On the road…again!
Afghanistan to Zambia
Chronicles of a Footloose Forester
By Dick Pellek
C for Comoros
So little of past journeys to obscure places fits into neat packages that makes for interesting reading. Much about the Comoros is all bits and pieces of a grander tale, but not one that is easy to assemble. So here are some bits and pieces, waiting for inspiration to bring the story to a life of its own.
As volcanic islands off the east coast of Mozambique in the Madagascar Straight, the Comoros has a long history of political instability and attendant coups. The coup that stands out in the memory of the Footloose Forester was a historical event engineered by an infamous French mercenary named Bob Denard. Colonel Bob Denard was actually a nom de guerre for a man who had served in the French Navy in Indochina and in Algeria. He was born Gilbert Bourgeaud in Bordeaux, France and he was one of the most infamous mercenaries since World War II. His exploits during a coup of the Comoros were related to Footloose Forester by a Canadian employee of the non-profit organization CARE during an inspection trip of the Andujaun Sustainable Agriculture Project.
Flag of Comoros
Footloose Forester was shown the site of Colonel Denard’s landing in rubber rafts, and the hotel that he occupied as his coup headquarters on Andujaun Island of the Comoros archipelago. History relates that of the many coups that the Comoros experienced, in four of those coups Bob Denard was an active participant, with the alleged blessing and sanction of the Republic of France and Great Britian. Historical accounts are sketchy but persistent with their mention of the mercenary forces led by Bob Denard.
Other events in the Comoros add to their unexpected prominence in world affairs. On the first landing at Andujuan International Airport in the spring of 1993, the Footloose Forester did not think about the dynamics of events that were in store. Before the next visit the following year, lava flows from the volcano Karthala covered the runway at the end nearest to the capital city of Moroni. The unknowing or disinterested traveler might not have noticed the fresh patching on the runway, but the Footloose Forester remembered reading about the volcanic eruption in the Nairobi newspapers shortly after it happened, so he was looking for changes in the landscape. And since there was only one runway at this modest airport, it could easily be identified by following the shore line on satellite photos. As the key link with other countries, the main airport runway near Moroni had to be repaired before normal air travel could resume. It was not the only airport in The Comoros, nor was Andjuan the only island, but it was the only one sophisticated enough to have all-weather infrastructure, thus was the most important airport in the island nation.
The next recollection about that airport was in the news the following year, when an airliner was hijacked by Islamist fundamentalists and crashed into the water parallel to that same runway, only a few hundred yards off shore. Pictorial accounts of the event were published in Newsweek Magazine, and Footloose Forester remembers seeing photos and the story there. People on land actually swam out to rescue some of the survivors. It was a minor incident in world events but loomed large in the daily life of a tiny island nation. With a personal tie to the Comoros, such happenings often go into the soup that makes up the memoirs of the Footloose Forester, even if they don’t make for a story with a beginning and an end that is easy to follow.
The link with other people like Col. Bob Denard and other places leads this memoir to a suburb on the outskirts of Paris, France. While visiting the cousin of his wife, Thu, on a layover of a trip to East Africa, Footloose Forester got out of her car across the narrow lane when Bob Denard lived in retirement.
Thu’s cousin, Suphreni Sun, had picked him up from Charles Degaulle Airport (Footloose Forester had her phone number in his notebook) and later mentioned over breakfast that the neighbors across the lane always fought like cats and dogs. She also mentioned that the loud Frenchman across the alley had been some kind of mercenary soldier named Denard who was, nevertheless, devoted to his African wife. Historical accounts can fill in the blanks for the reader about what her name was, and how he came to bring her back to France. The novel “Dogs of War” by Frederick Forsythe is presumably about one of Bob Denard’s coups of the Comoros. The forward to the novel gives a brief but non-fictional account of Denard as a professional coup master.
This memoir is about the Comoros, but also contains historical links about Thu’s cousin, Suphreni Sun, also known to us by her Vietnamese name, Trinh. Trinh stayed with us in our home in Pennsylvania twice, and we also visited her in France on several occasions. For another episode of that bittersweet history, visit the memoir C is for Cambodia. Trinh was the daughter of a Cambodian Supreme Court Justice, and has her own incredible but sad tales. One of those sad tales was told to us one evening in Paris when a dozen family members born in Cambodia were guests at another house in Paris. The memoir F for France also attempts to link that story.