Star of Africa, p.31Scott Mariani
The column advanced up the track and marched into the village. Ben and the others could only watch as Khosa led his troops along the path between the huts to where the villagers were gathered. There were cries of fear as they saw the soldiers coming. The crowd scattered, but were quickly herded back together at gunpoint.
Khosa planted himself in the middle of the village square and lit a fresh cigar. Wreathed in a swirl of smoke he shouted, ‘I am General Jean-Pierre Khosa! If there are strong men and boys in this village, they will now have the honour of serving in my army!’
Next, Khosa ordered for all the men and women to be rounded up separately. It was a task his soldiers completed in under a minute, jabbing their rifles and yelling wildly at the terrorised villagers.
‘Only the fittest can fight for me!’ Khosa declared loudly. ‘There is no room in my army for the old and the weak. Kill them.’
‘He can’t do this,’ Tuesday said, and looked imploringly at Ben and Jeff.
But he could do it, and he did. Because nobody had the power to stop him. Moments later, the village echoed to the crackle of small-arms fire and screaming as every man deemed too old, too infirm or in any way unfit for service was gunned down. A one-legged man on crutches, shot three times in the head and chest. A white-haired elder of about seventy, blasted in the back as he tried to escape. And on, and on. When the firing stopped, there were eighteen dead bodies on the ground.
And every one of them, Ben felt as if he’d murdered himself. He was shaking with a rage he could hardly contain. Women wailing, children crying and screaming, Khosa’s soldiers surrounding them with guns and roaring at them to shut up. Sizwe, Uwase and the other men of the village all staring at Ben as though he’d betrayed them.
It was unbearable.
But it wasn’t over. It was just beginning.
Next, Khosa had all the remaining men and older boys lined up for his inspection. He strutted down the line, puffing smoke, the sunlight glinting off the revolver at his side and the mirrored lenses of his shades, and took a long, slow look at each one in turn.
‘This one is big and strong,’ he said, pointing at Uwase. ‘He is acceptable. And this one is even bigger. You! What is your name, cockroach?’
Khosa nodded with satisfaction. ‘This Sizwe is the strongest of them all. I will take him too.’
Like a flesh trader of old picking out the choice goods at the Zanzibar slave market, Khosa selected four more of the tallest and fiercest-looking males of the village, asking each his name in turn. Ntwali, who owned the four-wheel-drive. Gasimba, his friend. His number five and six choices were named Mugabo and Rusanganwa.
‘These are very good,’ Khosa declared. Then he turned to his soldiers and said, ‘Take the rest and kill them. But do not waste more bullets.’
The soldiers used their machetes.
Ben had heard of carnage like it, and often. In Africa, and especially here in Rwanda, there was a long and depressing record of man’s senseless brutality against his fellow man. He’d seen the aftermath of such slaughter, on one occasion that he had tried very hard for many years to close out of his memory. But to be forced to witness it taking place in front of his eyes felt like being dragged to the brink of losing his mind. Almost the very worst thing was the way the villagers took it, many of them barely resisting as though they accepted their fate with a calm, dignified, almost detached resignation. It was more awful to watch than if they’d fought and struggled.
Ben watched through a stinging, clouding veil of tears until he couldn’t stand it any longer and closed his eyes. But he couldn’t close his ears to the keening screams of the womenfolk and the terrible repetitive chopping of sharpened steel on flesh and bone as Khosa’s soldiers carried out their bloody work.
When the massacre was over and the ground was littered with the severed body parts of the dead, Khosa strolled calmly up to where Ben stood with his head bowed, and revealed his plan.
‘I have thought of a better test for you, soldier.’
Khosa took off his sunglasses. His eyes bored into Ben’s, as though he could read every thought that was in there. ‘Do you see these scars on my face?’
As if it were possible to miss them.
