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Last Updated: Saturday, 28 January 2006, 13:14 GMT
Close encounter with Congo's president

By Pascale Harter
Former BBC correspondent in Congo

Congo-Brazzaville is the new leader of the African Union, with the country's President, Denis Sassou-Nguessou, taking on the role of Africa's chief ambassador and peacemaker. The BBC's former correspondent in Congo, Pascale Harter, recalls her meetings with the president.

Everyone has heard of Sudan, few have heard of Congo-Brazzaville.

President Sassou-Nguesso arrives for the African Union Summit [Photo Gianluigi Guercia/AFP/Getty Images)
President Denis Sassou-Nguesso began a seven-year term in 2002

And if you have, there is a good chance you are thinking of the wrong place.

Nestled in central Africa, Congo has always been overshadowed by its neighbour - once called Zaire, it is now re-named, somewhat optimistically, the Democratic Republic of Congo.

It is a bigger country than Congo with bigger diamond mines, bigger wars and even bigger dictators.

It can be confusing, even for correspondents.

As I prepared to leave for Congo-Brazzaville, a journalist from the Guardian asked me: "Didn't that used to be called Zimbabwe?"

Just like his country, President Denis Sassou-Nguesso is largely unknown to the outside world.

I strongly suspect it is this, rather than a pristine human rights record, which has resulted in him nabbing the top job in African diplomacy.

Meeting face-to-knee

I had been in Congo for several months when I first met him face-to-face, or rather face-to-knee as it turned out.

The meeting was not without some trepidation on my part.

I had already been thrown out of one press conference for not looking smart enough and I was keen to make a success of this one.

In addition to being a frighteningly snappy dresser himself, the president was rumoured to be shy but utterly ruthless when angered.

I was just congratulating myself for the front row position I had managed to acquire for the president's speech, when a scrum of journalists closed in around me.

With bodies wielding cameras, microphones and tape recorders bearing down upon me, I was soon sinking.

President Denis Sassou-Nguesso began his speech.

It was in the local language of Lingala, in which I could order a litre of beer but could not follow the ins and outs of a peace agreement with Congo's rebels.

'Who is that girl?'

So I settled in to study the great man up close.

I noticed he was taller than I had expected. Or at least he appeared to be from where I was now crouched.

As a suspected Ebola case... I became for President Sassou a diplomatic disaster

After 10 minutes I was getting cramp in one leg. After 20 minutes it was becoming unsavoury being squashed at the bottom of a rugby scrum of middle-aged journos in 35C heat, and I had cramp in both legs.

Eventually I became, only dimly, aware of a pause in the president's speech.

He was now looking down at me with one eyebrow raised. My arms had begun to wilt under the weight of the microphone and I realised with horror that I was resting against his knees.

"Who is that girl?" the information minister later told me the president had asked.

"She is very brave," he apparently commented.

Perhaps he considered me brave for resting against the knees of a man whose private army is said to have driven around town parading the severed heads of its victims aloft on car aerials.

Fear of expulsion

I certainly felt embarrassed but rarely did I feel brave in President Denis Sassou-Nguesso's Congo.

Pascale Harter with the pyjamas the president gave her
The minister handed me a pair of pyjamas with Denis Sassou-Nguesso's face emblazoned upon them

Mostly I was afraid. I was afraid of being thrown out for writing about the violence which was still going on in the country's Pool region.

This rebel stronghold had been sealed off by the government and was being used as a playground for the armed forces and ragtag militias to attack the population at will.

But in the end it was not my reports of army offensives in the Pool which caused my expulsion from Congo.

That came later when, after reporting an outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus in the north, I myself became a suspected Ebola case.

I languished under armed guard in a military hospital and became for President Sassou a diplomatic disaster.

If the president expelled me to Britain, I could infect everyone on the plane and start an epidemic in London.

Never mind bird flu, Denis Sassou-Nguesso would go down in history as the man who exported to the West a disease both easily transmitted and almost certain to result in death within seven days.

Farewell gift

But if he did not get rid of me soon, the restless population of Brazzaville might come good on their promise to kill me before I killed them.

And I could not be kept under armed guard forever.

In the end, as my symptoms subsided (I had malaria, dengue fever and hepatitis), a third country agreed to accept me.

As I stood on the tarmac of Brazzaville airport at 0300 waiting for the hospital plane, a familiar figure pulled up in a sleek black car.

It was the information minister with a message and a gift from the president.

"These are for you," he told me, handing me a pair of pyjamas with Denis Sassou-Nguesso's face emblazoned upon them in a Congolese pattern.

"And the president told me to tell you that he's not angry with you, Pascale, but he does think it's time you were going."

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 28 January, 2006 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Profile: African Union
24 Jan 06 |  Country profiles
Country profile: Republic of Congo
04 Nov 05 |  Country profiles
My brush with Ebola
11 Mar 03 |  Africa

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