Day of Reckoning

Saah F. Millimono, Liberian novelist

During the Liberian Civil War, the house I returned to, on leaving National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) rebel area, did not look any more like my parents’ house. It had been burned to the ground. I stood in the middle of what had been one of the rooms and felt tears fill my eyes as I looked round at the blackened walls and the charred remains of personal effects scattered over the floor. For a long moment, I stood there sobbing. Then I turned, walked out of what had been left of the house, and along a path until I came onto the tarred road that led toward Red Light market.

As I reached the market, I was surprised at the assorted goods on display, the crowds, and how large the market was. As an NPFL rebel fighter, I had been to Kakata City once and then to Gbarnga, the former reputed to be still a hub of NPFL economy and the latter a stronghold in which Charles Taylor had his mansion. But the markets in these towns had not been as large as that at the Red Light. It was so large that it could take a whole day to go from one end of it to the other. I weaved in and out of pedestrians, stalls, tables, and a multitude of vendors and hawkers selling by the roadside. It was as if Red Light led a life of its own, far removed from the war.

As it had been rumored that a mob had burned to death two men suspected of being NPFL rebels, I walked through the market with my head bowed for fear of being recognized. Yet I knew that I was never going to go back to the NPFL. I had left the rebel force without official leave and knew that if I were captured I would be beaten severely or killed. But I was tired of life in the NPFL and just wanted to find my parents. I had not seen them since I was abducted by the NPFL the year before. Besides, peace had returned to Monrovia, following its capture in 1990 from NPFL by Ecowas Peace Monitory Group (ECOMOG), and the Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia (INPFL) rebels. A fellow NPFL rebel and I had looted some money out of a house, and I had about two hundred Liberian dollars tucked into an inner pocket of my trousers. I felt it would be enough to survive on for a week or two until I was able to find my parents or one of my relatives.

I stopped in front of a video club and looked at the movie posters on the wall. A local artist had done them and the drawings looked half the size of real people. In front of the video club, a group of boys and young men, who seemed too big to be idle with marbles, were at play. The oldest of them looked to be about 19, which was my own age. One boy’s black buttocks peeked out of the back of his trousers. I sat on a cement block next to the video club, to kill time until the movies came on.

Suddenly, at the tarred road in front of me, an army truck pulled up. Many soldiers jumped out of the back. Brandishing AK-47 assault rifles, the soldiers started to chase after the crowd. There were screams, and people darted in every direction. I looked around me, and found that everyone in front of the video club had disappeared.

Then one of the soldiers, holding a pair of handcuffs, ran toward me. I turned and looked at the video club behind me. A man, who could have been the proprietor, was shutting the metal door at the entrance. I took a deep breath and ran toward him.

The man cursed and tried to grab hold of me but I shoved him aside and ran through the space between him and the door frame. I heard him slam the door behind me.

It was dark inside the video club except for the dim glow of light that came from the video screen and its moving picture. It took me about a minute to adjust my eyes to the darkness. Then I saw about a hundred people facing the screen. They were sitting on low wooden benches in front of me.

A hand grabbed me by the back of my t-shirt. I turned, dreading to see the INPFL fighter that I had seen outside with the handcuffs. But it was a young man sitting on a chair behind me.

“Where yor money, eh? he said.

I opened my mouth, but words failed me.

“Leave him alone,” said a voice. “The rebels almost caught him but he was lucky.”

The young man let go of my shirt and burst out laughing. Standing next to him was the older man that I recognized to be the man who had been at the entrance when I pushed him. He was staring at me and stood with arms akimbo.

From outside came the sound of a portable generator.

“Go sit down, pekin,” the man said.

“Thank you,” I said with a sigh.

