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Rachel's Hero 

A Story

By Henry Chukwuemeka Onyema (Nigeria)

 

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That Monday was a historical day for Bright Omoregbe, the thirty-four year old History and Government teacher at Rachel’s Academy, one of the most  exclusive private secondary schools in Festac, Lagos. It was a beautiful day: the air was refreshingly cool, the sky a deep azure. When the sun woke up it was enchantingly white. Its heat blended agreeably with the breeze. But the harmonious combination of the elements did nothing to get rid of the deep foreboding that the teacher had felt since he woke up.

As he prepared for work, Bright wondered what was eating him up so early in the day. He had phoned his mother yesterday; she was all right if you discounted the occasional acting-up of her blood pressure. His sisters, Essie and Jane were having a ball with their husbands. So why was he so disturbed this morning?

Yewande noticed his subdued mien at the breakfast table and raised her eyebrows questioningly. ‘‘What is it, Potbelly?’’ he asked, nodding at her six-month pregnancy.

‘‘Ask me. You look like you swallowed a bee. I have been watching you since you got out of bed.’’

Bright smiled. You could never hide anything from a woman, especially if she was this petite thirty-year old Yoruba lawyer who had ensnared his heart two years ago.

‘‘No cause for alarm, darling.’’

‘‘Sure?’’

‘‘Sure.’’

Yewande’s midnight-coloured eyes were concerned laser beams. ‘‘Don’t lie. You are worried.’’

 Bright shrugged-there was no point. ‘‘Can’t tell, honey. I just have a feeling, no, a strong sense that something real bad is going to happen. Where and to whom, I have no idea.’’

Yewande looked at him searchingly. ‘‘All is well, Bright. God is in control, so brighten up.’’ Though she had hooked up with a nominal Anglican, she had not abandoned her dye-in-the-wool Pentecostalism. She forsook her chair for her husband’s lap.

‘‘Easy, girl, you are now a heavyweight.’’ She smiled and kissed his nose. ‘‘Hold my right hand.’’ He obeyed. She said a short, heaven-piercing prayer. Bright’s ‘Amen’ was firm. He got up, looking considerably heartened.

At the door Yewande kissed him so passionately that a sweet throbbing awoke in his trousers. ‘‘Watch it or that guy in there will have a sibling before he comes out,’’ he said when she released him.

‘‘Bad boy,’’ she laughed and shooed him out.

Bright was at ease as he went about his duties. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that his heavy teaching schedule prevented him from paying attention to the foreboding now tucked away in his subconscious.

It was break-time. Bright put away the textbook he was using to prepare notes for the History students in SS2 and got to his feet.

‘‘Canteen?’’ asked Obi, the French teacher.

‘‘But your wife gave you breakfast,’’ bantered Enitan, the Yoruba teacher. The three of them shared an office on the second floor.

Before Bright could answer,, an earth-shattering explosion shook the building to its foundation. Two others followed in rapid succession, hurling them to the floor. Enitan cried out.

The sense of foreboding suddenly left Bright, replaced by an unexplained, icy calm. He stared at his shaken colleagues.

‘‘What was that?’’ whispered Obi.

Before anyone could reply automatic gunfire filled the air. Right in the school compound! Cries and confused running! Smashing cutlery and equipment! The dining-hall reverberated with heavy blasts of steel-jacketed death. A brave soul hit the school alarm system, but sudden volleys cut short its wail.

‘‘Jesus!’’ cried Enitan.

Bright turned to Obi. His tone was calm and urgent. ‘‘Take care of Enitan! Get out through the fire escape if you can. Call 767.’’ This was the new Lagos State emergency call code.

Before his astonished colleagues could ask him what he was up to the ex-Nigerian army corporal was already moving. The shots were steady, deadly and getting closer. Bright crawled to the door, saw nobody, and took off at a grim speed. He had to make it down the fire escape to the dining-hall. The hall was vast, and almost all the one thousand students regularly turned up for the meals. Whoever had launched this madness could wipe out three-quarters of the student population if they kept up their onslaught.

