A Checkpoint Away from Dying
Ralph Cherbo Geeplay
Musue wore a colorful green and yellow cotton lappa, large, silver hoop earrings, and silver bangles to match. She stretched her slender arms and sighed loudly, “Oh Lord!” as she stood facing the street. She glanced at her face reflected in the window-pane. Her image stared back at her, flushed with sorrow and pain. She peered through the window again looking out. Birds and bees were flirting with the flowers in the courtyard, the morning was early. The sunlight poured over her and filled the room. She scanned her yard and her neighbor’s. She shook her head in disbelief, why was this happening. Why was the country engulfed in chaos? There were words on the streets about a revolution and holocaust; nervous in her thoughts, she glanced over at her friend Massa Kolleh’s yard, her annoying busy-body neighbor. Massa had fled the community just yesterday. The neighborhood was desolate, whereas before she would have heard the sounds of children squealing and mothers shouting; now all she heard was the buzz of flies. She winced and clutched her fists to her chest. Her children’s voices were absent. Her heart pounded.
Musue hadn’t seen nor heard from her children for three days, since the war hit Monrovia. Her son and younger daughters had fled then, she knew not where. She’d traveled to Careysburg and the surrounding towns to search for them, to no avail. On her last visit to a family member in Rossville she’d given up and told her husband, she thought they should escape the town, that maybe their children, too, had left as the situation became dire. Even then, food was running out as the Freeport lay besieged by the freedom fighters of the Patriotic Front Liberation Liberia [PFLL,] or another of the “patriotic fronts,” rampaging through the city and the land beyond.
“God, please! Please, Lord. They are just kids, she said, staring into the empty space. She sighed and walked into the kitchen. Once there, she realized she had forgotten what she had gone in for, returning to her bedroom to fetch her handbag.
She’s raced back to the kitchen with her purse, and began searching frantically through the cabinets for food, but nothing was there except few crumbled cookies left over from her last baking, she had saved for the kids in case they returned. She wrapped them up nicely, and put them away in her handbag. Musue made up her mind that very moment to escape the engulfing violence. “It’s today or never,” she told herself. She hummed a song to cheer herself, deftly packing a few items for a long trip. Her humming became mournful and louder. The sorrow in her voice obvious; the dread in her song was carried through the walls and could be heard throughout every room in the house.
A gentle breeze blew across the garden, the flowers swaying gently as the sun rose. The house was as quiet as a deathbed. Musue heard a bee buzzing in the next room; it was the only sound in the house that could be heard. Her husband was unusually quiet the last few days. Even though he was not talkative, she realized he his woeful disposition was too uncomfortable, and this broke her heart; the more she thought about him. He was still doing his best to cheer her, but the weight of the situation as it appears was beyond him. She had reached the point where she wanted to tell him what was bugging her.
Having made her mind up on that Tuesday morning, there was no stopping her on fateful November day in 1990; nothing now would change her determination to flee. She hoped the check points were not as dangerous and terrifying as she heard they were. She had exhausted all other options. Her neighborhood was entirely deserted. A sense of eerie fear, like an unseen spider web had fallen over the community, after the locust-like “freedom fighters” swarmed across the land; the terror of their hidden presence was mocking her. Musue’s muscles were tense, her breathing shallowed.
She was afraid of the up-coming journey she hoped would lead to her safety and the rediscovery of her children. She knew she would encounter “Small-Boys,” drug-crazed child soldiers, “children abducted into militias run by madmen intoxicated by the power of blood and death. Roving gangs of criminals had entered villages and neighborhoods, forcing children to murder their families as a way of destroying any bond between the children and those who survived the incursions. As orphans, as children without families, the war-lords became family, “they are the only adults such children could turn to for protection in the world at war,” her husband told her the night before, as they were preparing for bed. “These are psychotic, drug-addled, starving kids who are afraid and alone and have now turned to their phony father-figures—the war lords. In the chaos, they are killing on command, killing because it is all around them. These children are indifferent even to their own deaths,” Kollie had said, “so I don’t understand where all this talk about revolution is coming from,” he had said quietly. Musue knew it would be these people she would have to encounter.
