This is Part 3 of the Bisaria Quartet, of which the first part is The Most Frightening Thing of All and the second Fun And Games.
One day before her fourteenth birthday, Malaka’s mother called her aside.
Malaka had a kind of vacation, because the school had closed down a week ago when the one remaining teacher had finally fled. She had been out on the red earth playground of the school, playing football with a few of her friends, when her mother had come and taken her home. She went under protest, bitterly arguing, her shorts and oversized T shirt flapping around her bony limbs as she gesticulated. But her mother had not even turned her head until they were both back home. She had even made Malaka change from her mud-stained clothes into a clean dress and wash her hands and feet properly. Then she had suddenly broken down.
“Listen,” she said urgently, that gracious lady, kneeling on the floor before her daughter, tears in her eyes. “Listen,” she repeated. “Tomorrow, we’re sending you to live with Aunt Koral in Keke.”
“Why?” asked Malaka, astonished. “Tomorrow is my birthday. Why do I have to go to Aunt Koral? I don’t even like Keke.”
“Don’t argue, baby, please.” Her mother only called her “baby” when in the grip of powerful emotion. “It’s not safe for you here.”
“Why? Is it the war?” The war had been coming closer for weeks, and the people were frightened and worried. Some of them spoke in hushed whispers about the atrocities the dreaded Karibu rebels were inflicting on the civilians they captured. Others had scoffed and said nothing like that ever happened. Everyone waited, unhappy and uncertain, for the fighting to reach them.
Her mother nodded, now. “Yes, the war. You don’t have to worry about it. You’ll be all right with Aunt Koral.”
“But…what about you and father?”
“Well, we’ll be coming, just as soon as he can arrange leave from his job.” Malaka’s father was an overseer at the tin mine near the town. It was an excellent job. Malaka’s mother had been told many times over by various people how lucky she was to be the wife of a man with a job like that. It was not a job that could be lightly abandoned, even with the war. Besides, the victors – whoever they might be – would want the mine and would need people who knew how to run it. Malaka’s father had explained this to her mother in great detail, over and over, during the last months.
“It’s just that your father can’t get leave right away,” Malaka’s mother told her. “But we’ll be coming soon enough, don’t worry. Or if things settle down here, we’ll just fetch you back.”
“I don’t want to leave you!” And for all her fourteen years and the maturity that came with being a teenager, Malaka burst into tears.
“I know, baby,” her mother said unhappily. “I know.”
The bus to Keke was overcrowded. It was always overcrowded, even at the best of times, but now it was so full that there were people riding on the roof and hanging on to the window bars. It was an old bus, for all that it was brightly coloured in green and blue with a yellow hood, and its ancient engine wheezed and groaned and made a grating pained noise when the driver changed gear. Inside, Malaka sat on one of the hard wooden benches between a fat old woman carrying a box in her lap and a thin man with a grizzled beard who coughed continuously into a grubby blue handkerchief. The driver was sharing his own small seat with a passenger and had to lean over between the man’s legs to reach the gear lever.
Malaka’s mother had put her on the bus. Her father was on a double shift at the mine, so she had not seen him since the previous day. Her mother had given her a small bundle, containing her good new dress and the football shorts and T shirt she played in, and a little food. She had also given Malaka some money, enough to pay the driver for her trip to Keke. Malaka had thrust the tattered orange and brown Bisarian shillings into her socks to keep them safe.
The crowd at the bus was so great there wasn’t a chance to say goodbye. Malaka’s mother had thrust her through the door and was instantly pushed away by more people frantic to climb on. Malaka had caught a glimpse of her mother over her shoulder, looking lost in the crowd for all her height and majestic carriage, and then she was inside the bus and lucky to find a little space to sit.
“Can you move over a bit, girl,” the fat old woman said. “I need some space to breathe.”
Malaka tried to oblige and pushed against the coughing man with the grizzled beard. He glared at her and pushed back at her with his bony shoulder. His eyes were red-rimmed and there was purulent matter caked at the corners. “Get away from me,” he hissed and began coughing again, his body shaking. After that, Malaka sat very still.
