We continue with personal reminiscences of Cold War Vienna:
Vienna was my Paris. From the late 1960s through the 1980s I made it my home, my workshop, my personal museum. I became a writer there coasting on the strong dollar: a krügel, or pint of beer was a quarter; dinner, a schnitzel so big it hung over the sides of a large porcelain plate, was a couple of bucks; rent a room for thirty dollars, a studio apartment for sixty. The Vienna Woods was a tram ride away, another quarter.
I was, in short, an elective ex-pat.
But there were others who were in Vienna out of pure raw necessity.
Ubhani was one of these. They called him the man in the tower.
I met him when I was working for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)–pure grunt work of getting documents filed and boxed for the annual conference at the Hofburg. It was a good gig: tax-free dollar payment and commissary privileges. I worked the conference every summer, saved up the money, and could go to Venice for part of the fall, the mountains of Styria for the winter. We usually worked out of the cellars in the Hofburg, but one summer I got a different assignment.
It was the Rathaus, City Hall, for me. The rabbit warrens we called it, where document overflow from IAEA headquarters on the Ring (no ultra-modern U.N. City across the Danube in those days) were stored. The U.N. rented the space from city hall officials; Vienna was happy to take the extra money.
And the man in the tower was in charge of that tinderbox. I hated the Rathaus detail; it scared the crap out of me. The docs section was on the top floor up a long and winding staircase. One way up, one way down. No fire escape. And the place was filled floor to ceiling with dusty, yellowing paper documents.
I got to know Ubhani that summer.
The first time I met him, the burn scars on his face–tight and smooth like oil on water–made me wince. But you couldn’t look at those scars long; something else drew your attention. It was the eyes. Blue, deep Alpine-lake blue.
Ubhani was African, a refugee from Biafra; he’d fought on the losing side.
We worked the first few days together in relative silence, gathering requested docs from a dizzying array of stacks, the organizational logic to which only Ubhani was privy. He’d been in charge of the Rathaus docs for several years now–no one else could tolerate that claustrophobic, dusty, windowless environment.
Finally he opened to me, mostly I guess because I did not ask questions or stare at his scars and startling blue eyes.
And this is what he told me.
Ubhani had been in the Nigerian military for years, a tank commander. He retired for a time, became a mercenary fighting in brush wars in Africa. In one such conflict he was able to liberate (his word) several gold bars from a bank. He was set. He returned to his village in southeastern Nigeria, married his childhood sweetheart, built the biggest damn house for miles around, and had a family.
Then came the Nigerian Civil War. The region where Ubhani lived was part of the state of Biafra, which seceded from Nigeria in 1967, prompting all-out conflict. Ubhani, an Igbo, felt compelled to come to the aid of his people. He led a tank battalion for the Biafran army. But the Biafrans stood little chance from the start. Encircled, the fledgling state held out for several years of fierce fighting. He lost his home; his family was killed by national troops. He and his men had little to eat; he had to drink his own urine at time for want of water. Finally, surrounded in a battle, his tank was hit and he was badly burned before he could get out, blinded by the fire.
But he was saved. The Red Cross airlifted him out to neutral Austria, where he was cared for. A blue-eyed teen from Klagenfurt died in a motorcycle accident, and Ubhani inherited his vision, having a corneal transplant that kept him totally immobilized for several months until the transplant set.
Slowly, slowly, he recovered, trying all the while not to think of the family and way of life he had lost forever in Biafra. Then, after six months in the Viennese hospital, Ubhani was declared healed. He was given the burned and ragged fatigues he wore upon arrival and also a one-way air ticket to Lagos.
Austria had done its job. Ubhani was going home.
Except that he couldn’t. A firing squad awaited him there. So he cashed in the ticket and stayed on in Vienna illegally. The Americans, he thought, might give him refugee status. But at the American embassy he was only offered a free pass to Vietnam: fight for two tours and you get citizenship, they told him. Problem was, Ubhani had to wear glasses with his new eyes. Glasses spell death for a front line soldier–snipers can spot you from the glint. He drank the proffered glass of Johnny Walker and left the embassy.
The Brits, French, and Swiss embassies were no help, either. It was late fall now, and Ubhani was still in his summer
fatigues. Being black in Vienna in the early 1970s was hard: you were a rarity, someone to be stared at. But being black in ragged clothes and living on the streets, Ubhani became an object of hatred. Kids spat at him; old ladies thwacked him with their black umbrellas.
Fall turned to early winter and Ubhani could no longer sleep rough in the Prater. His last ditch effort was a visit to the IAEA. The guard on duty by the main door did not allow him to enter at first, but he was a fellow ex-military guy and Ubhani told him his sorry tale. The guard allowed him to clean up in the basement restrooms and then got him in to see personnel.
It turns out, just that day the Rathaus docs section had been approved. It needed someone to organize it; someone desperate enough to take a job in miserable airless conditions.
That was Ubhani.
I always wondered how he managed to climb those narrow stairs to work each day after having been trapped in a burning tank.
I never asked him though. Ubhani was not the sort of man you asked questions of.
So we worked together that summer, the ex-pat and the blue-eyed refugee–the man in the tower.