Emeka was sitting in his lodgings, reading Anton Chekov’s Ward Number 6, when a mortar shell exploded outside. This was followed seconds later by a staccato burst of gunfire that seemed like heavy raindrops were falling onto the corrugated roofing of the building. Emeka dropped the book to the floor. He grabbed his rifle lying beside him on the cot. All the soldiers with him in the lodgings, in fact, sprang to action. Grabbing their guns and helmets, some struggling into their boots, some into their uniforms, they ran out of the building. By then bullets and splinters were flying in all direction. Amid the pop and crackle of rifle fire, the dull, deep-throated caraaak-wunk- caraaak-wunk of machine guns could be heard from opposite directions.
Crouching, running, their guns aimed in front of them, Emeka and a few of the soldiers from his lodgings took up positions along the buildings within the Freeport and behind shipping containers. Already there were hundreds of ECOMOG soldiers outside, some in dugouts, others behind the walls of the port fence. Holes had been punched into the whole length of the walls and through these a number of ECOMOG soldiers crouched aiming their rifles. At one of the main gates to the Freeport rose a thin trial of smoke. His gun slung over his shoulder, his white helmet lying a few yards beside him, an ECOMOG
soldier lay sprawled in a pool of blood. At the gate three troops from the Sierra Leonean contingent, among them a Nigerian and Guinean soldier, lay wounded. They could be heard crying at the top of their voices as an ambulance, wailing at full blast, sped toward the entrance.
As he made his way out of the port fence with a group of ECOMOG soldiers, Emeka saw hundreds of INPFL rebels. Some had arrived in military trucks and civilian vehicles and positioned themselves almost the whole length of the tarmac road toward Somalia Drive, shooting. Some of the fighters carried machine guns and rocket propelled grenades. Others were armed with short range mortars that were fired every few seconds and by fighters from the rear. Many of the rebels, among them a few elderly men, were only boys and teenagers, as well as a number of women, some of them not more than sixteen years of age. As usual they were dressed in battle fatigues, but some had come wearing olive green army uniforms. They seemed well-trained and held their rifles not unlike expert marksmen. Every few minutes they would advance, their firepower almost raking the ground in front of them. Among the column of rebels, Emeka spied the hot-headed rebel commander Prince Johnson, hunkered almost flat to the ground and firing salvos from his AK automatic rifle.
With the help of a Ghanaian peacekeeping soldier Emeka helped carried one after the other and into the ambulance the soldiers who had been wounded at the port entrance. The ambulance sped screaming toward the ECOMOG clinic inside the Freeport.
Suddenly from the Somalia Drive area, came the NPFL. There must have been more than five thousand of them. Unlike the INPFL, these were dressed in civilian clothes. Some had come with barely a shirt on their backs, some were barefoot, and others had come wearing plastic sanders. Like the INPLF many of them were little boys and teenagers. Some came up the tarmac road, others from houses by the roadside, firing from AK-47 rifles, Berettas, single-barrel and machine guns and rocket propelled grenades. Their firepower seemed more concentrated. Already a number of INPFL dead and wounded were lying by the roadside. Then a torrent of gunfire was heard in the distance toward Bushrod Island, from where the NPFL was waging another offensive, and the gunfire could be heard in both directions.
Crouched behind two tanks at the main gates to the Freeport, their knees shaking and foreheads covered with sweat, were a number of ECOMOG soldiers in white helmets. With them was the BBC journalist Elizabeth Blunt, who had arrived that morning to meet with ECOMOG force commander Lieutenant-General Arnorld Quainoo. With the English correspondent was her cameraman, a stocky, bearded man of thirty, with a head of thick hair and large nostrils. Miss Blunt was rather thin and small, her blond hair shaped like a fan. They were both dressed in bright blue bullet-proofed vests, and at the back were the letters “BBC”. Miss Blunt would look round the side of the army tank, talking into a microphone and gesticulating into the direction of the fighting as the cameraman moved the camera from side to side to capture her gesture.
Outgunned and outnumbered, the INPFL had for several minutes been able to check the NPFL advance. Suddenly they began to retreat. Hundreds of them, some carried on the shoulders of their comrades and blood pouring from their wounds, came running down the tarmac road. And the NPFL rebels, both from the Somalia Drive and Bushrod Island districts, came in all their numbers.
For some reason, the ECOMOG soldiers behind the tanks, including the hundreds of peacekeeping troops positioned within the walls of the Freeport, had still not joined the fight. Then a Nigerian soldier shouted something in Yoruba. From behind one of the army tanks a group of six ECOMOG soldiers emerged into the open, brandishing white flags. They were met by a hail of gunfire and three of the soldiers were shot and killed.
Dropping their white helmets, the others began firing at the NPFL rebels, who now were within only a few yards from the Freeport of Monrovia. Before long, hundreds of ECOMOG soldiers had joined the mêlée. The field guns within the walls of the port opened up with the roar of thunder. One after the other the shells, followed by a boom and a blast that was louder than anything either the INPFL or NPFL had in their arsenal, went hollowing overhead.
His surgical gloves and uniform covered blood, Emeka could be seen at one end of the clinic, now at the other end as he and the other ECOMOG doctors attended to the wounded. They bandaged legs and arms, removed bullets, and attached limbs that had been severed. But no amount of doctoring could save some of the men. They were left crying at the top of their voices until gasped their last. Usually they were brought in almost cut to bits, as though a butcher had made a cruel job of the business. One Sierra Leonean soldier, his intestines dangling in front of him, sat for a moment looking down at himself in terrified silence until he fell back onto the stretcher and died. The agonized screams of men could be heard throughout the clinic and the dead and wounded were lying everywhere.
To be cont’d.
Copyright © Saah Millimono 2016