Across from Malaka was a family she knew vaguely, the parents, wife and children of a colleague of her father’s at the mine. The old couple looked as though they were trying to sleep, while their daughter-in-law glared at Malaka across the aisle for some reason with concentrated hatred. Her lips moved, muttering something. Malaka tried not to look at her. Only once, as the bus drove away from her little town, did she wipe the tears away.
The road to Keke was bad, potholed in numerous places, with deep ruts where the tyres of hundreds of passing vehicles had worn the exposed earth away. On either side were sparse forests interrupted by scattered farms, the fields mostly lying fallow in this, the dry season. The heat was suffocating, and inside the bus, with the passengers crammed together, there was so little air that Malaka began to feel dizzy. She leaned her head as far back as she could in an effort to catch what little wind was coming in through the window behind her, and closed her eyes, swaying back and forth as the vehicle rattled and bounced.
Suddenly the bus stopped, so suddenly that Malaka fell forward into the aisle. For a moment she thought there had been an accident, as there had been once when she had been riding a truck and it had tipped over. Everyone seemed to be scrambling up from their seats at the same time, so that Malaka was almost trampled on the floor before she could somehow get to her feet. Someone outside was shouting, the voice all but drowned in the noise of the bus engine. Then there was a sudden loud banging noise and the bus engine stopped.
“Everybody out!” the person outside shouted, in heavily-accented Kudu, Malaka’s language, and then again in Sambar. “Everyone out. At once!”
Muttering and craning their necks, the passengers disembarked. As she followed the others, Malaka saw the driver still sitting behind the wheel, his hands held up by his ears. Then the people just in front of Malaka stopped. Some of them tried to push back into the bus.
“Out!” shouted the man outside again, his voice high and angry, and fired again into the air. “Out, quickly.” The passengers fell silent at once. Slowly, one by one, they left the bus. Malaka was one of the last.
She felt hands grab her and push her to one side. “Here’s another.” She was in a line of young people and children, both boys and girls. Older people had been pushed into a second and larger line. The driver was now getting down from the bus, in front of which the road had been blocked by a barrier made of old boxes, oil drums, the branches of trees and piles of rubber tyres. Around the bus and the barrier were a group of boys and young men, in shorts and dirty T shirts, most of them carrying guns. A few carried machetes with gleaming blades. One of these grabbed the driver by the scruff of the neck and threw him to the ground, saying something in a language Malaka didn’t recognise.
A thin, very tall man came round the back of the bus. He was dressed in a kind of military uniform, comprising dark green trousers with a khaki shirt and a cap with a blue and red cockade on it. He had a pistol in his hand and brandished it in the air and shouted. His voice was thin and high, almost like a woman’s.
“You lot,” he was shouting, “were running away, were you? Enemies of the revolution.” Malaka could understand enough Sambar to recognise how heavy his accent was. “You,” the man shouted, kicking the driver, “you were helping them. Traitor!” He shouted something else and suddenly shot the driver, who shivered and lay flat on the ground. A dark red circle began to form round his head.
Malaka stared, fascinated with fear, at the driver’s body. One of the boys laughed uproariously and scooped up some of the blood on his fingers and licked them clean. Another pointed his gun at the line of older people and fired. A woman screamed, lying on the ground and kicking with her legs. It was Malaka’s father’s colleague’s wife, who had been glaring at her on the bus. The boys laughed and a couple of them clapped. There was almost a festive air. Then the man in the military uniform shouted and they fell silent, except for the woman, who was still moaning.
“Here.” The tall man pointed at one of the younger boys in Malaka’s line. “That’s your mother there, isn’t she?” He pointed at the moaning woman. “You kill her.” He gave his gun to the boy and pushed him gently towards the injured woman. “Go on, point the gun at her and pull the trigger. Do it!” The boy, staggering with the heft of the revolver held at arm’s length, fired, and almost fell with the recoil. The older people moaned in horror. The woman stopped screaming and kicking. The armed boys cheered happily.
