Standing a few feet from Rusumo Falls was the heavily bearded German. His boots were caked in mud and his long nose bobbed as if about to fall from his face. Flanking him were a few of his hungry and fatigued soldiers. The mid-morning sun baked their skins and beads of sweat formed on their faces. It was April: the rainy season would soon begin. A few feet away, the waterfall howled. Above the roar of the waterfall, he shouted, “Let those filthy Britons have their honey in Uganda, but here, boys, is where the bees live. Look at her, isn’t she beautiful? And fertile?”
The telegram was marked confidential.
When the top official of the Belgian Foreign Affairs office received the letter, he stopped what he was doing. He knew the urgency with which the letter had reached his office and the impatience of the sender. With trembling hands, he spread the letter under the light. Once he had read the full content of the demands, he started all over again. He dissected every word, every phrase, putting aside every request and veiled threat.
He walked to his window, drew the curtains apart and looked at the city. German citizens walked along the streets. They drank and giggled in the nearby bars. He pulled out a cigarette, lit it and puffed away his shock. What the Germans had asked of Brussels, or demanded for that matter, was not possible, or if enforced, was going to have serious ramifications for Belgium. In 1839, Prussia had signed the Treaty of London agreeing that Belgium was a neutral country.
At home he smoked another packet of cigarettes and drank an entire bottle of scotch. The next day, at 9 a.m., the official rushed to the ministry and had a meeting with the Germans. The exchange was fierce. He reminded Germany of their obligations under the Treaty of London but he was told categorically that the Emperor and his Government had come to the painful conclusion that passing through Belgium was a matter of life and death.
“As I already told you, my friend, my Emperor sympathizes immensely with your situation. We acknowledge the treaty we signed. But this is war and you stand between my Emperor and his most vicious enemy,” the German official said.
“The French have assured us that they will respect our neutrality.”
“Those filthy French are cunning animals. They’ll treat the treaty as a scrap of paper. And if the treaty is a scrap of paper, why should we treat it with respect? I wish there was another way …”
“How about the frontier?” he asked.
“We are not fools. We have no plan to waste our soldiers at the frontier while the Russians mobilize against the Emperor.”
“What shall we do?” the King asked. “Will the Britons save us from the Germans?”
Maybe, maybe not.
The superior Germans marched into Belgium with vengeance. They destroyed the country. With premeditated assault, they executed civilians throughout eastern and central Belgium. They burned villages, ravaged cities, set civilians on fire. Even libraries were soaked in gasoline and torched.
If it was true that the war between the French and Germans had caught Belgium between a hammer and anvil, it was a gross understatement.
They had been walking for hours and now they were about to enter the enemy territory. If they had to make true their threat, this was the time. The forest was lonely and quiet except for the occasional singing of birds and croaking of frogs. A thick canopy, dripping with trapped dew and rain, blocked the sun and the warmth.
“They’ve ravaged our land in Europe, it’s time gentlemen, in the spirit of revenge, to ravage theirs here in Africa,” the Belgian officer told his troops. And they laughed sheepishly, then, remembering the carnage forced upon them by the bombastic and impetuous German Emperor, the desire to avenge the murder of their people overwhelmed them. They trudged east and attacked the representatives of the Emperor, annexing Ruanda-Urundi.
As the Germans retreated under heavy fire, the Belgians sang,
One day we will kill your children and rape your women,
Just like you killed our women in Liège
Just like you murdered our children in Leuven and Dinant
They gorged the eyes of three German soldiers and as the Germans screamed they sang,
To the screams of our dying men and burning children in Aarschot
They burned their shelters. And as they fled, they sang,
This is to our villages of Tamines and Brabant.
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