FOOTSTEPS ECHOED behind James Zonn, and he felt his legs weakening, and protesting their movements. It was too early to face another danger, he knew that well. The steps were crunching behind him, and at one point he wanted to run. But why would he run?
He was no criminal, just someone who had been freed from bondage.
By now he was beside one of the many zinc shacks scattered near the Buzzi Quarters, and his mind urged him to find a hide out. Until now he was beginning to feel that his personal sufferings were somehow, if not all, at least, a little over. He had, somehow, the premonition that despite the goodness of the man who had set him free, there were more dangers in the future.
He could, he admitted, leave the city and find his way to where the new soldiers were claiming they were controlling, and might be accepted or welcomed. But from central Monrovia to the hinterland, and with the manner the soldiers were checking all those they came into contact with, it might be another or an unusual miracle, and a help from above, before he could be clear of the influences and the domain of the soldiers who had lost their primary focus of providing safety for every Liberian and resident.
“Who are you there?”
The voice was louder, and he could feel his legs, this time shaking. “Lord, not this time, please.” It was a plea to the God of heaven, since he felt that he could no longer stand another round of the suffering he had endured. True, there was so much that a person could take.
With his heart pounding, Zonn turned around, and what he saw calmed his heat. By now the footsteps had reached near him, and he could see the face of the person.
“You almost scared me to death.” His response might have taken the other by surprise, when she said, “Fear not, for I’m also in danger, and am fleeing from the enemy of the Liberian people.”
This meeting was one of the quieter moments for our hero. The woman, about five feet six inches, looked frail, and Zonn did not need a soothsayer to inform him that she was coming from the kind of dungeon that he had been rescued by the kindly act of God. Yes, she could be one of the voices he had heard in the dark many a night in the dungeon where he was held.
“The man saved me, and asked me to follow you,” she said, placing her hand on his shoulders. “I was there for eight days; and as you can see, the food in my hand is the only food I have ever had.”
“Did he give it to you?”
“Yes, he did.”
“Do you have any idea who he is?”
“I tried but he wouldn’t allow me to know.”
“Let’s pray for him, then.”
“I told him before I left that God must be with him.”
“Did he tell you he was a Krahn and that if you survive, remember that all Krahn people are not wicked, and would not want us to die?”
“He said such words to me.”
“Were there any other girls in your prison?”
“Yes, there are still fifteen more there. The youngest one told me she is twelve, and there were other older women there, too.”
“How old are the women?”
“Out of the fifteen, six were women in the age group of forty to fifty five.”
James Zonn thought about it for a moment and gave a deep sigh. By now they were clear of the Executive Mansion area, following the direction the Good Samaritan had given them. They could see the Buzzi Quarters to the left and an abandoned gas station sitting forlornly to the right.
“I don’t even know you,” Zonn said, wanting to know his companion. A flicker of smile swept across the other’s face, and in a voice full of concern and appreciation, said, “I am Korlu. I’m twenty eight, and I thank God that we are free from the jail.” Zonn wanted to ask her about the treatment received at her end. While in the den, he heard, on several occasions, the cries of women, pleading in tears not to be hurt. He considered that act to be the time when they were being raped. How he wanted to ask Korlu! However, he could not bring himself to ask her, for he knew the shame the effect had on women, when their honor is robbed, and in this case, by soldiers, people who were supposed to be their protectors.
His mind was so occupied when he heard Korlu say, “I was abused in the jail, and the others, were always abused too.” Zonn’s eyes did not betray the horrible story of rape, or abuse, as the young woman had confessed. He knew her confession had come because of their suffering, which had been together, though the women and men were kept separately. Then he heard Korlu sniffing, indicating she was crying for the shame she endured at the dungeon.
“Hold your heart,” Zonn urged her, holding her hand, “For God will pay your debt. Now, to be safe from these soldiers, we’ll be ok to leave Monrovia for good.”
“I wish I can leave Monrovia,” she admitted, “because I’m not sure my parents and brothers are where I last saw them.”
“Where did you live?”
“Slipway, near the new bridge,” she said. “It is likely that most of the people there have left, since several houses were set ablaze just before our house was raided. I’m not sure my father even survived, because he was very sick and we were planning to send him to the country the day before the soldiers came.”
“Then I suggest that we depart for Nimba,” Zonn pressed on, “since it may not be safe for you to return to Slipway.”
