Sunday, 16 December 2012

'Unknown Soldiers', A short story

By Anote Ajeluorou

My Lord, we, the ordinary folks of Oputeland, caught in the trap of war at dawn, were robbed of our quiet night, and the prospect of our seeing daylight again seemed a mirage. We strained our ears very hard to hear the kernel of the dispute across the table. But we could neither make head or tail out of it. Shouldnt an egg be broken on its head or not? Or indeed, should it be eaten in its yolk or be allowed to hatch and watch the chick grow into a cockerel that would announce the break of yet another day?
  At first, we were amused and thought the whole argument stupid. My Lord, why should grown-up men engage in such mindless frivolity when the state lay prostrate from lack of apparent leadership? Do they not have better things to talk about all day at the Presidential Palace? But soon our amusement turned into bewilderment when the ugliness of the situation began to dawn on us. Little did we know that at the seemingly harmless beginning of that stupid argument eight years ago, a hole had been blown into the hull of our canoe, and the water was merely rising to ankle depth. It was indeed a time when sensible men would begin to bail out the water to stop the canoe from capsizing and drowning the rest of us in it.
  We the ordinary folks of Oputeland who saw the futility of the proceedings at the Palace did not have a voice strong enough to shout down the madness. We should have told them to put out the crackling embers so our only hut made of thatch roof would not be consumed in the conflagration soon to erupt and engulf us all.
  Well, we could not stop those who claimed to rule us from what had become an obvious madness at ego-trip. They could not restrain themselves either. Nobody could, not even their international friends, who always expect the worse of us so they could lend a hand one way or the other to facilitate our doom. Soon the drums of war began to beat; blood began to boil in the veins of young men soon recruited to amplify the friction.
  Erovie, which occupied the throne, insisted it was its birth right to continue to do so. But Urhuto disagreed. It argued that they also have a right to the Palace pie. That it should be given a chance to share the cake of state already baked by international oil companies operating in the land for which Erovie has had more than a fair share over the years, and largely for their own benefits. They argued that there was a skewed logic to the balance of power in Oputeland in favour of Erovie, and that things must change one way or the other.
  Urhuto argued that since Erovie had monopolised power since independence and produced successive leaders ever since, Oputeland had been the worse for it and that no meaningful development had come to lift the majority of the people from abject poverty. For them, a time had come for a change of guard so others could project their ideas for the good of the commonwealth. But Erovie insisted on clinging onto power and kept promising to do things better.
  The rest as they say, my Lord, is now bitter history as this respected Panel and Oputeland already know.
  At that moment of my submission, I could not restrain the tears that had welled up and kept flowing after my opening. My pregnancy in its advanced stage hung hugely in front of me, and I hug it with both arms. The Reconciliation Panel chairman, a retired clergyman with a gentle soul, asked me to sit down to recollect myself. I sat and wept freely. My two sisters, who sat on either side of me, just held me close and rocked me in their arms.
  In fairness, they had warned me of the danger of exposing myself to the whole world by testifying at the Panel set up to reconcile all those aggrieved as a result of the fratricidal war that raged over our country for eight long years. The war ruined everything lives, careers and whatever development efforts we had made since independence 40 odds years ago.
  My two sisters had feared that testifying at my advanced stage of pregnancy would affect me and might even put my child in grave danger. We had all been witnesses to the emotional outpouring the Panel had wrought in many who had gone before to testify. Every day we listened to the multiple atrocities the war wreaked on innocent people; how their lives were turned into what they were not and its scares deeply branded. They were tales of woes, tales of a people gravely dehumanised and senselessly slaughtered just to assuage other peoples greed for power. The ferocity of the war was something we could not forget; it branded itself so deeply into our soul and became the demon we must exorcise if we were to move forward. This Panel seemed the perfect arena for such exorcism. I couldnt fail to take advantage of it.
  But my sisters had wondered what I stood to gain by telling the whole world my private shame and tragedy at having suffered unfairly and unjustly in a war I did not cause but from which I suffered so much violence?
