| The beat-up Jeep bounced along the deeply rutted dirt road, raising a cloud of dust behind it. After miles of empty country, passing only the occasional isolated village or solitary hut, the vehicle was entering the ramshackle outskirts of Kemo City, capitol of Mabuto. Passing a crowded roadside market, the truck drew stares from many of the locals, who rarely saw Westerners pass through the streets of their backwards nation.
Mabuto was an African country in decline; its' traditional poverty made worse by the current government, a corrupt and oppressive dictatorship. Its' absolute ruler, 'President Kemo', was a former army sergeant who led a successful coup several years ago and now ruled with an iron hand. Hoarding the meager wealth of the nation in his personal bank account, he remained in power with the support of the so-called army. Little more than a collection of thugs, he allowed his 'soldiers' to extort the local businessmen, the occasional foreign visitor, and the even rarer tourist. His peculiar style of running his nation had earned Mabuto a place on the U.S. State Department's warning list. Potential visitors were alerted to the dangers of crime and a corrupt and sometimes brutal police force. There had been a number of unpleasant incidents involving tourists.
The young couple in the rear seat of the bouncing Jeep was well aware of the warnings; they had simply decided to ignore them. Jim and Susan Hartley considered themselves adventurers. Others might look on them as jaded American yuppies with money to burn. They had just finished two weeks of touring Kenya and Tanzania, staying mostly in luxury safari camps. They had decided to cap their African vacation with a quick visit to a place none of their friends had been to, mostly for bragging rights. With the cocky innocence of the young, they calculated the odds of something bad happening to savvy travelers such as themselves, and elected to "go for it".
Their three day stay in Mabuto made it strikingly clear to them why no one visited there. The country was poor, primitive and dangerous. Most of the wildlife had been killed for meat or shot for target practice by the undisciplined soldiers. The poverty was stark and unsettling. They had realized soon after they arrived that they had made a mistake coming here, and would have left sooner had the next plane out not been for three days.
Deciding to make the best of it, they hired a Jeep, a driver and an English speaking guide, who took them into the backcountry for two days, which was safer than being in the crime-ridden capital. Their main concern had been dealing with the corrupt and unpredictable soldiers, who served as both army and police force. Their wonderful guide, John, was invaluable in avoiding potential trouble with the soldiers, using just the right mixture of bribes and deference.
Still, Jim and Susan breathed a collective sigh of relief when the Jeep finally pulled up in front of the warehouse that passed for an airline terminal for the capital. 'President Kemo International Airport', read the large sign hanging over the entrance. Jim paid off the driver and, with John's help, carried their bags inside the building. They passed a small waiting area where a few fellow travelers sat with their luggage and as they approached the counter marked 'Customs', they were aware of being the only Westerners visible.
Behind the counter stood the customs agent; a tall, thin black man dressed in a white shirt with shoulder boards and plain blue slacks. He had a self-important air about him as he reached for their passports and then thumbed through them carefully. When he was finished, he placed the passports out of reach and slowly looked the young couple up and down.
What he saw were two affluent, conceited American tourists, dressed in high quality, safari style clothing, on a jaunt through Africa without a care in the world. The man was tall and trim, decked out in khaki, with a confident but naïve air about him. The agent's main focus, however, was the wife. The woman was beautiful, really lovely. Blonde, blue eyed, of medium height; she wore an opened bush jacket over a plain white T-shirt, under which her full bosom was clearly discernable. Thick blue shorts and heavy duty hiking boots contrasted with the smooth skin of her bare legs; accenting rather than detracting from her femininity. A khaki baseball cap completed her outfit; the overall effect was cute and attractive.
A man could fall in love with such a woman, the agent thought to himself; but he was moved by darker passions.
"Bags on the table", he said suddenly, gesturing to a long, low table to his left. The Hartley's both placed their small carry-ons on the table as instructed. They had brought just a few changes of clothes with them and had only purchased one or two trinkets. They were confident of passing easily through customs. So they thought. The agent moved with an annoying air of officiousness as he unzipped Jim's bag and peered inside. He reached into the bag, moved a few items around, and then turned his attention to the other bag.
