I’m wondering how it feels to die. Sometimes it is the biggest paradox of my life that I work in the thin line between life and death but death remains a mystery even its smallest bits. About life, I can stand at an ant hill and shout: hey folks, life tastes like goat drooping, sounds like a ghost, et all. And if the audience look confused I kick them. I’m licensed to cause pain. I understand life.
But death, what is death? How does it feel like to know that you are going away for good and you can never see another morning and that some idiot will start eyeing your woman and make her sing his name? To know that they will fix you in a small hole and take the rest of your empire? That you can never see another sun with the family?
It was in high school I first came face to face with the glare of life and its stark partner in death. I must have already told you of Mwalimu Marko. After he resumed lessons there was word that things were not very okay with him. Never would. We stopped saying it was witchcraft when things got really bad. We started sympathising. It was said to be Cancer, and they said the doctor had told him he had only five weeks alive.
He died after four and half.
It was the saddest funeral. I had thought that with all that sympathy God would spare him and take the cup to someone else. He remains among those for whom I have ever prayed. Yet he maintained his big laughter and joked with us at the football field every evening when the team trained.
Life and death, yet so much remains to imagination. How did he manage that smile when deep within everything was tough? Did he polish his Geography books knowing they’d never be polished again? How did he face his wife and how did she, him? Did he cry when talking to the kids?
Kids. My idea of life is filled with kids. Unlike the guy who imagines life is about flowers and gifts, I dream of me and the children playing in the yard. Hiding behind a blade of grass. Teaching how to hold a pen. Someone should explain why I have this craving for a daughter. Maybe because I’m a good caretaker or because everyone agrees I am a sadist to men. After all, the so-called sons-in-law need sadists sitting in that seat, and the unfortunate little thing that will show up for my Pearl of Africa will have to accept that idiots don’t just walk under my roof and cough nonsense.
What should one want in a daughter? I want anything. Because then I can learn to love. We want exquisite girlfriends with broad smiles and brittle fingers to hold our gifts. A tinge alto in their voice. We don’t want girls with a cricket’s voice. Sharp brain. Maybe because we want the same to extend into our daughters at birth. This will have the result that we shall love our children. But the hundred years of marriage will have gone to waste if from them we don’t learn to love. We must have human beings of all levels so they are the constant reminder that from the wide array of matter life offers, we can love to the moon and back without hurting our toes.
Maybe a soldier should not think of love. This is Somalia, and in Somalia there is no love but guns and smoke. Sometimes life in the horizon, but guns and smoke and plenty of death. Why should we have love in a dilapidated country whose people survive on chewing khat and butchering for fun? Perhaps life should craft another joke.
Or maybe we can live to love anything that comes our way.
My thoughts are disrupted by Sergeant Keli. A tall commanding figure with a scar above his right eye and a smile of the season south. God created. Nature forgot to put a grain of sadness in his heart. Such a humble soul that with litmus paper you will still not agree he is a soldier.
When I joined the Mariakani Barracks he was the first person I spoke to. He took us fresh recruits to our areas and asked to be briefed in case of anything. I later learnt he had been a close friend of my brother’s.
“HR-2 Sir, whom are we sentencing today?” A joke. His Royalty 1 was Karani.
“Your hours are numbered. You don’t need a sentence because those boys are coming for you themselves and I won’t have reason to defend you,” I say.
Those boys. It’s our euphemism for Alshabaab. In the last month intelligence reports have indicated they are plotting to attack one of our bases here. Sentries have reported abnormal behaviour. Every day we anticipate an attack. Attack to cushion their hatred for my country. Last year they massacred a big number. Fear. We laugh about it anyway.
“Not even when I promise to give you a wife and children for free?”
“I don’t take bribes, officer.”
“You can’t be Kenyan, then. Your passport will be confiscated. You will be jailed when we return home. You don’t take what?”
In the forces I have learnt a lot. Where we curse death, I have come to understand that there are worse things. I have seen children dying at the might of hunger. I have seen a kid in Baidoa suckling from a dead mother. We once detained a man who had cooked a leg of his dead daughter, and when we realised there was nothing much at the camp to feed him, we released him to go eat the remaining leg. This, as much as I should deny, remains true. And it will remain in the eye until man learns that his peace does not lie in the trigger but in the useless smile or warm pump in his chest.
Who fights a war?
Men fight a war.
Who owns the men?
Poor mothers and dead fathers.
Who wins a war?
