Time as a Hostage, Margaret Loewen, MD


Dr. Margaret Loewen

Dr. Margaret Loewen

Dr. Margaret Loewen’s early days as a young pre-teen could easily be made into an adventure novel or movie, based on an event in her life as a child of academics, teaching in the Belgian Congo in the early 1960s.

The Prowers Medical Center based doctor recounted her 111 days spent as a hostage with her family, living in Stanleyville during a political upheaval that had international implications.  Her family was held to house arrest by an army of Congolese rebels known as ‘simbas’ who used equal measures of magic and machine guns to overturn local rule in the region.

Speaking before the Lamar Rotary recently on her adventure, Dr. Loewen recounted the European involvement in the region, beginning with Belgian’s King Leopold II who used the region as his private colony and harvested huge sums of money through the oppression of the natives to supply him with ivory, rubber and palm oil.  It was this episode in the history of the Congo in the late 1890s that Joseph Conrad wrote “Heart of Darkness” as he recounted his own days as a steamboat captain, hauling ivory along the Congo River.

“Once Leopold was eventually moved out, in 1908, the area developed into a European vacation area, complete with golf courses and elaborate hotels,” she recounted to the meeting.  As time progressed and the colonials moved out, the area, by the early 1950s, moved into a form of democratic self-government, but not for long.  In the 1960s the area was rife with civil unrest and the current president of the Congo, Patrice Lamumba, made the mistake of asking for Soviet aid which put him into opposition with the U.S.  Despite his well-meaning and popularity, his government was toppled and the simbas, a Soviet-backed rebel group, moved into the area, bring with them, a regime of terror.  Lamumba was executed about a year later.

“My father was Canadian and my mother was American, and they decided to show his passport once the rebels invaded the city,” she said.  Her father was administrator of the Congo Protestant University in 1964 when she was ten years old and living with her parents and three brothers and her sister.  “At the time, we thought we were well protected because the Americans were still in place and not leaving the area,” she recounted.  By August 5th, the simbas had taken over the city and began to push through the region.  Her family was held captive in their home for 111 days until rescued by Belgian mercenaries.

“We had to stockpile the food we had stored and we had to eat a lot of half-rotten chicken, mixed with curry spices,” she explained.  The family also subsisted on bulghar wheat and what other foods could be gleaned.  “Sometimes the rebels would come into the house and give us an inspection.  We were always polite, offering tea and some cookies.  I think they realized we weren’t in their country to exploit them, which helped,” but she said if they noticed something they wanted, like their guitar, they took it and her father turned it into a form of gift-giving instead of theft.

They suffered no physical harm, but by November, 1964, mercenaries managed to push through the area and into Stanleyville where they were rescued along with about 2,000 others who had been doing missionary and educational work and were taken aboard a convoy en route to the airport.  “Soldiers were lying in the grass on both sides of the highway as we drove off, and they’d open fire with their machine guns into the tall grass,” she explained.  The maneuver held the rebels at bay until they reached their night flight out of the country and eventually to safety in Canada.  “We had our first taste of C-rations,” she said, adding that for what they were, they were good tasting, compared to curry chicken.  Dr. Loewen’s family had been rescued by a well-known mercenary, Mike Hoare, who later had written several books on his exploits and was a technical advisor for the movie, “Wild Geese”.  She had several books on the revolt which were passed around the audience.  “The movies, ‘The African Queen’ and ‘Nun’s Story’ were filmed in the area,” she stated, and another popular novel that became a movie, ‘The Dogs of War’ by Frederick Forsyth, recounted the mercenary involvement in the rescue.

“After six months, we were back in the Congo, doing work for the university, but from a different city,” she said.  Her family stayed on for three more years until she moved to America.  Dr. Loewen said the university continues to flourish, with about 8,000 students attending to study law, business economy and theology.  “Our organization helps develop scholarships for some students, but the university is funded primarily through tuition.  It has done well because it hasn’t had to receive subsidies from the government.  It survives in spite of any economic fluctuations.”  The scholarships are awarded based on financial need and academic achievement.

By Russ Baldwin

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