Three disreputable looking soldiers were leaning against the far wall, watching every move the customs officer made, giving off an air of casual menace. Not far from them was an officer, a young Captain, his face an unreadable mask of blankness.
As the agent reached for Susan's bag, his eyes were locked on those of the young woman, watching for her reaction as he unzipped the bag and looked inside. He seemed intent on intimidating her, but she met his gaze evenly. The man obviously had some need to dominate this well-off couple, perhaps from a feeling of inferiority. He began to remove items of clothing from Susan's bag, holding them up before laying them on the table. A shirt..., a pair of socks..., shorts..., and then a brassiere. Susan was on to his game and remained impassive as he fingered and displayed her undergarments, but inside she was getting nervous, as was her husband. They both knew enough to keep quiet and let this two-bit official show off for the soldiers, demonstrating what enormous power he had. Even so, Jim was very uneasy standing there silently while this skinny jerk held up his wife's bikini panties for the soldiers to gawk at.
The agent was now smiling broadly at Susan as he delicately lowered the panties to the table, holding them by the crotch between two dark fingers. More quickly now, he went through every item in the bag: more clothing, underwear, toiletries; pausing with a small spray bottle of feminine deodorant, examining it with mock carefulness as if it were explosives. When he had completely emptied the overnight case, he turned it upside-down and gave it a final shake, then placed it on the table and gestured to Susan that she could repack it.
Her cheeks starting to redden with suppressed anger, Susan grabbed handfuls of her stuff and shoved them back into her bag, jamming clothes and other items together in a jumble. She zipped the bag shut, giving the customs agent a look of unconcealed contempt.
It was a mistake. As their guide John had repeatedly warned them, the officials and soldiers of Mabuto may not have measured up to their counterparts in a real country; but here their power was absolute. While they did treat white foreigners with some degree of deference, it was essential for travelers to show that they understood the power they wielded and were respectful of it.
Susan's attempt to intimidate the customs man with an angry look failed miserably. A slow smile spread across his face as he seemed to come to some inner decision. He glanced at the Captain as if seeking authorization, and got a curt nod of assent. Turning to the soldiers leaning expectantly against the wall, he said one word in the native language, which John the guide translated for Jim and Susan. "Search!"
Three broad white grins lit up the faces of the soldiers. They unglued themselves from the wall and advanced on Susan menacingly. Jim immediately placed himself between the approaching soldiers and his wife; but before he could say anything their guide John stepped in front of the frightened couple and began arguing forcefully with the customs agent. Though he spoke in the native tongue, Jim and Susan could imagine what he was saying: "These were American tourists..., they had money..., there would be official protests..., how much did he want...?" As the guide's impassioned pleading continued, the couple realized how lucky they were to have a loyal advocate who understood the game here.
The customs agent seemed about to back down, the husband and wife starting to relax, when the young Captain, who had been watching the entire incident with seeming indifference, approached the group at the table. The reaction of the Africans to his presence was startling. The soldiers snapped to a sloppy attention while the agent and guide fell instantly silent; the look of fear in the eyes of both men saying all that needed to be said about the kind of power the Captain wielded.
He looked straight at the guide and said one word: "Leave!" John turned pale, and with a helpless glance at the young couple, practically ran out of the door of the terminal.
Her protector gone, Susan looked to her husband for aid; but the Captain had stepped between her and Jim. He began speaking in perfect, un-accented English; his educated voice reeking of menace and finality.
"We are going to conduct a random search of this woman, as we have a legal right to do. She will not be harmed. If either of you interfere or resist in any way, you will be in violation of the laws of our country and will forfeit all protection of international law. You will then be instantly arrested, forcibly searched, and thrown in our prison; whose amenities, I am sorry to say, are not rated highly in most tourist guidebooks." Turning to Jim, and speaking slowly for emphasis, he said "I can assure you, your wife will have a particularly unpleasant time in our penitentiary, whose guards are not accustomed to having such an attractive prisoner in their care." Then he just stood there, his air of cold indifference returning, as if he couldn't care less what happened to these insignificant people.
