Author’s Note: This is Part I of the Bisaria Trilogy – so far it’s a trilogy – of stories. The following parts, “Fun and Games” and “Malaka”, as well as the second Rwanda story, “The Smell of Cockroaches”, will be posted at a later date.
Bisaria and its capital Keke are named after my old professor of Anatomy, K K Bisaria. The deer/antelope puns in the other names are just a personal quirk.
“You’ve been talking about fear all evening,” said the journalist, suddenly and loudly. “You don’t know the most frightening thing of all.”
We had reached a point in conversation when silence had fallen, as silences do when someone has just finished a tale and the rest of the company were digesting what they had just heard, so his words made us all startle.
“I mean,” he said a little more softly, “you keep talking about fanciful things – the ghosts you heard of, or yourselves imagined, or the close shaves you might have had if things had gone just a little wrong. But, really, you don’t know anything about anything, do you? You haven’t actually experienced any of what you’ve been talking about.”
“No,” said someone. To this day, when I remember the conversation, I don’t remember who said this. I’m not even sure it was not I. The journalist had never spoken out before in our little gathering, though he had been a regular. We knew he must have seen many things in his career as a war correspondent, but he never had chosen to speak of any of it. We had not pressed him. It was not a good idea to force someone to speak. Everyone reached, in his own way, the point where he opened his mouth.
So, when he decided to begin talking, no one interrupted. “No,” the person who had spoken repeated. “You’re right about that. I suppose you have something to talk about which you’ve seen for yourself?”
“Yes…” the journalist looked as if he was beginning to regret opening his mouth. He was one of the old style print journalists, more at ease with a pad and ballpoint pen – or computer keyboard – before him than a camera, and he was no talker. He was somewhere between forty and fifty, balding, but fit and muscular. His constant trips into the field kept him fit.
“Was it something to do with your job?” asked someone else.
“My job, yes.” The journalist glanced round at everyone. “It’s something that happened during the time I was covering the civil war in Bisaria. You know the war I am talking about.” Some heads nodded. The civil war in Bisaria had faded now from the headlines because the networks had decided that it was no longer newsworthy. An actress’ acrimonious divorce from a rock star imprisoned for drug smuggling was now the most prominent story. Most of the journalists had been withdrawn, from Bisaria. The civil war was now dangerous for everyone, in any case, including journalists. But it still went on, though the cameras had been turned away.
“Yes,” continued the journalist. “The most frightening thing I ever saw was love…”
“Love?” A squeak from the youngest, and the only female, member of our gathering. “You can’t mean…love? Frightening?”
“I mean what I say.” The journalist bent a severe glance on her. “If you want me to talk about it you have to let me do it my own way…”
I don’t know (said the journalist) how well you remember the civil war in Bisaria. Mostly it’s faded from the news. But I was there when it started and I was among the last journalists to leave. And I saw many things while I was there that were far more frightening than anything that you lot said tonight, but they all became rather commonplace as time went on. There’s a limit to how much horror a human mind can stand without dealing with it by getting inured to it, after all. Some things do stick in the mind, though.
I think I had better begin by explaining how I started in the whole business in the first place. I was flying back from Johannesburg when I was told by my news bureau to break my journey at Keke, the capital of Bisaria. There were already rumours of a military coup, and I knew the rebel forces were approaching the capital. It had not been much of a war then, though, just another of Africa’s countless little bush conflicts. No one was seriously interested. If the army used the rebel advance as a pretext to seize power, though, then it would be news, but we had no one in Keke. This is why the bureau told me to break my journey and wait.
Visas were no problem – they could be obtained at Keke airport itself. I was not officially accredited as a correspondent in Keke then; that came later. Since no one would officially admit that there was any chance of a coup, and since according to the government the rebels were retreating in disarray, I couldn’t exactly go to the office of the ministry of the interior and get myself accredited as a foreign correspondent. In any case, I had no idea how long I would be there. If you’d asked, I would have said maybe a fortnight at the outside. In reality, it turned out to be more than a year.