As she crammed her possessions into a small yellow backpack on the bed, a million random thoughts swirled through her mind. The yellow backpack was too bright for this dangerous trip; it would draw attention. Her teenaged son’s backpack was all she could find. She had no other choice: a woman of faith, she placed that faith in divine intervention.
As Musue hoisted her pack on her back, it was filled with a few items of clothing from her closet and drawers. The silver bangles on her slender wrists bounced up and down, jangling. The tinkling sounds drew her back to the terrifying reality she faced. “I should probably take them off,” she murmured. She knew the rebels would steal her bangles anyway. The shiny metal might draw attention too, like her yellow backpack. But she didn’t care. Her children were missing and that was primarily on her mind. Even though most of her neighbors had fled their houses, she and her husband had refused to leave, hoping their children would return. But the fighting had intensified following the military counter-offensive. For several days now, the sound of RPGs had hissed over their house, machine guns, clattering, bullets flying like lethal wasps in all directions. The sounds of war replaced the familiar echoes of bird chirping in the mornings, dogs barking during the day, and frogs croaking in the night, and most of all, worse than the mad roar of battle, Musue had run out of food.
The day before her husband had returned home from across the bridge; he brought back home sickening tales of scenes of teenage soldiers misbehaving at the Via Town bridge check-point. He’d gone to look for his missing children at his brother’s house. His life was saved there when one of the soldiers recognized him as one of his lecturers at the university. Men were at risk. It was for these reasons, women were bread winners.
The fact that she’d lost her children and had almost lost her husband sent a chill through her entire body. She began to sob, hot streams of tears rolled down her thin cheeks. She shook her head, recalling a radio announcement the previous night when a faction-fighter had proclaimed, that in this “war of liberation” as the so-called liberators were calling it, “the city needed to be leveled, and it would be rebuilt.” How could she face checkpoints manned by unpredictable and violent rebels, especially those clotted with trigger-happy child-soldiers who killed passers-by at random? Those who manned the check-points were known to suddenly and without warning kill their own friends, shooting each other for no reasons, others could discern. A sullen child-soldier might say, when asked why he’d just murdered his friend lying dead at his feet, “He pissed me off.”
Musue’s heart thumped rapidly as she reflected on the stories she heard. She was especially worried about her husband, Kollie. He filled her mind as she stood in the front room preparing to leave the house. She’d met him in high school and they’d dated throughout college. He was tall and handsome, kind and smart. When she took him home to meet her parents, there was no question her dad approved of her boyfriend, though her mother had her reservations. But Kollie over-came Musue’s mother’s fears. He’d stuck by her through all the years of family trials and triumphs alike. She loved him, she knew. A small smile played across her lips as she recollected the memories. The more she thought of him, she let out a girlish chuckle. “Oh mine,” she sighed, rattling her silver bangles. He was all there was, that was on her mind now. “Her darling,” as she liked to called him.
“Where was he anyways?” Musue’s mind raced. She called his name loudly. She called again, when there was no answer. Musue set out to look for him. She knew he had to be somewhere close by. She kept calling, and when there was no answer the third time, she walked into the children’s room. He was there, standing still, staring out the window. His left hand slightly parting the grey and white satin curtains, she leaned against the entrance to the door way, saying nothing, just staring blankly at him. She knew he heard her and was about to lash out at him for ignoring her, but brushed off her anger as she realized these were difficult times, especially for men.
“Kollie,” she said quietly. He looked back at her. He walked towards her and they embraced. There was much was on their minds. “I love you,” he said softly.
After a brief pause, she said, “I love you too. Always.”
“We have to go, Kollie, I cannot stand it anymore,” she said in a whisper, looking straight at his face and eyes. He was a calm, reasonable man, and knew his wife was right on this. The neighborhood was empty.
He nodded, patted her on the back, and then kissed her cheeks, to reassure her.
