Saturday, December 11, 2010

Turning Back, Turning Point: Fiction

The bustle of Ouahigouya had gone. Even the hurrying soldiers had disappeared. The shops, so busy so recently, were shuttered, the marché vacant. No youths peddled cigarettes on the wide, empty streets or lounged in the doorways, no women sold soap from hand-made stands in front of family compounds. No children peeped out from entranceways.

They walked, quiet, spooked by the emptiness, angling toward the middle of the street as they headed back, trying to look unconcerned to unseen eyes. The only things moving were vultures circling against the pale blue sky, wings beating occasionally. The bleakness pushed them back towards the side where they could walk under the trees lining the road.

Paul led away from the main street, taking them down broad, silent avenues lined with banco buildings, then threading them through narrower streets toward the compound where they'd slept the night before, walking quickly, hesitating at every vacant corner. He said nothing to Sam.

No one came out of the compound when Paul clapped softly. They stepped through the open gate towards the open-air stove, moving a little off to the side, unconsciously trying to reduce their visibility from the road. Across from them, the cloth hanging over a doorway at the back of the restaurant moved aside and a hand and face appeared.

“Venez.” Come. Almost silent, more motion than words. An older man, one of Yusef’s uncles, ushered them into a dark room. “Come in. Quickly. It is not safe to be out there.” He sounded angry, but relieved when he was able to let the cloth back down. “Yusef is not here.”

Paul asked the uncle what was going on as both Americans shrugged off their packs and sat on low stools. The uncle looked away, the lines deepening his face, a deflating balloon. Finally, he spoke, keeping his words simple.

"La guerre. War." Reluctant, expressionless. His eyes averted, accusing. "Weren't you in town? Thought I saw you walk that way. You should know. Mali bombed us. Hit the cattle marché. Killed some children." He walked deeper into the darkness of the restaurant reached through the other side of the room before returning to them empty-handed and sitting with them.

Paul paused before translating. He had never believed it would come. It never had before, not while he had been in this part of Africa, at least. Certainly, there had been chances. Certainly, there was strife, and conflict, but all-out war took money, and few of these countries had enough of that. War required either desperation or greed, and he had never believed that the countries around had reached the required pitch of either.

There were conflict. The Tuaregs in Mali and Niger were armed and sometimes fought the governments, as did other groups. The various coups—including the recent ones here in Burkina Faso—could be bloody. But the worst of the quarrels, the Biafran War in Nigeria, had ended long ago. He hadn’t believed days of warfare would start again. There was too little to fight over, too little to gain.

So, he spoke again to the uncle, in French: "Do you have any other news? Who attacked first? Where do things stand now? Anything? Have you heard anything?"

"No."

"Is there fighting around here? Were other places bombed? How serious do you think it is?"

"I don't know."

"Well, what do you know? Tell me."

Not much. He had seen little more than Paul and Sam. He had been trying to open the restaurant when soldiers came by, yelling at everyone to get off the streets. So, he had pulled the shutters and had waited in the dark.

Paul turned to Sam, starting out by telling him that they would still try to leave as soon as possible. If they had to, though, they would sleep there in the Sawadogo compound once more, and leave in the morning. Things should be quieter by then, he was sure.

“But it is war,” he said, speaking quietly, lessening the impact of his words, “and we may be right in the middle of it.”

Sam stared at him.

“I’m sorry,” Paul continued, “I should have told you to stay in Mopti. Nothing would happen to you there.”

Sam continued looking at Paul, his eyes shaded. “It’s not your fault,” Sam said, finally. “I’m the one who decided to go with you. And I couldn’t stay there, anyway.”

“But you shouldn’t have to face this.”

“None of us should.” Sam stared over Paul’s head at the vague shapes in the darkened restaurant. He was scared, but he had been scared before. Fear wasn't the threat. And he wasn’t responsible; the situation was beyond his control. There was relief in that.

He had made the choice to accompany Paul rather than waiting for someone else to get him out of Mopti. He’d been stranded by language barriers, bureaucratic errors, and antagonistic police. Now, he had an ally, something he had lacked back in Mali, where there had been no one he could really talk to or plan with, not at the hotel, not anywhere in town. Almost all Europeans had left at the first sign of trouble. No, it was better to have left with him than to sit in Mopti.

