Volume 23, Number 3


Rami Ungar

The refugee camp was quiet as a graveyard. Not surprised, the investigator moved through the camp, led by one of the UN volunteers who worked there. All around him, people were talking in groups, their voices whispering so softly at times the investigator thought he might be deaf. And in every person’s eyes there, the investigator saw the same emotion: shock. As if they’d all witnessed the same unthinkable, implausible miracle.

Of course, that was pretty much why the investigator was there tonight; he had been sent to find out exactly how the miracle had happened. In addition, he had to find out whether the person who had caused the miracle should be commended for doing what he did … or if he should be indicted.

Finally the UN volunteer led him to a small hut made of sheet metal and thatch. Despite the fact that the hut was one of many all around it and the investigator wouldn’t have been able to tell it apart without the help of the UN volunteer, the hut had a sense of separateness, a feeling like it didn’t really belong in the camp with the other huts and structures. It was something that the investigator couldn’t explain, not even to himself, this strange feeling.

The investigator thanked the UN volunteer, who said he’d be back in an hour. Slipping into the hut, the investigator saw only a dirt floor and a small candle made of animal fat lighting the entire structure. As his eyes adjusted, the investigator noticed a young boy sitting at the edge of the candle’s light, his legs tucked underneath his chin. His skin was dark, his hair was close to his head, and as the boy looked at the investigator, the investigator realized that the boy had a blue left eye and a brown right eye.

Both eyes had the look of someone who had been through a rough ordeal.

The investigator had been told that the boy was fluent in French, so he cleared his throat and said, “Bon soir. Êtes-vous Aasif?” Good evening. Are you Aasif?

The boy nodded his head yes. The investigator gave his name in French and asked the boy Aasif if he could sit down. When the boy just continued to look at him, the investigator sat down on the ground and crossed his legs.

When the boy Aasif remained silent, the investigator decided to begin. “I am with the International Criminal Court.” the investigator began in French. “I’m here to find out about what happened four days ago in Abala.”

“Am I under arrest?” said Aasif in French. His voice still had vestiges of its childhood pitch, yet to the investigator it sounded tired and weary, like an old soul who had seem too much of the world. “Will I be sent to jail?”

The investigator looked at Aasif honestly and saw that the boy was genuinely afraid that he was in some sort of truouble. The investigator shook his head. “I don’t think so.” he replied truthfully. “But in order to make sure, I have to know what happened in Abala. You’re the only witness who knows what really happened. Will you please tell me?” The investigator gave his best smile, hoping to sway Aasif to talk to him.

Whether the smile worked or not, the kid nodded, and said, “I will tell you all that I remember.”

The investigator heaved an inward sigh and said, “Thank you, Aasif.”

Aasif turned to face the investigator. “I was born in a village an hour west of Abula. We were hidden behind mountains, so we did not see the Holy Resistance that much. We also did not worship Jesus but instead we worshipped Allah. We were happy people. We worked the land, we prayed, we had a festival at the end of the harvest season. It was a happy town.

“My father was a stern man, but he was also very understanding. He knew that I was not a strong child, but that I was smart and that I could be a teacher or a scholar someday. He was saving money to send me to school in the city. My mother was the best cook in the whole village, and she was at the mosque in our village to pray every day. She never missed prayers. I had two older sisters, one of whom was married, and a baby brother, not older than two.”

“One night, I go out to use the outhouse. Our house does not have running water, all we have is our outhouse. I go out and use it. When I am coming back, I…” Aasif went suddenly quiet and looked deep into the flames. Afraid he was going to lose him, the investigator said quickly, “What happened next, Aasif?”

Aasif shook his head as if he’d been stuck in a deep memory. “Someone grabbed me from behind. I do not know who. He told me to be quiet or he would kill me and my family. I do not say a word. The man, he tied me up with rope and put a rag in my mouth. He throws me on a horse and takes me away from the village. We ride through the night until we get to Abula. And there, I see him.”

“Marda’ar.” said the investigator.

Aasif nodded his head. “The man who took me, he pulled me off the horse and drag me through the dirt. He say Marda’ar sees all the new children. I am still tied up. All around me, I see boys and men with guns. None of them see me, like they are used to people being dragged on the ground. And I also see girls. Some of them are sitting, others walking around, others they…they…”

The investigator saw that Aasif was struggling with what he wanted to say. He was about to get up and go over to the boy when Aasif started to shout, tears rolling down his face. “They were having intercourse with them! Right there on the ground! The girls, they did nothing to stop it. A man would come up to them and tell them to get on the ground, and she would do so, and he would take her. And their eyes…the women’s eyes looked like they belonged to dead people! All this I saw!”

Aasif cried and the investigator let him. Finally after a few minutes, Aasif sniffed and went on. “Finally I am taken to the tent where Marda’ar lives. The man who kidnapped me, he untied me and threw me into the tent. He then says, ‘Marda’ar, we have a new one’, and he leaves.

