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Waiting for news about my father

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Flying out of Rwanda in a hail of bullets
W Daniel Hillis Scientist
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And we drove out of the country and all of the road blocks that normally are like at the border and things like that, people had abandoned them. And we drove across to Rwanda, or to Kigali Airport, and arrived at Kigali and there was one plane, one little Cessna sitting on the runway. And my parents talked to the pilot of the plane who was about to fly out of there, and the pilot said, 'I can't take you all. You know, there's not enough room in the plane. I can only take four people. And I'm one of them.' And my parents begged with him, that my little sister was very small, that my sister could sit on my mother's lap, and my brother... So they convinced him to put five people on the plane because my sister sat... And so we left behind my father.

And I sat up next to the pilot and as we took off that little runway in Kigali the pilot started swearing. I'd never heard swearing like that, I didn't know what the words meant but I could tell what was going on. And he was so angry. And I didn't know why. Because he'd sort of had this argument about taking people, you know, fitting an extra person in the plane and things like that. So I didn't know why he was so angry. But the idea was he was supposed to fly us to Bujumbura and then go back and get my father. Well, we flew out, and then when we landed in Bujumbura he pointed to the plane, there were bullet holes in the plane. So when we had taken off, I hadn't seen it, but there were people with guns shooting at the plane as he took off in the airport, that's why he was swearing. And so he refused to go back to get my father. And I guess we had known that my... He might, you know, not be able to go back to get my father because we'd worked out that my father was going to go back to the consulate in Bukavu and stay there with some people that we knew.

And so my father did take the VW back across the border, went back to Bukavu where the consulate was, which turns out was the CIA. I didn't know that at the time. I don't know if he knew it or not, but he probably did. I don't know. But the CIA was heavily involved in the Congo at the time. And then we went on to Bujumbura, and by the time we arrived in Bujumbura everybody had abandoned Bujumbura. So we were... The house we were supposed to stay at, the people had left. So we broke into the house, literally broke in to stay in this abandoned house while we waited for my father. And my mother was very upset. And you know, she... Of course I didn't really... I wasn't really frightened that my father would not be okay because your parents are immortal when you're eight years old. But my mother was, I think justifiably, worried that we didn't hear from him.

W Daniel Hillis (b. 1956) is an American inventor, scientist, author and engineer. While doing his doctoral work at MIT under artificial intelligence pioneer, Marvin Minsky, he invented the concept of parallel computers, that is now the basis for most supercomputers. He also co-founded the famous parallel computing company, Thinking Machines, in 1983 which marked a new era in computing. In 1996, Hillis left MIT for California, where he spent time leading Disney’s Imagineers. He developed new technologies and business strategies for Disney's theme parks, television, motion pictures, Internet and consumer product businesses. More recently, Hillis co-founded an engineering and design company, Applied Minds, and several start-ups, among them Applied Proteomics in San Diego, MetaWeb Technologies (acquired by Google) in San Francisco, and his current passion, Applied Invention in Cambridge, MA, which 'partners with clients to create innovative products and services'. He holds over 100 US patents, covering parallel computers, disk arrays, forgery prevention methods, and various electronic and mechanical devices (including a 10,000-year mechanical clock), and has recently moved into working on problems in medicine. In recognition of his work Hillis has won many awards, including the Dan David Prize.

Listeners: George Dyson Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: Congo, Bujumbura

Duration: 3 minutes, 55 seconds

Date story recorded: October 2016

Date story went live: 08 August 2017