“That’s the way,” the tall man said, and took back the gun, slapping the boy on the back. “You’ll make a fine warrior.” He turned to Malaka’s line. “I am General Kadimba,” he said, in his heavily accented Sambar. “You all understand Sambar, don’t you?” He pointed at the boys with the guns. “These are all National Front warriors. You all will learn to be like them.” Then he said something in the unknown language to the armed boys and pointed. A couple of them came over and began pulling the girls out of the line. They were pushed along the road to where an old truck waited, forced onto it, and driven away.
Malaka awoke. Her entire body felt as if it were covered in bruises. Every movement was an agony. She gently touched herself at the centre of the pain, between her legs, and her fingers came away wet. When she held them up to the strip of moonlight coming through a chink in the wall, she found them to be black and sticky with blood.
“You’re awake,” another of the girls said. Like Malaka, she only wore the tattered remnants of her dress and was sitting with her chin on her knees. In the darkness, it was difficult to make out her features. “How’s the pain?”
Malaka ignored her, as she did the six or seven other girls in the small room. She got up and walked over to the little bathroom and washed herself. Afterwards she returned, found a spot in the corner, and fitted herself into it. When the waves of pain came, she bit her lip and was silent.
In the days that came, Malaka was moved around a lot. The General’s little army of boys were always on the go, and swollen with its new recruits, it needed food and shelter and drugs. The boys were all on drugs, and soon most of the girls were getting some too. It helped with the pain.
By now Malaka was beginning to learn the rudiments of the Karibu tongue used by the General’s men. They all had to learn it because speaking in Sambar was an offence that could get one beaten, and speaking Kudu was worse. Speaking Kudu could get one killed, because if there was any people the Karibu hated above all others, it was the Kudu.
Little by little, Malaka formed a friendship with one of the other girls, who was also a Kudu, like her. This girl was not from the group taken prisoner on the bus. She had been working as a farm labourer when the Karibu had come. Her name was Sifaka and she was slightly older than Malaka, a typical country lass, as large-boned and wide-hipped as Malaka was slim and tall. They made an odd couple, having absolutely nothing in common except their status as Karibu property.
Then one day the General met them. They were on a farm then, and the girls had been sent to wash clothes at a hand-pump that was still in working condition. The day was hot and sunny and the girls stripped down to as little as possible as they worked, and the General had stopped and watched.
“Come here,” he said in his high voice, pointing to Malaka. “Come here, girl.” And he had taken her with him without a further word.
At first it was slightly better being the General’s personal property. Malaka had a little better food than the other girls, and usually a place to sleep, and only had to do one man’s cleaning and cooking. Also, most of the time the General scarcely noticed she was even there, and treated her as part of the furniture. But it was only most of the time. As for the rest, it didn’t bear thinking about.
But time passed, and Malaka began to become more experienced at being able to hide who she was, and she became more used to controlling her emotions. Time passed, and she could watch limbs severed without a qualm. Without pity she learned to watch babies skewered on stakes beside their mothers’ heads, and when the victorious boy soldiers would lick the blood flowing from their victims, she even managed to fight down her nausea. In time she scarcely felt anything at all.
But time passed, and the moons grew and shrank, and Malaka grew to dread even the shadow the General’s elongated frame threw on the ground. The scuff of his shoes on the hard earth sent a thrill of terror through her body, and each night she would lie in fear, awaiting his coming, and doze off only when she could hear the strident noise of his snoring. Once he began snoring she knew she was safe for the night.
But time passed, and the fortunes of war turned against the Karibu, and the General’s mood turned worse, and the beatings and the rapes Malaka endured turned more vicious still. Every day they retreated now, back across the country towards the Karibu Nation, and every day the rapes and beating got worse, until Malaka learned that she had underestimated her own capacity to tolerate pain.
One day, Malaka met Sifaka again. The General was meeting some of his officers, and Malaka was loading his belongings into a captured civilian pick-up truck, when she saw the older girl passing by. A quick look around showed that they were unobserved, so she trotted to Sifaka, who watched her coming expressionlessly.
