By Saah Millimono
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.
I must have slept a long time because when I got up again the sun was nearly up. A few traders were arranging assorted goods on stalls and tables. Wheelbarrow men weaved in and out among the stalls and tables, carrying big wooden boxes. The day hawkers had not yet arrived to advertise their wares and shout at the top of their lungs, and except for the creaking of wheelbarrows, the sound of footsteps and the low voices of a few traders, the market was quiet.
As I meandered through the stalls, I watched the faces of the traders. Though I could not tell what the thoughts of the traders were by just looking at their faces, I felt they were too unpredictable and that I ought to be on my guard. I believed that nine out of ten of these people would beat me to death, if I were found to be an NPFL rebel. I knew it would be a day of reckoning when they finally caught me, a day in which I would be made to pay a price for all those people that I had killed. As I looked at their faces, I was overwhelmed by a surge of fear and hatred towards the traders. It was more fear and hate that I had felt toward anything or anyone before. Did they not know that I was abducted by the NPFL and that the killings I had done was only done because I wanted to live myself? Surely the NPFL would have killed me if they knew that they had given me a gun or but that I did not want to kill. I had been forced to take orders, like many other young men
I walked back across road to the video club and stood in the vacant lot in front of it. There were no film posters on the wall yet, but the entrance to the video club was open. I wondered what films they would advertise today, and trembled with excitement. I went to the video club attendant, who was sitting just inside the door and eating rice with soup, to inquire about the price.
“Hello,” I said.
“Hello,” said the attendant.
The attendant’s jaws were bulging as he ate, his mouth smeared with palm-oil grease.
“How much for de shows?” I asked.
“One dollar for one show,” said the attendant, and added, “Ehn you de one da wuh in de video club yesterday wen de rebels dem wuh ketchin pepo?”
I nodded and looked him over. He looked not more than nineteen or twenty years of age and was tall, with sharp features, and long arms. A thin moustache barely covered his upper lip.
You wuh lucky to run away,” he said. “De rebels ketch some boys and man dem yesteday. I hear their pepo wuh cryin for dem.”
I said nothing. But the image of NPFL rebels once grabbing and hauling me out of my parents’ house came back to me with stark clarity. I looked away.
“Leh eat-o,” the attendant said.
“No mehn, I all right,” I said.
“Where you eat?” the attendant asked.
“I eat somewhere,” I said, “so I not hungry.”
“Where you livin?” the attendant asked, still looking at me.
“I livin wif my sista,” I said.
The attendant looked surprised but said nothing.
I turned and went back to join the people looking at the old posters.
A street hawker selling short bread came along. I beckoned to her. The woman approached, swaying her fat bottom. She removed the wooden box, which had a glass on one side, from her head and placed it on the ground in front of her. I gave her a five-dollar note. She wrapped the bread in paper, handed it over to me, and left. I bought a bag of lukewarm water from another hawker and went into the video club because the movies had started.
The movies came to an end late in the evening. Together with the crowd I came out of the video club into the vacant lot. The proprietor of the video club went to put off the generator. His attendant came carrying a roll of new movie posters.
The attendant turned and looked at me. “My friend,” he said, pointing at me, “please cam help me hold de posters.”
I approached and held the movie posters while he took one and tacked it to the wall until he had put up three posters. Then he climbed down from the cement block and said:
“You camin go home?”
“No, I will go to my sista in de market first,” I said.
“If you help me sweep de video club,” the attendant said, “I will let you watch night shows.”
I looked at the attendant for a moment, and then I nodded.
The attendant motioned for me to follow him. Together we went into the video club. From behind the door the attendant removed a short broom made of palm fronds and handed it to me. I stooped and began to sweep the floor, littered with odds and ends. A cloud of dust rose into the small confines of the video club, and I sneezed. When I finished, I gathered the thrash onto a piece of cardboard, and took it outside.
The generator came on again a few minutes later. The attendant sat on the stool to collect payment. The proprietor, who had been sitting on a bench nearest to a table that had a number of video cassettes and the TV on it, pressed the on button. The screen came on blue. He inserted a cassette, and the first of the movies came on.
I sat on a bench nearest the front row and looked around me. There were a few people sitting next to me, a few others at the back, and on the other rows of seats, but most of the wooden benches were unoccupied. Perhaps there would be fewer people tonight, unlike the crowd that came in the day, I thought.
Finally the movies came to an end, and everyone came out of the video club. A cold breeze was blowing. Red Light market was dark save for the pale yellow light that came from the electric bulb at the entrance to the video club.
A burst of gunshots came suddenly from the darkness, and I trembled, in spite of myself. I wondered whether somebody had been shot and killed or if the shooting had been done at random. Usually rebels would fire their weapons, and ninety-nine per cent of the time nobody could tell why. It was funny how the war had turned out, I thought, from a desperate quest to remove Samuel Doe from the Executive Mansion to a circus where everyone did as they pleased until one could make no sense out of it. Perhaps the war was senseless, as I had often heard people say.
I looked into the solid mass of darkness in front. But I was not afraid. Perhaps my life in the NPFL had long taught me not to be afraid, and while I did not now have a gun with me, my sense of bravery seemed like a refuge. I turned and walked into the darkness until I crossed Pipe Line Road and walked down a path that led into the stalls and tables by the roadside.
I felt it would be safer not to sleep next to the road, and walked on farther into the market. I found a table I could sleep on and climbed on top of it. I sat for a while. I was alert and listening for the slightest sound that would indicate the presence of someone else close by or if I had been followed. But the market was silent, save for the breeze as it whispered softly through the wooden stalls and tables. I lay down on the table. Unaware of my own fatigue, I fell into a deep sleep.
The villagers did not see the other NPFL fighters and me until we had rounded a path and entered the farm. Ahead of us trudged two village men, whose arms we had tied behind their backs. One of the men had been on the lookout while the others harvested cassava before we overcame him. The other man had, a little before dawn, left to cut palm nuts and had been captured. Thinking we would spare their lives, they had led us to the others on the farm and had promised to lead us to a refuge, where all the villagers had escaped to following the fall and capture of Bomi County by NPFL rebels. We had beaten the two men severely. Blood poured from their wounds. One of the men could barely walk. On the farm were a few men and women.
As we approached, they stood up from their work and would have fled but one of us fired into the air. They fell to the ground, begging and trembling for their lives. We told them to sit up with their hands on their heads. Then we took their hoes and machetes. The cassava they had harvested lay in a small pile. We ordered one of the men to gather it into an empty rice-bag. Then everyone was marched into the forest.
To be cont’d.