Beck, drove as close to the palace as he could. It seemed that the army had the place surrounded, encircled with tanks to a half mile radius. They sat in a double ring, some facing out towards the crowds, other facing in towards the palace. On the whole the soldiers at this point were that peculiar combination of threat and nonchalance. They clung lackadaisically to the tanks, and swung their weapons around with an apathetic aim. They body language was deceptive, they listened, watched and waited, waited for their turn, for their moment, whichever way they faced. There was heavy firing going on inside and flames leapt from one wing. Someone was holding out, but from the casualness with which the soldiers waited, Beck guessed that Umtata was safe, their stance hinted at a job well done. He drove past one gate and saw a line of men, stripped naked facing a squad of soldiers who gave vent to their cruelty in the ways that the enlightened of every tribe of Africa had renounced. The knives and machetes flashed in the hands of these soldiers deceptive apathy gave way to animal instinct, quick, deathly movements, hacking at the flesh of their countrymen, their actions unsupported by threat of rules of engagement. They were reduced the elemental, but Beck knew they were not unique, he had seen enough of their kind to that a reflection of such nature existed in every eye of humankind.
Al Beck drove on, turning back towards the radio station, as yet no one had fired on him or challenged him. The government forces were obviously confident, not threatened by the coup, not afraid of the people, or else every journalist would be under a kind of arrest by now, listening to official and optimistic press releases. All the same he hadn’t seen any other journalists either, perhaps there was such a room somewhere and he should be in it. He parked the car some distance from Radio Kinjii and snapped off the aerial with the flag on it. He moved forward cautiously using the heavy scented frangipani trees for cover. The rain poured down his neck and filled his shoes. Above him the first crack of lightning appeared followed by a whip of sharp thunder. He jumped and looked around. The streets were deserted and the radio station stood garrisoned by a few rebels watching and squinting feverishly into the gloom. They had none of the confidence of the soldiers, their weapons were ready, their fear tangible, they were very dangerous. The station looked unimportant enough, its shop windows boarded and its door firmly shut. It had little to commend itself, despite its significance as a voice to the world. It looked like a collection of cowsheds, only the ubiquitous corrugated iron, topped by barbed wire gave it any form of authority. He closed his eyes and stepped out into the clear view of the guards, his white flag held high. He tensed, eyes scrunched, waiting for the bullets to rip through his flesh. Nothing happened. He opened his eyes. ‘Journalist!‘ he called through the spattering rain. ‘English!’
‘BBC?’ yelled back the guard on the gate.
‘Yes,’ he lied, well he’d make it true. They beckoned him forward and he ran through the grey to the gates of Radio Kinjii. The African who had called to him, unlocked the tin gate and ushered him into a courtyard, where Beck stopped short suddenly aghast.
He had expected to find an empty yard, consisting of a few soldiers and men with guns sluicing in the mud. Instead the dreary space was full and packed with crowds of steaming people, crushed together in an ominous and eery silence. As Al looked harder at the sight, he saw that they were not young men or boys, full of the joy of the fight, but old men, women and children, silently clinging together and each was armed, not with the modern weapons of the soldiers, but with clubs, cudgels, spears and knives. ‘Oh God,’ said Beck turning to the young fighter. ‘You have to get them out. They’ll be massacred!‘
‘They won’t go,’ said the youth. ‘They have come to fight.’ He moved off through the mass of people, for a moment Beck didn’t follow so the soldier turned back. ‘This way’ He called and led the way through the crowds to the door to the studios. Beck broke from his reverie of horror, switched on his tape recorder and began to speak into it. ‘I am walking amid of a crowd of people I can only describe as doomed. Dozens, perhaps more than a hundred, men, women and children have come to Radio Kinjii to fight Umtata’s army. They are armed with saucepans, knives and clubs, only one or two have guns. They sit in the rain, none crying, none laughing, they are waiting, waiting to give their lives for the fight, for I can see no other outcome for them. The army of Umtata is too large, too well equipped and these people are strange mix of defeat and determination. They know they are going to die and yet they stare unblinkingly at their fate, clinging to only the faintest hope, that their death’…. He paused, uncertain. ‘deaths shall mean something. Never could the extent of Umtata’s cruelty be more graphically described than by the determination of these people to fight him and die.’
The door to the studios opened and inside Al saw a tall elderly man, who was clearly their President elect. On the tape machine, the recording he had heard earlier looped round and round and the old man, carefully dressed in tribal garb stood up. He seemed so unreal amongst his haphazardly uniformed men that Beck could hardly believe in the reality of this serene old chief, whose bright printed robe reached the floor, and on whose wrists danced his traditional jewellery. Beck shook his proffered hand and then seated himself as was indicated that he should. He set the tape recorder on the table and waited.