I found one of the nearest benches and sat down, sandwiched between a small boy and a short, fat man, who had removed his shirt and used it to fan himself. He was sitting with his legs sprawled open, his big belly hanging in front of him. The room was hot and airless, like a cramped dirty cell at a police station in Monrovia, and smelled of sweaty, unwashed bodies. In the still air I caught a whiff of exhaust fumes from the generator outside. I turned to look at the walls around me, wondering whether there was a window somewhere, and noticed five or six holes, each no bigger than a man’s fist, knocked out of the uppermost part of the wall on my left. So that was the window. I shook my head and turned to watch the movie.

Then suddenly the screen went black, plunging the room into complete darkness. Immediately there were loud, angry voices. The video club attendant, followed by the proprietor, ran out of the room.

“That rotten generator,” someone shouted at the top of his voice.

“It wait to break down wen you enjoyin’ de movie. When they can’t fix it, they say go come back tomorrow.”

Everyone laughed.

But then, the generator coughed loudly two times and started again. The light came back on; the room burst into applause.

It took about an hour to complete the third and final movie. And then we all poured out of the video club into the vacant lot in front of it, grateful to breathe in the fresh air.

On the wall next to the entrance of the video club, the proprietor and his attendant were tacking up new movie posters.

Then I thought about the incident in the market, the INPFL fighters that I had seen chasing after the crowd, and remembered the one with the handcuffs who had run toward me. I turned and hastened away.

A girl about six or seven years of age came out of the market and walked to the tarred road. On her head she carried a white bucket with a lid. She walked quickly, her arms swinging. I wondered what she was selling, but then it occurred to me that it might be water.

“Hey, small girl,” I called.

She came quickly and stood in front of me. “You wan wata?”

“Yes,” I said, removed a five dollar note from my trouser pocket, and handed it to her.

She took the bucket from her head and placed it next to the roadside. Then she lifted the bucket-lid, took out a plastic cup, and handed me a drink of water.

I gulped it down and returned the cup to her. “Thank you yah, small girl.”

“All right,” she said.

I looked at her. Strands of dusty hair stuck out over her forehead. She was wearing a dirty pair of showers slippers.

She put the bucket back onto her head and proceeded along the tarred road.

A small crowd had gathered to watch a man dancing next to a cassette-booth by the roadside. Others who knew the tune had joined in, clapping and singing. Then the man went from reggae to breakdance, half-somersaulted, and fell flat on his back. The crowd cheered. As I pushed through the crowd until I was directly in front of the man, I wondered if he were drunk.

Later, when the crowd had dispersed, I stood for a long while in front of the cassette-booth. Then a thought struck me. I remembered that I ought to be hiding in fear for my life and not be standing where I could easily be recognized as an NPFL fighter. Although I did not carry any telltale marks, I had been more than a year with the NPFL. Perhaps someone had seen me at one of their checkpoints, armed with an AK-47 assault rifle as I stopped, harassed, threatened, and took away people to be killed.

I turned and walked quickly. I had to reach where the stalls were close together so I could disappear among them and wait until dark. The sun began to set, turning the sky red and orange. Somewhere a car horn honked loudly.

It was dark shortly after and I found myself sitting on a narrow wooden bench among stalls and tables. Next to me sat four elderly men, each waiting his turn while a woman served food. A jack-o-lantern shined next to the rice and soup pots, the naked flame waving. A small girl squatting on the ground, washed dishes. At four or five other tables a few more women sold and served food.

I gave the woman twenty dollars, and she handed me a hot bowl of buckwheat served with a dollop of bitter-soup and palm-oil. The small girl rinsed and handed me a spoon. I began to eat, blowing on each spoonful before putting it into my mouth.

When I had finished eating, I rose from the bench, walked a few steps away and sat on one of the market tables. The market was dark and quiet, save for the dim glow of light that came from the jack-o-lanterns set on the stalls and tables nearby. I looked toward the tarred road. Evening traders were still selling things by the roadside, the flame of their crude lamps were burning like miniature torches.

Then I realized I was without a place to sleep for the night. I looked at the market-table on which I was sitting, thought that it would be nice to stretch out on its smooth surface, reassured by the presence of the people around me, and lay down on the table.

To be cont’d.


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