Samuel tapped the rusty thermometer with relative disinterest. It hung from a bent nail hammered into the plywood wall of his small security booth. The red line came even with one hundred and five. A record of sorts, if such a milestone was worth noting. Behind him, the refugee camp baked under a dirty haze of heat. No one dared move too far from the shade. Samuel did not care either way and if he had, it would not have changed the weather. He was too busy fiddling with an empty plastic sachet of water. The liquid was long gone and so was the adolescent girl who had sold it. She had wandered off down the red clay road with a basket full of goods angling precariously to one side of her head. Only the plastic wrapper remained. Dozens littered the small guard post.
Samuel folded it one way and then another, trying to get the blue mountains printed on the plastic to align. They were jagged and steep; unlike anything he had ever seen. His brother called them ‘White Mountains’. Samuel was not sure if that was on account of the snow or the obrunis who lived nearby. A place so cold made him laugh. He wondered why anyone would suffer through such indignities.
Plumes of swirling dust sailed into the sky near the horizon. Samuel squinted into the distance. The day was a quiet one. Most of the westerners were working in the primary part of the refugee camp, so traffic was sparse. A clipboard on the wall had no listings for any arrivals. He flipped through the smudged pages but saw nothing. Fourteen hours had passed since his shift started and Samuel was bleary-eyed, so he stepped out of the barren shack to get a better look.
Heat shimmered like broken glass just above the road. Only the churning of dirt was distinct enough to see. Three brown lines were approaching fast from the north. Only refugees came from that cardinality. Save for the war itself. The rebels had driven south from the mountains and laid bare the crumbling facade of dictatorial rule.
Samuel grabbed the old AK-47 leaning against one of the exposed timbers. The security company he worked for had given him the gun and some training, but the bullets came out of his own pocket. Money was tight. His wife had a small vegetable stand on the side of the highway, but only the locals bought anything. Those fleeing had nothing, and the aid workers did not care for cassava or groundnuts. Such constraints left him skimping where possible and only ten rounds were in the magazine.
A nagging sense of fear pulled at his lungs and each breath was a little shorter. Samuel tried the radio even though the battery had died two hours earlier. The vehicles were almost in view. Sliding back the bolt, he chambered one tenth of his ammunition and waited. The tightness in his chest had turned to jitters in his stomach. Samuel felt his bowels quiver, and the unexpected need to go was overpowering.
Across the road was a small ditch. Samuel ran to it and barely got his trousers down before fear drained his intestines. Squatting in a small hole with his pants around his ankles, Samuel had never felt more vulnerable.
“Not like this,” he prayed.
Three Toyota trucks, scarred by age and battle, sped into view. The trucks themselves were nothing new. Throw a stone in West Africa and it will hit a Hilux or Tacoma. Average people appreciated reliability, but there was nothing ordinary about the heavy machine guns mounted in the beds of the approaching vehicles. His gut exploded once more.
Samuel didn’t own a TV, not with his meager paycheck, but his neighbor left the window open. At first, he found it irritating, like the man was showing him up, but in time it became a ritual. Every night, after his son was asleep, Samuel would pull back the curtains and watch the news with his wife. Images of the war dominated the screen. Night after night the news cycle contained video clips of heavily armed rebels surging south. They came not in tanks or on horseback, but in the very trucks speeding his direction.
Hisab, they called themselves: the reckoning. As if they alone were the arbiters of the end. They were extremists to some and true believers to others. For Samuel, none of the semantics mattered. He curled up like his son did when the dry crackle of lightning rolled overhead. In that slight depression, scraped from the sunbaked earth, Samuel cried. A quiet, but mournful howl against all that was not. From the mistakes and missed opportunities to the future waiting just over the horizon.
A deafening roar filled the air as the lead truck shredded the guard post. Samuel clutched at the red soil beneath him. It was hard and dry, but at that moment it was all he had for comfort. Time did not slow down. There was no movie montage playing in his head. No epiphanies. The moment was nothing but fragments, sensations stitched together and masquerading as a memory.
A high-pitched whine from the engines. The deep thuds of a large caliber weapon. Bullets the size of mango seeds. Dry crunching as plywood turned to splinters. The smell of cordite, exhaust and shit. Spent casings glimmering on the ground. The rough texture of hardened soil on his face. That was what Samuel felt.
By the time he dared to breathe, they were in the camp. The small wooden gate that he so ceremoniously raised and lowered snapped like a twig. Broken pieces littered the road. Chunks of black and white stripes were everywhere as if a zebra had exploded. He watched the men head straight for the small white tents that housed the doctors. He stood there, pants still around his ankles, unable to turn away or run.
The trucks stopped just shy of the World Health Organization office. Four men jumped out and waded into the sea of tents. Samuel pulled up his pants and was working on the buckle of his belt when gunshots echoed down the road. The men were back and dragging two people onto the trucks. Samuel knew most of the doctors, but he couldn’t tell from that distance. Whoever they took did not go without a fight. One victim was unconscious. They dragged the second by the hair the same way an abusive husband might pull his wife.
As the trucks turned around, Samuel ran into the thin brush further away from the camp. He left the gun and his dignity behind. Neither were necessary for survival. Through the parted leaves he saw two trucks drive back into the dusty north. They were returning to the fight, but for Samuel the war had just arrived.
The last truck turned south.