The half moon was sinking slowly behind the dark rain clouds. The dreamy shadows melted into the dark corners around the compound like a blanket had been spread over them earlier. In one corner of the compound, four tiny lights were shining. They moved. Black cats.
I stood at the door to my hut. The night was still early, but the town had already gone to sleep. There was no public electricity and the few privately owned diesel generators in the neighbourhood had gone silent. It was very quiet. The children who had been singing in the compound next door had retreated to their homes. The night had come. I knew they would come for me one day. And when they do that night, I would be ready for them. “They” and “them” have no faces, but I had a fair idea who they were.
Juba 1991. It was a bad time for the citizens of the besieged town. The civil war had come to Juba for the first time. The town had been shelled several times. Citizens could hear the rumblings of heavy guns and fighting outside town. Casualties were being brought in as the army were witnessing heavy loses in battles. They had become jittery. And no body knew the casualties on the rebel side.
As if to avenge their defeat in the battlefields, they were bringing the terror into Juba. They were sure there were now many freedom fighters inside the town hiding among the civilians. They wanted to track them down, together with their sympathizers. It was a terrible situation in which the line between the guilty and the innocent was blurred. When they come for me, I would be ready. That was why I had become a light sleeper. I would wake up in the middle of the night and go out into the compound, moving around. I had the idea that when they finally come, they would find me ready.
Ever since my close friend told me that the faceless guys were after me, I knew it was a matter of time before they pounced. I fitted the profile of the wanted, although I had not done anything to warrant that. I was well educated, a professional in my field of teaching and had become popular in town. For them I was a suspect. I had seen how countless other people had been taken away in the middle of the night and never to be seen again. Families had been asking about the whereabouts of their loved ones but there was no one to give the answers. When you were taken to the infamous White House, the security detention place, it was the end of the story. Citizens incongruously named it. Everyone knew it was no luxury house. In actual fact there was no “House” be it white or otherwise, just a series of transport containers both above and underground for keeping the detainees. People were kept inside, some succumbing to the midday heat and dying from exhaustion, dehydration or fear.
Few people had come out of the White House alive. Suspected fifth columnists were randomly picked up from town and taken there, to be tortured for extraction of information. Due to extreme torture methods, individuals would just come up with any names of friends so that they could be released. Many innocent men and few women had disappeared without reasons. I didn’t want to follow that path. I want to be different. I could be added to the growing statistics of the ‘disappeared’ in Juba. I knew of tens of people who had disappeared, picked up at night.
There had been instances in which decomposing bodies were found floating in the Nile. More often, the bodies bore signs of severe torture and some were still tied with wires and ropes around their hands and feet. Others were found inside old Kenana sugar sacks. Most were putrefied beyond recognition. Everyone knew these were the works of the faceless ones. Fear had held people in its grip so tightly; it had pumped out of people their last breaths and the willingness to live.
The night was as hushed as a haunted house. The usual barking of the dogs was not there. The normally slight breeze that swirled through the trees was conspicuously absent. The leaves were as stiff as rods. It was the perfect night for a raid and I knew it. I was ready. I had a feeling that it might be tonight. No worries though. I was alone and prepared. I had sent my wife and kids to stay with her parents. They would be safe there for the moment. I knew that the faceless ones would not spare anybody they found in their path that night. I had to be prepared. I walked back inside.
Just two minutes later, I heard only two knocks. I opened the door. Johnny and Luambo slipped inside. Johnny was breathing heavily like he had been running. His face broke into tiny sweats that glistened in the dim light coming from the kerosene lamp in the corner. I lifted the lamp to increase the brightness. Johnny sat down on the stool by the door.
Luambo was a big man. He had the full chest of a boxer. He worked as a mechanic at the garage in Hai Malakal area. He walked over and sat on the bed. It squeaked loudly as the strings took his heavy weight. For a few minutes nobody said a word. I knew they were not here for fun. It had surpassed us for a long time. There was no longer fun in a war game. That was what we were living. A war game.
Johnny and Luambo were old friends. We had grown together in the neighbourhood. Been to the same school. We had even dated the girls for some time. We had done all sorts of things together. Ever since we were young, we had been inseparable friends. The three of us had gone through the highs and lows of the town. When we were at school and had to read Alexandre Duma’s book, everyone started referring to us as the Three Musketeers: Athos, Parthos and Aramis.
Outside, it began to rain. It was not the usual heavy rainfall, with winds and thunder and lightning. It was just light rain, which could last for hours without end. The kind that could fall all night. We loved this rain when we were young. We called it seke seke. It meant we could not go to school when it started in the morning. We remained at home, gathered around the fire in the kitchen hut waiting for hot porridge, seasoned with peanut butter. It was lovely.
“You have to leave tonight.”
