(An extract from the novel ‘August 1990’)
Lorpu’s parents had welcomed her brother Flomo with lukewarm enthusiasm, even after he had told them about his monthly pay of US$15 and a bag of parboiled rice as ex-gratia. Fear for his safety, along with the failure of government troops to win the war against the NPFL, who were then seizing one town after another and drawing ever closer to Monrovia, made them even more apprehensive. Often, they would call him aside and ask a few questions: what was it the AFL had taught him at Camp Schiefflin since his training had lasted in a matter of days; had he ever been to the front and seen NPFL rebels? They had heard news that government troops were running from the NPFL, but was it true?
Laughing and shaking his head, Flomo would tell his parents, along with the neighbors who would gather around whenever he came home to visit from the army barrack, stories that he had heard except that he had himself never seen the rebels before. But sometimes when he would lecture them a sudden look of concern would appear over his face. He would stop in the middle of a sentence and fall silent, as if he were afraid to tell them the truth.
Lorpu had come upon him once, weeping next to the corrugated iron bathroom beside their house and smoking a row of cigarette that she thought smelled like marijuana. When she had spoken to him, he had gotten up and shouted angrily at her, before turning away and cursing under his breath.
That was two days before he left to go to the front. The NPFL were then nearly in control of Gbarnga. General Bowen’s troops, made largely up of new conscripts who had little or no stomach for fighting, were on the run. Lorpu and her parents had never heard of him again except that a truck, carrying a number of AFL soldiers, had been ambushed. Their escape was thought to have been cut off when rebels fell two big trees along a highway, the one falling only a few yards in front of the army truck crammed full of government troops and the other behind it. The rebels had then shot and killed all the AFL soldiers.
Flomo’s death meant there would be no rice and barely enough food. Lorpu and her parents began going in search of whatever they could find. They started around the neighborhood. They would fetch bits of firewood, unripe bananas and pawpaw, along with edible leaves and anything else that could pass for food. But some of the neighbors took notice and began going in search of the same things, too. Soon there was barely anything to be found. People began to look at each other, their eyes full of fear, hunger, and mistrust, as if the lack of food had left everybody in search of somebody on whom they could vent their anger.
But with nothing left to salvage from the neighborhood, they had no choice but to go to the forest nearby, in order to cut firewood, to fish in the ponds, and to find snails, crabs and palm cabbage. Sometimes they would go to the swamps, especially the one at Double Bridge, and would find a big crowd, standing knee-deep in the mud in search of kiss-meat.
But as the fighting drew ever closer and gunshots, followed by shelling, were heard just in the outskirts of Monrovia, everybody started staying home. Government soldiers were then on the rampage. Their hunger increased with fear for their lives. Soon desperation sets in. Food became like a god. They began to eat nearly everything they could set their eyes on.
One day the whole family fell ill. Lorpu’s mother suffered the most. For many days their stomachs ran like a rifle shot. One of their neighbors brought some herbal leaves. With it they were able to cure their runny stomachs. But the mother’s condition did not improve. Finally she was confined to her bed. By then the rebels had reached Monrovia.
Then they heard the arrival at the Freeport of Monrovia of ECOMOG peacekeeping troops. Lorpu and her father had left, leaving her ailing mother behind. Together with hundreds of people, they had hoped to reach the peacekeeping troops and leave Liberia on ships that were rumored to have been sent for displaced people.
But it had been a difficult journey. Usually they were stopped at the roadblocks. NPFL rebels would ask people to get out of the line. Then they would inquire about their languages. The rebels were then purging the country of the Krahns, the Mandingoes and the aliens. Of the people taken out of the queues, most knew nothing about their languages. Many were beaten severely then shot and killed. As for the foreigners, especially the Ghanaians, Sierra Leoneans and Nigerians, they were betrayed by their accents. Lorpu and her father were fortunate because they could speak Lorma fluently and so got past many of the roadblocks.
It was at one of the roadblocks that Lorpu saw the men with the crude weapons. Of the twelve only one of them had an AK-47 rifle. The others were armed with cutlasses, crowbars, hammers and kitchen knives. These they had used to club and hack to death the people they removed out of the queue. There were hundreds of dead bodies lying in the bushes by the roadside. The buzzing of flies, lured by the smell of the corpses, sounded like the droning of a portable generator.
But while Lorpu and her father had got past many of the roadblocks, they would tremble and sweat would stream down their bodies each time they reached yet another rebel checkpoint. There was the likelihood that the girl could be abducted or raped. When their fear became more than they could bear they took to the swamps.
At last, they came in sight of the ECOMOG headquarters at the Freeport of Monrovia. With them were hundreds of displaced people. Embracing each other, they had fallen to their knees and raised their hands in thanksgiving, tears streaming down their faces. But soon they would realize that all was far from over and that their hopes were only a flame they could not hope to keep alive forever.
Lorpu knew that these were things best left forgotten and that thinking about them only brought grief. But because they had become a part of her, without any effort she would often find herself thinking about those dark and terrible days when the war was at its worst.
