Author’s note: The following excerpt should have been published after the previous two, but because of personal setbacks I was unable to get the writing done until today; I have slightly changed the title.
It was a little after one o’clock in the morning that the small boy, having read a number of tales from Arabian Nights, closed the book and looked up at Gbassy, still with a smile.
Gbassy grinned back at him. ‘You read very well. Your parents should be proud of you. My oldest son, he’s eighteen, and he can’t read.’
The boy shrugged his shoulders. ‘Not everybody likes to read. Maybe he will join the army. Do you know Mr Jabateh, the carpenter who lives across the road?’
‘His son Mulbah is eighteen years old too, and he’s joined the army.’
‘Only yanna boys are joining the army these days.’
‘What do you mean it’s only yanna boys? I’ve seen the soldiers. They have guns and look cute in their uniforms.’
‘They are nothing but thieves and yanna boys, those soldiers. The government has been taking them off the streets in truckloads just to get killed for nothing, because many of them are not even taught to take cover and still less how to aim their rifles properly.’
‘Are the rebels thieves and yanna boys too?’
‘Nobody knows yet. But I hear some of the rebels are as young as you are.’
‘But I’m only nine! How would boys like me be able to carry a gun?’
‘Myself, I don’t know.’
‘Who gave them the guns? Who sent them to fight?’
‘The big, big people here in our country, but most of them are living in America now. There’s a man called Charles Taylor who’s leading the rebels. He used to work for the government.’
‘So this is the man who’s sending those small boys to fight?’
‘He and the other big people in America.’
‘What do they send those small boys to fight for?’
‘They want to rule the country.’
‘So those small boys will die for nothing?’
‘Can’t somebody do something?’
‘Do something like what?’
‘They could take the guns from the small boys.’
Gbassy laughed, his teeth as brown as if stained by kola nut. ‘It wouldn’t be so easy.’
‘Because most of the boys will shoot you before they give you their guns. I hear they have been given opium to smoke and have even been made to eat human heart.’
Saye shuddered. ‘Are they cannibals?’
‘Their leaders want to make them as bad as they can and so they give them drugs and force them to eat human beings. That way they get them to kill people and show no conscience. Besides, when war starts it takes a long time to end. One thing leads to another thing and soon what started the war is forgotten. Some people will want to get rich out of the war and so will want it to go on forever.’
‘What will happen when the rebels reach Monrovia?’
‘There will be a lot of looting and killing and maybe even worse than what government soldiers are doing now.’
‘But would we be able to watch TV? Do you remember Balawala Malawala? They haven’t shown it for two weeks now.’
‘You mean the TV miniseries?’
‘Perhaps when the rebels reach Monrovia there will be no more TV.’
‘Are you joking?’
‘I’m telling you the truth, my friend. And perhaps there will be not only no TV but also no electricity or running water.’
‘What about school?’
‘School? There will be no school.’
The boy fell silent.
‘Things are going to get bad,’ Gbassy added quietly.
‘And so what are we going to do all day?’
‘Stay home hungry and dreaming about food, when we are not running away from the rebels and government soldiers who would try to kill us.’
‘Would things get as bad as that?’
‘Yes and maybe worse.’
The boy bowed his head and fell silent again. Seated cross-legged on the blankets, Gbassy watched him and wondered what he was thinking.
Then the boy looked up at Gbassy and said suddenly: ‘You said government soldiers are trying to kill you.’
The sudden shift of subject caught Gbassy like a sledgehammer between the eyes. He almost fell over backwards. For a moment he did not know what to say. Then he scratched his head, slapped a mosquito that had bitten him, said, ‘Yes,’ and looked at the boy, as if wondering what other secret weapon he had in his armoury.
‘Why would the soldiers want to kill you?’
‘I don’t know,’ the man said. ‘They are trying to kill everybody because, like I told you before, when war starts one thing leads to another thing. And then the soldiers come to get me, you and your parents and anybody they would like to come for.’
‘But I still don’t understand what started this war in the first place.’
‘I don’t know,’ the man said. ‘And you, don’t you want to sleep now?’
