From lack of adequate space, the NPFL fighters who had been wounded in the fighting were moved from the annex and into another clinic set up to attend to the rebels. Upon recovery from their wounds, they were moved to a warehouse nearby where a group of fighters, about a hundred and fifty combatants, resided. There the fighters would talk and argue among themselves, cussed one another, and almost every day there were fights. Sometimes they would play checkers and at twilight prayer services were held. A slim, tall, bearded fighter named Bob Marley, his hair in dreadlocks, would preach to the others, reading from an old King James Bible that he had gotten from one of the Nigerian ECOMOG soldiers who guarded the building.
During his daily rounds to inspect the injured fighters, Emeka would call on the child soldier who had been wounded in the arm by shrapnel. He had come to develop a fondness for the small boy, whom he felt couldn’t be to blame for the crimes he perpetrated. Perhaps that was, of course, why Emeka had tried to relate him to his own childhood and its innocence. But he was aware that this boy, who had learned to kill people, was no longer an innocent child. And because the survival of a child soldier depended on his ability to go to extremes so as to appear bold and fearless, Emeka knew that child soldiers were even feared much more than their elderly counterparts. The child soldiers he had, in fact, seen in the INPFL would kill first and then ask questions later. They often came with a zombie-like gaze to their eyes, and their voices were hoarse and lips and fingers stained by opium smoke.
But during his visits to the clinic, the boy wouldn’t say a word to Emeka. Upon seeing him he would curse under his breath or throw the bedclothes over his head. When Emeka felt for his pulse or asked how he felt, he would look at him sullenly, his red eyes full of loathing. Perhaps the boy had been taught to hate ECOMOG. Emeka could only wonder at the level of animosity that emanated from him. Whatever it was, Emeka would visit as often as he could. On finding the boy asleep, he would sit for a few minutes on a chair next to the boy’s mattress, reading without concentration Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons. Sometimes he would bring a present for the small boy and would set it on a table at the head of the mattress. Yet the next day he would meet it just where he had left it the day previously. Neither saying a word to the small boy nor seeming to be surprised that he hadn’t touched the parcel, Emeka would sit patiently until he got ready to leave.
These visits to the boy in the clinic had, of course, a singular object. Ever since Emeka had arrived as an ECOMOG soldier in Liberia, he had been curious about the psychological effect of the war on child soldiers. Often, he would wonder if a child soldier, shown compassion and given some kind of rehabilitation, would revert into the innocence of his childhood or continue as a hopeless case. And whenever he visited the small boy, Emeka would look for signs that might indicate the extent to which a child, turned into a hardcore killer, could be ruined. True, there were a few other boy-fighters living at the ECOMOG headquarters and Emeka could well have done his evaluation on a number of them. But for some reason, he felt drawn to this boy and thought he might be easier to speak with. The only obstacle was that he wouldn’t talk to Emeka.
As for the small boy, he could feel nothing other than loathing towards the ECOMOG soldiers. Often, he would tell himself stories of getting hold of a few of their weapons. With the help of his colleagues who had been captured, he would kill as many peacekeeping soldiers as possible, and then he and his comrades would escape. ECOMOG were thieves, rapists and murderers. They had come to Liberia for no other reason than to plunder the country, rape the women and kill the men; at least that was what his NPFL commanders had told him. He had also heard that ECOMOG were cannibals and that they sold human organs, which could be used for ritualistic purposes, in clandestine markets in Nigeria. Some of the ECOMOG soldiers did, in fact, looked like cannibals. A few of them had those tribal scars that made you feel as though you were about to be eaten. But why hadn’t they killed him and his colleagues and eaten them ever since? What were they waiting for? Why had they brought him and the others to this clinic and were feeding and tending to them? Could it be that they wanted to take them alive to Nigeria and other parts of Africa before they were all killed and their organs sold? He had heard that heart-men, or people who sold human organs, extracted body parts from their victims only while they were alive and breathing. He wondered why the fighters with him in the ECOMOG headquarters, especially those who hadn’t been wounded in the fighting and lived in another building nearby, hadn’t yet done anything to escape from this place. Surely by now they could have stolen some weapons or tried to run away. Once, when a fight had broken out among them and a number of ECOMOG soldiers, lying on his mattress he had hoped it was a mutiny his colleagues had staged to oust the so-called ECOMOG peacekeepers. But a few days later, he had learned that the scuffle had actually been over food and cigarette rations. How unfortunate! Where was their sense of duty and patriotism as fighters of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia? Was it possible that they had sold their ideology for food and cigarettes? And here he was, lying ailing and helpless and could do nothing other than watch the so-called ECOMOG peacekeepers betray him and the others they had brought to this place.