‘These were made when I was just a young boy, to show my courage. Do you know how I earned these marks? By proving myself in combat against two strong warriors from another tribe, who were sent to hunt me in a forest. These men were prisoners. If they killed me and cut off my head, they would be let go. But I killed them both, with nothing but a spear in my hand, and I carried their heads back to my village to show to the elders. This was how a boy became a man. And now, soldier, you will prove yourself to me in the same way.’
Ben said nothing.
‘You and you,’ Khosa said, motioning at Jeff and Tuesday in turn. ‘You are his comrades in arms who will join him in this test. Three against six is the same as one against two. This is why I have chosen the six strongest men from this village. They will be given weapons to fight with. If they wish their women and children to be spared from the blades of my soldiers, they must kill you in combat.’
Khosa smiled his demon smile at Ben.
‘But if you kill them, soldier, you will save the life of your boy. Lose, and his head will be the next to be cut off.’
Ben said nothing. He could feel the tension coming like waves of heat from Jeff and Tuesday.
‘Clear this space,’ Khosa commanded with an imperious sweep of his arm. ‘The contest will take place here, before me. Let the fighters be given their weapons.’
Then Khosa paused, and rubbed his chin, and his eyes narrowed, and he nodded and chuckled to himself. ‘No, I have a better idea. Yes, yes. Much better. This will make the contest more interesting, I think.’
He pointed at the thicket of scrub and thorn bushes just beyond the edge of the village.
‘There is where you will hunt and kill each other,’ he announced. ‘Where the lion awaits its prey. To be a true warrior, one must confront many different dangers.’
Ben found the words to speak.
‘The biggest danger is you, Khosa. I can’t decide whether you’re a lunatic or just evil. But I promise you one thing. Whatever happens to me, my friends or my family, the worst end will be the one that comes to you. Sooner or later, you’ll be looking it right in the face. And no man would deserve it more than you.’
‘It is not a matter of who deserves,’ Khosa said. ‘It is only a matter of who wins, and who loses.’
‘I won’t fight,’ Ben said. ‘Not like this.’
‘Think carefully, soldier. You should not forget that you have much to lose.’ Khosa pointed at Jude. ‘His life is in your hands. He is your son. Look into his eyes and tell him that his life is not worth the lives of six poor villagers? Six strangers who are nothing to you?’
Ben didn’t reply.
‘If you will not fight, soldier, it means that you are a coward. And I have no use for a coward in my army. Refuse my command, and it is the same thing as if you fail the test. I will have the boy’s head cut off. Is this what you wish for? I do not think so, soldier.’
Ben still didn’t reply. He looked over at Jude. Jude was looking at him. Two of the soldiers were holding him by the arms. A third was pointing a gun to his head. A fourth was standing behind him with a machete, poised and ready for the swing. Its blade caught the sunlight.
Jude shook his head. ‘Don’t do this for me,’ he called out. ‘I can’t have six innocent men die on my account. Let the bastard do to me what he has to do. Let go.’
But Ben would not let Jude go.
Sizwe, his brother and their friends stood shoulder to shoulder, arms crossed, eyes averted from the slaughterhouse that was all that remained of the rest of the village menfolk.
‘We will not kill,’ Sizwe said. ‘We are not animals.’
At a signal from Khosa, the nose picker and another of the soldiers stepped up t
‘This little cockroach is bleeding all over my uniform,’ the nose picker said with a grin, just itching for the command to make him bleed some more.
‘I will count to three,’ Khosa said. ‘Then we will add his head to the pile. One.’
Sizwe said nothing.
Khosa said, ‘Two.’
Sizwe remained silent. He glanced at his wife, then at his son, then at Khosa, then at Ben. Uwase, Ntwali, Gasimba, Mugabo and Rusanganwa were all looking to him, their eyes wide and white and bulging.
Khosa said, ‘Thr—’
But Sizwe spoke before he could finish.
‘We will kill.’