People. People with suits and bellies and long motorcades. People with children placed in fortified schools abroad. Those are who wins the war. Because soldiers will need supplies and petrol and new guns. But war is lost by all civilians from the left and the right of the battlefront. I even don’t know if I read that in a book but that is the sexing truth so yes, go tell the sexing president.
Men should learn the art of negotiation. It lengthens life.
I’m woken up by the camp alarm and gunshots. There are boots and yells everywhere. I grab my combat unit and throw myself out just as I see 4.12am on the clock. From a distance, crying machine guns hold hostage the chill of the coming morning. There is a yellow fire and smoke somewhere along the road to our main entrance.
We are under attack.
I mount onto one of the already moving Humvee’s. Plan is to secure the inner security ring fast and offer back-up to the men on the outer line.
Soon we are in the trenches on the inner perimeter wall. We are under the Artillery Battery Commander Maj Alawi. Two more Humvee’s and a tank with 2IC Cpt George crawl towards the main entry to the base and though we don’t know the exact numbers on the other side, there is satisfaction that we’ve done it with the script.
For a long time, maybe 10 minutes or more, nothing happens as we lie in wait and listen to the heavy gun battle about a kilometre away. I hope the fools will be repelled just soon enough. This is not the first time this is happening. It’s usually a bunch of youths, a dozen or so, who are tired of resisting suicide, and who think invading a military base is your piece of cake. The drones picked movement of a handful of them near the southern thickets yesterday. But we did not anticipate that offence would come as soon.
He was two years elder. When the call came, it came through the District Officer’s office. It was I who went to receive the message. It was a woman’s voice: … and Lieutenant K. S. Karani was among them…. The body… three days…. in service of the nation… sorry to the family and friends.
I sat at that office up-to evening. And even then I couldn’t walk so it was better when the APs, one of whom was a friend to Karani, offered to help. I remember being helped into the Land Cruiser, and when I came to I found myself in the main house at home. I looked at mum, who didn’t know a thing up-to now. She thought she should find me some paracetamols. I looked at her wrinkled face. Her aged hands. Her strong resolve. The hope. I looked at the mud walls of the hut. The poverty. Then I couldn’t hold it any longer. I broke into tears, this time letting the cry out as it wanted.
He was the only brother. My friend. Head of the family. Our future. Now he was dead. Dead with bullets in his head and chest. Dead for the country.
Mother reclined into her and didn’t manage a word. Didn’t cry. She fainted several times as mourners began making funeral arrangements. She had to be caged on burial day when uniformed soldiers fired 21 shots in the air. For their comrade.
I observed how death takes the strongest to humiliate the weak. I lost respect for death.
Gunfire. The other guys are not carrying just their normal Kalashnikovs and WW2 mortars. Under the morning darkness I pick bangs of superior equipment. The burning debris and longer duration of counter-offence now gives a clue to their numbers.
We lie in wait. On my side is Cpt Keli. Fate will have him slain before my eyes. It will be next to me that the bullet will come, right to his throat and cut the spine. He will collapse, and I will drop my gun to resuscitate him. It will be a waste of time, and giving the enemy leverage. He will go without a word. I will rise and sling my magazine over my shoulder in an attempt to fight what fate has brought before my nose.
I should fight like my brother. The few comrades who knew him in the line of fire say he was a hero. His name was mentioned at the National Heroes Day that year. Sometimes I have my doubts whether I will ever match half the man he was. Sometimes I have my doubts about life here. Those are moments I remain lonely, detached. Sometimes I question my conscience. Maybe I am just a crazy loser with a gun. Perhaps I should quit. Not perhaps; certainly. I’ve prepared to find my freedom at the end of this mission.
It took years to mystify the image of Karani. Him lying there in a cold military box for a coffin, wrapped in the national flags. Nobody was allowed to move closer. Nobody saw him die, nobody saw him dead. We may as well have buried a stone or rolls of toilet paper in a cold military box. And when people were giving their speeches, a villager asked the government to mourn with us and show appreciation for the fallen hero – offer me the military job as replacement of the gone breadwinner. Major RK knows the rest because he is the one who was in charge of recruitment the following year when we paraded our bare chests and showed 32 teeth at the DO’s offices. Ten years now and it looks like yesterday.
Suddenly there is the sound of crushing wheels. The ground in Kulbiyau is tough. From combat experience, those must be at least five tanks. How do these poor guys afford a piece of a tank? We open fire at once though the vision is still hidden in the night. The bastards know how to tame a dark night.
At first I didn’t want to be a soldier. I wanted to be a History teacher. When the military thing came, and I wanted to turn it down, I looked at the situation at home and figured that a grass-thatched house would not take me into a class of History or even gossip. So I took the arm, and discovered it was a lovely job. Fell in love.