Though Yusef’s uncle refused to speculate, Paul and Sam willingly did, once they had moved into the darkened restaurant. Once the uncle had gotten up and disappeared. It broke the tension and passed the time. They tried to decide what they should do if they were even able to get out of the compound. It just did not make sense to stay any longer than necessary. As soon as they had some idea of what was going on, they would leave. Neither country could possibly be equipped for a war reaching much beyond the common border. Paul was sure of that, and explained to Sam. Paul figured that it shouldn't take long to get out of the problem area, especially on a motorcycle like his Yamaha, the bike he had shown Sam the night before, that he had planned on leaving in Ouahigouya. A good, strong dirt bike, 250cc, it could take them across the countryside. They could leave next morning.

Sam argued that they should wait. The uncle, on one of his short stints sitting with them, agreed (Paul translating). Paul was surprised; he assumed that the family would be better off with the Americans gone.

That they were only a few kilometers from the border decided the issue. Paul and Sam were aliens, immediately suspect to any scared soldier or gendarme who might come across them. No matter what they did, someone would soon point them out. And someone would come for them.

Shortly after dusk, after a long day of waiting, eating only cold food, and venturing no further than the compound entrance, Yusef appeared, sneaking into the courtyard over the wall from next door. He told them he had spent the day at the house of another uncle, until finally deciding it was dark enough to make his way home, avoiding the streets as much as he could. He had seen nothing on the way, no soldiers, no one. Everything was quiet. Maybe the one bombing was all that would happen.

Paul wanted cigarettes, and Yusef knew one of the youths across the street who usually sold them. They pushed through the curtain and walked quickly to the compound entranceway and peeked out. Two children, the first people they’d seen on the street since the bombing, saw them and ran up to them. Silently, they held out pieces of twisted metal, bits of the bomb that had fallen that morning. Would the nasara (white) like to buy them?

“No.” Both Yusef and Paul shook their heads quickly. "No." They decided to forget the cigarettes and stay put for the night.

It was an odd feeling, next morning, again looking around at emptiness where normally life should thrive. They stared at the street where, every day of any other year, vehicles—cars, trucks, bicycles, mopeds, donkey carts—were constantly passing, where people sat in doorways watching and waiting, others walking through selling fruits and vegetables, and even chickens. Not even the dust, so normal in Burkina Faso, hovered in the air. Everything had settled; all was still. Yusef and Paul walked slowly back into the restaurant, having successfully bought cigarettes this time, a chill seeming to shiver the heat around them.

They had spent most of the previous night in the shuttered restaurant, Paul doing most of the talking and drinking, buying beer from the uncle (though neither Sam nor the uncle drank), the doors and windows pulled tight around them, a hurricane lamp turned low tfor light. At one point they had stepped outside, just to look about. The town was black. Silent. They tried to sleep in the restaurant on cushions Yusef dragged from somewhere, the stillness keeping them awake.

A few window shutters had been thrown back and, here and there, drying laundry fluttered. Paul wondered at the incongruity.

Paul and Yusef opened the restaurant’s front door and were standing on the verandah that served, normally, as the main dining room. They turned back inside, leaving the door open to throw a little light on the stacked tables and chairs against the wall. Sam joined them. They decided that it would be best for the Americans to try to leave as soon as possible, perhaps pushing the motorcycle until they were out of town. The soldiers were sure to be jumpy.

Paul, now, didn’t seem quite so sure. Staying in the known might be better. Yusef pushed for leaving. The military was scared and itchy, he said. He had seen that as he made his way home. And so were the cadres of the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution, those kids with automatic rifles. Paul and Sam, he argued, did not want to deal with them. And, Paul was sure (as he had felt before), Yusef was worried that having two strangers around was endangering the Sawadogo family. He couldn’t blame him for that.

Heeding Yusef, Paul and Sam finally hauled out their packs and tied them to the moto’s rebar rack on the back, atop Paul's tool kit. After thanking Yusef for all his help and advice, Paul, began pushing the bike to the entranceway.

