It was the sound of gunfire that woke us up. It began at about six thirty in the morning, and sounded just within a stone’s throw, a staccato burst of gunfire followed by heavy explosions. We ran out into the yard. From the neighbouring houses people were running away, their travelling bags on their heads. In the distance the shooting went on without a pause. Huge columns of smoke rose as though from a chimney.
Suddenly our landlord, Mr Kumeh, along with his wife and children, came running out of their house. ‘The rebels here,’ cried Mr Kumeh. ‘Right now they at Red Light Market.’
Red Light Market was a mere ten minutes’ drive from the house. That meant the rebels would appear at any moment.
Mr Kumeh turned on his heels. Carrying a travelling bag on his shoulder, his wife and children running close behind, they all disappeared up the road.
We ran back into our house. Our travelling bags had been packed already. I grabbed one of the bags and put it on my head. The girls took the others. We ran out of the house. My uncle locked the door and put the keys in his trouser pocket.
On the tarred road was a stream of cars and people, packed together like sardines. At the roadblocks the soldiers were stopping cars and demanding bribes. Sometimes they pulled a man out of his car and began to beat him. By the roadside a few men sat sprawled with their hands on their heads. One of them had a deep gash on his forehead. The left side of his face was covered with blood, which had since dried, and had turned the colour of rust. The right eye of another man had swollen as big as his fist. He was crying loudly. At one point a soldier left one of the roadblocks and booted him in the ribs, warning the man that if he did not shut up he would be shot. But the man only fell to whimpering, like an injured dog.
I saw Ballah standing at one of the roadblocks. This time he did not carry an M16 assault rifle but a machine gun, the cartridge belt running from shoulder to shoulder. I couldn’t believe my eyes. The former driver looked like Rambo – straight out of the movies. He caught me looking at him. For a brief moment we looked at each
other, and then he turned his face away. Then I couldn’t see him any more for the crowd.
Suddenly a shell exploded nearby. Everybody except the soldiers at the roadblocks broke into a run. But I saw some of them duck for cover. Close by me two small children ran barefoot. The eldest was about five years old, the younger one about three.
‘Where y’all goin’?’ I shouted as loud as I could, in order to be heard over the
noise of running footsteps and the staccato burst of gunfire behind us.
‘We runnin way,’ the bigger one said.
‘Where yor ma and pa?’
‘I na know.’
I watched as the two little girls ran, disappearing into the crowd.
As we ran I suddenly thought about Kou, and looked round me. Patience and Garmai were running, not far in front of me, my uncle and his wife were close behind. Kou was nowhere to be seen. I stopped running and cried out, ‘Where Kou?’
My uncle and his wife heard me, and stopped in their tracks. Together we shouted at Patience and Garmai to stop. They stopped running and looked at us in confusion.
‘Where Kou?’ I shouted again.
Patience and Garmai ran back to us. ‘What happened, Tarnue?’ Garmai asked.
‘We can’t see Kou,’ I said.
‘But she was here jes now,’ Patience said.
‘Where?’ My uncle asked.
‘I can’t remember,’ Patience said. ‘But I saw her somewhere.’
‘Let’s go look for her,’ my uncle said.
‘No, let’s stay together,’ his wife protested. ‘If we go to look for Kou we will lose one of the children again. And the shooting is coming closer.’
Garmai and Patience were crying.
My uncle’s wife said, ‘Y’all should have stayed together.’
‘You can’t blame them,’ my uncle said. ‘We are all running.’
I thought of going back to the roadblock where I had seen Ballah, to ask him to help us look for Kou. But when I thought of the way he had acted at the Karnweas’ house, along with the other soldiers, how he might have had a hand in the killing of Mr and
Mrs Karnwea, I did not want to have anything to do with him.
‘We will just have to leave Kou and go,’ my uncle’s wife said. ‘The fighting is
My uncle nodded his head.
Along with the girls I too began to cry.
For a few moments we stood looking round us, thinking we might find Kou by the look of the red travelling bag she was carrying. My uncle, who was the tallest, could see furthest ahead.
But it was all in vain.
Then a second shell again exploded in the distance behind us.
We began to run again. As we ran I looked back again and again, thinking I might see Kou, but it was no use. We had lost her, and there was nothing we could do about it.
