Going Home By V. U. Umelo
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By V. U. Umelo
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As soon as breakfast was over that Saturday, the bugle sounded for us to assemble. Doe growled. He had come to loathe the shrill sound of the camp master’s metallic instrument, like me. Tired from doing nothing, Doe and I trudged towards the ‘Assembly Ground’ when the bugle sounded a second time. The ‘Assembly Ground’ was Solo’s christening of the large clearing in the middle of the refugee camp where everyone gathered for announcements.
Already, several refugees had gathered: men and women; the sick, the not-too-healthy, the healthy; the young and the old. Babies strapped to their mothers’ backs kicked feebly. They stretched their fragile necks; turned their oversized heads. Here, there, everywhere. As if the piece of information anticipated was specifically meant for them. They too were fed up with refugee life, having all been conceived and born as refugees.
I was surprised to behold the familiar fleshy face of the big white man, Mr. Stevenson. Why, it was less than three months ago that he was here. He was having troubles keeping his rubbery smile in place. Did he have to look so nervous? With his shiny baldpatch, protruding tummy and the sweat streaming down his face, I thought of an amateur jester whose opening act had gone sour. Because it was his duty to bring the file all the way from Monrovia, this quiet, soft-spoken, clumsy-looking white man was the Messiah everyone had been thirsting for.
As usual, the atmosphere hummed with uncertainty. Dust from hurrying feet rose high into the morning air. The humidity was palpable. Doe’s tongue hung out, limp; his foamy spittle dripping as he shadowed me.
“Quickly, quickly,” old Bobo, the camp master was calling. “Come over here everyone.”
He beckoned in every direction, with both hands, the ominous thin blue file firmly in place under his left armpit. Justice Mamburay was standing miserably in the back, not expecting to hear his name. Perhaps he was preparing to carry out his threat. I felt sorry for him. I approached him, determined not to let him out of my sight.
“Nobody has to cry or behave as if the end has come,” old Bobo began. “You’ve all fared well since you came to this camp years ago. Have I treated you poorly? Tomorrow is heavily pregnant. If you don’t hear your name today, there is still tomorrow.”
There is still tomorrow indeed! He could say that again. Let him pretend that all was well. After all, was he a refugee? Did he know how it felt, thinking that your name would never appear on the sheaf of document inside that blue file; that your entire family members were probably all dead; that you would probably spend the rest of your life living in a refugee camp? There is still tomorrow indeed!
He flipped the blue file open. Chests rose in huge measures; exhaled deeply. Time stood still. A name I couldn’t hear clearly floated through the air. A loud cry broke out in the middle of the crowd. It was Geraldine Kpakpor, that stout and formidable character. Not wishing to be knocked down and out, people hastily made way as Geraldine pounded forward to that elevated spot where she knew she should be. Having partaken in this horrible ritual over and over again, that spot, which Geraldine now commanded, had become so desirable, like gold. Everyone dreamt of the day that it would be his turn to stand there. I had stood there over a million times - in my endless nightmares.
Old Bobo kept reading out more and more names. He even called Justice Mamburay. I watched enviously (and relieved at the same time) as Justice tore to the sacred spot like a tornado. Tears of joy ran down his sunken cheeks. Whether from hearing his name, or from the fact that he would no longer have to carry out his threat, I would never know.
After about an hour of such tension-filled drama in which members of the cast yelled, cried, rolled on the ground, some collapsing, old Bobo, the main actor began closing his thin file. The horror script had come to an end: no more bloodletting; no more names to be read out. I smiled bitterly. Nobody had recognised me, again. I would not be going home.
I turned to stalk away. From the corner of my eyes, I saw heads turning to seek me out. Later I would recall that I had heard that voice the first and even the second time. But I had paid no attention to it. I became aware of it as it called out a third and fourth time.
The camp master had kept this best for last. For I of the depressed mind had become quite popular in camp. His voice kept rising and falling as it called out my name. And with this sweet voice arose certain difficulties.
All these months, I had pre-occupied my mind with hearing my name read out; with thoughts of going home. I had paid lip-service to that part of the equation that said, What if I got home to discover that…?
Now that reality struck me. Could I face the disturbing possibilities; the changes that I might encounter when I got home? Instantly, I was afraid of leaving the safety of this humble refugee camp where over the years, my life had established a steady, easy rhythm. Why, I had grown into a man in it. Was I prepared to begin life afresh? Was I prepared to face new challenges? Since I couldn’t take him with me to Liberia, to whom would I abandon Doe, my three-legged dog?