“When I look up, I see Marda’ar. He is short man, but he is still bigger than me. He has big, flabby body and huge nose. At first I thought, ‘This cannot be Marda’ar, he is too funny-looking’. But then I see his eyes, and I am filled with fear. Those eyes were not human. They looked like they belonged to a monster.

“Marda’ar comes up to me and tells me to stand up. I stand up. And then he starts to talk. He tells me, ‘This country is full of the Devil. The white demon left a long time ago, but he left his dark master here. Do you know why he did that?’ I shook my head. Marda’ar says, ‘Because the white demons want the Devil to become strong in our land. He wants Africa to once again become a dark continent, a land without the law of God.’

“Then he says to me, ‘What is your name, boy?’ I tell him my name, and he says, ‘You are blessed now. You are now in the Lord’s service. We will smite this land of the Devil’s influence and make it a land under God’s law.’ Then he goes to a corner of his tent and picks up a machine gun, puts it in my hands. He says to me, ‘Will you wield this in the name of God?’

Aasif wiped his nose and shook his head. “I tried to ask him to let me go home. I tell him I am good Muslim, that I don’t want to go to war or to hurt anybody. But then Marda’ar’s eyes filled with rage and he started beating me. He cut my lip open, blacken my eye so I cannot see, and punches me in the gut. Then he tells me, ‘Do not identify with that heathen religion! You fight for me now. If you do not, I will kill you myself, and I will kill your heathen family too!’

“Then he calls in a man—perhaps the man who’d brought me here, I do not know—and he tells me to put me ‘in the hole.’ I am dragged away by the scruff of my neck, out of a tent and to a pile of boulders. The man who was holding me, he uses his other hand and rolls back one of the boulders, and all I see is a dark space behind it. I am thrown in there, and the man rolls back the boulder before I can get out. I am left alone in the darkness, with very little room for movement.

Aasif let out a loud sigh and said, “More than anything, it is in that hole, with the darkness, and the voice, that I have nightmares about.”

“The voice?” the investigator repeated, eyebrows raised. “What voice?”

“The voice.” Aasif repeated, shivering as if the memory of it alone conjured up some unknown monster. “I was in the hole for awhile—I don’t know how long—when I thought I heard something. At first I thought I was imagining it. But then I heard it again. A voice, as wispy as wind, as sleek as a snake, whispering to me in the hole. It said, ‘Kill.’”

“And what did you do?” asked the investigator.

“What do you think? I said, ‘Who’s there?’” Aasif replied. “But all I heard back was ‘Kill.’ And then I thought I felt something crawling over my feet, but there was nothing there. I tried feeling around the hole, but I still couldn’t find anything. I was truly alone in that hole. And I kept hearing that voice saying ‘Kill.’ I was so scared, I wasn’t sure if I was going crazy or…or—”

“Or if something was in there with you?” the investigator finished; Aasif nodded his head.

“Finally, when I felt like all I could do was scream so that I couldn’t hear the voice, the man who’d brought me to that hole rolled the boulder back and dragged me back to Marda’ar. But the voice didn’t go away. No, it slithered right behind me, whispering ‘Kill, kill.’ No matter how many times I looked in that direction though, I saw nothing.

“When we got to Marda’ar’s tent, he was waiting outside his tent, holding the machine gun he’d try to give me before. Next to him, tied up on the ground, was a boy who was maybe a year younger than me. The boy was gagged, and he was crying.

“Marda’ar gave me the gun again and said, ‘I hope you have had time to think on your choice.’ Then he pointed to the boy on the ground and said, ‘If you send this traitor back to the Devil, I will spare your life. But if you refuse, you will be a traitor too and killed as one.’ As if he wanted to make sure I understood, Marda’ar was given a machete by the man who’d brought me back to the tent. He raised up the machete and pointed it from me to the boy on the ground before laying it next to his side.

“I looked at the boy on the ground, and the boy looked back at me, his eyes pleading. Only then did I realize that I’d seen this boy before, that his family were a part of a caravan of traders that passed through our village twice a year. I’d played football with him before, and I knew he was a good striker and that he liked to laugh. How did he become a part of Marda’ar’s Holy Resistance? And why was he a traitor that needed to be killed?

“All the time, I could hear that voice again, whispering in my ear. ‘Kill.’ it said. ‘Kill him.’ I wasn’t sure who it was telling me to kill though. Did it mean the boy on the ground, the boy that I’d played with before? Did the voice mean the man who had brought me to and from the hole and might be the man who’d brought me here from my village? Or did it mean Marda’ar?

“And then there was Marda’ar, he was shouting in my other ear. ‘Shoot him!’ he kept saying. ‘Shoot him now!’ It was so loud I couldn’t think, and I was crying so hard, I was so scared. I just wanted Marda’ar and the voice to shut up. I closed my eyes and I pulled the trigger!”

