Gifts for the Men
By Allwell Uwazuruike (Nigeria)
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There is a loud vibrating sound, like the buzz of a giant house fly. Everyone is ignited with excitement and relief as they jump to their feet looking up in anticipation and enthusiasm at the helicopter in the sky which looks like a small bird learning to fly.
It has been three days since we saw the helicopter last. Three days of hunger and thirst. We prayed and prayed for its arrival but it didn’t come. Sometimes we are awoken in our tents at night by a shrill cry followed by, “the plane is here!” We all jump up in anticipation and relief, our weary eyes scanning the sky for any wandering jet, our ears standing on edge like those of an Alsatian dog, trying to pick up the slightest signal. But it’s a false call. Someone had definitely seen a jet, but in his dream. We go back to our tents in disappointment, our bellies empty.
It all began like a joke. They said a revolution was sweeping across the Middle East like a tsunami. Our class teachers talked excitedly about it. It had begun in Tunisia, spread to Egypt and now has come to us. I had watched with disinterest the day they aired the protests on the TV. I was eating some sweets and wondered why baba was so engrossed with some people waving flags and burning caricatures. I wondered why he lifted me up in delight yelling, “We shall soon be free!” Days later, baba had become moody. He no longer went to work. He just sat staring in front of the TV, his fists clenched into tiny balls, the veins bulging from his hands, his teeth clenching. Sometimes I tried to find out what he was really looking at. I saw nothing but tanks, explosions, deaths – and the predominant figure of a very fearsome man. I may be nine and have no interest in politics or war but I know this man. Everyone in the country knows him. Babies learn to call his name even before they can say ‘mama’. But I wondered why baba was becoming more and more fearful, why he talked less everyday, why he no longer bought me my favourite sweets.
One bright Saturday, we were at home when, suddenly, there was an explosion. I looked out of the window and saw those tanks I knew so well from the TV and video games. These ones were rather too big and frightening. Baba rushed into my room, picked me up and ran to meet mama who was shivering like a rat caught in a trap. Baba opened his wardrobe, searched frantically and pulled out a long rifle. I could feel the fear and tension in the room as mama tried to persuade baba to stay. But no, baba would have none of that. He wriggled from mama’s grasp and charged towards the door like an enraged bull. Mama ran after him but she wasn’t fast enough. Baba had already left the house. Mama stood at the door screaming at baba to come back. I don’t blame her. Even at my age, I knew that baba could not bring down that monstrous tank with his rifle.
There was commotion on the streets. Everyone was running – away. Only baba was running towards the tank. Then somehow, the tank saw baba. I wonder how because its back was turned towards baba. The tank swirled its head and coughed out a jet of crimson fire. Baba was blown away like a spray of ash. Mama’s piercing cry rattled my ear drums. I didn’t need to be told that I would not see baba again.
Our small town was overrun by tanks and menacing war jets hovering in the air like hawks. Everyone fled for his life. We barely had time to take some of our things with us; we just ran, ran and ran. Now we are here in this scrubland living in tents made from trees and shrubs. They may not be gigantic and cosy, but they cover us at night. We have been here for two weeks now adjusting and readjusting to our new life. There are over a hundred of us here, tens of tents littered all over vast acres of land, housing small groups of families. But there is news that we will be returning home soon, that our brothers have taken the fight to the government forces and gaining grounds every day; that an alliance of western countries are on our side.
We all look up as the helicopter descends, the leaves and branches dancing to the swift rhythm of its swirling fans. Then the part we have been waiting for arrives; bags and sacks of items are thrown down. We all scramble for the items, children and adults alike.
“Khubz! Bread!” someone screams.
We continue grabbing what we can as the helicopter rises and soars way.
The helicopter started coming last week when we were on the verge of starvation having run out of our thin resources. So far it has come four times. Any day that it does not come is bad; when it does then the day is good.
We are soon done with the grabbing and hassling and everyone is going his different direction.
“I got three loafs!” Ismail screams with excitement as he runs towards me. His stomach is bulging like that of a woman in her ninth month of pregnancy. I don’t need to guess where the bread is.
Ismail has been my best friend since we settled here and is about three years older than I. I knew him before now. He lived close to us in the city but we never talked. I only saw him from my window on few occasions going for a walk with his father and in the mosque whenever we went to pray. But since the government forces drove us into this jungle, we have become best of friends.