Bright was on a war footing as he ran. He pulled out his mobile phone and punched numbers feverishly. Before he could connect with the local mobile police unit commander   who was his wife’s cousin, the vice-principal in charge of administration called.

‘‘Sir?’’

‘‘Get the children who are not in the hall out! These lunatics have the school surrounded!’’ Mr. Wahab, normally unflappable, sounded like he was face-to-face with Satan.

Before Bright could reply, a blistering hail echoed over the phone. A shiver ran down his spine. The teacher continued moving, firmly fighting a sudden daze brought by the realization that he would never see the ace educational administrator alive again.

An overwhelming panic nearly broke through his defences. He had never been in a combat situation, even during his two-year stint in the army. But somehow the walls did not collapse.

Pulsating automatic weapons fire heralded running footsteps coming up the escape. He threw himself backwards and rolled, looking desperately for cover.

There were two gunmen, clad in black from head to toe, including masks. In their hands were rapid-firing 9mm Uzi submachine guns. Crisscrossed across the front of their bodies were bandoliers brimming with bullets and bombs. Their fire was relentless.

Bright knew that unless he could dive into one of the classrooms or the staffroom he had just vacated, he would become yesterday’s news. Without warning, Uzis began roaring up the staircase on the opposite end of the passage.

‘‘Oghene!’’ he gasped.

 As one of the killers swung his weapon at the teacher, Bright went headfirst through the glass window of the nearest classroom. He dared not think of anyone or anything but survival at that moment. This was a war zone, and not even what sounded like screams from the staffroom could tear him from his war footing.

While the taller gunman went for the rooms to the left, shooting wildly into each, his partners from the staircase split up. The shorter man swung his Uzi at the doorway of Bright’s hiding-place and raked it with bullets. As he fired in a wild scythe, screaming in an incomprehensible tongue, the teacher dived, rolled,and crashed into and under desks and chairs. He ignored the sting of steel in his shoulder and a graze to the right side of his face as he sought safety.

A long, sharp-nosed pointer leant against the far wall. Bright knew he just had to reach it but the Uzi stopped him. As if Ares was on his side, the gun ceased abruptly. The gunman feverishly reached for a fresh magazine, still screaming bloodcurdling gibberish.

He never made it. Bright dived for the pointer and hurled it like a practised javelin-thrower as the man jammed in his magazine. The sharp point was on target as it pierced his chest. Even as he screamed in pain, Bright was already on his feet. He grabbed the Uzi and caught the body before it fell on him. At that moment the taller hit man appeared. Both men fired simultaneously. Bright’s bullet caught the killer in the chest. The hit man barely missed taking off the top of Bright’s head.

Thanking God that the school strictly enforced the rule that students should vacate the classrooms during break, Bright grabbed the fallen man’s gun and peeked out what remained of the door. The other pair of gunmen had obviously satisfied themselves that there was no more prey left for them.

Well, almost. Bright’s heart nearly fell out of his chest as he saw the bullet-blasted staff room door. He knew, even as he prayed he be proven wrong, that Obi and Enitan were there.

Bright entered the staff room. He stopped short at the sight of the carnage.

Obi was half-lying on Enitan. Clearly he had tried to shield her. Half of his head was gone. Enitan was flat on her back, her chest a bloody mess. Her open eyes screamed incomprehension and terror.

Against his will, Bright’s eyes filled with tears. He squatted and closed Enitan’s eyes. This was no time to mourn; the butchery was still on, and if the other gunmen discovered that someone was fighting back, the situation would become even bloodier. He ran down the fire escape.

The mysterious attackers were systematic, thorough and merciless. Having gained entrance they spread out, firing Uzis and throwing grenades. The dining-hall was attacked by a handpicked detachment. Others spread out through the vast school block. They were rather too few for the mission at hand, but they compensated for the paucity of numbers with a stony purposefulness and an apparently unlimited quantity of ammunition and grenades. They did not hide their presence; indeed the detachment at the gate fired into the street to warn people off.