Jim and Susan stared at each other in shock. Although their decision to come to this backwater country had obviously been a mistake, they were both intelligent people and could assess the situation. The abrupt departure of their formerly faithful guide told them all they needed to know about the potential brutality of these people. And there was no mistaking the menace in the Captain's voice or the reality of his threats.
There was only one choice here that made any sense. Susan realized that she needed to be the one to speak up; freeing her husband from the unbearable task of turning his wife, whom he was supposed to protect, over to the tender mercies of these dangerous looking men.
"Honey" she said tenderly, putting her hand on his arm, "we need to do exactly what they say. Please, please don't do or say anything to get them angry. I'm very worried, but I think they'll let us get out of here if we just follow their orders and act submissive." The look of fear and entreaty in her eyes helped Jim resolve his own internal struggle. He gave her a wan smile and, kissing her on the forehead, said "I'll be waiting right here. I'm sure it'll be alright."
Of course he was sure of no such thing.
The apparent leader of the three soldiers, who had been smirking through the tender scene, stepped forward and put his large hand on Susan's upper arm, roughly guiding her towards a door to the right of the table.
With a horrible sinking feeling, Jim watched helplessly as his beautiful wife was marched through the door surrounded by the soldiers, the customs agent bringing up the rear. He turned to the Captain and, in the most respectful tone he could summon up, asked: "Will there be a female officer in the room to conduct my wife's search?" With a look of contempt, the Captain shot back: "Our women stay home with the children; they know their place. Now sit down and do not move or speak again." With that he turned and followed the other men into the back room, slamming the door behind him.
In stunned silence Jim slumped into a seat. The customs desk was now deserted; the entire workforce apparently needed to conduct the 'search'. 'A real professional operation they run here', he thought derisively; but after three days in this half-assed country he wasn't that surprised. Neither was he really concerned about how they ran their country; he was just trying, without success, to think about anything other than his wife's coming ordeal.
Jim was overcome with guilt. It had been his idea to come here, to ignore the warnings, to convince his wife that it would be a real adventure. Now he could only sit in an agony of worry, trying not to think about what was happening on the other side of that door.
Susan didn't have to wonder what was happening on the other side of the door; she was there, along with five evil looking men. She took a few deep breaths to calm down and surveyed her surroundings. She was in a large, high-ceilinged room with bare cinderblock walls. A row of thin windows near the ceiling filled the room with light but were too high to look out of. The room was empty except for two old, plain wooden chairs and a small medical examination table. The table was ancient and decrepit, its' brown padded top badly worn and ripped in places. It looked as if it had been torn out of some condemned doctor's office. The floor was bare concrete and looked dirty and moldy, especially around a drain set in the center of the room. 'Not a pleasant place at all' thought Susan, and an involuntary shudder went through her.
Turning around, she saw that the soldiers had arranged themselves in a semi-circle facing her, with the customs agent in the center. The Captain had seated himself in one of the two chairs off to one side. The other chair was next to the agent but remained unused, emphasizing the Captain's supremacy. As she glanced around at the men, Susan could see a disturbing look of excited, almost predatory anticipation in each set of eyes. The only exception were the eyes of the Captain, which had the same cold, blank look as when she first saw him.
Smartly dressed in her bush outfit, Susan looked oddly out of place in this dingy shed of a room, surrounded by the three soldiers and the customs agent in his sweat stained white shirt.
Clearing his throat to cover his nervous excitement, the agent addressed Susan in English. "We will now conduct an official strip search, which is customary in most countries and is in full accordance with international law. You will remember the Captain's instructions: do exactly what I tell you and absolutely no back talk. Speak only when asked a question. Do you understand, Mrs. Hartley?" Although she was trembling inside with fear and anger, Susan knew that she must stay focused and in control of her emotions. With as much calm as she could muster, she looked across at the agent and said, in a voice just above a whisper, "Yes".