Who would meet me at the airport, my pa or my ma? How big were Dupsey and Josiah and Olla now? Suddenly, I recalled Dupsey’s ebony black hair and round, clear eyes and my eyes smarted. Most especially, I thought, Will they all still be alive? Or will I get home and be told that so and so and so had died during the war? I also wondered about my Uncle Mel. I recalled his pained voice as he cried that day the rebels struck, ‘Go on C.Y., run, and don’t bother about me. I’ll be alright.’ Was he all right? My mind was filled with scary thoughts. Was I to remain in the camp the rest of my life, or go back home? I wasn’t sure anymore which I wanted.
Doe knew I was going home. The moment I broke down and began to cry after old Bobo’s voice finally got my attention, he slunk away. Poor dog, the script had come out differently this time. In other circumstances in the past when my name was omitted, it was he, Doe, who licked away my tears. He stuck with me as I found a suitable place to drown my sorrows.
On the day Solo left, he was my rock. Solo’s name had come up during the third name-calling seven months ago. His was among fifteen other names that came up. It seemed as if I would die. My best friend was going home. My best friend was leaving me behind.
Solo didn’t jump, like others whose names were called. But I knew he was overjoyed to be going home after nine years in a refugee camp in a foreign country, separated from family and friends. His face shone. His gait changed. He tried to disguise it all. He knew I was feeling bad. All through that day, he did his best to console me. It was a wasted effort.
I thought, What injustice. After nine whole years together, why should we suddenly be given less than twenty-four hours to be with each other, then to be separated, perhaps, forever? I counted the seconds. By evening when the Bedford bus that would bear his set of returnees to Conakry, en route to Monrovia by air arrived, I had already gone to pieces. It felt as if my heart was being torn out; as if life’s very essence was being drained from me.
When morning came, Solo and I clasped each other; hugging so tight we almost choked. It took the combined effort of two camp elders to tear us apart. For their troubles, Doe, as sad as I was sank his canines into one’s ankles. As his bus sighed out of camp, Solo wept loudly, waving with all his strength.
“Bye, bye C.Y.,” he choked again and again. “Just as I heard my name, that’s how you’ll hear your own name one day.”
After Solo left, I didn’t have any more interest in shoemaking, which earned us much-needed income. Out of frustration, I changed from my good ways. I took to raiding the surrounding farms. I dug up immature carrots. Carted away any eatable I could find. Just for the fun of it. Local women cursed me for marching through their farms, destroying young seedlings of cassava, maize and vegetables. They spat on me in broad daylight. I was too frustrated to care.
I lost track of time. Without Solo, there was no time. Everyday, I thought of my family and missed Solo. I didn’t care so much for the company of the other boys in camp. The truth was that I wasn’t such a good mixer. People felt sorry for me, seeing the way I was carrying on, alone and depressed. I felt sorry for myself too. I knew this wasn’t the right thing to do, feeling sorry for myself the way I did. But there was nothing I could do about it.
Solo had meant so much to me. He was like the elder brother I didn’t have. In camp, he had played the role of a father, a mother and a best friend. He was the reason I got out of bed everyday since the past nine years. We had been thrown into adjacent seats on the lorry that evacuated us from the holding camp in Monrovia as we made our journey out of Liberia, en-route to becoming Internationally Displaced Persons. That was how he began taking care of me. Now that he had waved his goodbye and was gone, how would I manage? Solo crying and waving goodbye the way he did! That was the second time someone who meant so much to me was departing in a like manner. The first time had seen me separated from my family all these nine years.
With Doe on my heels, I rushed into our hall. I gaped at Solo’s corner, as though hoping to see him lying there, like he had all these years. Doe sniffed everywhere, hoping to ferret him out. But like an empty post-office box, his corner echoed loudly, reminding me more than anything else that I was truly alone. Doe, God bless his soul. He consoled me, licking away my tears. What would I have done without that disabled dog?
Doe knew all about pain. If only he could talk. At puppyhood, he had lost his right leg to a metal trap and his mother abandoned him to the elements in a rice field where Solo and I found him shivering; dying. By sheer tenacity, we had nursed him back to life. Then Solo left him. And now, I was preparing to abandon him as well!
Unlike other nights when I made sure he slept outside, when Doe insisted on coming in to lie beside me this night, I let him. The men and boys in my hall understood. They didn’t mind his coming into the hall to sleep, they said. In a way, Doe belonged to us all, even though he had always been referred to as, “Solo and C.Y.’s dog”. Later in the night when I opened my eyes, he was still wide-awake. He was shivering. It wasn’t from the night’s cold.
