The village lay devastated; huts and houses were burning, heat rising distorting the chaotic scenes. Mothers carrying children; men here and there with assault rifles, dressed in military fatigues. Pointing. Shouting. Shooting. Guzu had been lucky this time, they’d only made him kill one; the man with the leather trousers. The first time they had made him do two and on the first they made him watch, eyes kept wide open. There was blood everywhere, all over him.
That time when they got back to the camp they pushed him towards the outside hoses and told him to clean up. They gave him a T-shirt with a faded football logo on and a pair of blue shorts with pockets. The T-shirt was yellow and Guzu didn’t mind it too much; although he preferred his own ones at home. The thought of home brought tears to his eyes, too quickly and he couldn’t stop them. They hit him on the side of the head angrily.
He walked on through the burning village, over mortar shell craters and dust heaps. Dead farm animals were all over the tracks. This slum was more rural than his. They were a long way from home near the city before the Valley. A man was beating another, both drunk and wearing fatigues.
This time after they had made everyone surrender; the militia commander called the militia and the soldiers together. He cleared his throat, but smoke from the burning huts kept choking his words. Little that made sense came out and Guzu wondered if they would have more soup and bread tonight. An order was shouted and they were pushed towards the villagers on their knees.
The militia commander pointed and shouted again and then the killing started. Nobody, animal or human was spared. Guzu tried to hide in a house made of weaved reeds, hunkering down until it was over. He heard shouts and fights between the soldiers, gunshots and screams.
He almost missed the slaughter but was caught; he was thrown over to the surrendered soldiers and told which one was his and to get on with it. They called him a killer and laughed. Broken pots, stoves, tables and bodies lay everywhere. He took the man with the leather trousers to the side and looked at him. The man had surrendered and his spirit was broken.
Everywhere laid the dead. Guzu helped the scarred soldier collect the people and put them in a truck. One by one, they traipsed the battlefield picking up body after body until all that was left was the smoke rising from the buildings. Rising high into the grey of the mountains and obliterated into the sky. The scarred soldier got in the truck and drove away with another man.
Guzu stood still, the world moving about him in flashes of colour. Greens of fatigues, oranges and yellows of fire, brown of the earth under his feet. Out of the corner of his eye he caught a clear image, a fox near the edge of the woods. Slowly, he turned to watch the animal. It had its head low, but the eyes were sparkling. The tail swished and twirled as it surveyed the scene. It had a metal object in its mouth, long and thin. To Guzu it looked like a key, an old fashioned one to open a big metal door of a church or castle.
The fox turned and stared unblinkingly at his observer. They stood, eyes locked together over the flames and mortar holes. Guzu nodded to the fox and smiled. The tail swished harder. Then it bound away with sleek agility into the woods. The order to leave was shouted harshly; by a voice still cracked from the smoke.
Back at the camp and on parade for the commander. Pero’s mood was jovial. A good, strong victory.
“Men, you could destroy mountains with your might. You are reshaping the world.”
“Shoot straight and true with your hearts; build a wall around your enemies.”
“Sleep the sleep of the righteous; for tomorrow is another day. Your commander salutes you all.”
Guzu watched as the commander walked away without saluting to anyone, let alone them all. They were ordered to stand down and they went in search of food. The kitchen, a shack near one of the barns was serving soup again, with bread. As a treat, each boy was given a chocolate bar. On orders of the commander no less. He was very impressed by their work.
He walked and ate the chocolate, looking for the first time at the horizon all around him. The world outside is there somewhere; his teacher and his project. His mother and his aunt. They were all out there waiting for him. His mother might be mad about him disappearing. He frowned; perhaps he could find her a present to take home, to say sorry. There wasn’t much around apart from old tyres, oil drums and beer cans.
As he strolled back to the camp, he saw a brightly coloured hair band on the floor. Golden in the dying sunlight. He put it in the pocket of his shorts and almost bounced back to the barn for sleep. He had found a gift.
To Chapter Forty-Four – Second Hand Smoke