After saying a small prayer, which she led, they left and began the long journey, trekking to cross the Liberian border for safety. Nowhere in the country was safe, unless you had ties to the freedom fighters which could be costly. She wasn’t prepared to deny herself the self-respect and conscience regarding what was happening around her, especially her virtues. She straightened her shoulders, determined to make the trek, and praying in her heart for protection.
As they made progress up the country traveling the rugged landscape, the stories they had heard all along began to show itself as the visible images slowly began to emerge: abandoned houses, bombed out communities, littered dead bodies, stench and bedlam. The small soldiers they encountered wore soiled clothes, women wigs and swung their guns happily in the air, smoking and drinking noisily. This seems like a party to them: She could not believe her eyes; she kept shaking her head in utter disgust and disbelief.
Holding hands, terrified and frightened of being separated, the couple could hear their heart beats pounding like soldiers marching to battle: Blood rushed to the veins and muscles contracted but trudged on they did.
A lot was on her mind, especially her children, where could they be? At present, her fear was for her man. His elegant and intellectual looks would be mistaken for a high government official and that was a crime nowadays. She identified with other travelers on the dusty, almost bush covered red dirt road. They had one thing in common: fear. They trudged single file in silence, she heard murmurs from others along the route, that there were interrogations ahead. Some permitted to continue their journeys; the not so fortunate ones were kept, and charged as spies or enemy combatants or govt. employees. It depended on which part of the country you were in. The homes, forcibly converted along the routes, were occupied by soldiers and people who had been led into the makeshift headquarters. There interrogations took place and fates were determined by the Commanding Officers, popularly referred to as the C.Os. They could be as young as 17 years, and were usually under the influence of narcotics. This thought disturbed her. The mixture of guns and drugs terrified her bearings, the kids she reasoned needed parental control, but here they were causing anarchy and having a murderous party as they and their superiors saw nothing wrong with this.
“No one knew what actually happened to the families the homes belonged to,” one of the male travelers explained to the couple, with everyone straining to hear him talk. Women hushed their babies, and those coughing, did so lightly to take in every word. There was a momentary pause. And then he continued.
“But there are wild tales too, unbelievable and scary.” He said. He spoke in spurts as he walked and talked. Being an obese man, he needed to catch his breath before going on. Sweat was pouring from his body and his tees were soaking wet. He pulled his tee-shirt exposing his belle as he wiped his face. He broke the silence and narrated, his breathing was getting more pronounced and heavy, as he spoke.
“Some say they were chased out, given the option to take their belongings and run, others say they were murdered if they protested.” He shook his head in absurdity to his own narration. “This whole thing does not make sense my people,” he said. “These people came to free us.” A woman walking right behind Musue began to sob quietly. Her husband was patting her on the back, consoling her in the hope she would stop, before the kids began crying. Musue could hear him “It will be okay” he said, “it will be okay. Please mama; stop before the children start crying too.” Her eyes swelled with tears, but she shook it off.
Musue fingers tightened around the palm of her husband as the stranger narrated this tale. Stupefied by this indignity and suffering, she felt, the country was now in hell, and everyone was on their own. Her husband was quiet. If he was afraid, he showed no signs of fear; his confidence gave her reason to settle. Then the heavy set man went on and everyone tuned in again. ”My aunty and her husband left two weeks ago for Ganta, hoping to cross over the border and find safety. We have not heard from them since. Are they alive or are they dead? We just don’t know.” His voice broke, and he fought back his emotions before he broke down. He swallowed hard. The sun was hot and every one could feel its heat. The mood amongst the travelers was sullen at this point; their undetermined fates were on their minds.
Along the roads and intersections, the inescapable acrid smell of decomposing bodies of both of fighters and civilians began to fill the air again. It was something you noticed immediately, the horrid decay of tissues. After a mile or two Musue’s sense of smell adjusted but not before the wind blew against her face as she went down the valley. It was useless, and she could not ignore it anymore; the disgusting smell of the repellent human decomposing bodies.
Overwhelmed by her senses, the woman hunched over by the road side and threw up. Tears ran down her dry checks from the extra effort; she shrieked and grabbed her knees, then emptied her bowels on a patch of grass. Her husband holding her from the back, muttered “oh dear, oh dear.” She was heaving uncontrollably. She was sorry for herself, her country and what had become of it.