I smile at him. I had been able to get two, but it doesn’t make me happy. I am sick and tired of this kind of life. While in the city, I ate whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. All I want is for this war to end as soon as possible so that I can return home. I know it will never be the same without baba but it would be better than this horrible forest.
“I hope they come again tomorrow,” Ismail says. “But just in case they don’t I’ll eat one loaf today so that I can have some for tomorrow.”
“They didn’t drop kegs of water today.”
“No, but we still have some water in our tent. You can always come around when you’re thirsty.”
“Ok. Let me go and see mama. I will join you later,” I say.
“Fine. We can play hide and seek with the other kids.”
“No. Mama warned me against it yesterday. She says we shouldn’t hide near the shrubs and trees on the other side because a girl was bitten by a snake yesterday.”
“Ok then, we can always play some other game. You’ll find me on the playground.” With this he jogs away cradling the breads neatly tucked underneath his shirt.
I don’t see mama when I get to our tent. She must be chatting with some of the other women I guess. The thought gladdens me. Mama has been downcast since we arrived here. I have the feeling she is always thinking of baba – of that terrible moment when he was blown to bits, beyond recognition and recovery. I move out of the tent and scan the area for her tiny frame. Then I see her. She is among a group of other women, clouded in a haze of smoke. It appears they are cooking or preparing to cook something. Some logs of wood are burning on the ground, a big pot standing idly by its side. I prance excitedly to mama’s side. She hugs me before examining the two loaves I hold in my hands.
“We are boiling some tea for the entire camp,” she says smiling.
“Really? We have tea here?”
“Allah always provides.”
“Yes!” I jump up in excitement as I run off to find Ismail and break the news to him.
“Drop the bread in the tent before you go to play,” I hear mama call after me.
I make for the tent and stash the loaves away at a corner before pulling off my t-shirt and trousers. I now have only my singlet and a pair of shorts on. Mama will not let me play with my clothes on as they would get dirty and I don’t have any replacements. I play in my shorts and singlet which mama painstakingly washes everyday with water from a nearby stream.
I recall those early days when we arrived here. There were murmurs about whether we could settle here. Some were sceptical; they said we would die of hunger and thirst. That was before we came across the stream. Sheikh Abdul Al-Shami, our leader, had recommended that we camp here for the meantime because of the stream.
I find Ismail playing ball with some other boys most of whom do not have shirts on; their sweaty bodies glistening under the watch of the morning sun. Ismail runs to meet me.
“Come on, Saif. We are one man short,” he says beckoning me to join in the game.
“Wait. Wait. I have good news.”
“What?” he had noticed the excitement in my voice and is now curious.
“Guess what we are going to have for breakfast today.”
“No. I’m serious.”
“Guess what,” I have to be quick because Ismail wants to return to his game. “We are going to be having tea. The women are preparing tea.”
“Really?” Ismail is excited. Then he turns to the other boys who are still kicking the ball around. “Tea! Tea! Come and have your tea!” He starts running towards the tents, while I and some other eight boys follow. We are screaming, “tea, tea, tea!”
The women are pleasantly surprised to see us but ask us to be patient as they are still setting the fire and have not even begun boiling the tea.
“Ok, you boys should go and gather the other kids. Tell them to come out with their plates. We should be done before you arrive,” one of the women suggests.
We run off on our new mission and soon return with some other twenty kids. This time around the pot is on the fire but we know from the absence of vapours that it’s still a long way from boiling. Some of us get leaves and start fanning the embers to the amusement of the women. But who cares? Anything for some hot tea.
It takes the tea ages to boil by which time we had formed a straight line, our plates and cups in hand. Some three women commence the task of distributing the tea. One by one every one of us gets a measured scoop of the refreshing tea.
Ismail, his playmates and I return to the playground, our cups of tea in hand.
“I won’t finish my tea today. I’ll just take a sip so that I can have another tomorrow,” Mustafa, one of the boys says.
“There is no need for that. Allah will provide another,” I say.
“And if He doesn’t, the helicopters will,” Ismail adds.
“My mother wants the helicopter to land one day so that she can thank it,” Yusuf, the youngest in our midst says.
“I don’t care whether it lands or not. I just want the food.”
“It won’t even land because it knows that if it does, we will all rush in and grab everything in it.”
“Do you think it’s full of food?”
“Of course. Where does the food come from?”
“I think someone in there throws down the food.”
“That means it’s full of food.”