Aasif let out a loud wail and started crying again, his head shaking with each sob. The investigator let him cry until he’d calmed down a little and was ready to continue. The investigator sensed that they were getting to the climax of the story.

“When I looked at the boy again, there was a big hole where his face should have been. He was dead! And Marda’ar was laughing and clapping his hands. ‘Good job, boy!’ he kept saying. ‘Good job!’ And then Marda’ar says to me, ‘Your task is almost complete, and then you will be a full member of the Holy Resistance.’

“I asked him what he wanted me to do. And Marda’ar says, ‘Kill your family.’ He tells me to kill my family, as easily as my mother asks for me to go out and get the eggs from the chickens, or my father asks me to help him pull the crops to town to sell. He talks about killing so easily, like it isn’t a big deal.”

“What did you do when you heard Marda’ar tell you to kill your family?” asked the investigator.

“I told him I didn’t want to,” Aasif replied. “What else? I asked him why my family had to die. He says, ‘The heathen Muslims are a blight upon this land and must be eradicated if we are to bring God into this country.’ And then he tells me to do it or I will die and so will my family.

“And then the voice!” Aasif shouted suddenly, his voice growing more passionate. “It was no longer whispering, it was shouting! It kept saying, ‘Kill more! Kill more!’ over and over again! And I couldn’t make it stop. I tried shouting at it to shut up, but I couldn’t find its source. And Marda’ar and everyone there were looking at me like I was crazy.”

Aasif sniffed. “And that’s when it happened.” he said.

“When you killed Marda’ar.” said the investigator. Aasif merely nodded.

“Marda’ar was yelling at me, telling me that I better explain who I was talking to or I would be beaten. And at that point I wasn’t feeling scared or anything.”

“What do you mean?” asked the investigator.

Aasif shook his head. “I am not sure.” he replied. “All I can say is, with the voice shouting at me and I unable to find its source, all I wanted was silence.” Aasif laughed eerily and said, “I guess what I was feeling was annoyance.”

“What happened then?” asked the investigator.

“I turned to Marda’ar.” Aasif explained. “And I just wanted him to be quiet. He and the voice were driving me mad. And then he raised his machete, as if he was going to demonstrate what would happen to me. And I just looked at him…and I shot him.” Aasif looked at the investigator with a face devoid of remorse. “I shot him in the gut with the same machine gun that he had given me.”

“And then what happened?” said the investigator.

Aasif snorted. “What else? Everyone panicked. The only thing that had kept the Holy Resistance going was fear of him. Every child soldier was afraid that either Marda’ar or a child soldier with a higher rank was going to kill them, no matter who it was. And then, when Marda’ar fell over, his gut full of holes that I had given him…everyone just stopped being afraid, and attacked the adults.”

“What happened afterwards?” asked the investigator.

“I don’t know.” said Aasif. “I just ran. I ran for my life, trying to save myself from Marda’ar’s men. I slipped through the camp and didn’t stop running until I came here.” Aasif gestured at the structure they were in. “That was four days ago. And so many times I have thought about going home to my village.”

“Why haven’t you?” asked the investigator.

Aasif looked at the investigator like he couldn’t believe he had asked the question. “Because I am a murderer!” Aasif shouted. “I killed that boy, and his parents will never see him again, never hold him in their arms! How can I face them, or my village, or my family, knowing what I had done?!” Aasif looked at the investigator, his face creased with despair.

The investigator was silent for a moment. Then he leaned over the candle and placed a hand on Aasif’s shoulder. “What you went through,” said the investigator, “no one should have to go through. You were given an impossible choice, and given the circumstances, I’m not surprised you reacted the way you did. But I’m sure your parents and your village, if not the boy’s parents, will forgive you. After all, you killed Marda’ar. If anything, you’re not a murderer, you’re a hero. And this region will become more peaceful as news of his death fully sinks in.”

Aasif looked at the investigator with hope in his eyes. “I’m a hero?”

The investigator nodded. “Go back to your village.” said the investigator. “I will go to find you there. You may need to repeat your story a lot over the next few weeks, but I can assure you, you are in no trouble. In fact, I predict a good future for you because of what you’ve done.”

For the first time that night, Aasif actually smiled. “Thank you sir.” said Aasif. “I will go home in the morning.”

“Glad to hear it, Aasif.” The investigator got up and turned to go, but turned around at the last second. “Aasif.” he said. “That voice that was telling you to kill. Have you heard it since then?”

Aasif shook his head. “No.” he answered. “But I … I think I know what it was.”

The investigator raised his eyebrows. “What?”

Aasif looked at the investigator seriously. “It was the voice of the devil. Perhaps even Marda’ar’s devil.”

The investigator stood there in stunned silence for a moment. Then he turned around and left the tent, off to make his report.