I checked into a hotel and that night went for a walk along the river. Whether the government wanted to admit it or not, the man on the street could not but have known that things were far from normal. The streets were almost empty – empty but for speeding trucks full of soldiers. They stared at me, but nobody asked me questions.
That evening I met a couple of journalists from other news services also staying at the same hotel. No one really knew anything except that the government was trying to hide how serious the situation actually was. We sat around drinking beer and speculating, and then we went to bed.
I was woken by what I first took to be thunder; it made the walls tremble and the sky through the window showed flashes of light. I had just about rolled myself securely into my blanket and begun to feel good at not being out in a thunderstorm when I belatedly realised that it wasn’t thunder. It was artillery fire.
In an instant I was off the bed and rolling under it, my arms clasped round my torso to protect it. You may laugh, but none of you has ever seen the results of artillery fire. None of you has seen living, breathing human beings with their bowels torn out of them by shrapnel…oh, forget it. You wouldn’t understand.
After some time I decided that the shells weren’t falling close enough to the hotel for any danger, so I crawled over to the window and looked out. Against the darkened skyline of the city I could see the flashes of exploding ordnance; most of it was obviously falling across the river, in the vicinity of the Presidential Palace, but some of it was on this side too. It was impossible to locate from where the shells were being fired. They seemed to be coming in from all directions.
When the firing subsided a little I went over to the door and peeked into the corridor. Everything was quite dark and on clicking a switch I found the power had been shut off. There were matches flaring here and there though, and feet hurrying to and fro in the darkness. I called out, asking what was going on, but I never got any reply. Finally I went back to the room and sat at my window, awaiting events. The shelling had stopped, but I could hear more distant explosions and could see some flashes from tracer fire on the other side of the city. Once a convoy of vehicles drove by the hotel, but nothing else happened till dawn.
I managed to get some sort of breakfast from the hotel cafeteria, but nobody there could – or would tell me anything. The power wasn’t back, and no one knew what was going on, whether it was a coup or if the rebels had attacked the city. There was a transistor radio, but apparently all it was playing was music on all local stations. I tried to place an international call from the hotel’s phone, to my bureau, but the line was dead. My laptop could not access the net. My cell phone said it had no coverage. We were truly cut off.
Sometime during the morning the two other journalists and I went out to have a look at things. At first we saw nobody around and no sign of the shelling from last night. There was just a faint smudge of blackish smoke in the sky across the river. We thought we would try and get across by means of one of the bridges and see what was happening. You must understand that this wasn’t heroism; we thought we should be safe as foreigners and in any case all fighting seemed to have stopped. We couldn’t hear a shot.
Then, as we walked towards the river, we turned a corner and found the road blocked by a huge truck parked diagonally across it. Some soldiers in dark green uniforms stood near it, and as we came up one stepped out and held his hand up for us to stop.
He wore a sergeant’s stripes on his sleeve and was fat, immensely so, but tall as well, with a shiny face so black it seemed almost blue. He pushed his cap back from his forehead and examined our passports, slowly and carefully, one by one. So far he had not said a word, and I took the opportunity to try and see past him and the truck. Before a soldier carrying an old FN FAL rifle quickly moved across to block my view I had seen a line of sandbags placed across the road with more soldiers crouching behind them, their guns pointed across the river.
“Where you going?” asked the sergeant. He spoke slow, careful English.
“Across the river,” said one of my colleagues. It doesn’t matter who he was, but he’s dead now. A month later, his vehicle hit a landmine. “We want to see what’s going on.”
“No, across river, very bad. Fighting. You go back hotel. No safe.”
“But we want to know what’s going on. Can you tell us at least? Is it the rebels? A coup? Which side are you on?”
“You go hotel.” The fat sergeant smiled benevolently. “You be safe. No go river, very dangerous. Fighting.” He gave us the passports and turned back towards his trucks.
“Let’s try and find a way round this roadblock,” the man who would be blown up later muttered in my ear. “There ought to be a lane or two we could use.”
Just then the soldiers I had seen behind the sandbags began firing across the river, and we scrambled away back towards the hotel before someone from the other side began firing back.