  But I disagreed with them. What do they know? They were well outside the country studying when our war raged; they had no idea what it was, what we suffered, how we survived it. So, I pointed out to them that silence wasnt the best option either even in the most shameful situations, even though you happen to be at the receiving end as the innocent victim. That indeed, I was never the one that started the fire that consumed me; and that if nothing else, my shame was the collective shame of our nation, of Oputeland, and of those whose greed and inordinate quest for power for its own sake dragged us into a senseless war.
  Indeed, what good has Erovies long stay in power brought to Oputeland? The country still remained backward and undeveloped. In spite of the vast natural and material wealth Oputeland is blessed with, there is still hunger, poverty, diseases, joblessness and life remains brutish for a vast majority of the people. Only a handful of the rogues in power are entitled to the mineral wealth of my land. So, why would I not expose the tragedy their greed brought us? Why should they rest easy in their inhumanity to the rest of us?
  Moreover, women suffered so much during the war; yes, women like me and many others who bore the brunt of a war they did not cause. The men made us see and experience unspeakable evils and silence wasnt an option for most of us who must poke fingers of innocence at their bloodied eyes.
  I reminded my sisters that the collective silence of women has always been the trump card held up by cowardly, beastly men to perpetuate all forms of evils against womenfolk all over the world in crises situations, especially in Africas conflict situations. I reminded them that men rape women and still have the effrontery to charge them for sexual provocation; they prostitute women and charge them for waywardness. Men sell us to other men and shamelessly collect what they call bride price in the name of marriage and then they traffic us for their profit. Men imprison women in their kitchens and frivolously engage in senseless horse-trading in the name of politics, of divide and rule and fan embers of vain nationalism and virulent ethnic cleansing. Finally, I told them that men circumcise women to tame what they call womens disruptive passion so they could have a bursting harem to flatter their masculine vanity!
  It was all so unfair, I cried out to my sisters. Why? Because we have not mustered the guts to spill it out on mens faces and made them eat their sordid vomit. I told my sisters that women had kept silent for far too long so much so that we have had our hairs shaven in our absence!
  I intimated my two sisters that all mothers before us failed us by their uncommon acquiescence and that they were too shy and timid to ask uncomfortable questions that are at the heart of womens unfair share of woes in our land, and elsewhere. But that we must begin to ask the hard questions we had until now failed to ask if only to smash the balls of malefolk, who loath the collapse of the status quo. Indeed, women must begin to ask the whys of their lives and situations. And if nobody did, I firmly told them, I was volunteering to ask those questions publicly, starting from this Panel. In any case, I wasnt about to allow my sisters restrain me from doing what I needed to do: go public with the collective shame of Oputeland! For in my shame and the suffering that the people of Oputeland went through during the war lay whatever redemption there was ever to be gained. So, we could finally say, never again, and a mark of a new awakening in our land.
  Just then, the Panel chairmans gavel banged. I was jolted back into reality from my reflections. I took a deep breath in and braced myself for the rest of my testimony before the Panel. Will Emamezi resume her testimony, please? His Lordships voice was gently prodding. Im sure she has regained sufficient calm to continue. We emphasise here at this Panel that nothing must be held back so that the attempt at national reconciliation and healing can be total. Then he signalled me to continue.
  As you all know, my Lord, I started in a clear voice. Women are an international property. They have no fixed abode or community, no known boundary and creed of their own to hold. They go wherever the men in their lives say they should go. It is the men who fan the embers of hatred, of nationalism, of tribe and religion. Women, like the chameleon, blend in easily to wherever they find themselves and are easily assimilated into their host communities or even beliefs. But my Lord, we mother the world and the men in it! Yet women are the first victims and targets of mens madness after they had unleashed violence on the world.
  Yet we know that the birth pangs of a woman in labour or the first screams of a newborn as he gulps air into his lungs transcend any known boundaries or beliefs. Knowing what it is to bring a child into the world, women are careful not to waste life on the altar of some senseless pride and defence of faceless, blind beliefs or tribal identity. We, women, protect life with all we have, my Lord, and do not waste it the way men do in quest of vain heroism.