A pop. It could be barely heard, but all three noticed it. They looked up. A burst of black opened above them. More pops, a little louder. More black clouds. Then the scream of a jet, and an explosion, loud, close enough to shake the ground under them, the walls near them. Paul wheeled the moto quickly back into the compound. Yusef and Sam ran before him into the restaurant, Sam pushing himself as far into the darkness as possible, into a chair among the stacked tables, Paul and Yusef following.

Silence. Yusef and Paul crept to the still-open doorway, stopping on opposite sides of it. Both moved their heads, hoping to peek out. But small-arms fire erupted, the first they had heard. They scurried back and sat with Sam. The three of them waited in silence as the shooting continued, occasionally dying down, leaving them in silence for a moment or two, then picking up again.

Eventually the shooting quieted for longer periods, then stopped altogether.

On unheard command, people were running, filling the empty street, silent but panicked and clearly intent on getting as far away from town as possible. There were more and more of them.

But gunfire began again, clearing the streets once more.

Other lulls followed, each culminating in a rush of people, each ending in renewed shooting. From where they sat, the three could see just a slice of the street, frustrating their desire to learn what was going on around them. Once in a while, one or the other of the three would creep over to the doorway and look out—only to scurry back when the shooting got too close.

Yusef’s uncle joined them, from somewhere. After a time, astonishingly, he asked them if they would like something to eat.

Paul stared at him. He said he had a fire going, so why not? When Paul translated, Sam, to Paul’s additional surprise, nodded. The uncle disappeared, returning some minutes later with a tray of bread, coffee, and eggs. Paul and Yusef watched, amazed, as Sam made himself a sandwich, cutting bread with a fat Swiss army knife. Shrugging, the others eventually did the same. They continued to watch the activity outside, sometimes now even daring to stand in the doorway, ducking again back, as was becoming habit, when the shooting started to get too close.

They didn’t talk much, but each noticed that time was tansforming their fears. No longer did they want to burrow and hide, though none seemed quite ready to venture into the street. The uncle had again disappeared.

It was Yusef who made the first joke. Paul ducked his head to laugh as Yusef giggled. He wasn’t sure he should translate it for Sam, but decided he had to.

“Yusef says he’s just learned the new Burkina national anthem. He hopes he doesn’t have to start on the Malian one now.”

Sam looked at them both for a moment, then laughed, too, setting the others off again. It was a stupid joke, yes, but…. Other jokes followed, all as bad, but they laughed anyway.

Every once in a while, something would sober them up again, usually gunfire, unusually close. A couple of times it was the sound of jets again, though no more explosions followed.

Yusef’s uncle reappeared. He watched with them for a while. When firing had died down for a longer period, twenty minutes or so, he announced he would ride his Mobylette the short distance down to where the bomb had fallen—when they went to the door and craned to the left, they had seen the black smoke of fires it had started—and find out what had happened, how many had been hurt, or killed. Part of his wife’s family lived down there, he explained. He had to go.

Back, he told them that at least nine were dead, many more hurt, most missing limbs. From the description, Sam told them that it must have been some sort of anti-personnel bomb. Its fragments had torn through the mud walls of the compounds.

He had only been allowed in the area, the uncle said, because he was known to the military who were taking care of first aid and transportation of the wounded.

Most of the injured and all of the dead were either very old or very young.

And by the way, he said, there were no Malian troops around. They were safely on the other side of the border.

Though the sound of AK-47’s still recurred, it rarely sounded close enough to startle. Some nervous soldier, they told each other, accidentally firing off a few rounds. Others would hear, and shoot, too. It continued around the town, rising in one place and eventually dying out somewhere far away. Some time later, it would start again, from someplace else, and circle around the town again.

More people seemed to be taking the chance, during each lull, to run towards the bush, to escape town, the gunfire, and the chance of more bombs. In those relative silences, the street was packed with men, women, and children, all scurrying from town, on foot, on bicycle, occasionally on moped or motorcycle, in car, on truck. More, and then many more. More than Sam thought could have possibly lived in the town. As their numbers grew, the noise they made began to compete in level with the gunfire, though when firing would start, all would disappear.

Most carried hurriedly-packed parcels. All were so intent that it was almost a shock when a motorized vehicle moved among them, scattering them. Some lugged chickens or other valuable household items. Many pulled children after them, or carried them. Again, as firing started, they disappeared, leaving Sam again wondering where so many could have gone so quickly, until the road filled once more as the guns went silent.

