13 July 2017

Liberia: Chronicles of a Child Soldier

Kollie stood stock still, not daring to move a muscle and afraid for his life. Soon somebody would recognize and point him out to be the NPFL child soldier who once killed their relatives. But as desperately as he felt about it, like a patient dreading to be operated on, for some reason it just did not happen. Nobody had, of course, paid him any attention. Instead, the crowd had its gaze still fixed on the man dancing in the vacant lot. Kollie sighed then wiped the sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand. Slowly, he started to pick the money up off the ground, looking up every now and again and wondering if he were being watched.

Later, when the crowd had dispersed, the reggae dancer among them, Kollie stood for a long while in the vacant lot. His palm felt hot and damp, holding too tightly the one-dollar coin which the reggae dancer had given him for helping to pick and collect the money as the crowd threw it. The feel of it reassured him and made him wonder if he was imagining it. His own money had gone missing. He had been feeling hungry all day but could now have a meal. The thought made his mouth slobber. And although he felt an urge to look again at the one-dollar coin, if only to assure himself that it was his, he dared not open his hand, as if the gesture would cause it to disappear. So he stood and watched the crowd, men, women, children and the elderly, each going his or her own way as they went to or from the market or sold assorted goods by the roadside. Then a thought struck him. He remembered that he ought to be hiding in fear for his life and not standing here where everyone could recognize him. True, the people looked harmless and innocent enough. But was it not his same crowd that had burned alive the two men suspected of being NPFL rebels? Indeed, innocence could be misleading. He turned and walked away.

He walked quickly. He must reach where the makeshift stalls where huddled close together so he could disappear among them and wait until dark. Behind him, the sun went down, turning the sky red-orange, like the color of fire. Somewhere a car horn honked loudly then died away. Music still played from the cassette booth by the roadside, merging with the sound of footsteps along the tarmac and the voices of people nearby. The rusted corrugated zinc of makeshift stalls creaked in the breeze, and roadside hawkers advertising their wares shouted at the top of their voices.

Kollie bumped into something. It could have been a makeshift stall, or somebody or something he could only imagine. But he did not even pause, walking as he did with his head bowed, his heart pounding hard, and suppressing the urge to run. A hand gripped him by the back of his shirt and spun him around so violently he was almost thrown off his feet. He staggered, like a drunken man. He looked wide-eyed into the face of a man holding him by his shirt.

"You stupid boy," the man screamed, "you blind or what?"

"Sorry my fren," Kollie said, "ahna see you-o."

"You say you na see me?" the man said, and looked at Kollie as if he would punch him.

"I swear my fren I na see you," Kollie said. "Sorry."

The man shook him. Then he looked at him, as if for the first time, and saw the dirty, navy-blue t-shirt the boy had on, the even dirtier pair of denim shorts, and thin, yanny-pappy legs beneath which stuck out a pair of mismatch sneakers, one brown, the other red.

"You one of de yanna boys who pick people's pockets in de market," the man said. "And you running because you steal something."

"Ahna steal anything," Kollie said.

"Then where are you running to?" the man said.

"Who told you I wuh running?" Kollie said.

The words came out suddenly, without restraint. Kollie looked defiantly at the man in front of him. And suddenly he was angry. Here was a man who accused him of stealing. Pleading with him would only make matters worse because it would show he was guilty. Soon there would be a crowd. It would not matter whether he had only bumped into the man or actually stolen something because no questions would be asked. They would beat him and probably killed him.

"Leave me," he shouted, struggling to extricate himself.

"Oh," the man said, and tightened his grip on the boy's shirt. "Y'all come see this pekin! He hit me and refused to say sorry, and now he's cussing me."

"Ahna no cuss you," Kollie shouted.

They had attracted a small crowd that was beginning to swell, like garri in water. Kollie grabbed hold of the man's arm and tried to dislodge it, twisting it as hard as he could. But the man pointed a threatening finger in his face and shook him harder. The crowd moved closer, as if it had sat shiftless for a long time and now wanted something exciting. Kollie felt tears welled up in him but suppressed the urge to cry. The crowd burst out laughing at the same time Kollie turned himself with all the force he was capable of. The man's hand came free, rending his t-shirt from behind. He fell to the ground, collected himself, and with a cry that sounded like a bark, launched with both his fists at the man in front of him. The man stepped back in surprise. But then he recovered and swung a fist. Kollie ducked and caught him in a bear hug round the lower half of his body. He bit into the man's side, sinking his teeth until he tasted blood in his mouth. The man screamed at the same time a gunshot sounded and the crowd scattered.

Kollie felt somebody pulling on his shoulder and heard a soft, gentle voice behind him. "Let him go pekin."

Kollie held on for a while then stood away from the man. He turned and saw an INPFL rebel and his eyes almost popped out in fear. But the fighter only smiled at him. The rebel was dressed in camouflage army uniform and held in one hand an AK-47 rifle and a cutlass in the other.

The rebel turned to the man, who was holding his side, his face twisted in pain. "Big man like you fightin a small boy. You don't have shame?"

The man tried to say something but the fighter slapped him. He cringed and held the side of his face with one hand.

Kollie said, "I wuh walkin and na see him and hit him wif my head. I tell him sorry but he grab me and say I yanna boy running 'way because I steal something."

"He stupid man," the rebel said, and brought the butt-end of his rifle down on the man's head. The man fell to the ground, covered his head with his hands, and burst out crying. "Lookin to end your frustration on somebody when the pekin na do natin to you. Get out of here or I will fire you."

The man rose to his feet but the rebel kicked him in the behind. He fell to the ground again, promptly picked himself up, and ran across the tarred road.

The rebel turned to Kollie. "Dammit pekin you tough-o. You my fren, eh?"

Kollie nodded his head and broke into a smile.

"Wuh your name?" the rebel asked.

Kollie hesitated. "John. My name John."

"My name Baby Face," the rebel said. "Here, take this," he added, handing over to Kollie a five-dollar bill.

"Thank you," Kollie said.

The rebel smiled and stroked Kollie's head. He turned and walked to the tarred road.

The people standing at the nearby makeshift stalls, including some bystanders, looked at Kollie, with their mouths opened. They had laughed and looked excited when the man had tried to strangle him and nobody had tried to stop the fight. But he had won, and now they were ashamed, probably jealous even, of his new-found favor with the fighter. He pretended not to notice them and made his way into the market.

To be cont'd.

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