the rear tire. I lean my head far out the window and am relieved that the sound stops. However, a few more collisions with tire mauling pot holes and does not stop. With sickening dismay my ears soon register the unmistakable slap-slap-slapping of flattened rubber on pavement.

There is nothing to do but pull off the road. Within moments, before I can even get the jack under the car, the convoy has passed. We are alone. Feverishly, like a rather uncoordinated pit crew, we set to work getting the tire changed. Even the women run into the bush to find large rocks for blocking the tires.

I lose 30 seconds trying to remember where I hid the key to the spare tire which is kept bolted to the hood by a large padlock. For a few agonizing moments I think I may have lost it. Finally it turns up in the tool kit.

Next I am chagrined to remember that the jack furnished with the Land Rover is the screw type. You literally screw the car up with a wrench. It seems to rise only a fraction of a millimeter with each revolution. This, coupled with the fact that the Land Rover has to be jacked very high to clear the tire, makes the experience like one of those dreams where you are running as fast as you can while going nowhere. Meanwhile, in my mind at least, guns are poking out from behind every bush and every sound resembles the click of cartridges locking into place. Thanks to the jack, which was not designed for use at the Indianapolis 500 nor for changing tires in a war zone, it takes a full twenty minutes to complete the job. God graciously spares our lives, no doubt by striking the guerrillas with temporary blindness as He often did in Old Testament days! But unfortunately, by now the convoy is hopelessly out of reach.

Nevertheless, we decide to continue on in hopes of catching it at Namialo (Nah-mee-AH-loo), the 60 mile rest stop. This is a small community of about 2000. It is a huge cotton plantation actually, and perhaps differs from the plantations of the old south only in that towering Eucalyptus trees substitute for stately old oaks. It provides a convenient half-way point where the convoy to Nacala awaits its counterpart heading to Nampula. It is here that the soldiers change vehicles, riding back to the city they just left.

Happily, we catch up with the convoy at the rest stop. They are still awaiting the soldiers coming from Nacala. I am uneasy traveling without a spare tire over roads so full of dangerous pot holes. Another flat and we would be forced to abandon the car in the road. Next time I will bring both spares. Now I must leave the convoy parked on the shaded main street to search for someone with a tire tool. This is Mozambique however, and there are no service stations in so small a community. I try the train yard, but of course they know nothing about tires. I drive out to the general offices of the plantation and finally after speaking with some vice chiefs I am granted permission to have the work done at their maintenance shop.

Happily, they do have a tire tool. Unhappily, they have no patches or cement. Happily, I have patches and cement. Unhappily, after removing the inner tube, we discover it is ripped beyond repair and I have brought no spares. We have spent twenty minutes in vain. Then, driving back toward Main Street I discover the convoys have already met and left. Once more we are alone.

Having gone halfway into the “war zone” there is nothing to gain by turning back, so we continue on in hopes of catching the run away convoy by running even faster, though this is like planning to out jump Knievel.

God, however, hears our prayer, for we once again meet the convoy at Monapo (Moh-NAH-poo), the 95 mile rest stop where the vehicles are regrouped prior to heading into the jungle, the most dangerous section of the road. Though this territory does not quite fit our image of jungle, the descent from the inland plateau down to the coastline of the Indian Ocean is accompanied by marked changes in terrain. The flat bush country, pierced here and there on the horizon by huge shards of granite-like boulders thrusting themselves out of the earth, gives way to hot, hilly, dense forest which is completely unpopulated. The guerrillas move freely in this no man’s land and it is here that most of the attacks take place.

We are now nearly three hours into the journey, having covered all of 95 miles. The once menacing convoy has shriveled to only a third of its former size, some vehicles having peeled off for other destinations, but most having sped impatiently on to Nacala without waiting at the rest stops. The remaining soldiers massed into a single empty truck and the rest of us fall in behind.

However, this is a brand new, shiny blue truck and travels fast. I hold the accelerator to the floor and recklessly pass vehicles ahead of me in a vain attempt to keep up with the speeding soldiers. Eventually the blue truck and I have left the others far behind, though the soldiers are actually 600 to 800 yards ahead of me with the gap increasing steadily. This is typical of discipline and organization here. Soon I only catch glimpses of our military escort from the crests of hills. There is no one in front, no one behind, as we travel through no man’s land.

Thankfully the road in this section is well maintained. We move fast and after a suspenseful 45 minutes catch sight of the Indian Ocean far below and in front of us. Soon we reach the welcome outskirts of Nacala with its mud and grass huts lining the road. My first stop after discharging passengers is at the telecommunications center where I call Julie who is waiting anxiously at home.

It is hard to believe our lives could change so much in only a year. Some things of course never change. We are glad that relationship and trust in the immutable God is a reality for all His people no matter where they roam. Indeed, “It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to put confidence in men. It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to put confidence in princes.”

This is a reality that never changes. It is a reality increasingly underscored by life in Mozambique.