“How are you?” Malaka asked, speaking Kudu. Sifaka shrugged. “Why should you care? You’re fine now, aren’t you?”
“It’s not what you think, Sifaka.” But even as she said it, she knew that it was useless. Sifaka’s eyes were dull and expressionless, her mouth pinched and turned down at the corners. “Leave me alone,” the girl said and turned away. “You have a good time with the General. You aren’t one of us anymore.”
And then Malaka discovered she was pregnant.
She had missed periods before, several times, in the last months, and no wonder, too, given what she was going through. But this time there was no doubt. She waited until she was absolutely sure, and then she decided to tell the General.
That time they were camped in a little village, whose inhabitants had fled so long ago that the huts were beginning to crumble. The General had kept the village chief’s house for himself, of course. It was the rainy season now, and the downpour was so strong that it trickled through the roof and dripped here and there from the ceiling, but even so it was the least uncomfortable house in the village. The General’s boys had found a few oil lamps and a couple of them were burning in the old chief’s living room, the light flickering on the damp walls. The General was moodily eating the dinner Malaka had cooked for him.
She told him then, simply, that she was carrying his baby.
He looked up at her, his yellow eyes expressionless, his sharp teeth still ripping at a piece of roast mutton. He said nothing for a long time, and then went back to his food. Malaka finally decided he wouldn’t say anything, and turned away.
The blow was so sudden that it caught her by surprise, and so strong that it sent her sprawling. She rolled over just in time to receive the General’s first kick, which was meant to hit her spine, in the side of the hip. Her leg seemed to go numb with the force of it. The second kick hit her somewhere in the torso, and then the General reached down and dragged her up by her woolly hair. Throwing her down on her back on his bed, he knelt on her, his hand rocking her head back and forth with slaps. Malaka began to lose sensation in her face. Her vision was dimming and she could no longer feel the pain of the slaps. Only her head rang with each blow, like a bell.
Frantically trying to defend herself, she hit back at him with her hands. With his free hand, he easily swatted her blows away. Dimly, she heard a high gasping sound and realised the General was laughing.
Then the laughter turned to coughs and the General stopped hitting her. Slowly, like a toppling tree, he fell on her and rolled to the side. Malaka shook her head and tried to push herself away from him, and fell off the bed. The sharp agony of her knee hitting the floor brought her back to her senses. Slowly, wiping her eyes, she sat up.
The General lay on the bed, trembling. The haft of a knife protruded from his side, and dark blood had stained his uniform black in the lamplight. The General’s hand was uncertainly trying to pull at the knife.
There was a noise behind Malaka. She looked around, quickly. The door to the house was wide open, and for just a moment she saw a face looking in, a face streaming with rain, eyes glaring white in the black skin. Then the face was gone, and scurrying footsteps faded away in the hiss of the rain.
Malaka had recognised the face, though. It was the farm worker girl, Sifaka.
There was clearly no point in going after her. Nor could she stay here with the General, who was still fumbling at the knife. He would kill her if he recovered, and if he didn’t, his men would; and she had seen enough deaths at their hands to know what she could expect. Hardly taking a moment to think, pausing only long enough to snatch up her shoes. In the toe of one of them, she still had the Bisarian shillings her mother had given her on the day she had been put on the bus. It had been her birthday, she remembered suddenly, as she slipped in the mud outside the house, the rain beating down on her. Everything that had happened to her since then seemed a strange birthday present indeed.
The darkness and the rain made it impossible for her to see where she was going, but at the same time they were her shield, her protection. Although she was soaked to the skin within moments of leaving the house, she welcomed the rain, and let it wash the pain and blood from her. Slipping ans sliding in the mud, she trotted through the night, making her way along the path until she was too exhausted to go much further. By then the rain had faded to a drizzle, and she went off the path and into the forest. Orienting herself by the touch of her fingertips on the trunks of trees, she walked until her legs were buckling under her, and then she lay down under a tree and fell almost instantly asleep.
