“We interrupt this program to bring you an announcement from the Southern Cameroon Armed Forces Ruling Council.” The FM station which faded in and out on the solar radio announced.
Emi knew almost instinctively what was going to come next. It was the third such announcement in as many months. The SCARC command had changed again. As if it mattered she thought and continued with the handful of “egusi” on her lap. It was her favourite pastime as there had been no electricity for almost a year after the transformer which served the area had been blown up and there was no diesel to run the sooty wreck that passed for a plant. Thus, there was little to indulge in by way of entertainment. The radio station she received simply barked out intermittent public service announcements and while the local TV station had been bombed out of the air, putting up a satellite dish was simply an invitation to some very unfriendly company. So, she kept her hands busy, in the satisfying knowledge that the melon seeds she decorticated would be on the shelf for sale later.
She wondered why she kept the store open, because there was barely anything on the shelves. Currently on the counter, was a loaf of bread as hard as the bar of soap it lay next to and the last bottle of local whiskey or “Affofo”. The tanks of kerosene and diesel, which although featured as her main products, were bone dry because her supplier, E’lele had not returned from his weekly supply run to Limbe.
Emi did not know how he did it but E’lele was always able to shuttle through the gauntlet of militias and the highway brigands to get to Limbe in a dilapidated truck that was as more likely to abandon him on the way than get him there.
But got to Limbe he did and when he returned the prices he charged seemed to make the perilous trip worth his while. Nevertheless, the hazards of the route were not the only things keeping prices high. Inflation was in triple digits and she constantly wondered if she would make it to the next day. Prior to the war, she had businesses, she had bank savings, “njang-ehs” and property.
Upon the outbreak of war, the banks had shut and never opened again, simply because they had all been systematically looted and torched. With the death, or the fleeing of its members her “njang-ehs” or community saving schemes had dissolved without any disbursements. Nevertheless, this was of little consequence since the value of any savings she had, had been decimated by the current inflation. As for her property, the last she heard of her “mini-cite” in Molyko was that the building had been mortared to dislodge snipers in a battle between the many militia groups struggling for control of the area.
Though there had been many close calls, she had survived. But, the thought of how she survived filled her with regret and self-pity. Her consolation was that, it was better being alive for the sake of her children, than dead. Yet, there were few children about. Those who had unlike hers had not been sent east across the Mungo for safety and education, were kidnapped by the militias, trained to kill and deployed in the field. Her sister in Douala who had taken her children in, had asked her to come across as well but she had refused.
She had stayed behind to tend to her bar and store, the only things even in these harrowing times she enjoyed doing, plus there was Molimo, the militia leader who came home some nights to make her feel like no one ever did. Her feelings for him were mixed. She was terrified of him and the companions he kept, but still cared for him. She felt gratified when he wolfed down the food she cooked and listened with detachment to the stories he recounted of their latest raids, shootings, beheadings, stabbings, maiming and other ingenious ways they devised to torture and terminate the lives of their adversaries. Her emotions had long been keratinized. Therefore, the pity she once had for the hapless victims they talked about and the critical judgement she once cast on the actions of the militia, had been lost in web of relativism. Besides, Molimo always had money and was generous to her, always leaving her with a wad of notes as he made off for the day’s business. She hoped the money today would be enough to pay E’lele for her supplies because the currency the territory had adopted, the Amba, had plummeted against both the CFA and the Naira and the simplest of provisions that she sold were out of the reach for many.
She scratched her head and winced at the amount of dandruff she had accumulated, with a shortage of water she had not had a bath in days. A blue bottled fly buzzed idly by, she flickered away accumulations of dry skin from her broken and unpainted nails, and unsuccessfully resisted the descent into a reverie of how things used to be.
She was usually up before dawn, and her taxi drivers would be there to pick up their vehicles. A driver would take her to Mile 15 to check on her fruit stall before continuing to Limbe, where she ran a cold store, to meet with her favourite fisherman Pa Doti, who operated the largest fishing fleet at Down Beach. She supplied fish to a growing network of restaurants and private individuals. This provided her with enough income, and combined with her husband’s thriving furniture business, they built a home and had two of their children in Saker Baptist College in Form 1 and Form 3.