The school proprietor, Dr. Maxi Oku, was shot out of hand as his Lexus rounded the corner to the school entrance. He had been caught up in the traffic when his principal sent him a text that made absolutely no sense. He was sufficiently frightened to place an urgent call to his friend, the Lagos state commissioner of police. Since he could not turn back in the snarl, he decided to drive on to the school. It was a stupidly brave decision by a man who loved his staff and students with the last fibre of his bulky being. The unfortunate principal, Mr. Annago, was blown up by a grenade as he was placing a call to the local divisional police officer.

During the nightmare, a few students and staff displayed hitherto unknown courage. Nixon Chibuzor, SS3’s arch-rebel, proved that his maverick nature was a blessing. He was sulking behind the dining-hall when Lucifer relocated from hell. Even as a bullet hit him in the arm he grabbed a fear-paralyzed junior student who was out in the open and sought the back-way, off limits to students, through which one could leave the school. He succeeded.

The head girl, Amina Abubakar, proved herself worthy of her post. She was in the Food and Nutrition room with two mates and the subject teacher, Miss Teni Owa, doing a practical when the mayhem began. Amina pushed her friends into the pantry and locked the door. As she joined Teni, who was frantically pushing her phone buttons, three men rushed in, guns blazing. Teni was killed instantly while Amina fainted in a pool of her blood. The men retreated, believing they had taken out everyone in the room.

Cordite and blood filled the air. Rachel’s eyes overflowed across the centuries as she mourned for her children, this time not in Ramah, Israel, but in Lagos, Nigeria.

Bright did not hear any gunfire as he turned into the side passage that connected the ground floor to the dining-hall. He feared the worst. He had seen harrowing evidence of  tears, sorrow and blood.

As he rounded the passage he heard a single shot. Then another. Then another. Yet another. A scream was cut short by another crack. God, they are mopping up, he thought. A maddening impulse to charge in nearly took over. He stifled it as he paused a few feet from the door, out of sight.

A guard stood there. Beyond him were six black-clad men, pacing the blood-soaked hall, pausing in the middle of the destroyed cutlery and bullet-riddled bodies to fire at anyone who showed a semblance of life. A guard manned each of the two entrance doors. Volleys still ripped the air outside to pieces. Occasionally a grenade exploded.

Bright took a deep breath, and then rushed in firing both Uzis at full automatic. His guns moved systematically, like well aimed garden hoses. To an untrained eye it was a mindless waltz, but at that moment Bright’s mind was full of the instructions he had imbibed as a raw recruit in the sun-baked plains of Yobe from the battle-hardened Lieutenant Ailerons and Sergeant Okonkwo.

The guard never knew what direction the bullet that shattered his spine came from. His colleagues were also totally surprised. The closest one of them got to Bright was shooting an inaccurately aimed revolver once before a hail of 9mm bullets ripped open his throat. The ex-soldier was relentless till all of them were permanently down and out.

He knew he just had to get help; he could not do anything for the survivors. He tried his phone again and got the mobile police unit commander.Olayeni’s voice nearly burst his eardrum. ‘‘What is going on in that school of yours?’’

Bright’s tone belied his emotions. ‘‘I don’t know. Bring all you have, including the army. Now. Before we are all wiped out. Now.’’ He cut the line and at that moment his eye fell on a boy sprawled across a table, his shredded flesh mingling with a plate of rice and beef.

‘‘Ndem?’’ Ndem Henshaw was one of his students in SS1. His eyes were open in shock, his body drenched in blood. But he was alive. Bright squatted beside him, feeling helpless.

‘‘Sir… call Dad….’’ The boy was gasping.

There was a sound behind the teacher. Bright swung round like a cornered cat, flat on the floor, guns at the ready. It was Eze Chukwudi, the sports prefect and an active member of the school’s Red Cross society. Eze’s eyes bulged as he saw the gun-toting, grim-eyed man with the face of his teacher.