Later that day the power came back. The fighting had more or less stopped by then, we could hardly hear any shots any more, and some people had reappeared on the streets. Nobody knew anything even in the hotel. All sorts of rumours were flying round.
In the evening a general spoke on the radio and on national TV. Bisarian TV was a pretty mediocre affair, just one channel with poor picture quality, but we were all watching it with as much attention as if it were the latest from the studios of the BBC.
The general had a shiny face and was sweating heavily and was in a dress uniform festooned with medals. He looked like something out of a Hollywood film on Idi Amin, I remember. But what he said was far more important than what he looked like, and that was that the army had taken over the government in the hour of national crisis. So we knew at last. It was a coup.
By the next morning things were more or less back to normal in the city and the phone lines were up, and my bureau told me to stick around and report on the coup and the war. No flights, in any case, were leaving from Keke’s airport, so I was stuck there, like it or not. I went over to the interior ministry to ask for accreditation as a foreign correspondent – something I had been told was essential under Bisarian law if I were to work there – but all I found was a burnt out shell. It must have been a prime target during the fighting.
All this time the rebels kept on advancing, and the new junta in power reversed the previous administration’s policy of minimising the rebellion in the media. Instead, they began playing it up for all it was worth, so that they could pose as saviours of the nation. And it was then that at last the rebellion became newsworthy.
I’m sure most of you will recall the headlines in the papers about the rebels, the dreaded Karibu and their leader, the Rei N’deer. I got a crash course on the history of the rebellion those first few days of the military takeover, sitting in my hotel room and waiting for some sort of interior ministry to begin functioning again. The Karibu were the people of the south west of the country, who thought they had been exploited and denied their rights by the rest of the nation. They were a great and powerful people, too, once an independent nation in their own right and still with their hereditary king, the Muz. The Muz himself was pretty much a figurehead. He appeared on the photos I saw of him dressed in a suit, with a leopard’s skin head dress and his ornamented wooden sceptre, but all he really did was read speeches written for him by his advisers. The council of advisers was the real power led by the king’s Prime Minister, the Rei, whose name was N’deer. They did not want to revive their little kingdom. They had bigger ambitions – they wanted to control the whole country. This was why they called themselves the National Front.
The Karibu were savage beyond belief. You may remember the accounts on TV and in the papers of their use of child soldiers and how they chopped off the hands and feet of anyone opposing them, even of babies in arms. They were always preceded by a wave of terrified refugees fleeing their advance. It was precisely what they wanted. It gave them a larger than life image and sowed panic. It made their job much easier.
At the time I speak of they had advanced to forty kilometres of the capital, and taking advantage of the confusion and infighting during the coup they came closer, to just about fifteen kilometres. Another push, and they would cut off the highway connecting the south to the north of the country. Effectively, Bisaria would be cut in two.
You mustn’t imagine I learned all of this overnight. What I’ve just told you is a condensed version of what I learned over several months, from the net, from news reports, from personal interviews and from what I saw with my own eyes. Only the last source I deemed completely reliable.
Each person I talked would give me a different version of events. There were many Karibu residing in Keke, too, and most of them weren’t National Front sympathisers. Some of them worked in the hotel. The previous government had left them pretty much alone, but the junta came after them. Many Karibu civilians were arrested as spies and we heard many had been shot. To be fair, the junta also arrested and shot non-Karibus, in fact anyone who was opposed to their rule was at risk. But this simply meant that the Karibus in general were pushed into becoming National Front supporters and as time went by a real fifth column began to emerge in Keke where none had existed before.
One evening when I was in my room there was a knock on the door and a perspiring gentleman in a grey suit came to see me. He was from the new interior ministry, he said, and he had been told to bring me in for questioning. There was nothing for me to do but go along, so I went.
They kept me overnight, but did not ill treat me. I was actually an opportunity for them, a foreign journalist and so a propaganda weapon. They even arranged my accreditation and gave me the papers when they let me go in the morning. It was an attempt to show how reasonable and kind they could be. So I went back to my hotel and began doing my job, as best I could. What it amounted to was basically sifting hearsay and rumour for some kernel of truth.