She sighed at the memory of Saker Baptist College. All schools had taken the full brunt of the war. Having been blamed for promoting a foreign culture they had been targeted and now their pork- marked and bullet riddled enclosures bore no resemblance to their former status as centres of learning which had given formation to Doctors, Professors, Judges, Engineers, Artists, Ministers etcetera; now, these premises were more likely to be used as training grounds for the various militias in town. There were men and children with guns everywhere. An arms embargo had done very little because as soon as the conflict started, weapons had come from all over. Emi had heard Molimo mention suppliers from both the Middle East and Far East.
With that many groups vying for control of the territory, it was little wonder it now took days not minutes to travel between Limbe and Buea. In fact, except for the likes of E’lele, it was out right madness to attempt. Although it was difficult to distinguish between these militia and the highway robbers, Emi had no doubt that she preferred to fall in the hands of robbers who would take money from you and leave you alone. However, the militias were known to do horrible things to those they did not take a liking to – in addition to robbing them. A fate her husband had tragically suffered.
She shuddered at the thought of her husband, recalling how she had been told about his death at the hands of the militia holding him, the BADF (Buea Amba Defence Force or “Bad Fuckers”, as they were widely known) who occupied Molyko at the time, before being driven out by the BALLS (Bonduma Allied Lord’s Luminary Soldiers). She had been told that her husband had fought his assailants valiantly despite having been stabbed and shot. She had insisted for the gruesome details from the tearful eye-witness who recounted how they had descended on him with clubs and machetes whilst he was being held in a garrotte. As was customary the militias butchered their victims into bits and left them on the street as food for the flocks of vultures and stray dogs. Woe betide anyone who tried to bury them. This was her husband’s fate.
The small wooden beads knotted into her long dry locks rattled briefly, as she shook her head to bail out of her doleful recollection, switching her attention to her emaciated dog which trotted past. The hound stopped briefly, to scratch off fleas and snap at the flies milling around the sores on its ears, before continuing. There had previously been two dogs but the other had mysteriously disappeared. She had searched for it for almost a week before giving up. Someone at the store had mentioned that it had been seen across the wrestling field, but that had been four days ago. She supposed with meat being such a rare commodity, the dog might have simply made it to someone’s dinner table.
She called out for Suh, the little boy she had adopted. She had rescued him from a mob who were about to do what they had done so many times before, to kill him. Her intervention had almost cost her own life, but for the timely intervention of Molimo, who had scolded her for risking her life for the “little mojili”. But there was something about the boy that dissolved the emotional corn she had developed during the troubles. He was five, but the innocence of his youth had been robbed the day a mob had sacked their house in an episode of revenge killing, terminating the lives of his mother, father and two siblings. He had survived only because he had gone to buy “puff-puff” but by the time he had returned his world was no more than a smouldering pyre. He had wandered dazed and confused for a week and ultimately fell into the hands of a militia, “Keep Fako Clean”, whose raison-d’être was to remove all foreigners from the area. It was an argument for whose turn it was to dispatch the boy that had brought Emi to his rescue. She had clothed, fed and given him shelter. However, she had heard the grumbling of some members of the “Keep Fako Clean” militia that it was only a matter of time before they did what they had to do. This was war and there could be no mercy in the South-West, as mercy was not being shown in the North-West, they argued.
It had been a war like no other, with a rash of tit-for-tat killings at a rate of which the world had never seen. Communities hitherto living in peace had turned against each other in a frenzy. Those from the North-West against those from the South-West. Those whose main language was English against those who spoke French. Those who were for ten-states vs. those who were for a two-states federation. Those who were for continuity in a United Republic vs. those who wanted to secede. Ethnicities within the regions also joined the fray as they violently settled both old and new scores. In all, it was a gory orgy of violence which the likes of Amnesty had not only lost count but their voice as well, as they pleaded for peace. In the same vein, leaders of the various faith denominations called for and prayed for peace, but the reality was that their communities were just as riddled with prejudice, suspicion and hate. Seasoned Boko-Haram fighters from the predominantly Muslim north drifted into the conflict regions, not only to protect their communities from the Christian majority in the south, but to spread their Jihad and aspirations for an extended caliphate where education was forbidden, and Sharia law ruled. Yet this was not the sole foreign injection into the conflict because Neo-Biafrans who had relaunched their armed insurrection for a Biafran state, now saw an opportunity to create a greater state in the Gulf of Biafra, and therefore allied their troops to the Ambazonian forces fighting against the Republic of Cameroon, whose intransigence to decentralise government and devolve powers to the region had fuelled the separatist movement, was equally unyielding in the divorce as republican air, sea and land forces fought doggedly to recover the splinter territory.