A light rain began to fall but it did not wash away the smell of death pervading her nostrils. Her senses befuddled, she was in hell’s den, far from civilization. These conditions brought a discomforted feeling of emotions and jitters; as she sat down for a brief moment and sobbed. A few of the desolate travelers had waited and experienced the ordeal, others simply walked away from the pungent smell in the valley of death.
She was now more than uncertain what would happen to them as she and her husband continued on their fateful journey. Closer, and closer, they marched to the dreaded check point. A worn feeling of despair in her desperate heart, she was misplaced in her comportments and occasionally fretted, murmurings under her breathe, the turmoil was too much.
Most those traveling on this journey were families, and they huddled in bunches with loads on their heads and backs. For some, the shirts and blouses on their backs were all they could take from their homes as they fled. She walked slowly behind the herd of people. She looked around for the heavily-built man who had narrated the story earlier, but could not see him. He must have taken a rest by the roadside, she told herself.
As they walked closer towards the checkpoint, Musue noticed a woman struggling with two kids. One of the kids was curved-asleep on her back while the other hovered over her breast. They caused her to slow her pace. Musue, offered to help the woman, but she turned down Musue’s offer and handed one of the kids to her husband who was carrying a large suitcase on his head. The child arched on her mother’s back uttered soft moans, if the adults were hungry and in pains, what about the babies, Musue thought.
There were grannies along the routes also, thumping their walking sticks into the earth for support as they walked their way slowly towards the drunken teenagers waiting for their victims at the checkpoints. They had managed to cross the last one, not without interrogations and threats which they scale with great fear, difficulty and intimidation. The check point was now in view and a frown was on her face, she grimaced, tightening her grip again around her husband’s palm.
Along this check point, there was a lot of activity. At first it looked deceiving. The fighters had a human intestine stretching from end to end on a stick and a skull hung on both sides. Musue’s Stomach churned and her feet shook. All the activities took place behind the family house now converted to a guard post. So there were no lines. The teenagers minding the checkpoint nodded and let the travelers go through their post without saying a word. Once behind the check point, families huddled in groups waiting to be cleared to continue their journeys.
“Hey you,” bellowed a teenager holding a Beretta- an AK47 also slung on his back. He was addressing Kollie, Musue’s husband. The couple avoided eye contact, pretended they didn’t hear him. Musue’s heart thumped, her face blushed. Her husband, standing at eight feet nine inches and slightly, light skinned, was bespeckled. He walked with a slight gait and was known to be courteous and polite. He wore a beard, and though not neatly dressed, he still looked well-off.
“I am talking to the man wearing the glasses,” the soldier, said pointing his fingers at the college lecturer.
Kollie said “oh, you mean me young man,” his voice quavering, an embarrassed smile on his lips.
A tinge of disappointment and regret in his voice as he walked towards the youth, his wife was following and frowning, but the rowdy youth shouted at her. “I am not talking to you my friend; he said menacingly, a bloodletting look on his ashen face!
“But, that’s my husband,” she was saying.
“I say I am not talking to you!” The force with which he spoke, admonished her, of the deadly consequences of speaking out of turn, Kollie was interrogated: They asked him at which government ministry he worked? They questioned him about his bank account and. They asked if he was a friend of the president. Did he just change his last name? He told his captors he worked at the university and was just a simple man in the country helping to mold the minds of those who sought knowledge. He was laughed off. The young soldiers were bemused by his talk. He looked around, confused. He assured them he was telling the truth. His honesty was challenged and rejected, not because he was lying, but because the young soldiers in their drunken stupor enjoyed the power they held over their captives. Their superiors had told them: ambitious politicians were fleeing the countryside, and they needed to get rid of them, so as not to cause trouble, when they took power.
“That who you think you fooling,” one of the drunken teens said in his tangy broken English. “Man move from there, man, we see that here plenty, people lying, to cross our checkpoint.” Glances were exchanged amongst them, and that was it. One of the interrogators came outside, shooting in the empty air, and people began running in different directions.