Dull and throbbing pain woke her, seeping up from her hips and torso. Her head ached too, from the blows. Touching her front teeth with her tongue sent a shaft of agony through her, and she realised that some teeth were broken. Her eyes were swollen shut, too, and it was difficulty that she prised them apart far enough to see.
She was lying by a riverside. The river was sluggish, narrow, and winding, and the banks and water muddy and turbid. On the far side low humped hillocks were covered by forest. The sun had come up and was baking the steam off the mud and the leaves.
Slowly, using a tree trunk for support, Malaka stood. When she tried to walk, she tottered and nearly fell. After some time she went down to the river, stripped, and washed herself. After that she felt better and – slowly, staying in the shelter of the forest – began to walk down the river.
She walked through the forest for five days before she reached the road. For most of those days she kept as close to the river as she could. The river gave her water to drink and to wash her bruises. It kept her from getting lost and wandering in circles. And a few times she waded into it and managed to catch a few small fish, which she ate raw and still half-alive, since she had no means to cook or clean them. It was nauseating but it was the only food, apart from a few fleshy brown mushrooms she found, that she had.
Each day she would start walking just after dawn, and walk until she could no longer. Then, she would rest under the trees until she felt strong enough to go on again. She would walk until the dusk began to close in and then she would find a place to sleep for the night, a hollow tree or an overhanging rock.
She had no real idea where she was going. All she wanted to do was to get as far away from the General’s people as possible. If at all she thought of it consciously, she hoped to find people some time, someone who might tell her how to get back to her parents if that was possible. If not, she was looking for a place she might be reasonably safe. That was all.
On the third day, she noticed smoke rising in the distance, and soon afterwards she saw debris floating by on the river, half-burned wood and pieces of charred paper, and later what she thought might be corpses. It was difficult to be sure because it was raining by then and the water was muddy, and the objects were out in the middle of the stream. Whether they were bodies or just logs of wood, the river bore them away, and after that Malaka was very careful and stayed far in the shelter of the trees.
The day before she reached the road, Malaka heard voices, and instantly lay on the ground, pressing herself flat to the earth. The river was quite narrow at that point, and on the other bank she saw a flash of red. A moment later a boy in a red T shirt and khaki shorts strolled out of the forest and stood, a rocket launcher over his shoulder, watching the stream. After a while some more boys came out of the forest, talking, and sat on the bank in the sunshine and passed cigarettes back and forth. Malaka could smell the marijuana smoke. She stayed very low, listening to the boys talking, unable to make out most of what they said, but hearing frequent references to the General. Which General they meant, she didn’t know, of course. The civil war was full of generals on both sides. But each time she heard the word her throat went dry with fear.
A long time after the boys had gone, Malaka got up and went on. Now that she knew there was at least one army somewhere near the river, she moved away from it and went up through the forest, away from the boys. At times she swayed, dizzy with hunger, and twice she fell. Each time it took a while before she could get up again.
She began to see things. The trees, it seemed to her, reached for her with their branches and gibbered at her with fanged mouths that dripped blood. Great birds with iron beaks flapped by overhead, waiting for her to drop, and she could hear a great roaring noise, which she decided was a fire come to burn the world.
That night, while she slept, her body shaking with fever, she dreamed that she was back home and that her mother had come running to her with open arms, and behind her, her father, too, stood smiling, and they told her it was all a bad dream she had had and everything would be all right now. It was a cruel dream because the waking from it was such agony.
When she found the road, at first she decided it was another part of the delirium. It lay before her, full of people hurrying along, bundles on their heads and leading children or livestock. Once in a while an ancient car or truck, grossly overloaded, drove slowly through the throng.
Once Malaka had finally decided that the road was real, she wiped her feet with grass, put on her shoes (which she had been carrying round her neck, tied with the laces) and, hobbling because of the shillings still tucked in the toe of one, went down to the road.
