À La Carte: Trodden
It was dawn when the R.U.F. came. Mama was braiding Hadiah’s hair and Papa was on his way with Hassan to sea to start fishing. We had heard stories about the rebels burning villages to the ground in one swift motion, killing all the elderly, cutting off people’s limbs, taking the young and turning them into soldiers. Every day, families who had been affected by the war would walk through our village telling those stories. They would stay for a night or two, then leave, saying the war would soon come visit our village and if we wanted a chance at survival, we should start our leave now. I wish we had.
I knew they had arrived when I saw Papa and Hassan rush back from fishing with empty nets. When the boys who were playing soccer in front of the village square stopped. Even the animals fled. They came on jeeps that were missing doors and windows with rap music blaring from the speakers. The jeeps had R.U.F. scribbled all over with red paint and looked as if they had not been washed in months. They carried large guns that they held onto as if it held their power. Some of the rebels wore tattered clothes, while others wore camouflage suits with black gumboots and strings of bullets around their necks. Their eyes were red like the hot pepper Mama uses in her fish soup.
When they entered our village, one of the rebels, whose skin was as dark as charcoal, jumped from the jeep and shot a round of bullets into the sky. The villagers ran, trying to hide from the rebels. Women dropped their cutlasses and the harvests they had collected from the farm, in order to carry their children and run. The men tried to protect their families but were caught in the crossfire. Papa ran with Hadiah and Mama, forcing them to hide in the bush. He told them we would join them soon, but that was the last time I saw them.
Papa had always been prideful and calm. I had never seen him angry or even afraid. Even when Hassan and I had been caught stealing mangos from Majid’s tree. Instead of Papa being angry and beating us, he simply asked, “When two elephants fight, who suffers?” Hassan and I just looked at each other dumbfounded and returned the mangos to Majid. Now that the rebels were destroying his people, village, and the house he had worked so hard to build for his family, I saw fear in Papa’s eyes, pride slowly leaving his body.
When they grabbed Papa by his arms and carried Hassan and I away from him, he did not flinch or fight back. He gave up. They lined up all the elders in the village square, forcing them on their knees with their hands behind their head. Papa was with them. They lined up all the young men in the village in front of the elders. Some of them were as young as five and were crying out for their mamas and sisters. One of them who had a scar starting from his left eye to his bottom lip, gave each one of us guns, telling us the guns would replace everything the government had taken away from us in the war. None of us had held guns before. We did not have a sense of how to shoot one. He told us to shoot the elders if we wanted to live. My heart dropped to the pit of my stomach. Papas, mamas, grandparents were there—I couldn’t shoot them, but I did not want to lose my life.
One of them pointed to Hassan, telling him to shoot Papa. I looked to him as tears streamed down his face; he shook his head no. The rebel screamed to Hassan to shoot Papa or else he would shoot Hassan. Still, my brother shook his head no. The rebel moved behind Hassan and pointed the gun at his head. That was when Papa nodded his head telling my brother it was okay.
Hassan shot Papa.
The bullet hit his chest as he collapsed to the ground, and the blood collected around his body like a pool sinking into the dirt. My brother stood stunned and crying. I noticed that he had soiled his trousers. In all my twelve years, I had never seen Hassan cry. When he broke his ankle jumping from the plantain tree in our compound, he never cried, he did not even wince in pain. He had a stoic look the entire time Papa carried him back to the house. But now here he was, crying like a baby bird looking for its mother.
The rest of us were made to shoot our elders. Fearing for our lives, we complied. After I fired my gun, I said a prayer to God asking for forgiveness. Mama had always said pray to God for forgiveness, and he will grant it. I wondered if God would be able to forgive Hassan and I for the crimes we had committed today. I wondered if I could even forgive myself.
The charcoal rebel came in telling us to address him as General Lion Head. He told us the government was the reason for our parent’s deaths. That the government was the reason why we were living in poverty. How could the government be to blame for our parent’s deaths when rebels were the ones who forced us to shoot our parents? When they burned down our village and took our families away from us? We should not be made to suffer for the feud between the government and the rebels.
Now I understood what Papa meant when he asked Hassan and I, “When two elephants fight, who suffers?”
The grass suffers.