Far down the street, just in sight as they stood on the restaurant’s porch, cars and trucks had started lining up—back around the block and out of sight—waiting for gas from the BP station. Every five minutes or so, some armed official vehicle or other would roar past the others to the station, certain to demand its prerogative, leaving those in the waiting vehicles, Paul imagined, angry but necessarily silent. Most, when the line moved, pushed their cars forward, rather than starting them and wasting gas.

Though the crowds leaving were huge, many were staying, doing nothing but watching like the trio in the restaurant, heads popping from windows and around doors. A few others now came into the restaurant or onto the verandah, purchasing cups of coffee from Yusef’s uncle. One or two were sitting on the curb in front of the restaurant, now that the gunfire seemed to be less and less frequent. After a while, Paul, Yusef, and Sam joined them, sitting with their own little plastic cups in hand.

Soon, in a thunder of starters and accelerators, the vehicles waiting for fuel raced and roared away, speeding in every possible direction, each driver seeking to beat the others to a place where fuel could be found—for the BP station had run out of gas.

“Have you experienced anything like this before?” Sam was clutching his coffee cup and staring down the road, empty for the moment, a round of shooting having just died down. No one had told a joke for some time, or talked at all. Watching the intensity, the single-mindedness, on the faces of those fleeing had taken away the remnants of humor.

“No. The worst I have been through was a coup attempt. That was crazy, and pretty scary, but it was nothing like this.” That one had merely been military trucks roaring up and down Ouagadougou streets. No shooting where he was, no flight.

“Doesn’t it bother you? I mean, you just seem to keep on like you were before.”

“Nothing else to do, I suppose. I mean, what can we do? But, yes, it bothers me. I guess you just get to a point, around here, well beyond surprise.”

He set down his cup and walked back into the restaurant.

Both the flight and the gunfire finally began to slow. Yusef and Paul decided the streets were now safe enough and clear enough for the Americans to follow. They pushed the moto onto the street. Paul, astride the bike, jumped and came down on the kick-starter, the roar of the engine breaking the new silence dominating the neighborhood. He motioned for Sam, just strapping on a helmet, to get on behind him, gunning the engine a bit to smooth the idle. Over the roar, Sam asked if the Sawadogos were all staying. Paul answered that most of the family had already left. Those staying remained, like Yusef, only because they had been delegated to protect family property.

“Did they volunteer to stay?”

“I doubt it. I’m sure Yusef’s grandfather made the decision. Now, hold on to me. We really do have to get out of here.”

They waved back at Yusef. He stared after them, not moving.

After the first turn, they were stopped by a group from the CDR, not one of them more than twelve, all armed with automatic rifles. Paul slowed as they came running out of a building, forming a cordon across the street, guns pointed at the Americans. Carefully, he pulled to a stop in front of them. They asked who they were and what they were doing, shouting in high, belligerent voices. Paul and Sam held their passports out to them.

Normally, CDR kids were swanky, proud of their status and their guns. These were scared. They wanted to get back inside, where they might be safe from the Malians, more than they wanted to deal with Paul and Sam. They spent little time over the papers before scurrying back to the safety of their comic books.

Paul and Sam soon caught up with the crowd heading south. First they passed ones and twos, then larger groups, then found themselves riding at the side of a gigantic, slow-moving worm of people. Paul took the motorcycle off the road, for they could move faster over the fields. He kept them close to the road; the crowd, he hoped, would make a skittish gunman hesitate. With the weight of another person behind him, plus bags and tool kit, the motorcycle was extremely difficult to manipulate at slow speeds. So Paul found what paths he could where he could move with some speed, though, close to the road, well within sight of it.

Most of the column of refugees ignored them as they passed, zigging nearer for a stretch and then zagging away again.

The sun glared; Paul stopped for a moment and put his feet down so that he could fit his sunglasses behind his goggles. His hands were shaking and numb from the work of keeping the moto up and sweat was dripping down his arms and into his gloves. Sam was doing what he had been told, staying still on back of the bike, uncomplaining.

Aside from the noises of engines, Paul realized, the day was still and quiet.

No comments: