Disappearing Acts

Ibo offered birds, beaches, and the chance to escape.


in Archive


Captain Ian lurched across the bar and wagged a finger in my face. “I’ve fought for apartheid,” he said, as if I’ve accused him of having not. “I’ve fought for the Germans. I’ve killed.” No one at the bar was going to dispute these facts. Just minutes before, we’d watched our drunk captain confronting another patron with truculent glee. He threatened to smash a bottle, then a chair, then his own addled head across his antagonist’s. Tempers were calmed with a great outpouring of kind words and booze. Now, itching for more action, the captain had me cornered.


“I learned how to take a German rifle and smash it right in the middle of your head and crush your skull to pieces,” he said. His eyes lit up, as if kindled by the sweet memory of some past violence. Then he added, in case it wasn’t already clear, “I could kill you.”

Drinks were grabbed at the bar beside me, feet cautiously inched in the opposite direction. There was a great nervous clearing of throats. Most of the crowd had never fought for the Germans; they hadn’t fought for or against apartheid, or crushed a single skull. On this balmy night, there wasn’t much they were willing to die for.

They weren’t alone. I was lured to the island of Ibo, off the northern coast of Mozambique, by tales that had nothing to do with my bloody demise. The island — surrounded by mangroves and separated from the mainland by a narrow, glittering channel — had been sold to me as a languid hideaway of crumbling colonial buildings and lush vegetation and jewel-box birds trilling from the boughs of frangipani trees. Travelers in the north spoke of it reverently. Mozambicans sighed and shook their heads, lamenting the long journey by land and by sea to reach it.

Captain Ian’s journey had been longer than most. A veteran of the Rhodesian army, he had fled his homeland with the rise of Robert Mugabe and the advent of black-majority rule in what is now Zimbabwe. He was still a bit pissed about this fact. With the exodus came an almost Biblical sojourn across southern Africa, a two-decade ramble from Namibia to South Africa to Angola and, now, Mozambique. Often he arrived in his new home armed with a gun or a mysterious vocation to which he’d only allude now with arched eyebrows and a tight, thin-lipped grin. It was the smile of a man who was used to keeping secrets.

During the night he had described himself to me as, alternately, a thief, an assassin, “the grumpiest, most irritable captain on the sea,” and “the last rebel in Africa.” Now he was at the helm of a fishing boat on Ibo, offering day trips to the few tourists who straggled out to the island each year. He gave me a very complicated look as he described his newfound fate. It seemed like an awfully long fall from grace — or, at least, violence — for this unlikely rebel.

The bartender topped off his glass and the captain boozily sat up and squared his shoulders. He was describing an elaborate plot to knock off Robert Mugabe, the details of which, he was keen to point out, were already posted on his website. Ears perked up around the bar. Despite a modest asking price of $1 million, not a single government or clandestine multinational group — none of the shady backroom dealers populating the world of international intrigues — had signed him up. The captain was obviously stumped. With all the enemies Comrade Bob had racked up through the years, how could there not be any takers? I suggested the Americans. No dice.

“I’ve worked for the CIA,” he said. “Their offer was too low.” Too low? “Sixteen thousand.” He shook his head. A small crowd had gathered, and Captain Ian, in his rumpled, slept-in, Captain Morgan T-shirt (“Got Any Captain In You?”), appealed to their sympathies. Killing for the Americans, he explained, poses too many problems. Suppose he’d offed Mugabe: then what? He would need help after leaving Zimbabwe, but where would he go? South Africa was a dead end. (“They’re too sympathetic.”) Ditto Botswana. Ideal would be a lawless backwater from which his American sponsors could extricate him without grabbing headlines in the Herald Tribune.

“Someplace like Sierra Leone,” he said, eyes alight. But how to get there from Harare?

He fixed us, one after the other, in his foggy gaze. How to get to Sierra Leone? How to get anywhere from where you are? The Americans, he suspected, would ultimately let him down — this from a man whose weather-beaten face suggested a grim familiarity with disappointment. “I’d be expendable,” he said, tipping his drink slowly and reflecting on the mercenary’s fate. Besides, his former comrades in Zimbabwe would never let him get close enough to Mugabe to finish the job. They’d kill him on sight.

“That’s what we do,” he said. “We kill each other.”

The captain got up and stumbled toward the bathroom, weaving an unsure path between the lawn chairs spaced apart in the darkness. Around the bar was laughter, head-shaking, a few disparaging comments barely audible over the music piping from the stereo. Earlier we’d listened to another ex-pat, a surly Brit, bemoaning the Mozambican officials who’d muscled him out of business as a dive operator. And there was a treasure-hunter, a bedraggled Frenchman from Madagascar who scoured the countryside for colonial-era coins he could resell to European collectors at a handsome return. How did these oddball ex-pats manage to wash up on Ibo’s shores? What sort of lives had they left behind?

Sailing over from the mainland the night before, I watched the slender silhouettes of the shipmen perched at the helm as they worked the sails. Our passage stirred jewel-like plankton, their phosphorescent bubbles floating to the surface. There wasn’t a single soul on the planet who knew, at that moment, exactly where I was. If the boat were to tip, then what? I turned my flashlight to the water, where a school of silver fish darted through the narrow beam, their bellies glinting like a fistful of coins. The water was murky, the depths unknown. If I fell overboard the sea would surely swallow me up, and once the ripples died, I’d be gone without a trace.

Captain Ian came back from the bathroom and slouched across the bar. He stared glumly into the middle distance, his face a complicated portrait of untold woes and unknown demons. It was late. A dog howled plaintively at the moon. You could almost hear the cranking machinery of time turning on its axis, the irretrievable hours slipping away like grains of sand. The apartheid era was over. The tanks had rolled out of Angola. In Mozambique, over a Cold War battlefield, they had built luxury hotels. Captain Ian, a trained assassin who could kill you in a dozen different ways, would wake up the next morning to take tourists out to sea, pointing at the delicate water birds and smiling for the cameras.

On his way from the bar, the captain turned to me and shrugged. He was like a drowned man; the swift rushing waters of life had closed over his head.

“Mozambique is a good place to disappear,” he said, staggering into the darkness. • 18 October 2010


Christopher Vourlias' work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, National Geographic Traveler, and other publications.