When the following day Emeka came to visit, he found the boy sitting up on the mattress and gazing at him as before. He did notice, however, that those eyes had now a little warmth in them. Then suddenly he observed that the biscuit which he had left on the table the day before had disappeared. Had the boy eaten it or thrown it away? he wondered
“Hello, my friend,” Emeka said, smiling, and sat on the chair at the foot of the mattress. “I think you’re feeling much better today. I see you can sit up. That’s encouraging. Lie down in one place for a long time and soon you find out that you have got bedsores,” he added, trying to make conversation.
“My name is Kollie,” the boy said.
Ah, he wanted to talk, too, and had even introduced himself.
Emeka smiled broadly. “Kollie is a nice name,” he said, “and reminds me of the prophet in the Bible. Well, Kollie, I would like you be my friend.”
Kollie hesitated, and then slowly he nodded his head. “What time my friends and I will be free?” he asked, frowning at the ECOMOG soldier.
“You mean from here at the headquarters?” Emeka said.
“Yes,” the boy said.
“But you’re all free, Kollie, and can leave whenever you choose. But why we keep you and the others here is because most of you were wounded during the fighting and had to be brought to the hospital. Then again we would like to teach vocational trades to ex-combatants.”
“What do you mean by vocational trades?”
“This war, as I told you before, is destroying the country and many people are being killed. What if fighters like you can put their weapons down and learn useful trades like carpentry, masonry…”
“It’s the word we use when somebody knows how to build a house. Even we call that person a mason. All right, let’s say former fighters are taught to become carpenters, masons, shoemakers, tailors, mechanics, and if a woman or a girl is a former combatant she too can be taught something. Let’s say people learn many kinds of useful trades after they’ve been fighting in the war. Then they will have jobs to do and earn money, and will be able to live better lives and even to become better citizens. Not only that, they could help to rebuild the country after the war. That way, nobody loses and everybody, I believe, can add some value to their lives.”
“But how will they be able to help build the country?”
“By the work they do. When you learn a trade and go to work for somebody, the person you work for pays money, or tax, to the government. Even if you work for yourself, for everything you will buy to do your work there’s tax on it. All those taxes go to the government and are used to build the country. You and your friends can help build the country too, but first you need to learn something and get a job.”
“But what if I choose not to learn anything?”
“Of course we will not force you to learn anything, especially if you don’t want to. But tell me, Kollie, where do you have to go to? Back to the bush? To be given guns and to come and fight again?”
“I don’t know.”
“Some of your friends have been killed, Kollie. Besides, war has limits, as they say. All this killing and destruction surely can’t go on forever. But even if you go on fighting and die in the war, can you tell me if that is really what you want?”
“I don’t know.”
“How old are you?”
“Aha, I knew you would be no more than twelve or thirteen.”
“How’d you know?”
“I used to be the same age as you, only now I’m much older.”
“What’s your age now?”
“But why don’t you have beard? I remember my uncle was twenty-five and I used to comb is beard.”
“I shave in the morning. But if you want to see my beard, I’ll let it grow, so you can comb it too.”
“Were you in school before the war?”
“In Nigeria we say form, as you would say class here.”
“I was in the Fourth Grade.”
“That’s good. Did you love school?”
“Yes. But not like I used to love football.”
“You mean you could play football?”
“Yes. I played for my neighborhood team. Even I would have played for my school, too, but our P.E. teacher said I was too small.”
“What did he mean you were too small? Look, Kollie, some people, no matter their ages, play football for many years and they never get to play it well because they don’t have the talent. Even I believe that to be an excellent football player you don’t need age, training or experience. What you need is talent.
But who was your favorite player?”
“George Oppong Weah.”
“Ah, George Weah. He’s a football legend.”
“Before the war, he played for I.E. Then he went to France and played for Monaco and PSG. In Italy he played for Juve and Milan. I wanted to be like Oppong, too, to go to Europe and play football.”
“Kollie, you’re something!”
They were talking quite quietly; no one seemed to be paying them any attention. The others were either too sick to listen in on their conversation or just didn’t think it was worth the effort. A boy no older than Kollie entered the hospital in a wheelchair. He stopped opposite Kollie’ mattress and, proffering a
hand to Emeka, said “Oga.”
“Ah, Forkpa. How are you feeling?” Emeka said.
Forkpa smiled and nodded his head. A bullet had shattered his backbone and his whole torso was encased in cask.
“This is Kollie,” Emeka said, by way of trying to introduce his friend.