In the morning, I felt his cold nose nuzzling my face and woke up. As I did my toilet, he trailed after me, licking and licking, as though I was a day old puppy. His bright eyes never left mine. The pain I felt seeing him so sad, God! It was worse than the pain of toothache. Eventually I had to speak to both the camp master and Mr. Stevenson.
“Doe, my dog is suffering,” I told them, holding back tears. Then I let the tears flow. I loved Doe so much as to be ashamed of crying for him. Doe was by my side. Both men saw what I meant. Doe’s whimpers were loud enough for a stone deaf to hear. Doe scanned the ground nervously. I swallowed hard as I watched his slumped shoulders. Old Bobo who never displayed any emotion was touched. His moustache twitched nervously.
“But you know you can’t take him with you,” he said after his twitching had subsided. It seemed as if Doe had heard the ugly verdict. Painful whimpers escaped from him. “But don’t worry,” old Bobo consoled me. “I’ll make sure he is well taken care of.”
“Are you sure, Bossman?” I cried.
“I am sure he will look after your dog well,” Mr. Stevenson said kindly.
“Doe doesn’t like bulgur wheat at all at all,” I explained amidst tears, which were blinding me now.
“I’ll give him whatever he likes best,” old Bobo assured me.
Though I didn’t trust old Bobo to take good care of Doe, there was nothing I could do but pray that he at least showed my poor dog the littlest consideration; that he didn’t use his stick on him. I bundled my Doe away as both old Bobo and Mr. Stevenson watched.
At about eight o’clock when the bell of the Catholic Church a kilometre or so away began to peal for the second mass, our journey back home commenced. I was the last to board. I wanted to spend as much time as I could with Doe, rubbing his head. But the hour of reckoning finally came. Doe didn’t struggle to enter the bus. When old Bobo barred the door with a stick after I got in with my back, a low whine escaped him. Not wishing to lose sight of me, he marched a few paces backwards, his eyes searching mine, questioning; his whole body quivering. Sitting down, he began wagging his stump of a tail. The very trap that had amputated his right leg had left him with a stump for a tail. He wagged his stump slowly at first and then madly as the bus began to inch away. Then as the bus gained speed, Doe began chasing; limping and limping and limping. It was the race of his life. It was so much of an effort to keep from stumbling. Then he stumbled, burying his head in the dust; his legs C.Y.cling in the air as he involuntarily kept chasing. I sank my head in my hands. Some of my fellow returnees sobbed too. So, they too had secretly loved Doe, I thought. Solo and I could have let them play with him more often than we allowed. But it was too late now.
I thought, Would Doe ever go back to that camp? Perhaps my going would give him the chance to pursue his own life. I hoped he found himself a lovely mate. But I didn’t see how. With his disabilities, he couldn’t compete; with his disabilities he didn’t stand a chance in hell in the world of animals where ‘unconditional love’ and ‘love by pity’ did not exist. But he was a lovely creature: thick, dirty brown fur, shrunken right leg, stumped tail and all.
I sat next to Justice Mamburay. Justice Mamburay was my age, seventeen. He had said, “If they don’t call my name next time, I will kill myself.” That was at the last name calling three months ago when old Bobo read out the names of those to be repatriated and his name wasn’t there. After we had driven for several hours and thoughts of Doe had receded from most minds, I let my hand drop lightly on his shoulder. He turned and smiled at me, shyly. I could see that he was embarrassed, but relieved to be still alive.
I had appreciated Justice’s point of view, but hadn’t particularly subscribed to it. I wasn’t going to commit suicide or do anything as stupid. I had spent all these years in a refugee camp trying to stay alive. In the hope that one day, I would be re-united with my family. I was hungry to find out about my Uncle Mel. Shrapnel from an exploding grenade had stuck into his thigh and he was bleeding. It was the peak of the dry season. We had gone for a mid-day swim at a nearby stream when the rebels struck. Did he make it to safety after urging me on with shouts of, ‘Go on C.Y..’
