By Anthony Othuke Ohminiabors
The world doesn’t shed a tear for your pains, it doesn’t pulsate and celebrate when you gain; neither does it stop, when you think your very existence as you once knew it, has come to an end. There is no pause, only movement; a windmill that grinds ever slowly, crushing your errors of judgement, leaving you without another chance to wish for a second chance.
The rebels had lost a leader, the Afhaz, second-in-command of the White Nile army. The battle had raged for weeks, both sides tending their forts well, until the tides suddenly turned in favour of the Red Nile. In a well-orchestrated series of attacks, they had climbed a rung higher in the ladder of victory, beheading The Mist of The Nile.
The Commander in whose company we rode, whose battalion had sacked the Afhaz’s camp, smiled for the first time in weeks, urging his men to partake of the small feast of wine and bread he had organised from the locals. He loomed over his comrades, his face flushed with sweat.
“Let us eat,” he announced, his voice booming with triumph. “The Mist is cleared, and yet we live . . .” his comrades laughed, amused at the joke. The Afhaz was reputed to wield powers, powers whose extinction through his earthly death would, not unlike mist, smoulder his enemies. “Soon, we all shall be home to our women and our children.” The Commander raised his fist into the air. “Death to the rebels! An end to this bloody war!”
“Death to the rebels!” chorused the men, glimmers of hope in their broken souls. They had lost brothers and friends, and every minute of calm they got was a moment to cherish the presence of the other, for none knew when he’d be called away.
“My friends,” he faced Sarah and me, “You have been more than helpful to this cause, telling the world of our plight, hence gaining us the support of our allies. May Allah in his goodness reward you.” He smiled, two lines of green veins appearing on his forehead. “Come! Come join us celebrate this victory.”
We sat cross-legged beside him and ate together from the Kisame bowl. The camp became rowdy as the soldiers grappled for more wine.
“It isn’t every time they get a chance to be like this. Let them.” The Commander said, answering the question that lingered on my mind. He ate and drank with gusto, not minding the wine that spilled on his camouflage.
The sun glowed orange, casting gloaming across the sky as it journeyed to the West. A flock of cardinals sailed effortlessly across the horizon. Such freedom, such free spirits.
Sarah, I noticed was uneasy. She picked at the bread and barely tasted the wine. Since our arrival in Khartoum, I had watched her countenance change from eager enthusiasm to bewilderment and finally to withdrawal. The war had taken its toll on her. Never had she seen so much bloodshed and savagery. I nudged her.
“Anything the matter?”
She shook her head, wearing a smile to throw me off the scent.
I drank more wine, savouring its exotic taste. Clothed in camo, we blended well with the men; sharing their pain when the Molotov’s and Kalashnikovs spewed death among their ranks. We also shared in their short-lived-joys, which were basically occasions like this, when wine was available for all, and the local girls were more than patronising. But Sarah’s grim face was a book of uncounted sorrows. It knew no joy, short-lived or not and it ached me that I had dragged her along with me.
So preoccupied with my thoughts was I that I failed to notice the quiet that descended like mist upon the camp.
“I feel sleepy,” the Commanders voice pierced my thoughts. His slurred speech tugged at my senses like a magnet.
Something was wrong.
Something was terribly wrong.
With a loud sigh, he toppled over, his head buried in the sand, snoring loudly like a pig. My eyes felt heavy all of a sudden and as I gazed at the men, I understood the reason for the scary silence—they were all fast asleep!
I looked into the Kisame bowl as if expecting answers from the dark liquid within.
Someone was tugging at the sleeves of my camouflage, pulling me up to my feet, but my knees which had become rubbery as jelly, gave way beneath my weight.
“Ohmston get up!”
The fright in Sarah’s voice sent shivers down my spine.
“Get up!” She pulled at the neck of my shirt, dragging me along the sand. But I was deadweight to her petite hands and as such made her efforts a waste of time.
Through the haze of sleep, I saw several well-built men invade our camp. They carried rifles that were twice the size of Northern Kalashnikovs. They wore painted faces. Grim faces. Angry faces. I recognised the rebel leader, Iqab bin Fadi, almost immediately. His height was legendary, so was his ruthlessness. There was no mistaking him. His size could have bought him the seat of power in a midget council, his viciousness having won him the cruellest leader the world had ever known. He rolled past the sleepy men and stopped in front of me. He licked his thick lips at the sight of Sarah, who shivered where she stood. He nodded and a pair of hairy hands grabbed my assistant, marching her away. He smiled, exposing beautiful dentition, much more than I’d expected from a man of his appetites, shortening the ugly scar that ran from his left eye to his bearded chin.
Where was she being taken? I wondered. But the mental exertion was more than I could take.
Iqab Bin Fadi fired a series of commands to his men. He spoke Khartoumese but I heard him well, though his voice did sound faraway.
“Take him. Bring me the Commander. Kill the rest.” Then he turned and rolled away.
The fusillade that followed was deafening, the death it brought, quick as lightening. I was hurled back into the plains of Sarejov, ten years ago, where life and death were meals eaten at dawn, where to show mercy was death at dusk. I saw his face, the same face that had haunted me for a decade now. He had shown me mercy and in return, I had put a bullet in his brain. I remembered the onslaught well. Like cowards, we had sneaked upon the traitors, murdering them in their sleep.
The fleeting screams pulled me back from Sarejov, and though torpor had completely overtaken my faculties, I heard them well for they stretched into the night like the soughing breeze of ill tidings. The soldiers of the 32nd battalion were slaughtered like goats, their desperate attempts at escape, cut short with bullets and stilettoes that showed no mercy. I heard a thin, long agonising wail as complete darkness enveloped me.