Ismail runs around juggling the ball. “Come on guys,” he calls. “We still have some time before the afternoon prayers.” We abandon our empty cups and run after Ismail who dribbles and manoeuvres with the ball. There are no particular rules in this game. One just kicks the ball around the tiny field, keeping it in his possession for as long as possible. We are sweating and breathless when we hear the shrill cry of the whistle which beckons us to the prayer ground. We make a dash for the nearby stream where we wash ourselves before filing unto the prayer ground for the Dhurh. After the prayers, everyone gathers for the address from Sheik Abdul Al-Shami.
The Sheikh is the only one who has a radio in camp. He does nothing but listen to it all day. One could tell whether he has heard good or bad news just by looking at his face. He brooded for a huge part of the first week in camp. His mood was contagious because everyone knew that the Sheikh’s sadness meant that the government forces were gaining ground. Things however changed on the fifth day when the Sheikh’s jubilant cry rented the air. Some of the young men ran to him to find out what it was.
“They are helping us; they’re helping us,” he cried as he hugged every young man who came his way.
The Sheikh went on to explain how the Western forces and Arab League had taken our side as they were now bombing government forces concentrating heavily on the capital. Everyone appeared to take this as good news but I was still scared. I imagined bigger tanks blowing people to pieces just like baba. In the evening of that day, I asked mama why she had not jumped up in excitement upon hearing the news.
“Aisha, Aisha,” she muttered shaking her head, grief written all over her face; a face which had begun to age since baba died. Aisha is mama’s only sister and she lives in the capital.
The Sheikh clears his throat as he prepares to give what is an eagerly anticipated update.
“Salaam alaykum,” he greets.
“Wa alaikum as-salaam,” we respond.
The Sheik smiles, so we know we are going to be receiving good news today. Some of us are already smiling in anticipation.
“I heard over the radio this morning, that we are having an upper hand in the war!” A roar of approval greets this announcement.
“The Western Alliance has stepped up pressure and are, as I speak, currently pounding the government forces.”
Another roar of approval.
“Soon, the evil regime will be overthrown and then we can all return to our homes.”
“We want to fight too. We want to aid our brothers in overthrowing that evil tyrant!” a man yells from the crowd. Everyone knows him. His name is Hassan and he prides himself as being one of the arrow heads of the opposition though no one knows what exactly he is doing here.
“We should be more concerned about going home. Our brothers are fighting bravely alongside the Western Alliance, and by the grace of Allah, most merciful, we shall soon be free,” the Sheikh cautions.
“Death to the evil regime! Death to the evil tyrant!” Hassan screams. Several young men join in and the camp is soon brought to life by rhythmic chants of “death, death, kill him, kill him.”
We soon disperse, Ismail and I, walking arm in arm, humming the war chants.
“Are you eager to go back home?” he asks.
“Ofcourse, why not?”
“I wanted to ask the Sheikh if the Western Alliance would rebuild our house which was brought down during the invasion.”
“I don’t know about that, but you can always come and stay with us.”
“With my parents and siblings?”
“Do you hear that?” Ismail stops, his squinted eyes scanning the grey sky.
“It can’t be.”
It is like a tiny speck in the sky, growing bigger and bigger. A second helicopter in one day? No. This one is not a helicopter. It looks very much like a kite, a big kite. As it gets closer, I notice it is some sort of war plane. There is a growing frenzy in the camp as people look up in uncertainty and excitement. The plane is dark green and sounds like the hum of a hundred bees. People do not rush out to meet it, they just wait. We are not scared that it could be from the government since the Sheik had assured us that Western Alliance had stopped the government from flying but we are doubtful.
The plane descends slowly as items are dropped off the sky. For a moment I cannot decipher what is being thrown down until Ismail mutters terrifyingly: “Guns!”
People are not running to pick the items, they just walk to them, pick them up and examine them like new discoveries. Ismail drags me along to a spot where some guns had fallen. There is a very big black one, like nothing I have ever seen before. The muzzle is so big I am sure it can cover my head. A man starts screaming at the women and children to go back to the tents. Other men soon join, scowling at kids who tried picking any of the guns. These weren’t the usual general gifts we received. These gifts were for the men alone.
Ismail and I walk leisurely to the prayer ground. We had just left the stream and are off early because we want to talk on the road. Ismail has something to tell me. He has kept me curious all afternoon and I am almost at a breaking point.
“So what do you want to tell me?” I ask. “We are already on the road.”
