“We are men. They are rats.” On the word rats, he shook his head vigorously, his dark hair drifting with each shake. His eyes were black and beady, his mouth puckered with his yellowing upper teeth protruding over his bottom lip.
Guzu stood still, staring at his feet. Scared of making eye contact with the man, scared of the other men. The ground was dark, there was little light coming from the building behind them. The boys stood in a semi-circle around the militia commander, tired but not daring to show their fatigue.
The commander carried on talking but Guzu lost focus; he saw a bird settle on the ground some hundred metres away, pecking and scrabbling. He wasn’t sure of the type but it was small and had a red chest. It looked like it was wearing a red T-shirt. It turned side on and peered at the group of men and boys inquisitively; anxious about interruption in its search for food.
The boys were cheering, half-hearted and tired. Guzu woke from his trance and mouthed what he hoped were the right words. Harsh commands came and the boys were split into groups of twelve; each led by a militia man. The man before Guzu was around thirty; with dirt and dust clinging to his neck and collar, a once white T-shirt and military fatigues.
“Follow me. No talking, no complaining.”
The other eleven with Guzu shuffled off in his wake as he strode towards a small barn; there were at least twenty of them dotted around the main building. It was made of brick and had electricity; the barns were rotten and stank of decay. Stopping outside the soldier pointed inside and gestured for them to go in and sleep. “Do not attempt to leave, or you will be shot. There is a bucket in the corner, use that if you have the need. Don’t bother us, if you get our attention it will be the worse for you.”
After the short speech, he corralled the boys into the shed, closing the door and locking it with a padlock. It was pitch black, the boys jostled with one another for space to stretch out and sleep. Guzu pushed his back against the wall and slowly made his way round to a corner. There was straw on the floor there and in the roof, a gap that showed the night sky.
He curled up, pressed into the corner; another boy’s foot digging into his shins. Sounds of grunting and muttering could be heard. No-one was crying; Guzu held back the tears. He didn’t want anyone to notice him, he wanted to be invisible. He looked through the hole but all was black, he hoped the moon would pass over the hole and smile at him.
They were woken while the sky was still grey and lifeless. Called outside by an militia man, they were lined up as if on parade. They stood there until lunchtime; weary and thirsty, yet none dare speak up. Eventually, a regular army truck arrived. Two soldiers stepped down; an older man of some importance, Guzu thought by the way the younger one treated him. The younger soldier had a huge scar across his face; the boy couldn’t help but look in fascination. He was not scared of the soldier; the scarred man looked at Guzu whilst his commander argued with the militia chief.
They were split into groups of three; some taken to clean the sheds, others like Guzu given rifles and told to shoot at beer cans sat on oil drums. They only had to aim and pull the trigger, the militia man said. He could barely lift the rifle, its wooden stock and heavy metal frame far too wide for his small hands. The scarred soldier was watching him.
“You don’t want an AK son, it’s too much for you. Here-” The man took the rifle from the boy and passed him a pistol. “At least you can hold this.” He crouched down and looked Guzu in the eye, quietly he spoke:
“Listen son; you shouldn’t be here, none of you should. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. If you ever have to do it, you know, kill a man – don’t look if you can help yourself. We all have to pay for what we do lad, but you should be let off a few; if you don’t look, you won’t have to pay.”
He rose to his feet and stroked Guzu’s hair, still wild from sleep on the floor of the barn. “I’m so sorry, son.” With a last regretful look back, he walked off, rejoining his commander still arguing.
Guzu raised the pistol and made it look at the beer cans. He closed his eyes and pressed down the trigger as he was shown. His arm felt like he had touched the car battery they used at home. He had done that once and his mother had cried and told him off and then hugged him. He aimed again, this time holding his arm stiffly.