“My husband, my husband,” the exhausted woman cried out. , She refused to leave the vicinity until a soldier pointed his gun at her and she took off running, sobbing and yelling with the rest of the travelers. This was the most difficult check point. One of the teens said he recognized him as a government official and began making incessant threats. “What was the wrong in being a gov’t. official?,” he asked. This was the last straw for the soldiers. Everything that was wrong with the country was blamed on the gov’t officials. They were living lavishly while the common people were suffering. But the professor said was concerned with teaching and imparting knowledge; and the everyday politics of the governing elites. His question had sealed his fate. He didn’t know it. He felt sorry for himself; he didn’t know his crime: Now he would lose his wife, having lost his children. He pleaded and begged the teens, then took off his gold Seiko watch and offered it to the youth, but the C.O. who had noticed what was happening came over, and said “Give me that watch!” He ordered. And the corporal obliged.
“I used to see his picture in the newspaper,” the grubby youth said, as the C.O. nodded.
“Look at the kind of watch he wearing self,” The C.O. retorted, trying on the piece of jewelry.
“How The C.O. looks?” he asked his underlings with the watch gleaming from his wrist, “The C.O. look all right!”
The young soldiers loudly responded.
Smiling, the C.O. ordered Kollie into the makeshift holding cell.
Kollie threw his hands in the air resigning his fate to divine intervention. He heard the gunshots outside, and his wife wailing. He thought probably they must have executed her, his heart sank and pain marched through his body. This experience almost had him fainted.
The C.O., trousers were worn and torn at the backside. But that did not seem to bother him; he was the boss.
She was lost for words. Her children were gone and now her husband also. “What freedom was this”, she asked herself? She was completely drained now. She no longer felt hunger; the emotions, running through her body were too raw to bear.
Although Musue had lost her husband miles down the road, she was still sobbing and looking back while dragging her feet. The multitude of people heading for the last checkpoint had grown exponentially as everyone marched in complete silence. Occasionally her bangles would make metallic noises, drawing stares, especially when there was outright quiet, when only the grunts of babies could be heard as they bunched on their mothers’ backs.
Like the others in this herd, she was neither in a rush to reach the next checkpoint nor did she not intend reaching it at all.
She was tired and lukewarm about the chattering of selective justice she had just experienced. The bewailing complaints about conscripted youths and civilians, the forceful separation of families troubled her greatly. Then she met a witness, an experienced older woman who told her stories about the omnipotent C.O. at the next crossing, whose mercy they all needed. The woman told her, that her own husband was interrogated about three checkpoints before, and she was told to continue her journey without him. She listened but did not share her own story. She moved inch by inch reaching the dreaded place. Her heart was thumping. She was unsettled, like a bird with ruffled feathers. She began to recite Psalms 23, quietly, and then she looked towards the heavens. The clouds were blue and clear and peaceful; birds were flying northwards. If only she could be a bird, she would fly freely about the skies, she would be okay. She watched them fly away and they vanished from her sight. As she came closer, the young soldiers, they all heard about came into full glare, they were wearing wigs, smoking and chattering and they smelled badly from the distance. It looks like they had gone weeks without showers or baths.
One of them had a loaded, shiny M16; he must have put extra efforts in cleaning it daily. The gun was surprisingly not unkempt and it was within reach, it was strapped across his chest and his arms and hands were resting on the gun. He wore dark, green yoga socks- gloves, which exposed his brown fingers. He exuded confidence smiled awkwardly, and he looked well fed in contrast to the travelers. He stood on the side in full view: It seemed liked the gun was deliberately being aimed at her.
Fear jetted through her body. This was the lion’s den. She heard metal clicks every so often, at every click of the gun, she look about frettingly and spotted a teen sitting on a green patch of grass nearby cleaning his weapon, as the others directed orders towards those trying to cross the check point, while another youth was holding a bottle of cane juice, and was randomly shooting in the open; the sound and odor of gunpowder consumed the air. Everyone in line straightened up, trying hard not to make eye contacts with the teenage soldiers. People were being single-out depending on the mood of the soldiers, and like the lecturer, the looks of the travelers. This was worrying. Musue was just bemused, standing like a zombie. Suddenly, while she was doing all that thinking, it was her turn.