Zonn could feel her companion changing her mind. He could agree that since being a Gio or Mano in Monrovia was too dangerous with the soldiers all over the place, and since they were questioning civilians, and now that they had been released by a Good Samaritan, it was likely that the soldiers who had taken them prisoners might go back there looking for them. Then something bothered him. What about those in the bush? True, he heard all along that they were Gios, and Manos. Would they treat them differently than the soldiers?
And one trump card he possessed was the ability to speak the tribal language of his people. With his eyes gleaming for help, and some kind of confidence sweeping over him, he felt some feeling of triumph, and goodness.
But again, should the new group in the bush decide that he must join their army, then what? No, it was too early to think on that. Whenever it became a reality, he would find a way to deal with it. Despite the treatment he had received, he had no intention to join in anybody’s army. He was in deep thought over what might happen in the future when his companion said, “I have a problem.”
“What problem, Korlu?”
“The problem of going behind the lines.”
“Which means what?”
“I am Krahn.”
“You’re what? Why did they keep you in the dungeon, then?”
“I could not show the soldiers where my husband, who is a Gio, was hiding when they came to our house to kill him.” Zonn’s breathing became hard. The news from the hinterland was bad. It was bad for the Krahn people; and here he was asking a Krahn woman to escape with him. So, what dialect did she speak? That could help if she spoke Gio or Mano alongside the Krahn ethnic dialect.
“What language do you speak beside Krahn?”
“None other than English.”
Zonn felt immediately spent. He couldn’t understand why. It might signify, he reasoned, that taking the woman with him “behind the lines,” as the areas controlled by the rebels were described, would unleash another round of trial for him. He didn’t care about the tribe or ethnicity of the woman. All he cared about was that she was a Liberian, like him, suffering at the hands of killers and animals. And like him, she needed redemption and a secured environment. Since others had sacrificed for him to live, he wouldn’t mind sacrificing his life for Korlu.
So, “behind the lines” they went together.
HE WAS thinking about better days ahead as he accompanied Korlu. They arrived at Mount Barclay, thirty miles east of Monrovia, sooner than expected. Wedged across the road was a checkpoint. He saw several young men his age, guns on their backs, sitting two by two, intervals of fifty feet from each other. He had seen enough and was determined to fill his mind with better things other than what he had gone through in Monrovia.
From where they waited, they saw hundreds of people, including women and children trooping towards where the young soldiers sat, their eyes directed at the people passing by. Further down, there was a rope, a twine, made out of leaves blocking the main road, and on the right side of it was an opened space, and a cover cloth, which was ostensibly meant to check numerous civilians moving into rebel territory.
From time to time, the young men would walk across the road in twos, and adjust their weapons, the AK-47s, on their backs. There were also younger children that Zonn considered to be in their early teens. There was one or two, that he heard being called “small soldier.” The first one was about ten and the second one was about eight or nine. Their lanky frames struggled under weapons that were apparently too heavy for their bodies to carry.
Zonn wondered what had become of the people, yes, those who were responsible for the war. How could a child of nine know how to handle a weapon like an M16? How could such a child engage a trained military professional in combat? But the truth be told, the rebel soldiers over there were the ones who had been fighting against the national soldiers of Liberia. And now here they were, on the outskirts of Monrovia, he was seeing the soldiers whose actions had caused the interminable suffering of his people. It was then that he remembered what the AFL soldier had said to him when he was at the dungeon, “If he is not a rebel now, he may become one someday.” It meant that to survive in the jungles in the face of the war, he would choose to become a rebel soldier, for any cause necessary. It seemed to him that on that one, the soldier was right. For before him the rebel soldiers were not ready to welcome him as one of theirs. And again he wondered if they were some of the very ones who had been reported to kill other Liberians for sport, including their own. He felt some excitement, when he heard them communicating in his ethnic dialect. Though he had heard how dangerous the rebel soldiers were, from reports over the BBC, and from Liberians who had come in contact with them, he felt some warmth towards them. Possibly, they would be different and those stories about them might be from their enemies. Now, he was meeting them, and would judge for himself the veracity of those accounts.
Joining the multitude of people moving into rebel territory, fleeing the menace of the soldiers in Monrovia, there was a clear indication that the journey would meet its devil. In single file, civilians, including old women and children, marched on, and were directed to an entrance to be searched.