I wanted to hug again my little sister, Dupsey, three years old then. Nine years had gone by since! She would be a big girl now, a lady. I wanted to tell her certain things. Like how I loved her so much and would never desert her again. Like I did that afternoon when she begged to go with Uncle Mel and I to the stream and I had said a capital, ‘NO’ and she had kept crying and waving and shouting, ‘Good bye, good bye.’ It was believed that children were spirits and could commune with spirits. In her child / spirit’s eye, did she somehow know we were being separated, perhaps for good? This thought had plagued my mind over the years. I wanted to tell her how I had thought about her every single day since. I equally wanted to tell her about this disturbing dream I had been having repeatedly in recent months. In the dream, she wouldn’t let me play with her, crying instead, ‘Go away, go away. You don’t belong with me.’ Perhaps she was still angry with me for deserting her. I must ask her forgiveness. It would not be like my business with Solo where I couldn’t find time to say a simple ‘thank you’, for his friendship and his love after all these nine years.
As we rode along the bumpy highway to Conakry, I kept thinking, A year and six months. That is what it had taken for this ‘blessed Sunday’ to come for us. We had believed that by simply being photographed a year and half ago, we were on our way home. But we were wrong. For almost a year, nothing happened to ensure we went home; fresh fighting kept erupting in Liberia: today Lofa County, tomorrow Nimba County, the next day the border between Liberia and Ivory Coast. We continued to be refugees, residing in a camp in Nzerekore, a border town in Guinea Conakry.
All that waiting seemed to have been in another lifetime now.
Those photographs taken of us had been made into an album by the UNHCR and nailed at the Capitol in Monrovia. The public had been viewing them since. With the hope that some of us in this and other camps scattered around the boarder with Guinea, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast; and even as far as Ghana and Mali would be spotted by those still alive amongst our relatives. If you were lucky to be spotted, you went home. Otherwise, you continued to reside in the camp. We had left hundreds who have not been identified still at the camp. Perhaps some would remain there forever, given the brutality of our civil war.
Monday morning was for being counselled at the UNHCR in Conakry and resting off the fatigue of the long, arduous bus ride from Nzerekore. Tuesday morning we boarded a UN chartered flight.
Five hours into the journey, I felt emptiness in the pit of my stomach as the plane descended swiftly. Below was the city of Harbel. The sight before me was frightening. Everywhere I turned canopies and tents confronted me. With the inscribed UNHCR emblem easily visible on them even from the sky, they seemed to occupy every available space. What had happened to all the houses?
When the aeroplane’s door was thrown open, the blast of dry, hot wind couldn’t keep any of us from rushing outside. We were eager to embrace the Fatherland. There were temporary shacks everywhere. The only semblances of solid buildings were ripped apart in places. Numerous bullet holes riddled their walls, making ugly zigzag patterns. Lizards wriggled in and out of the holes.
The immigration officers who welcomed us were a sharp contrast to their confident, happy, well-dressed counterparts in Conakry. These ones were clothed in misery.
I may have been terribly shocked at the destruction in the airport of Harbel. But there are no adequate words to explain how I felt, or what I saw as we entered Monrovia. Whatever I am able to say in these few written words is just a tip of the despair that met my eyes. Even the most gifted photographer would fail to capture it all on film!
Inch after inch of the city had been crushed. Houses had been gutted down by fire and blown away with bombs and rocket propelled grenades. People crawled out of tents to cheer us: children with protruding stomachs and thin legs evident of kwashiorkor; adults with sunken eyes, bony skulls and wrinkled, scaly skins. They all waved at us enthusiastically, with what strength they had. Compared to the Monrovia I had fled from, this was a living nightmare, a scene from hell! As we approached our destination, I couldn’t help but say a silent prayer:
“Dear God, may Liberia never experience another war again.
No relatives awaited us at the UNHCR headquarters when we arrived around two o’clock. No announcement of our arrival had been made in order to avoid all the tension and commotion associated with the arrival of returning refugees, especially children and teenagers.
We rested and were given some light refreshment. Around four o’clock when the heat of the blazing, Monrovian sun had subsided, our reunification with our families began. For about fifteen minutes, we kept cruising. When the vehicle went past the magnificent Colonel Muammar Gaddafi building in Sinkor, I could hardly recognise it. It was a pitiable mass of injured bricks and all. It must have burnt for days, for every inch of it was covered with soot. Only the skeletal framework remained as evidence that such a wonderful building had ever existed. My mind went back to the good old days when I used to ride on its fine lift with my sisters and brother and Uncle Mel.
“Bossman?” I answered, coming back to reality.
I stared at the official accompanying us.
“You’ll go first.”
“But Bossman, we live in Paynesville,” I protested, “not Sinkor.”
“Your folks have relocated to Sinkor now.”
I had the sudden urge to urinate. The van turned into a side street after the Monrovia City Hall, now a mass of fallen bricks and all, a caricature of its former imposing self. It was a dusty street filled with potholes.
