The truck stopped. Wale stopped screaming, his throat raw from all the strain he had placed on it. He sobbed, his body shaking with fear. He had wet himself and the truck smelled of urine, faeces and dying things. He heard the sound of sobbing at the far end of the truck. He could not see the person – it was too dark. He laid still, trying not to move any inch of his body – he hoped that the other bodies around him were living but he feared that they were dead too like the one behind him.
The door opened and the silver light of the bright moon slipped into the back of truck and brightened the interior. Wale raised his head slowly and watched two men climb into the truck. He watched as dead bodies were tossed out of the truck like sacks of cassava. The bodies made a sickening thud as they landed on the ground. Wale withdrew – drew his body together in a tight curl and closed his eyes tight. The cold body behind him started moving, scraping on the floorboards, then a hooked hand grabbed Wale’s shoulder and he flinched and gasped in shock. The hand tugged at him, trying to lift him up. He put his hand to his sides, trying to push the hand away and felt the cold dead hand – he drew his hand back as if stung and mumbled in tears. Sweat dripped down his forehead and entered his eyes – the salt making his eyes sting. He closed them tight and prayed to God. A hand touched him and his heart froze –
First Man: “this one is alive.” He said, his voice sounding loud in the silence of the night.
The hand grabbed tighter and lifted Wale to his feet. Wale’s feet wobbled as he peed on himself again. Tears fell from his face to the face of boy, twisted in the agony of death. The hand pushed him forward gently. He staggered to the door and two hands lifted him to the ground. He stood there, his head bowed, expecting death to come any moment. After several minutes, he realised that he was by himself. He looked up and saw other boys being helped down from the truck. He turned around and saw the dead bodies. He bent and threw up – the bread and soup that he had eaten in what felt like centuries ago. When he was done, he spat and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. He watched as three men dug a shallow grave, then he watched as they tossed the bodies into the grave. As a body fell, it was like the moon suddenly fell on it and Wale realised that the body was Obum. His eyes were wide open and his hands were like claws around his own neck. He had suffocated to death. Wale turned his eyes away and looked around him – at those who were alive like him. What business has the living with the dead?
When the men were done, the children were loaded back into the truck and they moved off. The truck had more space and it had been cleaned a bit – at least the horrid smell was less pronounced. Wale sat silently staring through the holes in the tarpaulin, at the speeding trees and grassland as the truck sped away to a destination, unknown.
After several hours of bumping on uneven roads – bombed out tarred roads and slopping bush roads, the truck came to a stop. The men jumped down and once again the door to the back of the truck was opened and the children were ordered down. They climbed down sluggishly – fear, pain and tiredness making them slow. The men hurried all of them through a bamboo gate covered with palm fronds, creepers and leaves to hide it from the public eye.
Inside the children were herded to a mud hut and the door shut and locked behind them. The children looked around. Four yellow bulbs dangling from the wooden frame that held the thatch roof, served as the light in the room. On the floor were rows of mats, placed in intervals. Each child slowly walked to a mat, laid down and fell asleep or tried to fall asleep. Wale stared at the bulb. He was afraid to close his eyes. he was afraid of what was lying behind his closed eyelids. So he stared at the bulb. Then the bulb went off and darkness fell like a damp cloth. He darted his eyes from left to right – fear his only companion.
Omonigho stared long into the night. Around him was the slow snores of slumbering bodies. He could hear Okereke in the far corner, ramming into the moaning Beauty. He shook his head and stared at the moon and the stars. He thought to pray but he had forgotten how to. When he had been caught in the second year of the war, he had prayed a lot for deliverance. he had believed God for answered prayers but God had not answered his prayers. He soon stopped going to the prison chapel, then he stopped looking at the bible, placed on his mat, until one day he realised that he had stopped praying. Now, he wanted to pray, but there was no faith – there was no childlike belief in a creator that loved all regardless of their worth. He had stopped believing. For him, God was dead.