Suddenly, in those days, Bisaria became a favoured destination for journalists. This little country was so unknown almost nobody had even heard of it; but suddenly it was hot property for the media. You see, here was a fight that could be pitched as one between good and evil. Of course, Bisaria has neither diamonds nor oil; but at a time when they could no longer pretend that Iraq was either a victory in the making or even a part of the “war on terror”, a bona fide good-versus-evil battle was media manna from heaven.
The refugees flooded in and were promptly housed in refugee camps; seas of mud all marked with tents made of plastic sheeting spread over bamboo. Not that Keke couldn’t have housed at least a portion of them better, even by billeting them out among the citizens or in the hotels and so on; but refugee camps are such – you know, sympathy magnets; so photogenic. And the media came.
What should I tell you about those camps? I did my own bit of pimping for the media there; I went along with the rest, with my cameras slung round my neck, and took photos which I sent over via laptop to the bureau. I interviewed the refugees, or at least some of them. Most of them spoke a little English. I talked to them, I did what was asked of me, I passed on their stories. And I saw things.
I saw, for example, a man whose hands had been chopped off by the Karibu because he was employed by the government – as a teacher. He told me in detail how the Karibu had amputated his hands and then jeered at him and asked him to write on the blackboard with his stumps. That was one story I passed on, with photographs of his young-old face, drawn with agony and the lack of all hope. His stumps had not healed yet, the raw ends were bandaged and flies were buzzing around the bloodstained bandages, and I took close up photographs of them too. That was quite all right with the bureau.
I interviewed a mother whose baby had been torn from her by the Karibu and used for bayonet practice; I let her speak until she began to cry, and then I photographed the tears streaming down her cheeks. The bureau ran that story too.
I saw other things.
I interviewed a young woman – a girl, really, no more than fourteen – who told me with no expression in her face or voice how Bisarian Army men had caught her on the waste ground outside the refugee camp when she had gone to fetch water, thrown her down, stripped her naked, and after gang raping her had made her go back without a stitch on her body. She was more concerned at the loss of her plastic jerrycans, which the soldiers had taken away with them. The rapes, she said, were routine. I did not pass on her story – the bureau would never have run it. The Bisarian Army were supposed to be the good guys.
On another occasion I saw a team from a western TV network bring a goat to the refugee camp. The goat was large and white. I don’t know where they bought it, but they were dragging it along with a rope round its neck. The goat knew what was in store for it all right – it dug in its hooves and they had to pull it and push it to get it to move. Anyway, so they brought it over to the refugee camp, and there they cut its throat. By that time I had grown inured to the sight of blood, so I watched as it splashed on the ground until the goat stopped trembling. Then they built a fire and skinned and roasted the goat – all in full view of the refugee camp. You have to understand that these people in the camps had not even smelt meat in who knows how many months. The children did not have the discipline to stay away; they crowded round the fire, just to look, you understand – they did not even try to beg for a piece, but even from where I was standing I could see the look in their eyes. Then when the goat was all roasted, those TV cameras began to roll and the crew threw the goat to the children and photographed them scrambling for fragments. It made great copy.
I didn’t even think of reporting that episode. Not only would the bureau not have run it, the TV network may well have brought enough pressure to get me sacked. The story did leak out eventually, over a year later. It got half a paragraph in an inside page of some obscure paper. Nobody, by that time, gave a damn.
Oh yes, I saw things.
Later, when the Bisarian Army went into the offensive against the Karibu rebels, I was among the journalists who were “invited” to go along. The invitation was more like a royal command. You went or you lost your accreditation – not to mention your job, because the bureaus would never forgive you for this dereliction of duty. In any case we thought we were fortunate to be invited – the majority of journalists had to kick their heels in Keke listening to lies and getting drunk on overpriced beer.
I don’t intend to give you a full description of all I saw on that campaign; just a couple of episodes that stick, to this day, in my memory.