‘‘I am not one of them,’’ Bright reassured him quickly. He gave him his phone. ‘‘Call the last dialed number and anyone else you can think of. We have to save ourselves. Can you take care of Ndem?’’

‘‘I will do my best, sir.’’ Eze fought back his tears.

‘‘See if there are other survivors. I will check out the sickbay.’’ The matron, Grace Mac Dee, was badly needed-if was still alive.

‘‘What if they come back?’’

‘‘Escape upstairs to my office as soon as you can. They may not likely attack there again,’’ reassured Bright. He fondled the boy’s trembling cheek, crab-walked to one of the entrance doors and darted his eyes in a sweeping glance. Satisfied, he set off at a grim pace. Perhaps my saving grace is that I am using their weapons; they may think I am one of them, he hoped. But it was not a gamble he wanted to rely on.

The sickbay was in shambles. Four men had burst in and opened fire. They gunned down two students being attended to by the American-Irish matron and badly wounded a teacher and a cleaner. Mac Dee was miraculously unhurt. Satisfied with their handwork, the killers moved on.

As the softly weeping, gray-haired nurse struggled out from under the tangle of equipment that had shielded her, she surveyed the carnage. She was a hardcore professional who had spent the 1960s and 70s in the Middle East. So she got a grip on her emotions, dragged in the corpses and got to work on the living.

As she was putting a bandage on Folake after ascertaining that the Chemistry teacher, Joe Idu, was beyond help what remained of the door flung inwards with a wrenching force. A scream escaped her lips as her eyes locked with the business end of an Uzi.

‘‘It is me!’’ Bright’s trigger finger held at the last moment.

Mac Dee’s eyes dilated with shock. ‘‘I am not with them, Ma. Had to save some of the kids. The dining-hall….’’He took a deep breath

The old nurse waved at the guns in his hands. ‘‘Were you taught to use them at the university?’’

In spite of himself Bright smiled.  ‘‘I was a soldier before going there.’’

‘‘Thank God!’’ Mac Dee glanced at the visibly frightened Folake. ‘‘I can’t leave her. Have you called the police?’’

‘‘Yes. Fola comes with us.’’

Suddenly police sirens ripped the air with their throaty wails. Folake breathed a prayer of thanks.

But the gunmen also heard the sound and they were not amused. The team at the gate opened point-blank fire at the numerically stronger mobile police officers and army units, and the world burst apart at the seams.

As Bright kept guard while Mac Dee, assisted by Eze, struggled to save some lives in the hall, a pair of wild-eyed gunmen burst in from the side entrance the teacher had used much earlier.

Competent though he was, Bright was only one man. At the sound of the charging footsteps, Eze screamed. His yell was cut short by a volley of bullets, of which three slammed into Bright’s side with the force of an elephant’s kick. He landed hard on his buttocks against an upturned table, dropping one of the Uzis. One of the men promptly dispatched Folake and rapidly tracked the cover-seeking Mac Dee.

With his last ounce of strength Bright opened fire with the remaining Uzi. Both men went down in a deluge of high-velocity steel.

Mac Dee was crying hysterically as she rushed over to the fallen teacher. ‘‘Bright…’’ Tears rinsed her lined face.

Bright’s lips formed words that could not come out. He died with a vision of Yewande carrying their baby.

The police and army units wiped out the hard-fighting group. Three prisoners were captured and from them a shocked world learnt that the gunmen were surviving cells of the dreaded Boko Haram sect who had vowed revenge after their insurrection was put down in Northern Nigeria. They had sworn to take their war against westernization to Southern Nigeria. Where else was most befitting for a strike than a school in Lagos?

Yewande went into labour as soon as she got the news. But God was merciful; both mother and baby survived. Bright’s mother was not so fortunate; she had a fatal heart attack as soon she learnt that her son was gone for good.

The Nigerian government honoured Bright. They took over the upkeep of his family. Today, at Apple Junction, Festac, stands the statue of the heroic teacher.

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