  What do men care, anyway? Their contribution to life is, at best, one long thrust, a violent spasm of lust and ill-digested climax, a mad quest to conquer some feminine weakling that burn itself out even before it starts. To most men, to stand between a womans thighs is a matter of pride, mere ego-trip, a reassurance of a flagging virility. Life, the making and preserving of life, is of least consideration.
  The making of a life amounts to very little to most men when stirred to war to spill blood. So, Oputeland went to war with Erovie pitched against Urhuto. Suddenly, darkness fell on the land.
  We live on the small border town of Egelunu. It became the first theatre of war, the fierce battleground. Urhuto launched the first offensive and caught Erovie off-guard in the attack. Erovie had to beat a hasty retreat as Urhuto pushed them back to the periphery of the Palace city. It happened so quickly Egelunu found itself under rebel enemy control before they realised it. It happened one early dawn. I was still 14 then, and lying on my bed. Our mothers room was just across the living room, her door standing slightly ajar.
  Then we heard footsteps running and voices barking orders from across the street. Our mother hurried across to us in our room and we hurdled together in a corner, too terrified to ask questions. Then the guns began to crackle, and the bombs began to boom. There was wailing in the air and thunder-clap and sheer horror let upon our world. It was just too terrifying for words.
  ‘“Oh, Ozaudu!”’mother wailed.
Ozaudu was our elder brother; he had gone to join the heady campaign on the side of Erovie. He just left home one day and we began to see him speaking as the head of Erovie campaign teams. The pain on mothers face at that dark dawn told of a mother suffering the loss of a son still alive. It was a war that she didnt understand but which she was certain would soon consume her son. We felt her pain, too. We did not know if we were going to see him again. The guns sounded so close and so loud we felt nobody would escape.
  Hard banging on our door; we froze. We thought our end had come. Soldiers with big guns broke down our door and burst into our room and looked at us with bloodshot eyes. They pulled mother away from us, me and my youngest sister. One of the soldiers pushed my sister to the parlour and shut the room door behind us; it was just the two of us. Dead with fright, I followed his motions dumbly with eyes popping off their sockets.
  He leaned his gun to the wall. Then he began to unbuckle his belt, then his fly came loose. Soon, the khaki uniform slipped to the floor, and he grabbed me by the hair and pulled me back up against my bed. I felt a dumb daze as he violated my tender body with his animal fury. I felt the horror and brutality of his evil act from far away, my mind already numbed from the abomination. I felt so far removed from the scene of my violation, as if my body was mindless, as if my body belonged to someone else. Indeed, it just wasnt me. How could it be me, stretched out on the bed with some beast shoving daggers between my thighs? I felt sorry for those thighs, whoever had them.
  Just then, in my faraway consciousness, I heard noises and the single scream of a womans voice. Nooooo! I screamed back in response in my unconscious mind and then I blanked out.
  It was a long time later before I came to. There was an eerie feeling in the air. I felt raw between my legs, as if a deep cut had developed there on its own. Then I opened the door and saw Mother lying on the floor in a pool of her blood, a white cloth covered her from her head to her feet. She had been shot, apparently, for not producing her son Ozaudu. Bitter tears fell from my eyes...
  A murmur of grief swept through the Old Senate Chambers, where the Panel was sitting. Many people, especially women, dabbed their eyes with handkerchiefs. Even the Panel chairman lowered his head in apparent grief. In all my life, I had never produced such sobering effect on anyone let alone such a huge gathering. Somehow, an inner thrill coursed through my being. I felt alive again, bound together by a common feeling of fellowship with my countrymen and women. I had not made a mistake by coming to testify after all. That touch of human compassion had not completely died out in my country yet; a measure of redemption could still be hoped for. I felt good at the reaction my narration was having on my people. This overflowing feeling of catharsis after the tragic event of our recent past meant we still had a chance at rebuilding all we had lost and the possibility of strengthening our nation-state, provided, of course, we would be willing to guard against the mistakes of the past that plunged us into war. That way would our nation begin to emerge from the ashes of self-hate and pursuit of half-digested ideologues be they religious, tribal or egoistic.
