By Saah Millimono
The sun was up in a way that assured you that the day would be bright and cheerful. Vendors sat in the open, calling out to passersby.In the hustle and bustle to go from one end of the market to the other, hawkers and pedestrians moved in a steady flow by the roadside, like a procession of ants. Amid the sound of footsteps, the buzz of conversation, of hawkers shouting, from one end of the market to the other, music blared at full volume.
I walked across the road, my feet crunching and sliding onto bullet casings strewn over the asphalt, like words and letters on the page of a book, until I came to the roadside where a man sold gasoline in empty beer bottles. There was a long queue. I stood at the farthest end. However, the line moved hurriedly.
After a while, I paid for and got the gasoline, and then walked back to the road, where I had to stop when an army truck carrying ECOMOG soldiers drove by in terrific speed. I waited until it passed, before running across the asphalt. I had gone but a few yards from the roadside when I heard somebody called, “Pekin. I say pekin!” I stopped and looked behind me, wondering who the caller was and whether I was the one being referred to when a man walked up to me and stopped.
The man was small and thin, stood not more than five feet, and had a heavy stoop. He was dressed in a yellow long-sleeved shirt that hung loose on him, a pair of gray trousers with legs that folded around his ankles, and shower slippers that looked too large.
“Hello, pekin,” he said.
“Hello,” I said.
“Pekin, you remember me?” the man asked.
I looked at him, found I couldn’t recognize him, and shook my head. Could the man be a relation, perhaps a distant one, which I did not know? I wondered.
“You must know me because we met at a rebel checkpoint before,” the man said.
“Which checkpoint?” I asked. I was suddenly tense. My heart started to beat wildly.
“An NPFL checkpoint along Bomi highway,” the man said. “Were you not one of the rebels who use to stop people, take away their belongings, and kill them?”
“I not NPFL rebel an’ I never been to Bomi highway before,” I said.
But I was trembling. Sweat had broken out over my body.
So far, the man had spoken quietly. But now his voice lost all patience and he shouted, “It’s you! You won’t get away! Those people y’all killed, y’all will pay for their blood.”
“What happened?” another man, who just then walked past, wanted to know.
The first man turned to him and shouted loud enough for half the market to hear. “This boy, he NPFL rebel!”
The second man opened his eyes wide, took a step closer, and looked me over. Several people had stopped. Others on the opposite side crossed over to the roadside where the man and I stood. One by one the people came from all over the market. I looked round me. I saw that some of the people carried big sticks and that three men held a machete each; that another man carried an ax; that almost everyone had come with whatever they had been able to lay their hands on.
I felt somebody pulling on my arm. I turned. I saw that a woman was trying to pull my hand free from the handle of the plastic container I carried. I did not resist. At that point, I felt nothing but emptiness and a need to surrender. I had already heard what such a crowd had done to two men suspected of being NPFL rebels only a few days before, and knew that nothing I could do would be able to save me.
The woman opened the container-stopper. She raised the container to her nostrils and sniffed at it. “Gas! He carryin’ gasoline!”
For a moment, there was quiet as the crowd digested this latest piece of information, like the last morsel savored from a meal which up to that point had not been enough for everybody.
Then someone shouted: “If he NPFL rebel, brin’ de gas. We will burn him! No NPFL rebel mun come here an’go free after they kill our people.”
“Da boy na kill anybody people?” someone else shouted from the edge of the crowd.
A young man pushed his way through the crowd until he was standing beside me. It was Peter the video club attendant.
“What happened, Kollie?” he asked.
I was silent for a moment. Then I said, “I-I wuh carryin’ de gas you sen me to buy wen this man see me an’ say he no me to be one NPFL rebel on Bomi highway.”
“Where de man who say you NPFL rebel?” Peter asked. I pointed at the man.
Peter turned and looked at the man. “Da you say my brother da NPFL rebel?”
“He your brother?” the man asked.
“Yes,” Peter said, “he my small broda. Where you comin’ from sayin’ he NPFL rebel?”
“This boy used to be one NPFL rebel at a checkpoint on Bomi highway,” the man said.
“They used to kill people an’ take their things.” “I tell you, he not rebel,” Peter shouted.
The crowd looked at the man. There was silence for a while. “I say you man there, you sure da de boy here you talkin’ bout?” someone called out.
“Yes,” the man said. “I would recognize him anywhere.”
“But this one say de boy da his broda an’ he not NPFL rebel,” another voice said. “So who you wan us to believe, you or dis boy who say dis one da his broda?”
“I don’t know,” the man said.
“Foolish man,” Peter said.
“Don’t insult me-o,” the man said. But his voice had lost its former confidence.
“Shutup,” a woman shouted.“You people should be careful with de way y’all point fingers lookin’ for revenge. You wuh going to get de boy kill for nathin.”
The crowd turned to look at the man. You could see that the people were one against him. Some sucked their teeth, some reached forward to push him from the back of his head, and a number of women let out a string of curses. Then they all turned and walked away, and I heard them drop their crude weapons to the ground.
Peter took my hand and led me away, and I thought I was dreaming.
On the way back, Peter said he was thirsty and wanted to have a drink of water, and would I want a drink also? I said yes. So we stopped by a vendor’s table. When Peter reached into his trousers pocket to give a five-dollar note to the vendor behind the table, I set the container of gasoline on the ground behind him, slipped through a small crowd. And then I fled.