Before the test, came the preparations. Sizwe, Uwase, Ntwali, Gasimba, Mugabo and Rusanganwa were each given a loaded semiautomatic pistol, as well as a set of pressed tin dog tags on thin chains to hang around their necks. Many of Khosa’s men wore them like jewellery to show how big they were, and were happy to lend them for the occasion.
Another three sets of tags were allocated to Ben, Jeff and Tuesday, along with three machetes wrapped up in a sackcloth bag from one of the soldiers’ packs.
‘You three men are the superior warriors,’ Khosa told them in a booming, grandstanding voice for all to hear. ‘So it is right that you must have the lesser weapons. To pass the test, you will bring me all six sets of tags and the head of Sizwe inside this bag. Do you understand?’
‘Six sets of tags and the head,’ Ben said. ‘If that’s what you want, that’s what you’ll get. And when it’s over, you let these people go back to what you’ve left them of their lives. And you let Jude and my friends go. You can keep me, if you want. I don’t care.’
‘Are you trying to negotiate with me, soldier?’ Khosa asked with a smile. ‘I do not remember offering these terms. Now, there has been enough talking. You, you, you, you and you,’ he said, waving his arm at a group of his soldiers and jabbing a finger at the big hut overlooking the village square, ‘will make sure that all of these female cockroaches and the little cockroaches are closed inside this hut. Guard them closely. Any man who allows a cockroach to escape will pay the price of one hand.’ Then he waved his arm towards another group of soldiers, which included the nose picker. ‘You, you, you, you, you and also you, will escort the fighters to the trees where the contest is to take place. Release the three warriors first. They will have one minute to take their positions and prepare, before you release the six hunters. You will stand guard and kill any man who tries to run away. Do you understand this duty that I have placed on you?’
The nose picker and his comrades enthusiastically chorused that they understood this duty very clearly. They’d just been given a ringside seat and couldn’t wait for the games to begin.
‘And I will stay here, and rest my feet for a while, and finish this very good cigar all the way from Havana, Cuba,’ Khosa said, rolling the Cohiba Gran Corona lovingly between his fingers. ‘While I keep both my eyes on this boy and make sure he does not try any more of his tricks. Come, White Meat. You will stay beside me as your father fights for your life, and tell me some of your white man jokes.’ He roared with laughter. The soldiers thought it was deliriously funny, too.
And so it began.
The combatants were escorted out of the village in two groups, Ben, Jeff and Tuesday in front and the six village men some way behind. The nose picker and the skinny soldier were in charge of the lead group. Two against three. Theoretically pretty good odds, and under normal circumstances there was no question that Ben would have gone for it. Even unarmed, against a pair of trigger-happy killers who were weighed down with as much armament as they could carry. The nose picker had been helping himself to the munitions supplies since Somalia. In addition to his AK-47, a nine-millimetre Browning pistol and the machete he’d held to little Gatete’s throat, he was decked out in extra bandoliers and had a cluster of hand grenades rattling like a bunch of coconuts on his belt.
‘You must be a real hard guy,’ Jeff said to him. ‘The African Clint Eastwood. The way you handled yourself against that little kid back there. I mean, you’ve got me shaking in my boots, matey.’
‘I am Captain Terminator,’ the nose picker said. ‘So fuck you, asshole. And keep walking or I will shoot you in the back.’
‘That sounds about right,’ Jeff spat at him.
The soldiers stopped them at the edge of the thicket. The nose picker grunted to the skinny guy, who was carrying the bag and at his comrade’s command tossed it deep into the bushes. It landed out of sight with a rustle and a clatter. Then, leering, the nose picker pulled out his nine-millimetre and fired a single shot in the air, like a starting pistol being fired to announce the beginning of a race. Pointing the pistol at the three men, he said, ‘Go.’
Now the clock was ticking. Just sixty seconds before Sizwe and the others were released into the thicket after them, armed with much more than an armful of machetes.