And when one of the ECOMOG soldiers actually began to visit him, he felt more rancor than perhaps words could make clear. True, he was one of the doctors. But what difference did it make? He had those scars on his face and looked no better than a man-eater. As for the presents he would bring him, only a fool would eat them because they were poisoned. He wished the ECOMOG soldier would just leave him alone and stop coming to the clinic altogether. If he wanted him, why couldn’t he just go ahead and eat him? Why torment him by coming to see him every day, as though he were trying to escape?
And so one evening when Emeka called on the small boy, the child suddenly said to him:
“Wuhtin you wan?”
Emeka jumped and almost fell off the chair. Then he turned and looked at the boy. The child was lying on his back on the mattress, looking at him with two points of eyes that glowed like fire.
Emeka smiled. “How are you?”
The boy did not answer.
“My name’s Emeka. I would like you to be my friend. Eh?” Emeka said.
The boy remained silent.
Emeka said, “Ah, I see you don’t want to talk to me.”
“Da force if ah na wan talk to any ECOMOG soldier?” the boy said, barring his teeth. “An wuhtin you wan? You cam kill me?”
“Of course not,” Emeka said. “ECOMOG is your friend and we came to Liberia only to bring peace, not to kill anybody.”
The boy said nothing.
In the clinic a few fighters, thin and emaciated, lay on their mattresses. Two others, a boy of about ten years of age and a young man who could have been around twenty-five, were sitting in wheelchairs, their faces haggard and eyes seeming to pop right out of the sockets. Many of those lying in their beds
were asleep. These were the ones who had been operated on or had had their legs and arms amputated. A child soldier with an adhesive tape running the whole length of his stomach looked so thin and sickly you could count his ribs almost as though he had no flesh.
Emeka ripped open the pack of Cream Crackers, encased in a shiny orange plastic, which he had brought for the boy. He removed a section of the biscuit out of the pack, began to eat it, and handed over the package to the child. But the small boy only looked ominously at him. Emeka set the Crackers down on the table opposite.
“What’s your name?”
The boy didn’t answer.
But already thoughts were beginning to crowd in his head. If the ECOMOG soldier had himself eaten the biscuit, he thought, surely then it hadn’t been poisoned. Could it be that the food he often brought did not have poison in it? His eyes like slits, the small boy looked suspiciously at Emeka. He was almost as thin and dried up as the other child soldier whose stomach had been operated on. He was lying on a small mattress with bedclothes and a pillow. He was dressed in an oversized white t-shirt and a pair of white shorts, pieces of clothing that Emeka and a few other ECOMOG soldiers had distributed among the fighters in the clinic. On the floor at the foot of his mattress was a yellow pair of shower slippers. Next to this stood a black polythene bucket which had a lid that shut tightly and was used as a sort of crude latrine.
“Well, I think you don’t want to talk today. Eh?” Emeka said and, knowing that the small boy wouldn’t answer, got up from the chair and walked out of the clinic.
The boy heaved a sigh of relieve.
But soon he began to think about the ECOMOG soldier and how he had sat there talking quietly and had smiled as though he felt nothing towards him but sympathy. True, he had those scars on his face which made him looked like a cannibal. But when he had sat there and tried to make conversation he had
looked anything except a man who could eat human beings. Could it be that ECOMOG were not as bad as his NPFL commanders had told him? Was it only that this ECOMOG soldier was different from the others? Or was he only trying to deceive him? But he had seen him eat the biscuit that he thought had been poisoned. The boy turned his head and looked at the pack of wafer on the table next to his mattress. For a while, he debated with himself whether to eat some of it or not, but then grabbed the pack of Crackers off the table. He removed a section of it and began to eat slowly. As he did so, he thought he felt an odd, strange taste in his mouth. He stopped chewing immediately and his heart contracted. But nothing happened; it had, of course, been only his imagination. He took out another section of the biscuit, then another one and soon he was eating it one after the other. Perhaps his NPFL commanders had been wrong about ECOMOG, he decided.
Copyright © Saah Millimono 2016.
To be cont’d.
About the author: Saah Millimono is the author of Broken Dreams, which was awarded the Short Fiction Prize of the Sea Breeze Journal of Contemporary Liberian Writings. His first novel Boy Interrupted was awarded 2nd Place for the Kwani Manuscript Project, a one-off writing prize for African writers across the continent and in the Diaspora. He is currently at work on his second novel, which explores the root causes, some of which were not only the direct result of misrule but also the social disparities and perhaps even prejudices that existed both between the indigenous and Americo-Liberians, which triggered the Liberian Civil War. It is also the overlapping stories of three very different characters caught in the conflict and forced into situations that are as sweeping and heartrending as the war itself. He has written for the Daily Observer and the Guardian (UK).