Lorpu was given as wife to a rebel of about fifty and who went by the name Saturday. He was a short, dark man, with broad shoulders that stooped heavily. Saturday was fond of joking with the civilian women who lived on the base. He would even on occasions help them with their cooking, pounding dumboy and geigba. But he was never once seen with them in ways which might have suggested anything beyond mutual relationship. Whenever one of his fellow fighters would ask why he would not find a woman for himself, especially since the women were so available that one only had to point in order choose which one would suit him best, he would just shrug his shoulders and smile. And so one morning when the women woke up to the news that he had been given a wife they simply could not believe their own ears. But soon enough Saturday came out of his house with Lorpu, one of his arms wrapped around her waist. Smiling, he set off with her for the big kitchen where all the women had gathered, standing with arms akimbo and smiles on their faces. Soon they were embracing Saturday and Lorpu. Then somebody broke into song.
As for Lorpu, she did not know whether to feel sad or happy in the presence of these women whose faces showed suffering but were still able to smile at her. Indeed, there were terrible scars on a few of the women’s faces and on parts of their bodies. Even as they laughed, clapped and sang, Lorpu could see that a few of the younger women had almost completely lost their front teeth. One of the older women had lost her right ear. Another one had a deep scar in her forehead, and a third had only one eye. And despite their smiling faces, one could see that their eyes were vacant, like the empty gazes of commuters barely interested in themselves than in their destination. But soon Lorpu found she was singing and dancing with them, these women who seemed but a crust and shell of their former selves.
And so it was that Lorpu came to be the wife of the rebel Saturday. At first all went well between them. Often, she would be seen cooking with the women. The rebel Saturday’s meals she would cook herself because, as one of the women told her, “he marry na an peopo mun show deh man respect, yah.”
And so with a wife to do his cooking, Saturday no longer went to the kitchen. He began to take his meals in private, expressing surprise that Lorpu had a magic of turning everything into a mouth-watering dish. Besides, she would do his laundry, pressed his army uniforms in the evenings and have his boots polished until they shone. During the days when he would leave the Caldwell base for a rebel post somewhere in the suburbs of Monrovia, she would sit for long hours with the other women. Many had children for the fighters. They would try to sympathize with each other and some of the women, especially those who had lightness of heart, would tell jokes that would make the others laugh. Finally Saturday would come home. Lorpu would leave to go home with him, telling the others goodbye. Sometimes Lorpu and Saturday would be seen sitting in front of his house while he told her jokes that made her laugh. Saturday looked a good man. Many of the women told Lorpu to be grateful because some of the rebels were known to beat their women. But then the storm burst.
Nobody knew how it happened. But on a particular evening a brief scuffle was heard in Saturday’s house. Suddenly, Lorpu began screaming. The sounds of still more struggle followed. Cooking utensils were dashed to the floor, and a door was slammed violently. Saturday could be heard yelling and cussing at the top of his voice. At last Lorpu came running out of the house, soon followed by Saturday shouting: “You dog! I swear if you come back here I’ll kill you!”
As she ran towards the big kitchen stripped to her underclothes, where a group of women had gathered to talk among themselves and wonder what had happened between Lorpu and Saturday, everybody on the base turned to look at her. A few fighters standing sentry in the yard burst out laughing while others shouted abuses at Lorpu. One of the women from the kitchen came running to meet Lorpu, and wrapped the lappa she was wearing around her so that she was left only in a pair of undershorts. She took Lorpu into the kitchen and the others came in, exclaiming and whispering.
Her face streaming with tears and blood, Lorpu sat down on one of the small wooden stools. One of the women who kept a first aid kit brought alcohol and cotton to stop the blood. Another brought aspirin tablets to give Lorpu. They all gathered around, trying to console her. But nobody asked any questions because all of them had had the same experience or worse. But why would Saturday beat the girl, they wondered. He had seemed such a good man.
Lorpu did not go back to live with Saturday because he swore to have nothing further to do with her. He refused to greet the women and was seldom seen on the base. He was believed to be involved in the sale of used cars and assorted goods the rebels would loot from the Freeport and sell to ECOMOG troops. For some reason none of the other fighters seemed interested in Lorpu. Thus a fortnight after Saturday had thrown her out of his house she began living with Ma Fatu.
Ma Fatu was one of the elderly women who helped prepare meals for the fighters and was reputed to be a big woman in the kitchen. “Don’t worry,” she had told Lorpu the day after Saturday had beaten her, leaving a few front teeth missing. “Deh open teeth make you fine sef. But leh me show you sumthin.” And she pulled up her blouse to reveal a deep gash in her right breast. “Da NPFL rebels do dis to me so,” she said. “When dey tear my clothes and knack me to deh ground I fight them. But dey naked me and beat me up. An wen dey wuh fini with me one of dem cut me here with his knife. He called it his signature. But supposin he was goin to cut me on my face? Jes imagin wat I was goin to look like, Lorpu. So my daughter, you see, so long de rebels dem nor kill you, you mun thank God for life.”
To be cont’d.