One day we came to a building that the army had just shelled; it turned out to have been a school before the fighting started. The soldiers said they had taken fire from the building and so had to turn their mortars on it. I don’t know whether they spoke the truth. When I arrived the shelling was all over. The roof of the building had fallen in, and the little yard in front was literally washed in blood. There were fragments of flesh scattered here and there, and I saw what was left of a body, mostly skeletonised, blown up into the branches of a tree. It was impossible to be sure just who, or how many, had died there, but the Army said they were Karibu rebels. Who knows, they may even have been telling the truth.
Another time I remember coming across a civilian truck sitting in the middle of a little road, all alone. It was a small, old truck, and who knows where it had been going. Not much of it was left except charred metal. And there was something else, something like a little black doll lying on the track near it, a little black doll with little bent arms and legs. I averted my eyes as we passed, but most of the others took photographs. I don’t know who that dead man was, or which side he was on, or which side blew him up there. It was just another piece of the war.
Then one day I came across my old friend the fat sergeant again. He was coming back down the road driving a few Karibu prisoners before him. When he saw me he stopped and gave me an ear–to-ear grin. He remembered me well, and gave me a chance to interview the prisoners. I took a good look at them. They were filthy, ragged, some barefoot, and not one looked a day over fourteen.
“They chop limbs,” said the sergeant. He made a slashing motion with his hands to make sure I got his meaning. “Like this. Chop-chop.”
“Really?” The boys did not look like they could chop anything. They looked exhausted and terrified. “They chopped people?”
“Yes.” The sergeant thrust one of them forward. “You talk this one. He chop.” The boy was very thin and very short. One of his eyes was swollen shut.
“That’s right?” I asked him. “You chopped hands and legs?”
“Yes sah.” The boy looked at me as if I was going to hit him. “But I was ordered, sah.”
“Ordered? Ordered by whom?”
“By my commandah.” He looked as if he would say more but the sergeant cuffed him back into line. “I have to take them,” he said.
“What will happen to them?” I asked.
“They Karibu.” He shrugged expressively. His huge belly shook when he shrugged. “They no good.” Which meant they would be shot. He herded them on with a few more cuffs, saying something I could not understand.
The boys went meekly to what they must have known was their death.
Finally, as time went on, both sides bogged down. The Karibu could not take Keke and the government had not the strength to recapture the Karibu territory. But since the UN had supported the government, and because the government had alienated all the Karibu in the territories it controlled, not to mention all other dissidents, foreigners became totally identified with the government in Bisaria. Soon it became dangerous – and then suicidal – to go out alone. You never knew who – Karibu rebel, supporter of the former regime, or common criminal – might shoot or knife you dead. In the meantime, since nothing much was happening on the battlefield, the networks lost interest and began to withdraw us to other places. I got my orders at last too, and flew out of a sandbagged Keke airport fourteen months and six days after I had first landed.
Now I come to the whole point of my story. It happened during the last stages of the government offensive against the Karibu. By that stage of the offensive fighting had almost ceased, because the Karibu had withdrawn to secure territory, so the army was advancing virtually into a vacuum. Everyone knew the danger was minimal so we journalists were advancing right along with the first line units, sometimes, as I was, right along with the scouts.
The territory we were passing through was almost a desert, flat brown plains as far as the eye could see, with humps of rock here and there, eroded and shattered into blocks and crevices. We used to check out these humps, because they were the only conceivable place the enemy could have been hiding. Sometimes we found abandoned weapons or old campfires. Mostly we found nothing.
Then one afternoon I was moving up with another journalist and a squad of Bisarian Army scouts. As usual, when we found one of those piles of shattered, broken rock, the scouts went for a look. By this time the entire exercise was so routine and so boring neither I nor the other media man bothered to follow up the scouts, so I was taken by surprise when one of them came back and waved us over.
“You come see,” he told us. “You like.”
“What is it?” my colleague asked.
“You come see.” The scout turned and went back towards the rock. We glanced at each other and followed.
The sun was beating down and the heat was intense there in between the rocks that rose around us like jagged, shattered teeth. It was difficult to climb up there, because the rock was almost too hot to touch, and our shoes weren’t made for climbing. We might have gone back, but if there was anything worth reporting, it was our duty to report it. If there was nothing, well, it was at least a break from the monotony of the dull brown plain.