I came to in what seemed like a dungeon. I closed my eyes, opening them again and again so they could get accustomed to the dark that surrounded me. Dangling beside me was The Commander of the Red Nile, seemingly lifeless, suspended with his hands above his head by a chain as thick as his boots. The place was cold, hewed from a rock I guessed. Within the walls I could hear the splash of running water.
My vision brightened a little and I could see that we were in some sort of cave. Stalactites and stalagmites grew all around the cave, their sharp pointed edges gleaming dangerously.
Sarah was nowhere in sight.
Where was she? I worried.
I was chained in a similar fashion as the Commander. Within seconds of my waking, sharp pain tore through my shoulders, making my eyes to water. I heard footsteps and immediately pretended to be asleep.
Iqab Bin Fadi came in, four tough looking rebels flanking him on either side. Behind him, another rebel carried Sarah on his shoulders, dumping her carelessly on the cold floor of the cave, a wild suggestion in his eyes. She crawled away from the men, her face battered, and her clothes torn in all the wrong places. I bit down on my lower lip to stop myself from being consumed by the rage that coursed through my veins.
Cold water was splashed on my face by one of Fadi’s goons. He slapped me successively across the face till I pretended to wake.
“You . . . you traitor!” Fadi hurled these words at me, like I was the cause of his recent misfortunes. His eyes were as cold as ice slabs and as they settled on me, I had the uncanny feeling that I was staring at a snake.
“Ohmston Weth, the reporter who has almost cost me a war, calling his friends to help my enemies. Are you not him? Are you not the vagabostien? His English was weak; the words tumbled out of his lips like an uncooked meal. But the contempt in his voice was unmistakable.
Reverting to his mother tongue, he spat, “Kill them!” Without saying another word, he moved away. He paused at the entrance just about the same time our chains were lowered and he turned. He withdrew a mean looking sidearm from its holster. He headed to where Sarah lay, abused and tortured. He licked his lips. Then he fired three shots into her open chest. The gunshot bounced off the walls, filling the cave with the acrid smell of gunpowder.
Time stood still, but it stood still only in the limitations of my mind; for as I stared at the lifeless form of my friend and colleague, Iqab Bin Fadi disappeared from the cave. At the same time, his goons unlocked the chains around our wrists, setting us up for death by hanging. The world did not stop; neither did it shed tears for my protégé and friend.
The rage I had so suppressed burst forth from its fetters, birthing the animal in me, the beast that lurked within every man enraged. For that moment, I was deranged, and I cared naught about my life, only a burning hunger to wrap my arms around the midget’s neck. For what worth was my life if I couldn’t protect those who looked up to me in times like this? And as if we had somehow managed to communicate our plans to each other, The Commander and I struck with the precision of a clock.
A forceful kick to the groin, followed by two quick jabs to the throat and the attending goon was on his knees. I dove for his gun, reaching it before his comrades could respond. I heard a bone crushing sound as the Commander who had all along feigned weakness, landed a kick with his heel on the skull of the rebel beside him. Swiftly, without giving him any chance of defending himself, he turned and kicked the rebel backward. The force of the blow lifted the man off his feet, dumping him right on top of a stalagmite. At about the same time he breathed his last, I pulled the trigger, cutting down the remaining two rebels like infested pine in a garden of sweetbriars. I held down the trigger, expending a magazine on the two rebels.
“Get down!” the Commander lunged at me, driving his knees into the neck of the rebel I had disarmed. The pistol he held clattered to the floor. His neck hung at an awkward angle, very broken. Very dead.
I ran to where Sarah lay and I cradled her in my arms. The tears streamed down my eyes, running down my cheeks like sins. My hands shook as I grabbed her hair, caressing the soft curls I had so much admired.
“We have to get out of here. Now!” the commander was on his feet. Already the sound of the gunshots had attracted other rebels, their footfalls reverberated within the walls as they ran towards us. The commander grabbed a Thompson which had been wielded by the rebel he had horse kicked, hanging the bullet-belt around his shoulders. I grabbed a Kalashnikov and tucked two pistols behind my back. I was hesitant to leave Sarah, but to stay here for a second longer was certain death. So we raced to the only entrance that led out of the cave and waited, staying close to the wall and out of sight. The Commander did a quick but thorough assessment of the SMG. Satisfied, he drew farther back into the shadows and waited.
I counted fifteen rebels. The commander gave the nod and death was visited upon the White Nile in quick, short and accurate bursts of gunfire. We ran into the night, guns blazing, shooting at anything, anyone in sight. Quickly, the Commander commandeered an enemy truck, but didn’t have enough cover to get behind the wheels just yet. The fire fight that ensued was fierce. We were largely outnumbered. The Thompson coughed and spat, its golden bullets flying haphazardly at the enemy.
Screams erupted from the darkness as one rebel after the other toppled to the ground, mortally injured or dead.
I was smashed against the truck. A bullet had pierced my left arm. Another zinged past my cheek, drawing blood, shattering the windshield of the truck. The rebels came running from all sides. I heard Iqab Bin Fadi shout orders to his men in Khartoumese. The commotion grew till the night came alive with cursing and flying bullets. With the Thompson spitting its rage, I had enough time to get behind the wheels, gnashing my teeth as the pain seeped away my strength, blurring my vision. Crouched below the wheel, I pulled out an assortment of cables from beneath the steering and pulling it above my head so I could get some moonlight, I picked out the blue and the red, bridged them, and then joined them to the yellow cable. The truck came alive.
“Get in!” I flung open the door. The Commander dove into the already moving truck. I sped into the night, the rebels hot on our tail.