(An excerpt from the Novel August 1990)
By Saah Millimono
On arriving at the INPFL Caldwell base, the rebels threw the girls out of the pickup and onto the ground. Then they were led into a building nearby and made to sit on the floor of a small room with bars on the window. The room smelled of urine and human feces. The floor was bare and cold. The girls crowded together, crying and trembling. The rebel went out of the room, locking the metal door behind them.
The girls stood in a cluster, as if it was all they could do to stop from feeling afraid. Among the twelve in the room was Lorpu. She had been abducted by the rebels, along with the other girls, as she and her father reached the roadblock where they had met the ECOMOG soldiers. Leaning against the wall, tears streaming out of her eyes, she stood at the back of the others.
Then a voice, detached from the rest, was heard in the room. They all turned to look around. Immediately they saw the figure of another girl, sitting not more than five feet away. She was dressed in nothing but a pair of blue shorts. Her breasts, seen in the dim light that came through the window, were as firm as mangoes.
“Y’all think da yor one suffren here?” she said.
The others could only look at her in silence.
“I been in this jail for two weeks,” the girl said. “Because one rebel wan me to be his girlfrend an’ I refuse; the rebels can give me food. Sometime dey come and beat me. I no one day dey will kill me. But I not afraid because dey na rape me plenty time. They will come and do de same thing to y’all. And if y’all cry, y’all will jes make it worse.”
But the others could still only look at her in silence. Then whispered voices broke out among them. Who was this girl? How had she come to be in this place? Will they be treated no less than she? How long will that be before they were set free, or killed?
Lorpu detached herself from the group. She walked towards the small girl sitting in the corner. With some difficulty, as though her neck hurt from the effort, the girl turned her head and looked at Lorpu. She looked about fifteen years of age. There were cuts and bruises on her face and body. A lump, almost the size of child’s fist, protruded from her forehead. But despite her pain and the hunger she had suffered, her body had managed to retain its fullness. It was like a miracle.
Looking at her, Lorpu couldn’t help but wonder at her courage. Here was a small girl, no more than fifteen years of age, who had been raped, whipped, starved and kept in jail for two weeks. Yet she had stood up to the rebels, resolved to die rather than to obey.
Feeling comforted by the small girl’s fortitude, Lorpu wiped the tears from her face and sat down beside her. The other girls came over, whispering.
“What is your name, and how is life here on the rebel base?” one of the girls asked.
“My name Tennen,” the small girl answered.
Then she began to tell them how there were many other women living on the INPFL Caldwell base, cooking, washing, and cleaning up after the fighters. She told how some of the women had come of their own free will, how some had taken up arms or had become wives for the rebels; and how others, like her, had been abducted at a roadblock a few weeks before.
“If you wan be deir women, deir cook and deir slave, da de only way dey will treat you good. You will even be happy living here with them because they will give you food and clothes and good place to sleep. But your body will never be for yourself. Sometimes dey will force you to sleep with four or five rebels. But dey will kill me before I sleep with even one rebel.”
“But, Tennen, when there is war, women suffer the most,” one of the others said.
“This war will end one day,” said another girl. “If you’re lucky to stay alive, you will go on with your life and forget everything.”
“Tennen, as long as the rebels don’t kill you, let them do whatever they want to do with you,” said a third. “Remember that many people have died already.”
But Tennen was not to be convinced.
An hour went by; two hours; night fell.
The girls fell asleep, even though they lay on the floor and the night was cold.
Outside, people could be heard talking and moving from one place to another. A few times there were gunshots, and group of men and women were heard crying at the top of their voices. Once, a man was heard shouting out orders. Then there were running footsteps. A car started and drove away. Then a man was heard singing to the accompaniment of guitars, and the voices of other men beating on drums and tambourines. It sounded as if it were a night band. The men could be heard singing from one end of the base to another.