The scouts were gathered round a deep crevice between two rocks that was virtually a tiny cave. They were looking at something at the ground which at first I took for a bundle of rags. It was only when I came close that I realised it was a body. It was rolled into a foetal position, its back to us.
“Woman,” said the English-speaking scout, the one who had called us over. “Dead,” he added, quite superfluously. It was obvious she was dead. He was swinging a big old knife in one hand. “I find,” he said and grinned. Then he pointed over to the entrance of the cave. “Babies.”
I had not really looked in that direction before. I saw the scouts bending over something, something that moved and mewled a little. There were two of them, and they were not really babies. They were toddlers of maybe three years or so – it was difficult to tell, they were so thin and undersized. Their eyes stared out of their skeletal faces like those of grasshoppers.
But they were alive. In that desert, in that pile of rock, with no water and no food, they were alive.
“Woman,” the scout was saying, “Karibu chop.” He rolled the body over with his foot. The corpse was missing both feet and a hand and forearm. The stumps had been tied up with rags. I looked at that corpse for some time and a chill passed through me.
“That’s it?” I asked. “Nothing else? No food, no water?”
“No,” the scout said. “Nothing we find. Only old fire.” He pointed to the children. “We take, we go. Karibu gone.” He tucked his knife into his belt and bent, awkwardly picking up one of the kids. The child clung to him frantically. Another scout picked up the other child. If we journalists had not been along the scouts would certainly have abandoned them to their fate. We knew it, and the scouts knew that we knew it. It was just the way things were. Nobody said anything. We all left.
But, you see, I could not get that corpse out of my mind. There was something about it – something had sent a chill through me and the chill would not go away. It was a question that leapt and gibbered and I just could not give it rest. I had seen so many corpses – so many corpses in this war. What was so special about this one? I knew the answer, of course, but I put off acknowledging it to myself. Then that night I was trying to sleep rolled in a sleeping bag under the stars, and I looked up at that black speckled immensity, and I could deny it to myself no longer.
You see, if the Karibu had chopped off the woman’s hand and feet, why had they spared the children? If they had chopped off all three limbs, why not the fourth? How come they were bandaged? How could she have survived the chopping off of all three limbs long enough to bandage them? And where did the knife come from? Why did the Karibu not take it along with them? And what about that old fire…
That night I lay staring up into the sky and a cold chill ran through down to my bones.
I saw things, you see. I saw a woman, fleeing with her children from the advancing hordes, of whichever side, hordes that would rape her or chop her to pieces or merely deal out a swift death by shell or bullet. She had fled so precipitately, only pausing to snatch up a knife for self-defence, that she found herself and her children, alone and without food or water, on this baking plain. Unable to go any further, she had found some kind of shelter among these rocks. Using branches from dried up bushes, she had managed to construct some kind of a fire, but there was nothing to cook on it. She had waited for rescue, for anyone to come along with succour, but nobody came.
She watched the sun beat down and suck the life force from her children’s bodies. She saw them wilt, felt them slide towards death, and she made her choice.
Who – I ask you – who can say how she nerved herself to do what she did? One by one, using the old knife she had, she cut off slices of her own living body and cooked it over that wood fire, and she fed the children on her meat and let them suck on her blood, letting her life ebb so that theirs might endure a while longer. Bandaging each piece as best she could, she tolerated who knows what agonies as she waited for rescue or death, whichever came first, to release her and her children from the torment…I don’t even want to speculate on how long she lasted. No. I can’t do it.
And – lest we forget – she succeeded. The children were saved…
“So,” concluded the journalist, rising, “there you have it. It’s been a couple of years and it was nothing so far as the war was concerned, but it’s what I remember best of all. In fact I can’t go to bed without the image of those bandaged stumps coming to my mind.
“Yes,” he said from the doorway, and none of us tried to stop him from leaving. “It’s the most frightening thing on earth…mother love.”
There were no further words spoken that evening. We all went to our various beds, and if we did not all sleep well, can you fault us on that?