I have a girlfriend. This gun and smoke thing should go away. I want to go back to my nurse girlfriend. I should get back home soonest this thing is over. I don’t know what she will say when I eventually narrate this. Last time I told her of life here she pulled all the nurse in herself and told me not to return to the battlefield. She said we could move to a village in the Congo or Malawi and begin life until they forgot about me. I told her the army forgets deaths and not deserters, especially now that there is no clemency for the crime. She said something funny I cannot remember. We laughed and forgot the story.
I remember she broke her virginity that night. A month or two from now she will be a mother. So much in wait after this mission. I want us to get married. I want to hold the baby and feel as a father. I want life.
The idiots are beginning to overwhelm us. A good number of our men have gone down and we register heavy casualties as more RPGs continue to fly past our noses. From the way they have surged in you don’t want to imagine what has happened to those at the first frontier. And now their inclination, our hideouts in the trenches are partially exposed and so if they aim well we are all meat.
We fire gallantly. They have the aerial advantage, vision disadvantage. We have the trench guard and familiarity. An occasional RPG falls, digs the ground and uproots one or two of us. Several of our men are now down and done. Unless the other side is registering more pain, the situation is getting tricky.
The Major rises from the trench and stands fully above the shields. That is an outrageous move. I hear someone yell out to him to back down. He doesn’t. He begins to fire directly into the approaching enemy. He fires into the first truck and it blasts into flames as debris and shrapnel come crushing into our faces.
The blast happens almost the same time we spot another silhouette of a truck approach from the left and we change the direction of our muzzles. The lights are off but we can see the thing from the light of an approaching dawn – and that is where we aim as we find shelter from anything on the ground. This truck has not less that fifteen men with heavy artillery; the type you stop from a distance if you desire to live and go see your pregnant girlfriend. And we are now more exposed with a redundant number so we must act quick.
But then, another dark structure crashes into the burning mess, into us. An empty Humvee that doesn’t stop with our shooting. We stitch two and two, and those of us who calculate fast get it right. I am airborne, in the middle of nowhere, preparing to fall somewhere I hope to find safety, when the thing detonates. Metal chips cut into my back but now I don’t stop moving. Where I crawl, I crawl. Where I run, I run. I want to do anything that will take me furthest away from this nightmare. The whole infantry has been destroyed and though a soldier never flees the battlefield, a soldier finds safety and peace for which he exists.
By now I’m sure we’ve lost the armoury too. I’ve been shot in the left leg. I can’t believe I am retreating. I think of the situation at home if we lose this battle. I think of the attacks in Nairobi. I think of the dead lovers. I think of the widows. I think of Karani. I stop, start running, and stop again. Then I turn and start limping back into the drumming of guns that is now dominated by one side.
I find shelter at a tree stump and peg my gun. From now I don’t see anything but the enemy. The magazine gets eaten fast. It is almost 6am and I see the bastards fall. I take them down in droves as they fight to break the inner ring.
Then in the midst of all the ricocheting, I pick up one distinct bang. It isolates itself from the rest of the noise, and from there the other shots start reclining to the backstage. Something warm is gushing down my face from above the left eye. I feel it trickle down my face.
My gun goes down. Mid-size Riot Control Disperser. Something familiar cuts my nerves, then fades away. My mass begins to yield and as I follow the gun my mind races miles away back home. What is the nation doing – sleeping with the continent? I think of Esta. The young one. Mum. Will tomorrow ever arrive for them? Will Esta mourn me? Will the people I defend defend the young one from the pangs of theft and oppression?
Heaven; is heaven real?
I wish to be home. To fall into the arms of Mother. To let her feel the fading pulse. I want that when I come down, I come down to familiarity. I can give up everything now for a second more with the two women I love. I want to hold the mother of my child and whisper to the one inside. Tell her to live to the fullest when she finally comes out. To love those who love and love those who don’t. To seek content. I want to drop down at the feet of these women. I’m scared, God. The women, and I won’t cry whether heaven or hell. God.
God of Christians. God of Jews. God of Hindus. God of Pagans. God of Atheists. God Anything. God, a single last moment with them….
My weight hits the tough ground clothing the Horn of Africa. The gunshots and propellers have been reduced to small uninteresting murmurs. The air tastes thorns and red pepper. The night already looks on with indifferent eyes. I try to rise to face the enemy. I cannot. Right away I know I no longer belong here. Then comes an immediate dizziness. Then numbness.