Kollie and Forkpa exchanged glances and nodded, only it did not seem that they could recognize each other. There had been too many NPFL fighters in the attack at the Freeport. While Kollie might have fought from the Somalia Drive district, Forkpa probably came from the Bushrod Island area.
Emeka handed to Forkpa one of the biscuits he brought. The boy smiled again and said thank you. Emeka smiled back and patted him on the shoulder. Then the boy went down the passage between the mattresses, his thin arms not without effort pushing forward the wheelchair from which he would never escape.
“So you had wanted to be a football legend too, like Oppong?” said Emeka, turning back to Kollie.
“Yes,” said Kollie, nodding his head. “But I don’t think of it any more, the war and everything that has happened.”
“Yes, the war,” said Emeka, nodding his head.
They both fell silent. ECOMOG soldiers could be heard talking outside and snatches of conversation drifted into the hospice.
Then Emeka said, “But you can go back to playing football, Kollie. All you need is practice, and soon your talent will begin to show itself again.”
Kollie shook his head. “I’ve seen some of my friends. They’re never the way they used to be. Some of them don’t even know who they are anymore. When you been killing people and smoking marijuana, what else do you care about? Nothing. But even when the war finish, where do I have to go to? I haven’t
seen my parents for about six months. I don’t even know if they’re living anymore. And who will care about a small boy who has been killing?”
“ECOMOG soldiers care about you, Kollie.”
“ECOMOG will not be here forever.”
“I could take you to Nigeria, if you would like to go with me.”
Kollie looked at Emeka for a long moment, and then shook his head. He turned and began to look down the rows of mattresses on his right. Except for one of the beds on which nobody was lying, the others were all occupied by ex-fighters, many of whom were asleep. Bored and sad-faced as ever, others were sitting up on their mattresses. They all had wounds that varied from one to the other, and the wrappings round parts of their bodies showed where they had been wounded. There were some with broken arms and legs, some with deep neck and face wounds, some with their ribs and backs shattered in places, and some with only just one eye. A boy of about 10 years old was picking at his dressings and had almost completely unwound the thing, revealing from a deep wound in his thigh a mixture of yellow and rust-colored salve. Every now and again he would look surreptitiously at Kollie and Emeka, leave off picking at his wound for a few moments and pretend as though nothing had happened.
Kollie turned back to Emeka. “I’m missing my parents and my sister. Sometimes I lie here and cry because it’s been a long time since I saw them the night the rebels went to our neighborhood.”
“So the rebels took you from your parents and you didn’t go to join yourself?”
“Yes. They went to our neighborhood in the middle of the night and told everybody to come outside. Then they took away all the men, the older boys and those of my own age, and some of the women. My mother was allowed to stay because she was sick, and my sister had hidden herself in the bush behind our house. My father they didn’t meet because he had gone to look for food the day before and had not come. That night we walked for hours until we reached a place called Mount Barclay. That is where they have the VOA tower. The others and I were trained in a large football field. Two weeks after I
had my first AK-47 assault rifle.” Kollie smiled broadly.
Emeka smiled and shook his head.
“Do people eat human parts in Nigeria?” Kollie said suddenly. His tone had lost all the warmth of the moments earlier, and the sudden change of subject caught Emeka completely off guard. For a moment, he said nothing. Kollie narrowed his gaze at the ECOMOG soldier, and it was obvious he had again become suspicious.
“There are some people in Nigeria who eat human beings, like elsewhere in Africa,” Emeka said, shrugging his shoulders. “But they do it secretly because they would be sent to jail if they were caught. But who told you?”
“My NPFL commanders told me. They said that all Nigerian soldiers eat human beings and that the only reason ECOMOG had come to Liberia was to loot the country, kill all the men and rape the women.”
“That isn’t true. Perhaps they told you those things because they want you to fight ECOMOG and stop peace coming to Liberia.” But then Emeka thought of the looting by some of his fellow peacekeeping soldiers, which he himself had seen firsthand, and felt he wasn’t being completely honest with the boy.
“But to tell you that ECOMOG soldiers are perfect wouldn’t be true either,” he added. “Myself I’ve seen a few peacekeeping soldiers looting things here at the Freeport. I wish I could stop them but it wouldn’t be easy. ECOMOG soldiers are not all from Nigeria. Some are from Ghana, Sierra Leone, Guinea and the Gambia. Although a Ghanaian is over everybody, not all the soldiers listen to what he says.”
“But why were ECOMOG fighting with the INPFL? They’re not different from us because they are rebels, too.”