IN THE shed, seated on a stool, was a young man of probably eighteen. His eyes looked hollow, like he was suffering from jaundice or fever, and a false hair, or wig hung on his head. His trousers were torn on the side, and a knife, the kind used by butchers, hung on his other side. Just across from him sat stoned face, a young woman in tatters, clasped in her hands two shiny weapons. It was no argument that she was one of them, Zonn guessed. The small shed had an opening, which was evidently a window, and the top was covered with weeds, and scrubs from the area. The outpost nature of the area gave it a depressing look. All around, the cries of birds would very often break the silence and there was also some loud noises or cries that might have come from some wild animals. The look on the young man’s face gave Zonn the creeps. Maybe he might be the commanding officer, a CO, a title that was just a medal for any of the young rebel soldiers who had distinguished himself on the battle field.
“You come over here,” the soldier pointed his finger at James Zonn and his companion, beckoning them to come closer. “Nobody must lie to us here, if you want to live, you hear me?” The instruction made its first attempt to destroy any hope or confidence that Zonn had first entertained about the freedom fighters, as the rebels sometimes called themselves. Here the soldier wanted to know something about him, and perhaps about his companion. Since the soldier said he did not want anyone to lie to him, he meant really to say, he did not want anyone to tell him information about himself that was not true.
“Your name?” The soldier’s cranky voice almost made Zonn smile, but he checked himself, and straightening up, said, “James Zonn is my name.”
“How far you going?” This second question was intended to force the responder to explain the real motive of his journey into the rebel territory or ‘Greater Liberia.’ But Zonn thought something was missing. It was no argument that Monrovia was being set ablaze, the soldiers were rounding up suspected Gio and Mano citizens, and hauling them off to be destroyed, and didn’t this soldier know that?
He was still considering his next answer when the soldier said, “What tribe?” Here Zonn felt that he had the soldier wide open, and answered, “Gio, from Nimba.”
“You sure?” Zonn was not certain if this rebel soldier had been trained to ask such crisp questions, whenever a correct answer was given to an earlier answer. But all the same, he held on, trying to make the best use of the situation. The situation demanded that he remained tactful, and play the ball in the rebel soldier’s own backyard.
“Can y’all speak Gio?” Here, Zonn once more realized the rebel soldier had added his companion to the interrogation, with the ‘y’all’ which was known to mean more than one, and now was seeking further proof that the two of them were not imposters, or from the hated Krahn, Sarpo or Mandingo enemies, disguising themselves as Gios. Meanwhile, another “small soldier” was called to help out.
After some rapid exchanges of what Zonn understood were about them, the small soldier asked him in the Gio dialect, “Why are you leaving the city?” And just as rapidly as the boy had asked him, he responded without blinking his eyes. A smile danced crookedly on the corner of the small soldier’s mouth, and turning to his commander, informed him that he was a Gio.
“What about the woman?’
“I aint think she Gio,” small soldier told his commander in the Gio dialect. Zonn’s heart moved faster as perspiration beaded on his forehead. He deliberately looked sideways, and could see the hot flush of fear in the woman’s face. He dared not tell the rebel soldier the truth, since they had made it clear that they were here, in his own words, to collect all the Krahn, Sarpo and Mandingo people for the chief. There was no need for Zonn to attempt an explanation. Whoever or whatever was the chief, and needed the kind of people the soldier was searching for, was his own headache.
“I need to talk to your woman alone,” was what the rebel soldier told Zonn, as he ordered two more rebel soldiers to stand watch over him. What appeared like gloom overcame him, but he remained unmoved. He had escaped from one butcher to meet another. In a moment, he decided against the idea for the soldier to take the woman away, and moved to act.
The rebel soldiers watched him, with their AK-47 riffles in front of them.
“Brother,” he said in Gio, “in Monrovia the soldiers are killing us because of you, and in your midst we are also being haunted like animals. What do you want from my wife, who had been there for me, when they wanted to kill me, brother?” The rebel CO swiftly turned around, and Zonn saw the bitterness in his face. Zonn’s head throbbed to the left and to the right, as the rebel soldier moved towards him, saying, “That people like you that protect our enemies, and I think you’ll die together here.”
Immediately, despite his protest, the other soldiers moved in and forced him to the ground. In the end his hands were tied behind his back, or as the rebel soldiers described it, he was “tabayed,” and with the woman going through the same treatment, they were tied together, their faces in the opposite direction.
Their executions were set.
“In thirty minutes both of you will die,” the commander announced and walked away.