Local products are arcane: the Comoros lead the world in producing ilang-ilang, a flower essence used as a component of perfume. Next to Madagascar, the Comoros also lead in vanilla production. But both products could be undercut by synthetics. Soil here is rocky and depleted, so that the nation imports 40 percent of its foodstuffs.
Natural calamities seem casual—like the eruption of Kartala volcano in 1977. (“It was red and glowing—a river of fire—just as sunset,” an eyewitness told me.)
Tides of refugees have brought problems. In 1976 and early 1977 some 16,000 refugees arrived after hundreds of other immigrant Comorans were killed in ethnic rioting in Mahajanga, Madagascar. “We did not lock our houses before those people came,” a Moroni resident said sadly. “Now—because they are so poor, we have thieves.”
Perhaps the greatest recent calamity was the rule of a Marxist recluse, one Ali Soilih, who took power in 1975, overthrowing the first president of the independent Comoros, Ahmed Abdallah. Soilih’s coup was engineered by the famous French mercenary Robert Denard, whose exploits figured in the novel The Dogs of War. Soilih restructured the nation, seized lands, burned all public records, and turned the government over to teenagers.
“One of my pupils was a boy of 13,” a teacher told me. “He dropped out of class and explained, ‘I’m going to be a judge.’ Two weeks later he jailed five people.”
Near the thatched village of Iconi, troops fired capriciously into a crowd on presidential orders, killing several people. The act was typical.
In 1978 the manic rule ended when mercenaries, again led by Robert Denard, came ashore one night from a waiting ship. They took the presidential palace, and—in a switch—restored Ahmed Abdallah to power. The coup was nearly bloodless: Soilih, however, was shot—trying to escape, a communiqué said.