All through that morning and well into the afternoon we ran for our lives, stopping briefly from time to time. I was thirsty and my throat felt dry, like sandpaper. Towards evening we met a pickup along the road, which belonged to a fat, distinguished-looking, balding man in his fifties. He was wearing a pair of gold-rimmed glasses and blue running shoes. The car had broken down along the road and the man had opened the hood and was trying to fix it. Sweat bounced off his forehead. He was talking to himself and looked agitated. A woman who must have been his wife sat beside the road, a boy of about three years old on her lap. Their belongings were packed at the back of the pickup, a clutter of large suitcases. My uncle asked the man where he was heading, and he said he was going to Cape Mount.
‘That is where we goin too,’ my uncle said. ‘My wife’s mother lives in Cape Mount.’
The man nodded his head impatiently. ‘Do you know how to fix a car?’
‘Yes,’ my uncle said. ‘I’m a mechanic.’
‘How much would it cost to fix my car?’ the man asked.
‘I don’t want money,’ my uncle said. ‘I’ll fix the car for free. You can drive us to Cape Mount.’
‘All right,’ the man said, and shook hands with my uncle.
Within a few minutes the pickup was on the road. We jumped in the back with the suitcases. We were so crammed at the back I soon began to feel cramps in my legs. The fat man’s wife sat at the passenger’s front seat with her little boy. Patience and Garmai were still crying for Kou. I cried, too, but kept my voice to myself. When we told the man and his wife what had happened, they tried to soothe us.
But Patience and Garmai cried until we reached a roadblock. At the roadblock was a motley group of government soldiers, some in battered army boots with their toes peeking out of them. They ordered the car off the road. One of them came to the car,
brandishing a 50-calibre pistol, his eyes the colour of red hot pepper.
‘Everybodey geh down,’ he said, and nearly dragged the fat man from behind the wheel.
Another soldier came to the car. ‘Where y’all goin?’
The fat man said, ‘We’re going to Cape Mount.’
The soldier with the pistol looked the fat man up and down. I saw his bloodshot eyes settle on the man’s gold-rimmed glasses, and then the silver watch round the man’s left wrist. And his eyes glinted with amusement.
The other said, ‘Anybodey da go where the rebel eh da rebel. Y’all goin join dem, like all deh Gio and Mano dogs.’
My uncle said, ‘My family and I are from Barnesville. The fighting is close near there, and we can’t stay in our house.’
The soldier pointed to the fat man. ‘Deh man da yor broder?’
‘No, he’s not my brother,’ my uncle said. ‘His car broke down on the road, and I helped him fix it. He’s going to Cape Mount, and that is where everybody going.’
‘Talk for yorsef,’ the soldier with the pistol shouted, slapping my uncle across the face.
My uncle squinted and rubbed the right side of his face.
‘Put yor hand down,’ the soldier said, raising his hand as though to slap my uncle again.
My uncle dropped his arms at his sides and became stiff, like a statue.
‘Yor put everythin down fom deh car,’ the one with the pistol said. ‘When we fin gun inside y’all fini.’
We began hurriedly to unload the things at the back of the pickup. Within a few moments everything was on the ground.
The other soldier said, ‘Yor sit down on the ground.’
We had begun to sit when the soldier with the pistol grabbed the fat man by the back of his trousers and hoisted him up violently.
‘I beg y’all,’ the fat man’s wife said. ‘He’s my husband. He’s never seen the rebels before.’
‘Shutup,’ said the one with the pistol.
The other soldier took a step towards the woman, raising his fist as though to hit her in the face. She cringed and sat trembling. Her little boy was crying.
The two soldiers called another soldier to keep watch over us. He was a young man of about eighteen with a red handkerchief tied round his head. He was shouldering a rifle. The two soldiers began to push the fat man in front of them, kicking him and hitting him with their fists every time he turned round to beg. The soldier keeping watch over us walked towards my uncle and me, and without warning, knocked our heads together. And then he burst out laughing.
A few minutes later the fat man came back. I could hardly recognise him. His gold-rimmed glasses were gone, and so was his wristwatch. He bowed his head sobbing and muttering to himself. They had taken off his shirt and trousers. He was only in a pair of light blue undershorts and white undershirt. I felt sorry for him. The soldiers shouted at us to get up and go.
The fat man and his wife took only a travelling bag, leaving the rest of their things on the road, the pickup, even. They said they did not want to go to Cape Mount any more, and went in another direction. We took our travelling bags and joined a small crowd.