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Under the Lava Lamp

“The Congo is a remarkably beautiful place,” purred wry Aaron Brown last week, introducing a report on the eruption of Mount Nyiragongo, “so it’s a shame we tend to only go there when disaster happens.” CNN‘s shame didn’t last long, however, and soon we were given the dazzling son et lumiere of Third World wretchedness -- molten red earth sliding down hillsides and coursing through the main boulevards of Goma, whose terrified citizens fled across the Rwandan border by the hundreds of thousands. Imagine having to flee for your life to Rwanda.

The exodus went the other direction seven years ago when I traveled to Goma to write an article about refugees for Vogue. Such an assignment was not without its absurdities (“Will you be covering refugee fashion?” one aid worker asked), and the satiric implications of covering the Rwandan tragedy filled my soul with a deep karmic foreboding. Cursed with an overactive sense of irony, I could just picture the headlines (“Vogue Reporter Victim in African Bloodbath”) and feared that God might turn out to be Evelyn Waugh.

From the air, Goma looked lush, even paradisal, with looming mountains and a huge lake, Kivu, that made the city resemble a tropical Locarno. But Zaire (as it was then known) was the anti-Switzerland -- impoverished, violent, chaotic. Our rickety 10-seater had to swoop toward the runway twice, the first time to chase the families and farm animals off the tarmac, the second to actually land. Although I belonged to a pool of journalists traveling under U.N. auspices, we were greeted by young soldiers with machine guns, Tonton Macoute sunglasses, and levels of barely suppressed rage I‘ve encountered nowhere else.

Lately we’ve been hearing about the accursed history of the Afghan people, but there are hundreds of millions whose misery is unconnected to September 11. The Congolese have suffered years of disastrous government -- brutalized by Belgium‘s King Leopold II (who killed at least 4 million people), disillusioned by the murder of its first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, in 1961 (events superbly depicted by Raoul Peck’s film Lumumba), and then terrorized for 30-odd years by its staggeringly cruel and greedy president, Mobutu Sese Seko, America‘s Cold War ally, pal of the first President Bush and arguably the most evil man of his time. Most other dictators, once they’ve stolen their first 4 or 5 billion dollars, will get sentimental and do something to keep their subjects from living in abject despair. But not Boots, as he was known, who had all the moral delicacy of a cluster bomb. We drove past fine old colonial buildings pockmarked with bullet holes and, once we hit what was laughingly termed the highway, were bounced senseless by roads that hadn‘t been repaired since the Belgians had departed 35 years earlier -- the potholes felt as deep as graves.

Because no foreigner dared enter a refugee camp at night -- you’d be dead long before dawn -- we caught the last few hours of daylight at Camp Nyiragongo, an impromptu city that serviced 240,000 refugees who fled Rwanda after the genocidal massacres of the Tutsi people in 1994. The camp spilled up the side of Mount Nyiragongo for hundreds of yards and went on for miles -- a seemingly endless sprawl of tents and latrines, fires and trash. The air was thick with the reek of smoke, sweat and dung. Precocious kids leaped out to high-five us, their mothers grimly did their chores, and the men just stood around, eyeing our small band of white faces.

“Do you know how to tell who did the genocide?” a U.N. worker asked me. “Just look at their shoes. If they‘re wearing army boots or handmade shoes, they’re guilty.” Most of the people around me were in cheap rubber flip-flops. But a few yards away, a dapper refugee in tasseled loafers stared at me with eyes like snakes. I seem to remember the volcano‘s summit giving off an orange glow, but that might be my memory sweetening the production design.