"Where place you going?" came the unruffled voice, the teen said without looking at Musue directly.
The raggedy looking teen repeated his question, when he didn't get an answer, his eyes red, sizing her up. Musue who was trying to catch a breath, said nothing.
The sun was hot and it was humid. The journey had been long and her family was on her mind. She wanted to sit down and rest her tired legs. She gazed at the long line of people behind her, “Oldma,” the boy raised his voice; “I asking you, where place you coming from and where place you going?”
She looked him over and noticed he was wearing two different pairs and sizes of converse sneakers, red and yellow.
“I am going to the nearby town,” Musue said, smiling clumsily.
“But I am tired my son,” she said between breathes. She didn't know what exactly to say to the kid, with her fate in his hands.
"I was coming with my husband," she said chocking on her words, then paused, fearing to say the wrong thing and get the same fate. Her feet were shaking. She needed the courage now; she was all that was left of her family.
The teen waited for her to finish her statement, but she didn't know where to begin as she began again to sob. She pulled the tip of her lappa and wiped her face dry.
“You not government spy?”
He asked a frown on his pale face. He was now giving her a snooping and intimidating look, slightly raising his voice.
He repeated the question after she had composed herself. Everyone was staring at her and she thought the earth would give way beneath her. Calling her a spy woke her up. She, glared at him, her eyes fixated, her brow narrowed and, she spoke slowly.
“Do I look like a government spy, no ohh!, my son; I am not a spy ohh.”
She spoke in a voice that berated him softly without insulting him; she knew being accused of being a spy was one way to have you executed by the freedom fighters on drugs.
"I worked in the hospital, that's all I have done" she said with a straight face, "I take care of patients, my son.”
He shouted back at her.
“I am not your son!”
“Okay ohh papa,” she said calmly, avoiding eye contact, “I take care of people who are sick and need to be looked after.” She adjusted the bangles on her hands, putting on a charm.
“What happened to your husband,” he queried.
“My husband and I started this journey together but he is no longer with me, they kept him to the check point.” She told the frowzy youth, his rotten clothes filtering to her nostrils. Musue was speaking in her best Liberian patois.
She was overwhelmed with fatigue. Given her current state, she did not look like a nurse. Her hair was banded in a purple hair wrap. During peace times, she always kept it nice, and probably would never have crossed paths with this bandit.
As the rebel interrogated her she kept her head bowed, appearing as submissive as possible, and looking at his torn dusty mismatched shoes, his pants torn at the knees, his craggily dirty hands and overgrown fingernails in sight. All the freedom fighters were wearing them, clothing that belong to dead people they had executed.
She was staring at the dingy hands he may have used to shoot decent mortals like her. She lifted her chin and they both stood face to face, his brown grimy sun-baked face and eyes piercing through her. He had a scary, pallid look about him; this kid had a gun which could shoot if he wanted. The line was piling up and stretching for miles.
The C.O. came over with a walkie-talkie in his left hand. It was whizzing, giving out static blips and bleeps. He gave instructions to the youths who all brought themselves to attention as he gave commands; he was young in his mid-twenties. He invited the tired woman into his makeshift office, a converted family home. The worn, red and white, checkered table cloth half hanging from a wooden table caught her attention.
“What’s your story?” the C.O. asked laying his loaded pistol on the table and adjusting the checkered table cloth. She spilled her heart out, to the C.O.
The C.O. said nothing. When he spoke, he said he had been watching the interaction between she and his soldier and so he intervened and wanted to asked her what was wrong, as the line was being held up.
As they spoke, there were scuffles and noises coming from the room behind them. “There are men in there, spies!” He told her, raising his brows.
Her heart sank as he said that, thinking about her own husband, more tears rolled down her cheeks “I understand,” she said, nodding quietly.
