MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
WHAT LED ME TO SYRIA in 2013 to rescue my only son from the grips of ISIS? It was genetics and geography and a Moroccan girl and a small crack that opened in my son’s mind after a breakup. But I must trace part of the story back to my own beginnings.
I was born in Flanders, which is the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium, and raised a Catholic. My family was a mix of liberals and devout Christians. I can remember going to my uncle’s house and picking up his copy of a newspaper that arrived with strange foreign postmarks. I would read out the name of the paper: “PRAVDA,” with its odd typography. (The crossing line in the A’s always had two bars. So cool-looking!) My uncle believed the Revolution was just around the corner, and the world would soon be a better place.
He read his PRAVDA and went to May Day rallies. My other relatives went to church and prayed for the souls of the lost and worked hard and volunteered when they could. I got from both sides of my family a belief that, whatever path I chose in life, I should help to change things for the better. This was reinforced in Catholic school, which I attended for years.
I’ve always been an idealist. I was always looking for a cause to believe in. I wanted someone to show me the true way to save the planet, or at least a few of the people on it.
* * *
I was impatient to begin my life. When I was seventeen, I dropped out of high school and volunteered for the “land forces,” which is what we called the Belgian Army. I was placed in an infantry battalion. To me, being a soldier meant helping people. It seemed like a simple idea.
There was a second reason I joined the Army: American war movies. I absolutely loved them, and that drove me to want to be a soldier: Platoon. The Deer Hunter. Apocalypse Now. Those movies were so alive that you would walk out of the theater buzzing with electricity, your skin tingling. What would it be like to be in a shooting war? How would I perform? Most young men want to be heroes, to rescue someone from some terrible fate. I felt this, too, deeply.
It never occurred to me that those movies always seemed to end badly. I was nineteen. I didn’t care about endings.
At the time I joined the Belgian military, the Yugoslav wars were ongoing, and I was assigned to a United Nations peacekeeping unit, as part of the Belgian commitment to the UN. I traded in my green helmet for a blue one and my buddies and I became “observers” to the simmering war zone. I was as excited as hell.
We were sent to Slovenia to keep the peace between the warring factions. Slovenia had declared its independence from Yugoslavia on June 25, 1991, and a short, violent war between the Yugoslav Army and the Slovenian rebels quickly followed. A peace treaty was signed, but the hatred and resentment didn’t go away. We were there to make sure people stopped killing each other over these ancient feuds. As observers, we weren’t supposed to get involved in any real action. We were spectators with guns. But there was violence all around us.
One time we were driving down a street in a small white armored vehicle with UN painted on the side in tall black letters. The sound of the huge rubber tires made a steady humming noise on the asphalt. It was a warm, beautiful day, with blue skies visible through the hatch above.
We came to a roadblock. Through the small spy-hole in the front of the tank, we could see armed men approaching. And then, suddenly, the snout of a rifle was stuffed through the spy-hole.
Time stopped. I stared at the worn black steel of the rifle barrel. This wasn’t a film. Francis Ford Coppola wasn’t behind me with a camera, telling me how to act. The Kalashnikov was ten inches from my face, and there were real bullets in the magazine. I could barely catch my breath.
Adrenaline made me want to grab the rifle and shove it out of the way. But it was no time for heroics. Our captain called out that we were contacting headquarters and that, if they pulled the trigger, there would be an international incident. We called headquarters. And watched the rifle snout. And tried not to move suddenly.
After ten minutes, the Kalashnikov was withdrawn, but the armed men still stood in our way in the road. Our commanders negotiated with their commanders; we sat in the vehicle as the evening grew cold. Finally, some kind of agreement was reached and we were allowed to drive on.
A first taste of aggression. It had been interesting, but I’ll never forget that cold, metallic feeling in my gut that told me something awful was just seconds away from happening.
Two months later, we were in our fortified observation post, looking out at a border town. There were sandbags stacked on top of each other to block any bullets from getting through, and a boom box playing rock, loudly. Someone had popped in the cassette of a Stones record, Aftermath. We were bored out of our skulls. Our jokes were getting old; all our stories of getting in trouble in school or getting lucky with this or that girl had been told three or four times.
All of a sudden, gunfire erupted a hundred yards away. We could see the tracers. Coming toward us.
For some reason, my first memory of that moment is what was playing in the background. “Paint It Black.” Dun-dun-dun-dun-dun-dun, Keith Richard’s evil guitar licks with Charlie Watts pounding out a sinister rhythm on the drums. It was so surreal, so right. We seemed to have entered a war film. We began laughing like jackals and yelling to each other that this was just like Apocalypse Now. Just like it!
We weren’t allowed to fire back, as our lives weren’t in real danger, at least until the guys shooting at us improved their aim. We couldn’t tell where the fire was coming from anyway. But the experience of being fired on was exhilarating. It felt like we’d been baptized. Welcome to war.
I never shot anyone. I never even fired my gun. But I saw people shooting and being shot and it injected a bit of antifreeze into my veins. That would become important later. Not that I’d been really tested in a war zone, not yet. But you need to hear bullets and get used to having guns pointed at you to go to places like Syria.
* * *
When I got leave from the Army, I decided to go to West Africa on vacation. I always loved to travel to distant places, something I’d never had a chance to do as a boy with my family. Slovenia had been fun, but I wanted to go somewhere unlike any place I’d ever visited.
In Africa, I found everything fresh and different. The sounds, the tastes, the view of life. In the small villages in a place like Nigeria, you can hear the monkeys in the jungle shaking the branches as they race through the trees. The smell of dust in the air, the women squatting by the side of the road bartering their goods, that special African kind of scene that can’t be duplicated anywhere else. I was entranced.
In the second week of my vacation, I met a local named Helen, a Nigerian girl with a gorgeous smile. She looked innocent, like a baby, with her big brown eyes and girlish figure. Later, I found out that inside she was tough, a fighter, but in the beginning I felt like protecting her. Our eyes locked and we began talking. Talking led to other things and, within a couple months after meeting, Helen was pregnant.
Interracial relationships aren’t that common in Belgium. When I brought her home to Flanders, I got looks on the street, no question. But racism was foreign to me. I didn’t care. I loved Helen and wanted to be with her and our child.
Helen wanted to get married in Nigeria in her home village. I jumped at the chance. Helen’s father was an important person in Benin City in Southern Nigeria, a leader of a prominent tribe. Her family wanted a traditional marriage. I agreed—who wants a boring Dutch wedding? My marriage seemed to be sealed in adventure—not only the romance of love, but the romance of new sensations, new places.
I spent many happy hours in the village, talking with Helen’s uncles and cousins. I wanted to know everything: How had their ancestors lived? Did their traditional medicine—the herbs and the roots that the medicine men gave the sick—really work, or was it all psychological? They taught me about voodoo, and I watched as holy men sacrificed goats and chickens, dancing and spraying the animals’ blood in wide red arcs as they performed their ceremonies. They handed me animal skulls that were filled with water and told me to drink.
During our wedding, I was dressed in a traditional African long shirt and Helen was resplendent in a bright native dress. We returned to Belgium after the wedding and there, on January 29, 1995, Jejoen was born. I immediately nicknamed him “Jay.” It was a moment of great harmony for me. I was thrilled to have a son. Here was someone to play football with, to go waterskiing with, to talk about girls when he became interested in them.
He was a dream boy.
Copyright © 2017 by Dimitri Bontinck