She approached an old woman who was pulling along a barrow loaded with sacks. The woman glared at her suspiciously out of eyes that were milky with cataract, and kept going. “Grandmother,” said Malaka, speaking Sambar because she knew many Sambar resented the Kudu and blamed them for being the cause of the war, “can you tell me, where does this road lead? Where are you all going?”
“Keke,” said a man walking behind the old woman. “Most of us here are going to Keke. Where are you going?”
He was a thin man with a scarred face. Malaka fell into step beside him. “I wanted to go to,” she named the mining town where she had grown up, “Harada. How do I get there?”
“Harada?” The thin man peered at her. “But the town was destroyed in the fighting months ago.”
“Are you sure?” Malaka felt a knot forming inside her. “You’re sure it was destroyed?”
“Positive. Just about everyone was killed, and the few who survived ran away. Where have you been that you don’t know that?”
“Nothing…it’s not important.”
“Are you ill? You don’t look right.” The thin man was still staring at her, and Malaka knew that if anyone suspected her to have been part of one of the rebel armies she would be in serious trouble. So she fell back, sitting down on the grass at the roadside, and retied her shoes. Only after a long time did she feel able to go on again.
That evening there was shooting from somewhere near the road, and explosions. Many of the people left the road and fled into the forest. Malaka, feeling too weak to go back into the jungle, stayed on the road, and was rewarded by finding a bag of dried meat which someone had abandoned. The strips of meat were salty and tough as leather, but it was the first real food she had eaten in days.
Later on, after the shooting ended, she passed through a little roadside village which was still burning. Corpses lay everywhere, some of them headless or naked. There was not a live person to be seen, and Malaka did not linger.
Just after darkness she came across a truck which had broken down by the roadside, its hood open. The driver was trying to make repairs by torchlight, but he was having a hard time focussing the torch with one hand and working with the other. He looked up when he saw Malaka coming, and seemed to decide she was harmless. “Here,” he said, holding out the torch. “Hold this a moment, will you.”
For the next few minutes he bent over the engine compartment, occasionally telling Malaka where to focus the torch. Finally he grunted and slammed the hood closed. “There,” he said, “now that should be all right.” Stepping into the cab he turned on the engine, which ground to life. “All right,” he said. “Get in.”
“What?” Malaka was taken by surprise, but the man was obviously waiting impatiently for her, so she got in on the passenger side. The interior of the truck’s cabin was full of stale cigarette smoke, and the driver was already lighting up again. “We’ll be lucky to get through to Keke,” the driver said, puffing away, “what with the fighting coming back this way.” He glanced at Malaka. “You sleep if you can,” he told her. “You look ready to drop.” And, snuggling into the corner of the truck cabin, Malaka slept.
She was woken by a terrific noise, a blast so loud that it seemed to her that her eardrums had been ruptured. A huge hand plucked her up, threw her into the air and smacked her down, so hard that it drove the breath from her body. White hot things came raining down too, and where they touched her, they burned. Rolling frantically until she stopped burning, she fainted.
When she opened her eyes it was dawn. She was lying on the roadside. A short distance away was the wreckage of the truck. It was charred and surrounded by a huge blackened circle on the road. The driver’s body lay in a tangle of broken metal, burned black as coal, his hands still grasping the steering wheel.
“Don’t go along the road,” a boy called to her when she sat up. He stood in a nearby field, watching the smouldering wreck, a goat on a rope beside him. “It’s mined. Soldiers came yesterday.”
“How far is Keke?” asked Malaka, rubbing the dust off her arms and legs.
The boy pointed. “That way…it’s a couple of hours’ walk. My father used to work there.” He was very young, six at the most, and his eyes returned with fascination to the wrecked truck and the dead man. Malaka left him and went on, every step an agony of pain.
It was early afternoon before she reached the outskirts of the city. On the way, she had met almost nobody. In the distance, now, she could see the tall buildings of the city centre, and nearer, a tangle of plastic and tin on a huge stretch of open ground. She would have to pass it to get to the city.
A green military jeep drove up and stopped a short distance down the road. There were five or six soldiers in it, and they watched her curiously. One, tall and fat, got down and sauntered over to her.