The commanding officer said in a thick Lofa accent, fear and trembles went through her body. These men holding guns were capable of anything without remorse and she was certain about it.
"So you know how to treat people?" He asked.
"Yes, I threat people, provide care that is why I am a nurse." She explained, enthusiastically, as if hearing that she was a nurse would guarantee her freedom.
"We can use your help”, he said “Our soldiers coming from the front are often wounded." He paused, lighting a cigarette nonchalantly, puffing the smoke into the room in her direction. The woman was looking at the table on which sat his walkie talkie and firearm, there was a brief silence. But the two-way radio was still giving out its static booo bleeps. Was she being held hostage, because of her profession, she wondered?
Then C.O. continued, “Yesterday, we lost about fifty men to a heavy fighting east of here, we have many wounded men that need your help,” he said calmly.
She looked at him with fear whenever he wasn't looking at her. Although there was calmness to his manners, she calculated he was capable of unspeakable things.
“Any other family?" The C.O. asked, pulling on his cigarette.
“Yes, but we all have scattered now. Don't know where my family is, maybe in Kakata.”
She was tensed, looked forward to the end of the interrogation and to leave the presence of the man who frightened her. Waiting for that moment when he would say she was free to go and leave his makeshift office, the home of the family who were either murdered or took off in fear. Looking around the office she saw a Liberian flag, made from a white poster sheet, which hung on a nail behind the C.O. She also saw a spider hanging from a web in the ceiling. The walls were grimy and several layers of paint could be seen in certain spots.
The walls seemed not to have been painted in years. A bee came her way and she took a wide swap at it with her slipper. It was near midafternoon, and the clouds were getting dark. If released by her interrogator, she would need to hurry through the thick woods and narrow paths as she continued her journey.
"I think" he said, when he finally spoke after the prolong silence,” we will need you to help treat our soldiers, shaking his head and nodding appreciatively. “We will need your expertise.” Her heart sank again, but she said nothing.
She was slowly coming to the cruel realization that the C.O was holding her hostage at the checkpoint and in someone’s house which was forcibly converted into their intelligence outpost.
"You have a problem with nursing our soldiers, Madame?" He asked.
“Oh no, no, I, I don't have a problem,” she said quietly, but what else could she do? She tried hard to hide her remorse all along, and hoped the mask she had put on would not be uncovered. “We are fighting for freedom in our country,” he said while pacing. “We are here to redeem you people; we will fight the government forces until we see victory!” There was frightening look on his face, as he spoke in self-praise. She was shaking her head in agreement to his remarks; giving approval in the best possible way to soothe his ego on display. “This is our second independence,” he said, boastfully, and blew smoke towards the ceiling. She nodded and spoke, “yes a great patriotic war for our people, you are fighting for us. All we can do C.O. is to thank you very much for your sacrifice.”
"I have a long journey ahead of me, but I thank you for giving me rest tonight, I will help heal your wounded soldiers. We all are obligated to help our country”, she said, clutching tight the back the chair on which she was sitting. Trying her best not to show she wasn’t trembling and terrified of the man everyone here called The C.O., who wore a goatee and spoke in a thick accent.
The great patriotic war, according to the C.O., needed her help; her best bet therefore was to go along, and agree with whatever he said, play it safe until she was able to leave.
She smiled at him and thanked him for defending the country and it citizens. He laughed and his stained teeth showed as he held his weapon. The walkie talkie was crackling, “bravo, bravo,” it said. He ignored it, telling her “bravo,” wasn’t his code, shaking his head in discontentment.
He pointed to the rifle and said, “you will need one for yourself because when you have this, you alright!” he let out a loud creepy laugh, tilted his head towards the flag and the spider web, and, puffed out more smoke. “Power comes from the barrel of the gun,” he said, full of confidence, “the gun is powerful, I will be back.”
She had no idea what the quote meant. She wondered what could the quote mean and how much education he had had? He was probably a young university student, she thought.
He stepped outside leaving her alone in the office. "In name of Jesus," she murmured, “What the hell is this?” Her outburst surprised her, it wasn’t meant, and she looked over her shoulders to make sure no one had heard her.