But by far the bloodiest conflict and the unspent fuel at the core, was the North-West, South-West schism. The North-Westerners had turned against resident South-Westerners for being supporters of the Republic Of Cameroon causing South-Westerners to flee for their lives taking only what they could carry. In retaliation, the South-Westerners (who blamed the North-Westerners for bringing war into their lands in the first place) repatriated all the North-Westerners from their territory, seizing their lands and property. In this fast fluid situation, no one had thought about the consequences of the two refugee populations meeting at Mamfe. The resulting violence and savagery was of the order like the world had not seen since Rwanda and by the intervention of the UN, French and British troops, three quarters of a million had died in a couple of days of wanton violence. The intervention had created safe zones and reduced the killings but after a while, the TV Cameras had panned out and pulled out as the global attention zeroed in elsewhere. So, the war had raged on in other areas beyond the safe and no-fly zones. Areas where the UN could not agree on a mandate to do anything about.
The drone of republican aircraft, the chatter of guns and the sound of an explosion woke Emi from her reminiscing. She got up emptied her hands into a bowl of pale white skinned “egusi” and headed precipitously towards the back of the house and a cavern she had dug in the ground. As she opened the hatch, a pair of eyes stared up at her. There was no fear, just an acknowledgement of the will to survive they shared. She got in crouched down beside the young boy, took him in her arms as they waited.
It was a while before the explosions and the anti-aircraft guns went silent. Having completed their bombing runs, the republican aircraft went away. Emi stayed seated with the taciturn boy in her arms. She rubbed a hand reassuringly over his head and was about to stand up but heard a commotion above. She could hear voices shouting in an argument. There was the voice of E’lele but the others she could not quite make out. Then she heard the voice of Molimo. She stood up gently and lifted the roof of the cavern slightly so that she could peer through the opening out into open the courtyard. Molimo sat down and four others she could recognise from “Keep Fako Clean” were standing by E’lele who knelt on the ground his head bowed, and his hands bound behind his back. They had their guns trained on their dishevelled prisoner who was bleeding from a deep cut in his head.
“These are the items we found on him!” one voice said accusingly throwing some items on the ground in front E’lele. Molimo looked down at the items and slowly picked and examined one which looked like a satellite phone, Emi knew this because her friend Yoko’h supplied similar devices during the periods of cellular and internet disruptions back in the days when the troubles just started. Molimo took his gaze off the phone slowly and turned his attention to E’lele.
“These are standard issue to LRC officers.” He said slowly. “Can you explain how you came by it?” Before E’lele could utter a word, he was struck on the back head with the butt of a rifle, the force sending him sprawling to the ground.
“He be spy!”, his assailant spat and continued his pidgin outburst with equal vehemence, “Na him call the raid!” E’lele writhed in pain and made unintelligible noises. Two of the militia rained a salvo of kicks at him then raised him back to his knees but he sagged down again. Molimo looked at the helpless E’lele on the ground. He sighed, got up and nodding to his acolytes, he turned and departed. Emi thought about getting out to save E’lele from what seemed to be a terminal fate. But she paused, remembering how close she had come to being killed in saving the little boy who presently had climbed the hideout’s wooden ladder to join her in the stealthy observation of the proceedings at the courtyard. At this point, she instinctively knew what was about to happen and reached out to pull the boy down and protect him from the sight. But she was too late. Short bursts from the rifles trained at E’lele, riddled his limp, silent body. The boy gasped briefly and silently lowered himself back into the cavern. Emi understood they were both in grave danger as she too gently withdrew into the gloomy sanctuary. She sat down beside the little boy and cuddled his frail body curled up in a foetal position. Emi was weary, and shook with a blend of fear, rage and sorrow; not for the first time since the war began, she wept, silently.
By Lloney Monono, Maidenhead, UK
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.