The rain caught up with the tourists more than twenty-four hours after Algy Beck fell into its mud. It beat on them weighing them down like an extra form of gravity. Every limb was pressured and they found it difficult to move. Above the thunder grumbled and urged them on in an irritated voice. Once they stopped to rest, silently leaning against the soaking trees, all of them watching and listening for dangerous sound above the rhythm of the rain. No one spoke, the sense of fear had returned. The reality of danger, of weapons and hostility were now foremost in their minds, but it was not hostility towards those whom they had now come to regard as their guardians, but towards the unseen dangers that lurked in the bush. Perhaps it was the fear of the animals, evidence of whom they came across occasionally. But since their “safari” had begun they had only seen the old lion that they had searched out the day before. No, most dangerous they felt, was that the rain’s noise covered up the sounds of man in the bush. They could not hear the tell tale snap of a twig or the hushed whispering of conspiring voices. They leant against the trees and squatted in the rain, listless and tired, trying to make out each sound and identify it. Each man and woman, each child was hollow eyed with weariness and tension.
What puzzled the tourists was that Leo and Joseph looked tired now. They seemed to have lost motivation, they murmured together in strained tones, every now and again, finding a signal, receiving a text, news, not good news. The zest behind their venture was lost and what they did now was an honourable chore. It was in this mood that they gathered themselves together to continue the journey, and Jo realised that no one really wanted to go on. No one really cared what happened now. Their captors had lost purpose and therefore their strength. It was becoming clear that the captives had had their world upended and they could no longer depend upon its vagaries to shelter them. There was a fatalistic change of mood, a subtle reassessment of their situation and a coming to terms with the fight up ahead.
Beside Jo, Tom wheezed and stumbled, three times he had stopped to bring up some vestiges of the food or water he had consumed. He must, by now be very weak and dehydrated, but he carried on, the noise of his struggling breath now making him an object of pity rather than irritation. Jo stopped next to him and held his wretching shoulders as he leant against a tree. ‘Not long now,’ she encouraged. ‘Come on’. He leant his head on his forearm that he stretched across the trunk of the tree that supported him. He wiped the rain from his face and coughed, nodding at the faint wisdom of Jo’s words. The rain streaked his face again so that Jo could not see the constant flow of tears that he could not prevent, nor had he any wish to, since they could be concealed. He took a deep rasping breath and they moved on.
Had they known what was to greet them a few kilometres ahead, then perhaps they would have given in to the feelings of despondency and defeat that had assailed them since that morning. Perhaps they would have stopped and gone no further, but rested in the evening rain until nightfall, when, with luck, an angel might have come to deliver them. At least then they would not have lived too long so as to see the devastation that greeted them in the village of whose promise they had been told.
It was like coming upon an ancient village of England, attacked and pillaged by the infamous Vikings. Smoke rose in chaotic style from the huts that circled the now familiar style compound and in the round mud-packed centre of the dwellings lay the families and individuals who made up this small community. Already the dogs were at the flesh, already the vultures hopped and nibbled, already the smell assaulted them and as they crept up on the horror, Joseph fired his gun, proclaiming their arrival to the unwelcome diners at the feast.
Betty moaned ‘Carl, the children, must they see this?’
‘Let them see it’ he replied dully and with a moment of strange bitterness he added ‘Why shouldn’t they see it? Kids younger than they had to suffer it?’ He indicated the smaller bodies that littered the compound. Most of them lay in their simple tribal dress, a few teenagers wore T-shirts, one clutched an exercise book, another a club, another a spear. In amongst the villagers the soldiers were easy to pick out. Three of them lay mortally wounded by the ancient weapons at the disposal of the village. By one lay a pistol unclaimed by his former colleagues. Leo picked it up and searched for ammunition, which he found. Once he had appropriated this he stepped over to Carl and held out the gun. Carl took it from him and nodded. He examined the barrel and its workings and then stowed it carefully to one side of his belt. His children backed towards their mother each crying and afraid, both silently shattered by the world and its betrayal.
Joseph had retreated to the edge of the compound where he sat utterly defeated and crying. Leo went to him and sat for a while watching his friend weep, waiting for him to speak. At last he raised his head the then spoke in Swahili. ‘I’m no fighter,’ he said. ‘I’m not like you, I can’t see anything but the dead in this. My heart stays with their suffering, I see no objective in it except their suffering. I hear their screams and I see their terror and I know it is because of us, it is because of us that it happens.’
‘It’s the rule of terror Joseph’ Leo bent towards his friend. ‘You know he’s videotaped this. You know he’ll display the tapes and the photographs and you know that if you were in government you wouldn’t do that. Whatever we do, when we get there this will stop.’