  People, let there be order in the house! the chairman intervened as murmuring had overtaken the chamber with neighbour talking to neighbour about my familys travail and weighing it against their own tragedies. Indeed, the chamber had seen many such narrations of the different facets of the war. Both old and young, soldiers and officers, commoners and nobles alike, men and women, vanquished and victors; it had been a motley of national outpouring of the wrongs done in the heat of war.
  Emamezi has given us food for thought. But lets be patient to hear her out as weve been doing to all the others and those yet to testify. Hers will be the final one for today.
  Needless to say that the next few days and weeks, I began again, seemed to last forever. For me it was an endless nightmare; I had no idea if I was ever going to wake up or sleep forever. I walked about in a dumb daze. When it seemed as though I had begun to grasp the reality of my surrounding, symptoms of early pregnancy appeared. Diagnosis soon confirmed it. What was worse, I had gonorrhoea to the bargain! I fervently prayed for the earth to open up and swallow me. But whatever higher being I was praying to probably didnt have ears to hear or was too busy sorting out our war record to answer me.
  Well, so much for being an innocent bystander! I got the bigger beating than the actual actors in our war. Eventually, I got treated of the gonorrhoea and braced myself for nine months of pregnancy. My mothers sister, Ugbeta, may God continue to bless her soul, took two of us in. She stood by me all through my uncommon ordeal even when her husband thought it was madness for me to keep the pregnancy and deliver a bastard as a sad reminder of the war. But my aunt insisted.
  ‘“Its a human life were talking about here, I overheard her telling her husband heatedly one night. Nobody knows why God allowed it to happen at this terrible time. We owe the unborn child a duty to protect it, not to mention Emamezi. A silly mistake could cost us two more lives; weve lost one already from which were yet to recover. Im not sure I am ready for another tragedy. So please, let her be. God will see us through these difficult times
  I did not hear them argue again on my account. And so, that was how nine long and dreary months rolled by without much incident. By now we had been left far behind in the theatre of war as Urhuto chased Erovie to the Palace city gates. Nevertheless, I was barely aware of my surrounding those nine long months. I mainly slept through them. One quiet night, nurses in white uniforms urged me to push hard. I pushed as they instructed and a shrill scream burst forth between my thighs. It was a baby boy.
  There was a loud murmur in the chamber from my captive audience. I stopped and surveyed the faces. Was it the murmur of relief that I was finally delivered safely or approval that the child was a boy? Would my audience have expressed as much pleasure if my baby was a girl? I could hardly figure it out. So I continued my story.
  Everyday, I examined my boys features very closely and critically. I meant to see something of the father I would never know nor recognise, a father my son would never know, too. Yes, he looked lovely and even handsome. Clearly, he didnt look like anyone in my family, which meant he looked every inch like his father. And I often wonder, could anyone with the slightest claim to handsomeness as my son was turning out to be, be so low and beastly as to take advantage of a defenceless, helpless girl and put her in a precarious position?
  I sought desperately to think of my sons father in a less hideous manner. But I couldnt; the pain of my brutal violation was too deep to gloss over by the coming of a child. Moreover, I had a boy child to bring up all alone without the slightest idea who the father was certainly not a cheering prospect. Yet I loved my boy so much, and through him, inexplicably, I loved whoever the father was. Mine was a pain-child, no doubt. And I ought to hate the father for making my life such miserable hell. But I really couldnt bring myself to hating him. How could I hate my boys father and not extend the same dark emotions towards my boy?
  I remember that dark night; I remember the dark pain and brutal violation. I remember also that it was the unfortunate night I was turned into a woman, although an unwilling one by an unknown soldier. Was that pain in vain? No; all I know is that a certain night of dark emotions yielded into my laps a life demanding attention. Then I remembered also that a war was going on. And war makes ordinary men mad; and men at war claim booties in the women they meet; I was one such booty.
  Was I rationalising my love for my boys father? Perhaps so; and are we, the ordinary folks of Oputeland, not the actual foot soldiers used by the generals and the politicians as ladders to climb to their exalted positions? It was unfortunate that our rulers have the mastery of turning ordinary folks against themselves. Perhaps, we would have less rancour in our nation if the foot soldiers should turn the guns bought with tax-payers money against the politicians and the generals instead of at ordinary soldiers on both sides of the divide…’
  ‘Will Emamezi stick strictly to narrating her experience rather than engage in revolutionary talk, please? The chairman was far from being gentle this time. There was indeterminate buzz in the hall. I was happy I held the audience in the spells of my testimony. The chairman banged his gavel for order. But it took a while before the hall quietened down. I felt I had made my point sufficiently enough; I didnt want to engage the chairman further on the revolutionary charge.