Lorpu couldn’t sleep. She lay curled up on the floor staring into the darkness. The room buzzed with mosquitoes, biting her and making sleep even more impossible.
Suddenly she found herself thinking of the few hours she had been at the roadblock, along with her father and a group of displaced people who had all hoped to reach the ECOMOG headquarters. Then the rebels had arrived. Together with a group of girls she had been captured and put into the back of a pickup. The rebels had blindfolded them and bound their arms, and they had been beaten whenever they struggled. She wondered why hadn’t the ECOMOG soldiers, who were there during their capture, done better than only to plead with the rebels? They were all armed, of course. What sort of peacekeepers were they? Where was her father? Had he been able to leave the roadblock? she wondered. When she had last seen him, he had been too feeble to walk.
And she thought about how difficult it had been to reach the ECOMOG headquarters. She and her father had spent many weeks in the swamps, bypassing rebel checkpoints, hungry and in fear for their lives. Several times she had had to drag her father behind her. Then a stray bullet had grazed her father’s forehead and the old man had collapsed as though he were dead.
Then she thought about her mother, who had fallen ill as she and her father left their home on Duport Road.
“Yor don’t worry about me,” her mother had told her, lying on the mattress and unable to move a muscle. “I’ll soon die. Go with your father, Lorpu. God bless y’all on the road.”
But this woman, malnourished and lying bloated on the mattress, was not old. She must have been about thirty years of age. But there were now only a few strands of hair on her head. She had taken ill from eating green pawpaw because that was the only food they could find. But her stomach had run for days on end.
Sobbing, Lorpu had bent over her mother and kissed her on the forehead. As she and her father walked out the door, she had taken a last, long look at the dying woman and burst into tears.
Almost at once Lorpu started to sob. But almost immediately one of the girls lay a hand on her shoulder and brought her back to the present. It was Tennen. “It na good to act weak here-o,” she said.
Hearing her voice, Lorpu felt a wave of assurance sweep over her. Almost by reflex, they began to recite the Lord’s Prayer. Their voices, barely above a whisper, floated out of the jail and into the night air.
Suddenly there were footsteps; they fell silent. Someone had just entered the house. From the sound of the voices they could tell that it was a group of men. Laughing and talking among themselves, the men stopped at the door. One of them began to fumble with some keys. A beam of light could be seen a few inches under the door. On the air came the smell of marijuana. Lorpu and Tennen woke up the other girls, whispering.
The door opened, beams of torchlight slashing through the darkness. Shielding their eyes, the girls began to cry again as the men, cursing, kicked and shouted at them. Again hands were thrust into their clothes. A few of the girls were stripped naked and pushed into another corner of the jail.
“Tennen! I say, Tennen! Where da Tennen girl?” one of the fighters called.
“Here I am,” said Tennen.
She disengaged herself from the other girls and came forward. A beam of light shone in her face. But she made not the slightest effort to shield her eyes.
“So this is the stubborn girl, eh?” one of the rebels said.
“Yes, da her,” said the one pointing the light on the girl’s face.
For a while the group of five rebel fighters stood staring at the small girl. Then a fist struck her in the face, knocking her to the floor.
Blood flowing out of her nostrils, she rose to her feet and looked again at the rebels. She was grabbed and pushed out of the room, along with five other girls. The rebels locked the door behind them.
The others left in the room began to cry. One of them doubled over and vomited. Another girl started to cry for her parents.
Later, the other girls were brought back into the room. Some had to be dragged. They all looked exhausted, sweat streaming from their bodies. One of them could barely walk as blood streamed down her legs. Then Lorpu and the others were themselves taken away, and again the door was locked.
Almost an hour later, they were brought back into the room, shuffling. Lorpu could barely walk. She could still feel the sharp, stinging pain as four fighters held her legs and arms wide apart while another fighter took off his trousers and lie on top of her. Her knees drawn up and arms wrapped around them, she began to cry.
To be cont’d.