Ismail looks left and right then peers into my face.
“Swear you won’t tell anyone, Saif.”
“Wallahi,” I swear, eager to hear what he has to say.
“Saif,” he caresses something hidden beneath his cloak. “I got a gun today, a small one.”
“What?” I am shocked and excited at the time. “But I didn’t see you pick any.”
He looks back again, and then carefully lifts his cloak to his waist revealing a small handgun. He let the cloak fall back into place.
“I was lucky to see this one. The rest were just too big.”
“What would you do with the gun?” I ask.
“Shoot of course.”
“The enemies. Those that brought down our house.”
“Where do you think you’ll find them?”
“In the city, when we go back.”
“But they say our fighters and the Western Alliance have killed them all.”
“I’ll have to fish them out then.”
“Please do take me along whenever you’re going. I want to destroy that tank that killed my father.”
“You’ll need your own gun. A bigger one perhaps.”
“How do I get one?”
“We have to find out where they keep them, and then you can sneak one out.”
“Like that big one we saw.”
“Do you think it can bring down the tank?”
A wide grin gently spreads over my freckled face. At last I get to avenge baba’s death.
Throughout the evening prayers, my mind is wandering, calculating how to steal that big gun I had seen in the afternoon. I can hide it somewhere in the woods and then wrap it in my clothes whenever we were returning home. But the first puzzle had to be solved – where the guns are kept. After the prayers we all gather for the Sheik’s latest update. This time everyone is quiet and expectant. We want to know why the guns have been sent.
The Sheikh clears his throat, his eyes glittering like tiny pearls. He is so excited he forgets to give the customary greeting.
“This noon we received gifts from our brothers from other Arab nations. They sent us these gifts for our own protection. We have prayed day and night for protection from Allah. Now we have weapons with which to defend ourselves from any attacks.”
The crowd begins to jubilate. Even the women’s section is lively today.
“Soon,” the Sheik continues after the chants have quelled, “we shall be returning home. I have been thinking of this journey back home for a long time. I knew how vulnerable we would be making the long journey with our women and children, defenceless and without arms. But now, we can all march bravely home. We can defend ourselves against attacks and join our brave brothers in flushing the tyrant and his cohorts out of our land!”
I have never seen the Sheikh like this before. His sparkling eyes are wide like those of a cat at night, his fisted hands vibrate in the air and his usually soft voice sounds like thunder.
Everyone starts jumping and punching the air, singing songs of victory; of course the Sheikh’s mood is always contagious.
I jump up too and join in the war chants. I feel so energized and power-surged that I feel I can take down that tank with my bare hands.
“Saif, come now,” a voice whispers in my ears.
I turn to see Ismail, followed closely by two boys, Milad and Malaak.
“We know where the guns are. Come. No one is watching.”
We sneak out as the men are shouting and women singing. Ismail leads the way while we follow. We enter the encampment where the tents are scattered all over.
“This way,” Ismail points as he continues to lead the way. Finally we come upon what seems to be a recently erected tent. There is something unique about it. Apart from the fresh, green fronds, this tent is a bit larger than the others. Ismail pushes the leaves aside as we enter. For a moment we stare in awe at the huge stack of arms and ammunitions, then Ismail nudges me, “Your gun.”
I begin to search for the gun, my eyes darting to and fro, while Ismail and the other boys pick up some other big guns. Finally I see it carefully placed at a corner of the tent. I lift it with some difficulty; this gun is as heavy as it is deadly. Ismail stares at it then hurries to my side. He stoops to the floor and begins to pile objects from a metal box into a small bag strapped across his waist.
“What are you doing?” I whisper.
“Be quick, they’ll soon be coming.”
Ismail stands up and scurries out of the tent. We all follow.
“Where do we hide the guns?” I ask. This gun is so heavy my only thought is on dropping it.
“Follow me.” Ismail leads us away from the tents into the woods till we come to a clearing where a fairly big hole had been dug.
“The three of us dug this all afternoon,” he says to me.
We drop the weapons and ammunitions into the hole which we cover with palm fronds before Ismail lets us in on the plan.
“So boys, this is the plan. Early, tomorrow before sunrise, we’ll cross the hill over to the other side close to the border. I hear there is fighting going on there. With luck on our side, we will be back before sunset.”
We all nod in agreement, a determined gleam in our eyes, before we turn and walk rather briskly back to the prayer ground.