And then I noticed the crowd in front of a house further down. As we got closer, I saw that like the other houses we had passed, an explosion had blown off its roof. In its place was a UNHCR white tarpaulin, secured in places by bricks and sticks. The same tarpaulins covered the doors and windows, serving as curtains. Already, there was a UNHCR jeep in front of the house. An advance team had come to meet my family, and to prepare them for my homecoming.
I strained my neck as I made my way out of the van. And then I saw her. She had shrunk in size, like meat after passing through a roaring flame. She wore a yellow blouse. A blue, threadbare wrapper secured her waist. I stared at her face. It was the face of an ugly, old woman that stared back. However, in those shining, eyes filled with gratitude, and love, I still recognised my poor mother!
Standing beside her in an old, white, singlet and brown trousers was my father. Seeing me step down from the van, he pretended to be smiling, even though tears were streaming from his wrinkled eyes.
“Mr. Trueman, be ashamed of yourself,” one of the advance team of UNHCR officials rebuked. “This isn’t the way to receive your son after all these years. I thought we had agreed there would be nothing like this.”
My father nodded, meaning that he too thought that the original arrangement was that there would be nothing like shedding of tears.
“Mr. Trueman, be happy to see your son.”
“You should all be smiling.”
“He is alive.”
“Stop this, madam. Be happy.”
“We’re happy,” my father, amidst tears told the UN officials who were by now clearly annoyed at the morbid shape an otherwise simple process was assuming.
“I’m smiling,” my mother choked, revealing all her teeth as she tried to prove she was smiling. Two front lower teeth were missing. I sighed. My once, beautiful mother!
A thin boy and an equally thin girl were lurking in my parent’s shadows. Suddenly, they sprang forward, as our eyes met.
“Our C.Y., our C.Y.,” they yelled at the same time, hugging me. Unlike my brother and sister who rushed to hug me, my parents simply beheld me.
“Our C.Y., mi name Olla,” my sister said in our Liberian style English.
“Mi name Josiah,” my brother said, as if on cue.
I was blank. Or so it seemed, for Josiah suddenly asked:
“You can’t remember we?”
I choked as I told him I remembered them all right. But something wasn’t quite right. I couldn’t see her. Could she have run a little errand for our mother? It would be just like her, ever so kind. She used to give away her meat and fish when we ate together those days when we were kids. I looked around for the girl I had always known with jet-black hair and round laughing eyes. Oh how I loved her. I swallowed hard, and it hurt so much. My throat was just too dry. The question I wanted to ask stuck in it. But I managed it all the same.
“Where… where is our Dupsey?”
The whole place became dead silent. As if a ghost had just strolled past. Some people looked into the far distance. Others stared down, embarrassed. Standing before me, my father bit his fingernails. Helplessly, my mother wiped a tear, which was quickly replaced by another and another and another. Someone blew his nose. Another cleared his throat. I searched faces. People averted their faces in haste.
“I can’t see her, our Dupsey,” I yelled at last, smashing the silence. “And our Uncle Mel too. He was wounded in the stream. Didn’t he come home?”
“Shift back, all of you,” a voice, which sounded familiar, said. “Give the boy some air.”
The crowd shuffled back just far enough to give the impression of shifting back. The muttering which commenced when I yelled for our Dupsey rose and fell in rhythm, like a death song. In the distance, a bicycle bell clanged.
“Look Cyprian,” the voice said again, firmly this time, as the owner stepped forward to take control. “Be patient. You will get all the answers later. I said give the boy some air.”
I was momentarily taken aback. Before me was Mr. Stevenson, every muscle in his fleshy face taut. What had happened to that smiling Mr. Stevenson, the one I used to know? This Mr. Stevenson was stern, even unfriendly. Gone were his sloppy manners; gone were his unsure demeanours; gone was his pasted smile. Then it struck me. Mr. Stevenson was the leader of the reunification team. He had been observing events calmly from a distance all these while. And had only been forced out when it appeared that his subordinates were messing up things. He looked mean, towering belligerently above his colleagues. I felt a shiver run through me. And suddenly I was angry with everyone and everything - Mr. Stevenson, his unprofessional colleagues, my beaten parents, my wasted life as a refugee, the senseless war, Solo’s absence, Doe’s predicament, everything.
“I want all the answers now,” I exploded, crumbling into my mother’s now outstretched arms. There in her bosom, I sobbed my heart out, for our Dupsey and our Uncle Mel.