Ben, Jeff and Tuesday went ploughing into the dense vegetation. The grass was eye-high to an elephant in places, making it hard to see beyond a few yards in any direction. Ben spotted the bag and snatched it up, drew out one of the three machetes inside for himself and tossed one each to Jeff and Tuesday.
‘This is fucked,’ Jeff said.
‘That’s one way of putting it,’ Ben replied.
‘He’s insane. He’s got every intention of killing us all anyway, no matter what, sooner or later. You know that, don’t you? This is all just a fucking game to him. Like a blood sport.’
‘I know,’ Ben said.
‘He’s lost his mind. He’s completely off his rocker.’
‘I know that too.’
‘What are we going to do, mate?’
Ben looked at his friend. They’d been through a lot together. Faced all kinds of dangers, all kinds of death, and they’d come through it. But he’d never seen such an expression of doubt and worry and fear in Jeff’s face before.
‘Whatever works,’ he replied. ‘That’s all we can do.’
Tuesday was scanning the bushes, eyes darting in all directions. ‘I hate to put a downer on this happy moment, guys, but did someone say something about a man-eating lion on the loose in here?’
‘Least of our worries, under the circumstances,’ Ben said. ‘A rogue male isn’t like a normal lion. He doesn’t have his pack to hunt with any longer, and he won’t go after herds. He’s become a solitary predator who goes for solitary prey. One-on-one kills, easy meat. He sees a crowd of us, he’ll leave us alone. As long as we stay together, we should be okay.’
‘That’s so reassuring,’ Tuesday said with a shudder.
‘Enjoy it. In about half a minute, we really will have something to worry about.’
‘How do you want to handle this?’ Jeff asked.
‘You heard the man,’ Ben said. ‘Six sets of tags and a head in a bag. That’s what he asked for, and I aim to deliver it.’
‘It’s not right. They’re just trying to protect their families.’
‘So am I,’ Ben said.
The seconds pounded by. Tuesday wiped sweat from his eyes. Jeff moistened his lips with his tongue. Ben stood completely immobile, listening, watching, merging with the stillness of their surroundings. He felt his heart slow. Forty-five beats a minute. Forty. He held the handle of the machete loosely in his right fist and thought about the six men who were being sent to kill them.
Ben bent down and picked up a stone that was lying at his feet. He clenched it in his left hand.
‘They’ll be on us any moment,’ Tuesday whispered.
‘They’re already here,’ Ben replied.
They came stalking through the thicket with a soft footfall that would have been perceptible only to the senses of the keenest predator. Or the keenest prey. These were men who had grown up in the wilds, most likely never seen a city or walked on a pavement or ridden on a train. They belonged to this place, and they could move through it without sound or trace.
Many years ago, Ben had been taught how to hunt such men. He’d spent many more years honing the skills his teachers had conferred on him. In his mind’s eye, the screen of thorn bushes and tall yellowed grasses and gnarled trees and branches that made visibility impossible didn’t exist. He could sense the approaching men as clearly as if he were in an empty, featureless desert landscape observing the enemy through high-powered binoculars from two miles away. He could smell them, reach out and touch their fear and desperation.
‘Get down,’ he whispered. He dropped into a press-up position, knuckles and toes in the dirt, legs out straight behind him, his chest pressed deep into the long grass, neck craned upward in the direction of the incoming enemy. Jeff and Tuesday did the same, both instantly disappearing from sight in the grass to his left.
A second and a half later, a ragged volley of gunshots rang out. Half a dozen nine-millimetre pistols all blazing away at once, four or five sharp reports from each of them in rapid succession, pumping fire into the bushes as fast as their shooters could squeeze the triggers. The swarm of bullets burned a scything sweep through the thicket that was chest-high to a man standing, clipping leaves from twigs and chopping stalks of grass, singing off tree trunks iron-hardened by heat and sun. Sizwe and his friends were firing blind into the thicket in the hope of hitting something or flushing out their opponents.
Star of Africa by Scott Mariani / History & Fiction have rating 1 out of 5 / Based on2 votes