"Verrry good", said the smiling agent, "now listen carefully. When I tell you to, you will undress yourself. You will take off each item of clothing, hand it to me, and wait while I inspect it. When you see that I am finished, you will hand me another item. Is that clear? Silence..., and then quietly from Susan, "Yes".
"Verrry good; now strip!"
A quick look around at the expectant faces told Susan that there was no appeal. She slipped off her open bush jacket and handed it to the waiting agent. He took it and began opening its' numerous large pockets; removing the items contained in each. A camera, a small pair of binoculars, sunglasses, a pack of moist towelettes; the usual accoutrements of the western tourist. The agent made a show of examining each item carefully, then placing it on the empty chair. After inspecting the jacket inside and out, he laid it over the other gear and stared at Susan in anticipation. She pulled off her cap and held it out, her short blonde hair shaking loose. The agent barely glanced at it before tossing it on the chair and looking up to receive the next garment. No words were spoken; the choice of what to hand over next seemed to be entirely up to Susan.
She was standing in her white T-shirt, bulky blue bush shorts, sturdy hiking boots, and heavy white socks. Eyeing the dirty, clammy looking floor; Susan was not ready to give up the protection of her boots. She had resolved to follow their commands, in order to protect herself and her husband; and was trying to de-sensitize herself to the particulars of what she had to do. Without another thought, she grabbed the lower hem of her T-shirt and pulled it over her head, handing it to the surprised customs officer.
The grins of the soldiers spread wider as they stared at the young woman's white bra and expanse of pale skin. The fullness of Susan's brassiere promised delights to come; an air of excitement hung in the room. The agent pulled the T-shirt through his fingers, his eyes never leaving the partially-clad woman standing passively in front of him. He laid the shirt on the chair and waited again.
Susan was dealing with her increasingly awful predicament by mentally withdrawing from the details of what she was doing. Aware of the need to hand over another item, she reached behind her back and unhooked her bra. Pulling the bra from her body, her full breasts tumbled free, nakedly exposed to the wide-eyed men.
Somewhere in the back of her mind, Susan had reasoned that seeing her topless would not excite these men much, since the native women in the back country all went bare breasted. Not so! It was true that the local men were used to seeing the local tits; but the sight of a white woman's breasts was a rare sight indeed. The agent and soldiers stared transfixed at Susan's twin beauties, round and white, her pale pink areola and nipples starring right back at them.
The young woman stood there naked to the waist. After a long minute of feasting his eyes, the agent gestured for the next item, snapping Susan out of her daze. Not wanting to take her pants off yet, she kneeled down to untie first one boot and then the other. The men focused on her smooth, white back and the sides of her boobs, bulging outwards as she hunched over. Susan stood up and pulled her boots off one at a time, her tits wobbling with her efforts. As each boot came off, she placed a sock-clad foot on the dirty floor.
The boots were given a cursory inspection and then placed under the chair. 'At least he didn't put them on top of her other clothes' thought Susan, allowing that the man might have some shred of consideration. Not much though, she realized, as he waited for her next garment.
Susan was surprised at how well she was controlling her fear and anger. A cold calm seemed to envelope her, dulling the embarrassment of this humiliating striptease.
Still unable to imagine putting her bare feet on the disgusting floor; she unbuckled her heavy shorts and let them slide down her legs. Stepping out of her pants, she handed them to the agent, who received them with a smiling formality. Despite her numbed state, the young wife was now acutely aware of her near nudity. Her pretty white bikini panties left much of her hips and belly bare, her titties were hanging exposed; only her thick, white socks afforded her any felling of protection.
The soldiers were jabbering happily among themselves in their native language, obviously critiquing her exposed charms. The slimy agent was trying to go through the pockets of her shorts while keeping his eyes glued to her boobs. The situation would almost be funny, she thought, except for the fact that, ridiculous as she found these people, she was completely in their control. A chill went through her as she glanced over at the Captain sitting impassively in his chair; his expressionless eyes taking in every detail of her humiliation but revealing nothing.