I wound up staying in the faded Hotel des Grands Lacs, where for $75 a night you received no sheets or towels -- I had to give my maid a three-dollar “gift” to get them. A dim, bare light bulb illuminated my room, like a symbol in an existentialist novel. I fled to the bar for a beer. The other reporters were already there, jabbering about moose. “There are moose in Zaire?” I asked incredulously, and they laughed. “Mousse au chocolat,” explained a stringer from Agence France-Presse. It turned out that a nearby, European-owned restaurant, Il Nyeri, was famous for flying in chocolate all the way from Brussels. All the foreign correspondents looked forward to visiting Goma just to eat it, the best dessert (they told me) for at least 800 miles in any direction. “It’s the one decent thing in this bloody hellhole,” the Reuters guy told me, “and it costs $10 a bowl. That‘s a month’s wages for the locals . . . if they actually got paid.”

Once we were all pleasantly drunk, we headed toward the street on our way to Il Nyeri. But the U.N. press attache hurried up to stop us. “It‘s not safe to walk. The local soldiers will pick you clean.” And so we all piled into a van boasting the official flags and symbols of the United Nations. It pulled out of the hotel driveway, shifted into second gear and drove us to the restaurant -- maybe 50 yards away. The trip was over before I’d finished fastening my seat belt. We all piled back out and entered the restaurant. Except for dessert, I can‘t remember what I had.

This week, watching the lava roll through streets that my feet almost touched, filling the potholes with a vengeance, I found myself wondering whether the Hotel des Grands Lacs and Il Nyeri had been forever erased, and whether the people of the Congo will have hope for a decent life if and when their current civil war comes to an end.

And the chocolate mousse? It was as delicious as advertised -- one final colonial fillip. But later, back in my hotel room, I was kept awake all night by bursts of machine-gun fire that I felt certain must be coming for me -- a dabbler in misery, with 10 dollars’ worth of mousse in his belly.

I know it‘s incredibly September 10th of me, but I couldn’t resist watching Live! From the Red Carpet, Joan Rivers‘ Golden Globes pre-show on E! With her shrink-wrapped cheekbones and exuberant rudeness -- she called the event “fabulously pretentious” -- Rivers is every celebrity’s nightmare. You should‘ve seen the stars dashing down the red carpet to escape her pushy questions, demented aphorisms (“There’s a u-c-k in luck!”) and postmodern eagerness to mix her hate mail into her act. Unlike NBC‘s “official” preview hosted by Dick Clark, who appears to think such events are glamorous -- “the biggest party in town” -- Joan knows the whole thing’s tacky. While Clark was interviewing elder statesman (and NBC star) Martin Sheen, Rivers was talking to Sheen‘s whore-and-rehab son Charlie and fiancee Denise Richards, who flashed her engagement ring like a showgirl who just hooked the biggest Lexus dealer in Tulsa.

Ironically, now that the Golden Globes are seen as a predictor of the Oscars, the show has turned into a terrible drag, outdoing the Academy Awards in its tedious thank-yous and its genuflections to HBO and hard-working agents. Its old freewheeling energy survives only in Rivers’ monologues, on-camera realignment of her boobs and delirious attempts at praise. “I paid retail to see it,” she brayed to Ron Howard, thereby proving her devotion to A Beautiful Mind. If the Hollywood Foreign Press Association members knew what the world really enjoyed about their awards, they‘d get rid of that stupid globe and hand out a statue modeled on Joan.

The death of Talk has elicited the predictable outpouring of articles gleefully dancing on the grave of Tina Brown -- New York compared her to Enron. She’s faulted for being shallow, having an unholy dependence on thuggish Harvey Weinstein and, worst of all, failing to dream up a magazine wholly unlike Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, both of which she‘d, of course, reinvented and revitalized. In fact, by the end, Talk was a pretty decent magazine that was clearly getting better and better. But it fell prey to the grandiose expectations symbolized by its own launch party -- a premature climax, if you will -- and to the remorseless logic of our cultural life. The man who used to run the BBC once told me that, these days, if a TV show isn’t a sensation, it‘s as if it doesn’t exist at all. The same is true of magazines, and though I always defend Brown‘s career to other writers -- she drove up our rates, you idiots! -- I must admit that if anyone championed a world in which you’re either a sensation or a big zero, it‘s Tina Brown, whose earlier brilliance as an editor helped dig the grave in which Talk is now buried.


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