The old man smiled ‘I am Marata,’ he said. ‘Son of the the Chief of the Tokani, cousin of Umtata and I am ashamed of what he has done to the name of our tribe. I seek only peace between us all and justice for every man.’
‘I thought you were picked up in Jonja.‘
‘Some kindly man offered to take my place, by the time they found out, I was already here.‘ ‘So the people die for you?’
‘Not for me Mr Beck, not even for the cause, just to stop Umtata.‘
‘How do you know me?’
‘Was it not you who tried to interview me last week?’ A sudden realisation came into his mind. The old man continued. ‘I wasn’t ready then, although I had much to say, now I am ready but there is little left to say.’
‘There are dozens of people out there, maybe hundreds.’ Al’s yearning for them had returned. ‘Can’t you send them home? They’ll be killed. They‘re lining up the tanks on Umtata Avenue.’
‘I know,’ said the old man. ‘And believe me I have tried, but they came here of their own free will, and here they wish to stay. Death is an individual act Mr Beck. It is different for every human being and it can never be done collectively. If you die in a crowd of dying people you still die alone. These people have made the only choice they can make in Kinjii now, and that is when and how they die. Umtata has left them no other choice, that is the extent of his democracy.‘
Al Beck faltered. The argument was flawless and yet he wanted to find a way to challenge it. The people had been failed by everyone who had ever been in authority over them, Umtata, the West, the United Nations even old Marata himself. He had not had the resources, the powers of persuasion, the presence, the education or whatever it was that he needed to persuade European powers to intervene or aid. Sanctions on Umtata were the best that the US and Europe, and Russia would do and the Chinese kept their own counsel. Marata was isolated, unsupported. Beck had dried up so Marata went on. ‘I hope you will understand that we have not waged war on a civilised man. That all the barbaric acts we have committed were in order to save ourselves from him and his regime. At this level of human life barbarism is the only answer and it varies only in its intention not in its methods.’ He paused. Beck considered the content of his words, atrocities on both sides, war crimes, a sense that nothing will ever change, is this why the peope die? Then with an air of completion Marata continued. ‘As you may gather I have spent a little time in your country. You are very lucky Mr Beck to have only party politics and its petty mindedness to disturb your peace. Look after it Mr Beck, when you go back. See with your pen that nobody destroys it, that luxury is still left to you.’ He stopped and watched the tape recorder turn. ‘You had better go now Mr Beck.’ Al stood and gathered his equipment. He left the tape running and held the recorder in his hand. The old man did not rise to see him go, but casually waved him away as if they would meet again tomorrow.
The youth soldier led him out into the clattering thundering rain. The rumble of guns confused the thunder and Beck saw in the half darkness of the mid morning storm the people now standing, each weapon ready. He moved through them, without their acknowledgement, to the gates, and he stepped out into the road.
At first he did not see the shadowy multitudes surrounding the station. But, as his eyes grew used to the gloom, he saw the ugly shape of the tanks and the insolent trapped soldiers standing, waiting for the not yet given order. He stared at them a moment, uncomprehending, the white flag still in his hand. He could not go forward. No one beckoned him. He did not want to go back. It was not his fight and he wanted the people within to have as long as they could, so he began to edge sideways hoping his slightly comic movement would indicate his neutrality.
His heart racing and his mind blank, he moved towards the trees and their shelter. He had moved about ten yards, when at last he deemed it safe enough to turn his back and hope that he would be obscured by the foliage. He did so, but as he did so the cry of God ripped the air with light. It flashed upon the waiting people in the courtyard who took it as a sign and sent up a great people’s roar full of their primeval music, but it flashed upon Algy too and revealed his back to the soldiers. They fired.
To his horror although he felt the bullets tear through his skin and enter his body, chucking him forward with great force and pain. He found that he was not yet dead and that he could feel the agony in his torn organs. ‘Death is an individual act Mr Beck, it is different for every human being and can never be done collectively. If you die in a crowd of dying people you die alone.’
He could feel the blood bubbling into his lungs and throat. He staggered gasping ‘No! Oh God!’ But his voice was a strange cry and his legs began to buckle beneath him, again the burning searing shot through him and still living he saw the mud come up to greet him. ‘Oh God!’ he cried inside his heart, with all his might and will. ‘Take it away, take it away! ’ A whooshing of liquid came into his nostrils and he could not breath. Despite his desire to have it end, the inevitability of his death overwhelming spirit’s desire to live through pain, despite that, his body still fought and choked to live. It writhed and sought for air clucking and groping in a twitching dance until, at last it could no more and Algernon Beck went free.
© All rights reserved by Judith Gunn 2010