It was Luambo, Pathos, who broke the silence. His voice was subdued. The strong baritone voice had given way to a low-pitched tone that was very different from the one I was used to.
“I am not going anywhere. It is my home, my town,” I said.
“You cannot stay any more. When they come for you, it will be the end. You cannot fight them now. Not tonight.”
“But why? We have prepared for this for a long time. I am prepared for them,” I objected.
“No you are not,” Johnny cut in.
He was silent all along. He had been the quiet one of us three. He was the kind of the guy who let others speak first. He spoke only to put the final opinion and convince all. The wise one.
“They say a coward who runs away lives longer to fight another day. You will have your time, Aramis.”
Johnny liked the Three Musketeers thing. He was the one who gave me the name, Aramis. We used to wonder why Aramis was not ending in “os” like the other two names. He had suggested they called me “Aramos”. Clearly he was on the real name tonight. That was when he had serious issues to talk about.
I had figured myself standing to fight to the end. I had envisioned the final minutes of the fight. It was a suicidal end. Last man standing for the cause. But it was not to be. Not tonight.
“What happen next then,” I queried.
“There is a man waiting for you at the end of the path near the cemetery,” Johnny said. His voice was shaky. Johnny was not a happy man tonight. He spoke with the voice of a man who had authority. He had made all the plans. I had no choice. “They will take you to the river bank where a boat is waiting to take you across. On the other side, you will be met by guides who will take you to the road to Uganda. After that you will on your own.”
“You have to leave now,” Luambo emphasised.
I knew I had no choice. I looked around the cramped hut. There was actually not much that I needed to take with me. I grabbed the small travel bag and stuffed two shirts and a pair of trousers in it. I did not have to change. I was wearing jeans and T-shirts. I put on a large over coat for the rain and stood up. All the while Johnny and Luambo were silently observing me. I knew what was going on in their minds. We had spent the good part of our lives together. It was hard to be separated now.
“If they know I had gone, they will take you in,” I said. I was making one last attempt to avoid going. “We have to go together.”
“No we cannot, it will be sure proof that we were guilty,” Luambo said. “You go. When it gets worse, we will leave. We will join you.”
But how could they be so certain. I had known the faceless ones. They could be ruthless. The friend of a friend was to them as guilty as the friend, just for being friends. Period. I was afraid for my friends.
Luambo walked to the door. He looked outside. It had stopped raining. Cold air from outside blew inside the hut. I tucked the coat around me more tightly.
“Time to go,” Luambo announced.
I took the rucksack and followed him outside. Johnny came up behind me and pulled the door closed. He left the lamp burning. It would burn until the kerosene ran out because nobody was coming back to the hut again.
We fell in a single file as we raced through the town paths towards the cemetery. Luambo was keeping the pace, stopping from time to time to check the road ahead. When he stopped we all knelt down and waited for his signal to move on. We did not want to risk the chance of bumping into the police night patrols. They were as bad. Because of the six to six curfews, anyone caught was charged for illegal movement. Nightlife had died in town. The occasional defaulters caught were drunkards. In the morning, they were usually paraded at the police station and made to clean the police compound and toilets, fetch water from the river and had their heads shaven clean.
Luambo led us through the furthest end of the graveyard which was on the road that led to the river. The graveyard had no fences; it was bushy, with small paths that zigzagged between the graves. The graves themselves were arranged haphazardly. Many people had erected around the graves fences and big crosses. In the dark they were like dancing figures. The occasional rats scrambled from our path and into the bush further away.
As we approached the river, a beam of light flashed twice from the direction of the mango trees. Luambo signalled again and we dropped down, quietly. He waited. The light flashed more.
“That is the signal,” Luambo said. “Come, let us go.”
I followed him and Johnny fell behind me.
Three big men appeared as we approached. They shook our hands without saying a single word. He motioned me on. I stopped, hesitating for one moment. I turned around at my two friends. They just looked at me.
“We shall meet, brothers,” I said, quietly. The silence was too much. The only other sound that I came to hear was the slow movement of the water in the river, as it splashed against the river banks.
“Of course we shall.” Luambo interjected. “There is no going back now. You have to hurry.”
I gave each one a hug and turned towards the waiting canoe. One man already in the canoe helped me on and the others sat down at the tip. The man with the long oar started to paddle away from the banks.
From the canoe I could barely see the silhouette of my two mates, as they disappeared into the darkness.
Half an hour later, I was across the river and further out from the town, on a small rising hill that, during the day would have given the beautiful view of the town. But not tonight. The darkness was complete, but I knew the general direction to my house from where I stood. Will I be able to see my family again, I wondered. A single gunshot broke the stark silence. A dog started barking. I turned my back and followed my guides into the darkness. The light rain started again. Despite my flight, I knew one thing though: I shall be back one day.