‘How will it stop Leo? These people are brutalised, damaged the violence is in their hearts, in the heads. The deaths of their children, the tribal division, revenge they will all want revenge. How can we stop it once it’s got going? The whole country will slit its own throat and with every knife that’s raised two more will follow it.’
‘Joseph I have to believe that we can stop it and I have to believe that every shot we fire, brings us closer to the end of it, not the beginning.’
‘How? How will it stop, you couldn’t stop yourself the other day Leo! You raised your gun in anger, in revenge. You shot Ali. He may have been a dangerous bugger but you shot him for no good reason. Because you wanted to and you liked it.’ Joseph forced his face into Leo’s and then turned away. Leo stood and watched him, his history and the culmination of is vision had turned him into someone, something, he could not really justify. How does a child, a boy, carefree and full of fun, grow up into someone who can kill a man to get him out of the way? He closed his eyes against the devastation and followed Joseph who now stood against a tree his back to the cruelty and to his friend. He put his had on Joseph’s shoulder. ‘You’re too clever’ he said. ‘You think too much. You see too many different sides. I can’t afford to do that. It’s true I am becoming what I have seen but there are times, just a few times, when one simple, perhaps brutal act is necessary to cut out a cancer. When you cut you don’t think about how much it will hurt but only how the cancer will be gone. If you don’t cut it out, it will destroy the whole body, not just the part it has already infected.’
It was an easy justification, it did not fool either of them, but it was the articulation of continuation, they were committed now, and their choices limited. They could stop there and then and run into the scrub, abandoning the tourists and the rebellion to the chaos to come or they could go on, head forward to some unattainable solution that they may or may not survive. Leo needed Joseph to carry on doing the job, he could not countenance what must happen if he did not, his articulation was all he could offer and Joseph knew his choices. They were silent again. Joseph was calmer now but still with his back to the village unable to look at the carnage. ‘We have to go on.’ Leo continued, finality in his voice. ‘I know you don’t want to and I know why, but we can’t stop now, I can’t stop now. I promise you this though I will try, we will try to get them away safely, you know that we have a chance at that, let’s just try for that.’ Joseph nodded and as he did so Carl, who had been watching a little distance away with Jo, waiting for the right moment, interrupted them. ‘Don’t you think you’d better start telling us what’s going on?’ Leo nodded and looked back to where Betty, Tom and the children were sat. The children were huddled against their mother, Craig was rocking wildly and Tom was trying to soothe him. They also were placed with their backs to the villagers. Leo motioned Carl and Jo to sit down and they did, in the classic pose of village elders, the rain still beating on their heads.
‘Two days ago’ Leo began. ‘We tried for a coup in Losuda, but we failed. We are on the run. As far as we know a message we sent about you to the British High Commission got through. We are still taking you to the border, and we’re close but so are the government troups. It looks like they have got wind of our message and are practicing a terror campaign in this area to stop us getting help. It’ll work believe me, the locals would rather see us all dead now than answer to the government. So now our aim is to hand you over safely and our hope is that you will tell the world what was done here and that you were treated well by us.’
‘Well I got no complaints’ said Carl. ‘But I don’t know about Jo here.’ Jo was squatting next to Tom, who was lying in the shade trying to ease a persistent fever. She almost smiled at the comment ‘That was personal’ she said looking at Leo. ‘Nothing to do with this.’ He accepted her forgiveness with a quiet nod and then turned to Carl with renewed force. ‘Tell them, American! Tell them what Western money pays for! Tell them that we could have killed you on the spot, because Umtata’s men will and they’ll kill us for sure and we’re walking right towards them for your sake.’ Leo scrabbled in a small rucksack and pulled out an iPhone ‘This was yours yes?’ Carl nods. ‘Photos! Take photos!’ Carl scratched at the mud in front of him with his foot, it was wet with spilled tea and blood. ‘And if I try to phone home?’ Leo snorted.
‘You don’t know who you’re calling, whose listening, or what they’ll do! Try it and see.’ Carl took the phone, and switched it on.
‘What if they track this?’
‘What? You think they don’t already know where we are? They are just negotiating, figuring out what the worst scenario would be before they act.’
‘What do you reckon to our chances?’
‘I don’t know, maybe fifty fifty. Maybe if they get us you’ll be okay. I don’t know.’ He stepped over to Tom and helped him to his feet. He signalled to Joseph to come on the other side they held Tom between them. ‘Let’s move out’ said Leo and the party of captors and captives moved past the bodies of the disappeared in silence. Carl turned the phone to silent and framed his pictures, barely looking at their content, once the job was done, he switched off and pocketed the phone.
© All rights reserved by Judith Gunn 2010