[Chapter Sixteen can be found here.]
They rode on slowly, still at the side of the growing crowd of refugees, Paul using his feet, one then the other, to keep them upright, Sam sitting as quietly as he could, watching the people as they went by. He was amazed at the variety, the diversity. A tailor walked along as he might have for work, his sewing machine on his head. Another man had motorcycle tires slung over both shoulders, and was followed by two boys, each laden with bicycle tires. A third had strapped a pile of books together with a belt and carried them on his back. Another pushed a bicycle loaded with suitcases as though it were a cart. Most of the women carried children on their backs, as did the girls. Even one of seven or eight could carry a baby, and often, Sam saw, they did.
They passed a family of five, with luggage, chugging along on a moped that could hardly pull the father; passed women trudging with bundles on their heads larger than they were; passed people hanging off the sides of trucks and clinging to the roofs of buses. Every vehicle they overtook held more than any on them likely would have believed possible. Some were so burdened they could hardly move and had to be pushed every little while.
The refugees were no longer silent, as they had been in town. Everyone slogging on foot begged to be allowed on each vehicle that passed them by, no matter how loaded it already was. Under each tree sat people whose legs had too quickly given out, or whose packages had fallen apart. Some slept; others attempted to rearrange their belongings, to get back on the road. Others ate, or drank whatever liquids they had managed to carry with them. Those still moving ignored the ones they passed.
Just a little way outside of town, they came to a control post, a little hut set back from the road and a moveable barrier across the road. It was down, but most traffic was simply flowing around it. Only the larger vehicles were stopped by it, forced to pull off the road by the hut, the drivers (under the watchful eyes of uniformed men with guns at the ready) taking their documents to the table set up outside. Normally, Paul knew (for he had traveled this road to Tougan a number of times before), this gendarme station, responsible for checking those leaving and entering Ouahigouya by this minor dirt road, had little business. Maybe it would be staffed by two people, or three. Now, there were dozens of gendarmes around, hot and scared, many of them arguing with one another or with civilian drivers. The gendarmes were, Paul suspected, on the verge of collapsing as an operating organization. At least, those at this post were. Most were sweating profusely, their eyes darting here and there, making it obvious that they were ready to run if things got any more confused than they already were. Many probably, Paul suspected, had arrived there as they had tried to leave town themselves and had been forced to stay by the officer who was standing with his sidearm drawn behind the little table.
Dozens of people—no, many more than that, Paul saw when he looked more carefully—sat huddled on the ground under the trees nearby, their belongings scattered around them, watching everything that went on with forlorn expressions.
Paul slowed, moved as close as he could to the hut, and put down his feet as they stopped. The bike rocked gently as Sam put his down, too. Paul turned off the engine, pulling his helmet from his head and telling Sam to do the same. As foreigners who, in the eyes of the officials, had no real business being there in the first place, he could not afford to go around the stop with the other small vehicles. They had to be careful, respectful and polite. Paul didn’t want one of these scared and itchy men to start shooting but believed, after all of the gunfire they had heard that day, that they easily could.
As they waited in the line before the table, Paul saw why the gendarmes were requiring only the larger vehicles to stop. They asked the driver of each vehicle to take a couple more people, intimating that they would not be allowed to leave, otherwise. They would point to one or two of those sitting under the trees, who, suddenly brightening, would rush to the vehicle and climb on. These were probably the friends and families of the gendarmes, as desperate as anyone to be able to get out of town but lacking the means. They had done the best they could, following their son or brother or father to this stop, hoping escape could be commandeered. Sometimes others were forced to get off and wait when there wasn’t room, given promises that they would be put on another vehicle later. This scared Paul: the armed men likely resented even the space on the road the two foreigners were taking up. They were as afraid as the refugees, as much as Paul was, as Sam was. It was possible that they would decide that the motorcycle itself should be commandeered, to be made use of by more important people. Paul made sure that he had the key securely in his pocket.
Paul knew that it was extremely important that he act calmly. He had to approach the gendarmes with care, with a little humility but also with a little arrogance and confidence (he didn’t want them to think him weak), but his hands were shaking from the strain of controlling the motorcycle. He quietly handed another key to Sam and asked him to unlock the chain wrapped around the bike’s handlebars, take it off, and wrap it through the chassis and back wheel and lock it. A couple of the gendarmes were already looking at the moto too keenly. He did not want to tempt them.
The line of waiting motorists moved forward slowly. A couple of people ahead of him were two tall, blonde men who, Paul was sure, had pulled up in the small white pick-up with an “NL” sticker on the back—for these two could be nothing but Dutch. When their turn came, Paul heard them arguing a bit as the gendarme insisted that they take on a couple of additional riders. Their truck was already packed with a number of crates and people on top of them but, somehow, two more squeezed on the back even while the men argued that they could take no more. A few minutes later, Paul finally found himself up to the table, where he and Sam, who had returned from his task, were scrutinized by that man standing behind the table, the one with the drawn pistol who seemed to be in charge. The gendarme sitting at the table reached out his hand; they presented their passports and Paul gave him the papers for the motorcycle. He glanced at them briefly and said something to the man behind him. That man grimaced, retorted harshly to the first, then spoke to another man. That one motioned with his AK-47 for them to move, to follow him.He led them over to the side of the hut, then barked his own orders at a group of three gendarmes standing a little further from the road in the shade of a large bush. Those men, though they moved over on his command, started arguing with him, shaking their heads, refusing some order or other.
Paul tried to follow the conversation, but the men weren’t Mossi and he didn’t know their language.
Finally, the commander back behind the table yelled at some other men to join the one escorting them. They did, lining up behind him, facing the three defiant ones.
After a moment of glowering back and forth, the three refusers lowered their heads. The commander walked over and barked some orders at them, they nodded.
“You will go with them.” He turned and spoke to Sam and Paul, in French, and pointed toward the bush. He turned and stalked back toward the little table outside the hut, where the seated gendarme was still checking the papers of other drivers.
Paul and Sam glanced at each other, neither liking what they saw or thought, neither willing to speak. They had no choice, anyway, but to obey. Slowly, they started to move in the direction the commander had pointed, the reluctant three men spreading themselves out behind them. Metallic clunks told them that the men now had their guns raised and ready. For what, they could not, would not imagine. They looked at the ground and walked, one foot in front of the other, each knowing now that the other was as frightened as he was. Each wondered where the path before them, just a small trail into the bush, would take them.
[Chapter Eighteen can be found here.]
[Chapter Eighteen can be found here.]