The boy sighed heavily and took his place on the blankets. Exhausted, just a few moments later he was fast asleep. But it was a while before Gbassy could sleep himself, for his head was crowded with thoughts.
Towards four in the morning he got up, went to the door, opened it and, making sure it stayed unlocked, made his way into the darkness. The soldiers had promised to pay him. He was angry that they hadn’t come yet. One of the most infuriating habits of these soldiers, many of whom were nothing but pickpockets, he thought grimly, is that they’re very unreliable. Every minute he had lain there on the blankets had been spent listening intently, like a man who had lost all his senses except the ability to hear, for the knock that would have signalled the start of the massacre. But the more he listened the more distant his prospects grew until finally it began to torture him, like thorns in his clothes. Now he would go and see the soldier Mulbah and the others, and tell them that this man and his family were rebel collaborators. It was hardly a sophisticated lie, but at least one on which he could count, because it had worked for him when the family was arrested at the airport. Even now it was the kind of untruth you told and which immediately was taken as gospel because the government was so desperate it would rob a priest. And although he could feel nothing but resentment whenever he thought about the chicken fuss, he now needed to get something out of it as well, especially since food was scarce. He wondered if the soldiers would keep their word and give him the half-bag of rice and the small gallon of cooking oil as he had asked.
But he did not find Mulbah and came back feeling like a man with a big family but not a coin to his name. One of the child’s parents while he was absent had come to the living room and taken the little boy away. The thought that perhaps the family might have escaped already, made Gbassy nearly cry out with rage. He was on the verge of running into the bedrooms to find out, when suddenly he heard sounds coming from one of the rooms. He sighed gratefully, like a beggar who finds a snug place to sleep during a night when it is raining, went to sit at the dining table and began to watch the hallway where the bedrooms of the family were, like a hyena waiting for the moment he would finish off a wounded animal. They must not be allowed to escape. Just then he heard footsteps in the yard. He jumped up, ran to the door, which he had left unlocked, and threw it open, hoping the soldiers had come. But it was a group of displaced people going by with their belongings, mattresses and cooking utensils placed on their heads and shoulders. They looked at him, seemed surprised that he was not running away himself and continued on their way. He closed the door again. As he turned round he saw the family standing there behind him. Both the man and the wife had got dressed and looked as if they were leaving the house. The child too had been made to put on sneakers and a jacket. They were carrying nothing but one travelling bag.
Gbassy frowned and looked darkly at them, his eyes seeming to scorch, like fire.
‘Morning,’ said the father.
‘Morning,’ said the wife.
The child did not speak.
‘Good morning to all of you,’ Gbassy said, standing inside the door as if barring the family from getting out of the house, arms akimbo and feet planted firmly on the floor.
The father said, ‘My family and I are leaving. We would like to seek refuge somewhere else rather than stay here until the war reaches Monrovia.’
Gbassy did not move, as though he had scarcely heard the father, and stood with a wicked gleam in his eye.
There was a long moment of silence, and they all remained motionless, like an audience waiting for the moment the curtain would rise, so that everybody, long spent with anticipation, would sigh gratefully. The child looked up at the faces of his parents and at the man inside the door. But when he looked at the man now it was with raised eyebrows, as though unable to believe that this was the very man with whom he had slept only hours before. Already his parents had told him why they thought the man was there; now all the friendly feelings he had felt toward Gbassy had vanished.
The father put his hand into his trouser-pocket, removed a thick wad of American notes, and handed it over to Gbassy. ‘It’s five hundred dollars, ‘he said, ‘and you can have the things in the house. We don’t need them anymore.’
Gbassy looked past the father’s shoulder, over at the furniture, and nodded his head. Then he stood aside from the door.
‘Thank you,’ said the husband.
‘Thank you,’ said the wife, and gazed at Gbassy like a sinner repentant in the presence of the Pope.
Gbassy smiled at the boy, but the child did not return the smile and looked at Gbassy as if he wanted to run away.
The man and his family walked out into the yard, then onto the tarred road and headed in the direction of the church that the wife had heard was receiving displaced persons.