He brought out the cloth wrapped box and undid the rag. He opened the box and stared at the picture of his family again. “He had to get home – he will get home.” he thought – his eyes hardening.
Don Papi: “you have a beautiful family o. May i?” he said. Omonigho turned in surprise – he had not heard him come. Don Papi’s hand was outstretched towards the picture. Omonigho looked at him, then at the picture, then he gave it to him. “I had a family like this once.” He said softly, staring at the picture. “one day, in the fifth year of the war, I bought garri from a smuggler. He told me that he had crossed the bridge just before it was bombed by the federal forces. He said he had bought it at Eku. He said a lot of things and he lied. I, being a loving father, gave my wife the garri. She cooked and she and the children ate. I heard that Red Cross was giving food and medicine here in Umuahia, so I rushed down. I got the food and the drugs and came back home. At first, I thought they were sleeping. They looked so peaceful, so beautiful. I dug four graves that night – three for my wife and two innocent children and one for my innocence. War, my friend is a sad thing.” He said. He handed the picture back to Omonigho and stood up from his squat.
Omonigho stared at him. His eyes held pity. Don Papi looked at him and laughed –
Don Papi: “is that pity I see? My friend, I pray you meet your family well. I really pray so but I know better my friend. You see the tragedy of war is not those who died – their time is gone and they are at peace – it is we who live on, waking up each day to a sun smiling on broken people pretending to live. And it is the supreme truth, that in war everybody loses – everybody. So keep your pity, your time will come. Come with me.” He said, his voice suddenly harsh.
Omonigho got up from where he was seated and moved in between sprawled bodies. They came out into the room where he had first met Don Papi. Don Papi pointed to a chair and took another chair for himself. He brought out a pipe, then a tobacco pouch. He stuffed the pipe with tobacco and lit it. He stretched a pack of cigarettes towards Omonigho.
Omonigho: “I don’t smoke.” He replied, declining the offer.
Don Papi: “I don’t either. This is slow suicide. I am killing myself one day at a time.” He replied, chuckling. He swallowed the stem of the pipe and puffed for some minutes, staring at the moon. “the war is over, they say. They say there is an armistice, peace. We are one again. Do you agree?” he asked, turning to look at Omonigho.
Omonigho; “I am free now, so that counts for something.” He replied.
Don Papi: “are you…really free?” he asked, slowly.
Omonigho looked at him sharply. Don Papi chuckled again
Don Papi: “a shipment of arms is entering this shores as we speak – guns, rocket launchers, grenades, mortars, mines, you name it. Who ordered them? I do not know neither do I care. What I care about is who will use them and how much I will make from the deal.” He said.
Omonigho: “you want to steal the arms?” he asked surprised.
Don papi: “It has been stolen already. As I speak, it is on its way to Onitsha. My partners will be meeting me there tomorrow. From there it will go to the bush. The war is not over, my friend.” He said.
Omonigho: “what does this have to do with me?” he asked.
Don Papi: “you are a soldier. You will accompany me to the meeting as my bodyguard.” He replied.
Omonigho: “I have vowed never to hold a gun again.” He replied.
Don Papi: “Wow That is sad. Well it changes nothing. All you have to do, is looking menacing and mysterious. That is all.” He replied, shaking his head.
Omonigho: “I am sorry, but I will not hold a gun. It is against my belief.” He replied.
Don Papi: “you better adjust your beliefs this night, or you will never see those beautiful children again, whether on paper or in real life. Good night.” He replied, harshly.
Omonigho stared at him confused. He stood up and stared at the sky.
Omonigho: “you do what you have to do. I will not carry a gun.” He replied, straightening to his full height.
Don Papi raised his head and looked at Omonigho from beneath his eyelids.
Don Papi: “good night, my friend.” He replied softly.
“I will not hold a gun.” Omonigho thought as he shuffled back to his mat. He lied down and stared at the darkness that was the concrete roof.
Question: if you were in Omonigho’s shoes what will you do?
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