After few minutes a group of three men entered the Intelligence Office, where she was sitting. They went past her to the far-end corner of the room where she could hear mumbling among themselves but, she could not make out what they were saying.
The frightened woman then recited Psalm 23 -- again. Outside, she heard gun shots.
“We executed him,” the C.O. was heard saying. “That me give the orders,” he said, speaking to himself, when returned to his desk, and making sure everyone heard him loud and clear.
He lifted his feet and thumped them onto his working desk; He drew his pistol and laid it on the table, while looking intently at Musue, who bowed her head.
“I Thank you so much, thank you again very much," she said, when she lifted her head, and addressed him. “You have been so kind to me, and only God will pay you, papa.” She stared at him beguilingly, trying to prompt an appeal and evoke sympathy and empathy as she showed gratitude. Any wrong move or act on her part could provoke violence. Her fate really was in his hands. So she was careful and monitored her own behavior, while mindful not to offend this man who could pass for her son. And then he spoke up, after what seem like a life time of silence.
“I am sorry to let you know we have intelligence, that an attack is coming anytime soon. So I will let you go,” he said. He showed no emotions.
“We will take our wounded people to the next field hospital west of here.” the C.O. said.
Musue was dumfounded, maybe he was joking, fooling around to test her earlier statement and commitment that she would stay to help the wounded.
She had finally reached her end, with him trying to conscript her, and now this sudden about face, what was under his sleeves, Could this be some kind of test, a trick to catch her pants down or test her loyalty. She won’t go for the trick he was pulling; no way, she won’t take the bait, her head was blowing up again, and a thousand things were going through her mind.
“I want to stay,” she said curtly. “I want to help your freedom fighters fight this patriotic war. We must all serve our country, sir!” she said pleading to be used; she looked him straight in the eyes as she spoke, looking for any hint or disaffection.
She fell to her knees begging to help heal his wounded soldiers. She knew she was with the enemy on this makeshift base and would have to endure enemy fire if she was conscripted; she was cornered between the rock and the hard place. The young soldier quietly tapped her shoulders to get up on her feet, “go we don’t need you anymore. If you stay here you will die, do you hear me, you will die,” he repeated, “the fighting will be heavy, and you have no formal training!”
She imagined what it would be like on the base- when the attack came, with bullet flying and ricocheting from different directions. She would be caught in the middle of it all, dodging bullets and grenades, while collecting the wounded. To take a hit, would mean her children and her husband would never see her again. Maybe they didn’t kill him, she cheered herself. Maybe he was still alive.
She asked him for a cigarette which he handed her. She had not smoked since college; she set it ablaze, inhaled and puffed out a long stream of smoke, puffing towards the spider web, her bangles dangling and chuckling, every time she raised the smokes to her lips. Her mouth dry she swallowed hard and stood immobile taking in the scene. She said nothing, but stared at her yellow backpack lying on the dirty dust covered floor by her feet.
She hesitated to leave, not convinced by the 180 degree U-turn by the C.O.
“I have no doubt you will be okay,” the C.O. said, “now go!” He appeared a little irritated. It was at this junction she finally accepted that her freedom was bought and won.
Musue thanked the Commanding Officer and went on her way.
Outside, frowning, she looked backed and hissed her teeth, in anger and disbelief. She hurled, expletives at her former captors and the C.O., Not knowing where she was going, but was certain she would cross the border in about a mile---with the memories of her husband and the kids weighing her down, she continued her journey, She had crossed the last check point to freedom.
Ralph Cherbo Geeplay: "I was born in Pleebo, Southeastern Liberia, West Africa. I published my first set of poems in 2009 in the Liberian Sea Breeze Journal, edited by Stephanie Horton. A Pan African poet, I write about Africa, the Liberian civil war, my Grebo heritage, and everything in between. I recently published my poetry in the Blue Lake Review, and the Adelaide Literary Magazine for which I was The Finalist of the Adelaiade Literary Award for Poetry 2018. I am the editor of an online journal, The Liberian Listener, and live in Edmonton Alberta, Canada, with his family."