“Where do you think you’re going?”
“Keke.” She indicated the city behind him.
The fat soldier grinned. “From the provinces, are you? Refugee? Then that’s your place.” He pointed at the tangle of plastic sheeting and tin. “Off you go.”
Malaka stared. What she had taken to be a garbage dump turned out to be a refugee camp, the sheets of plastic and tin makeshift tents and shanties. “There?”
“Where else?” The fat soldier pointed impatiently. Slowly, Malaka changed direction. Then the fat soldier called her back.
“One minute. Forgetting something, aren’t you?”
“What do you give us, for our trouble? We keep you nice and safe in that camp from the Karibu hordes, so what do we get?” He studied her face and figure, and shrugged. “No, forget that…you’re too dirty to fuck. Diseased bitch.” He looked down at her shoes, which she had only been wearing since the previous day and which were still clean and undamaged. “Those shoes. Give me those shoes.”
“No, I…” The soldier held up a huge hand, ready to slap. “Give me the shoes,” he repeated. “Or I might just change my mind about the other thing.” Slowly, reluctantly, Malaka squatted and unlaced the footwear. For a moment she wondered if there was any way she could grab the shillings inside, but the fat soldier was watching too intently. He grabbed the sneakers and shoved her with his hand in the direction of the camp, making her stagger. “Where are you from, by the way?”
“It was destroyed, wasn’t it?” said the fat soldier indifferently. “Mind you, I think there are a few of the rats from there in the camp. You might get along together in the same filth.” Laughing, he got in the jeep, and drove slowly away.
Malaka hobbled into the camp. It was very large, and very filthy, the ground covered with refuse, and flies buzzed everywhere. A few people stared at her apathetically.
There was a tap in the distance, at which an old woman was filling a bucket. There was only a trickle of water, but Malaka suddenly realised how thirsty and exhausted she was. She walked over to the tap and waited. The old woman glanced at her, removed the bucket, and motioned her to the tap. Malaka nodded gratefully and splashed the water over her head and arms, and scooped up a little to drink. Then she stepped back from the tap and replaced the bucket under it.
“I thank you, Old Mother,” she said formally, as she put the bucket down. “I’ve come from Harada. Can you tell me if there is anyone here from those parts?”
“Harada?” The old woman craned her wizened neck towards her. “You’re from Harada?”
“Yes,” Malaka turned round. “I’ve been away from there for months, though. Do you know anyone from Harada here?”
The old woman looked at her for a long moment. “You’d better come with me,” she said at last.
“There were many from Harada,” the old woman said.
Malaka and she sat together on low wooden stools in her shanty, which was little more than a tin-walled shed with plastic sheeting stuffed into the cracks to keep out the weather. In the corner was a rolled-up mat which evidently served the woman for a bed at night. A few cooking utensils stood by the opposite wall.
“Yes,” the old woman continued, “there were quite a lot of them, mostly from the mining families. They came here just before the war reached them, and they were all put into the camp. It was a smaller camp then, and cleaner.”
“So what happened to them?” Malaka asked. “Are any of them still here?”
“No,” the old woman said. “They went away…they were sent back.”
“Yes, the army came after they recaptured the mines and told the people from Harada they were needed, and it was safe there. They were all loaded into trucks and sent back. Some of them didn’t want to go, but they weren’t given a choice.”
“But then they must be there still!” Malaka jumped up with excitement. “And I was told the town had been destroyed.”
“No…they aren’t there, unless there are really ghosts. The town has been destroyed.”
“I don’t understand…you just told me the army recaptured the town.”
“The war came back,” the old woman said. “One of the rebel armies came, and the army – the real army, you know, those men outside in green uniforms who had told the people it was safe – well, they just ran away. And then the rebels destroyed the town and killed everyone.”
“But then – where is safety? I have a baby inside me. Where can I give birth to it in peace and safety, Old Mother? Where?”
“Nowhere,” said the old woman, and the word was a primal cry of despair. “Nowhere.”