  ‘The next two and a half years were rather uneventful. Egelunu was far behind the war front. But there was no sign of victory for either side. I took care to nurse my son meanwhile. But that was not to be for long. Erovie, after beating a retreat and having taken a severe beating at the hands of the advancing forces of Urhuto, soon regrouped strongly again just outside the Palace city. Then they began to repel Urhuto forces. The battle, we learnt, was fierce and bloody. Erovie had engaged the services of foreign mercenaries and acquired sophisticated military hardware. Soon, Urhuto was outmatched and a retreat became inevitable for them. Erovie was hot on their heels as they pursued them beyond our boundary town of Egelunu and deep into Urhuto territory.
  ‘So, once again, Erovie forces were in control of Erovie towns and cities, including some cities in Urhuto. But the occupying soldiers would be soldiers. Just like the invading Urhuto soldiers of over two years before them, the liberating soldiers of Erovie also had their ready booties to pick. Many young women in Egelunu suffered the same brutal fate rape and forceful appropriation! Once again, I was among those the liberating soldiers picked on to satiate their war ravaged, lustful appetite. Once again also, I became pregnant. Once again, it was a boy child that I had.
  ‘Aaahhh! went the murmur in the hall.
  ‘So, two boys from the same womb from two dramatic encounters with two beastly men in grim opposition to each other, without the slightest knowledge of what they had done. They were my first contact with men on the sexual front. Until those encounters, I only had vague ideas how babies were made. Nevertheless and thanks to our war, here was I, a virgin, being made into a woman and a mother in the most unromantic manner. What was more, I had no say in the matter; just the blind lust of some depraved, unknown soldiers out to still the raging blood in their virulent veins. I just couldnt believe my luck, if one could call it by that name!
  ‘But it was all too real to be true. To play host to two enemy baby boys in one womb in the course of one war is, to put it mildly, the height of motherhood. The war, it seemed, was fought right in my womb! For two enemy soldiers to claim their war booties in my womb without even knowing it must be a fantastic joke; but this wasnt a joke at all. This was my life; it is my life!
  ‘And by now you may be wondering, whose child is she carrying this time? Of course, the war has long ended. Is she married to some decent Oputeland man now? The answer, dear people, is no; not Oputeland man in your wildest dream! Id seen enough of them up close and ugly to want in again. But, is the man decent? I dare say, yes; hes Ugandan, a soldier, and a peacekeeper at that!
  A wave of murmur again swept through the hall. The panel chairman sat back deep in his chair, relaxed now, his gavel lying idly on the table.
   ‘Colonel Obote was in the Ugandan troupe that helped broker the peace deal that eventually put an end to the self-inflicted war as part of the African Peace-keeping Mission, I informed my audience, and pointed him out in the hall; he took a bow. And there were cat-calls from all over. Colonel Obote is a gentleman. Desperation for food and provision drove me into his arms. He treated me like a real woman unlike what my fellow countrymen made me suffer in their blind quest for wrong-headed nationalism and tribalism. The childhood sweetheart our war robbed me of I have been able to find in his arms. He took me for what I am; hes never critical of my past, raw as it seems. His understanding sometimes makes me cry.
  A month ago, I went for a test. I had prayed fervently that my baby would be a girl. My violent meeting with men during our futile war produced two boys, two opposing soldiers, if you like. It was understandable that violence should sow potential seeds of violence. Now there is peace. And I felt I needed now the tampering spirit of a girl child, a borderless citizen of the world, ready to soothe the raging soul of our troubled world. For once, my prayer was not in vain. What can I say? I invite you all to our wedding in Uganda in two months time…’
  My voice was drowned out by the clapping and whistling and tears of joy in the hall. Even the Panel chairman forgot to use his gavel this time to bring order...

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