Search of a Smoke
by Dilman Dila
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The G-Wagon C&R didn’t look menacing at all in spite of the machine gun on the roof, because they’d painted it white. It crawled along the dirt road like a starving dog. Paulo’s fingers drummed the steering wheel. His eyes couldn’t stay on the road. Instead, he searched the litter, the debris that decorated the countryside with mementos of thousands of refugees. His lips quivered. Sweat dripped from his chin. But the other two soldiers had dry faces. Macho the commander sat calmly on the passenger side, watching the road as carefully as if though he were the driver. Mugu stood behind the gun, alert.
Suddenly Paulo hit the breaks. Before his comrades had time to wonder what was happening, he jumped out and ran at top speed. Macho grabbed his rifle and Mugu swung the machine gun about, expecting trouble. But there was nothing. The road was empty. The grass and the trees stood still in the windless noon. The abandoned huts in the distance, some burnt and others still bearing scars of war, reminded them that they were alone. A crow yapped, its ugly voice startling the two soldiers in the car. They still saw nothing.
They turned back to Paulo, who had run off the road and was picking something from off the ground. When he turned back to the car they saw it was a cigarette pack.
But Paulo’s face showed no triumph. He sniffed at the empty box. For a moment the aroma seemed to lift his spirits, but then only intensified his frustration. He hurled the box onto the ground and stamped on it, burying it without having to dig a hole.
In the G-wagon, Macho put away his rifle and fished a bottle of peppery liquid out of his pocket. He took a sip, sighed and shook his head to clear the taste from his mouth. A dozen more sips and he’d be drunk.
Paulo stomped back to the car and kicked the African Union badge, the symbol that announced they were peacekeepers. What it didn’t say was that they were also pioneers and that their president was desperate to make the mission a success. He kicked the emblem a couple more times, then climbed back in the cab.
As the car started to crawl forward again, Macho took another sip of peppery liquid and offered the bottle to Paulo. Paulo tossed it out the window.
‘No!’ Macho yelled as he yanked the door open and ran back up the road for the bottle. Its contents were spilling into the dry dirt, already almost empty.
“This is the last drop I have!” he said in Swahili as he got back into the truck and screwed the cap back on the bottle. “The last!”
“Bastards!” Mugu the gunner said. “Why don’t they put drink and smoke in our supplies? Because they want us to be ‘disciplined’? The bastards!”
The car began to crawl along and Paulo continued to search the debris by the side of the road. They soon arrived at a deserted town. Most of the buildings had mud walls and rotting iron-sheet roofs. The shop doors stood open, revealing their emptiness. The only signs that humans once lived here were the bullet-riddled walls, the burnt buildings and the occasional gory cloth lying on the grassy pavement. Paulo stopped in front of a shop that had a Sportsman poster above the door.
“If there are cigarettes there,” Mugu said, “someone took them long ago.”
Still, Paulo trotted into the shop. The other two heard him rummaging about, throwing things as he did so, and heard his occasional shout of frustration. When he came out there was a cigarette butt between his lips. He fished a matchbox out of his pockets and lit it, but he couldn’t draw any smoke.
When he got back into the car, his hands were trembling worse than ever. Sweat made his uniform appear darker. His eyes had turned red as though with an infection.
“Can I drive?” Macho said. But there was no reply. The car shot forward, this time very fast.
A little way out of town the gunner shouted at Paulo to stop. Paulo hit the brakes and Mugu swung the machine gun towards a footpath fifty meters off the road where a soldier was talking to an armed man in civilian clothes. Both carried AK47s. The civilian was leaning against a bicycle with a big cardboard box strapped to its carrier. The two men stared back at the vehicle, then the soldier gave a hesitant wave.
“That’s Sergeant Musa,” Mugu said. “What’s he doing here?”
“I think the other one is a trader,” Macho said. “But he’s with one of the warlords.”
The sergeant waved again, then resumed talking to the other man, who didn’t seem so eager now to continue negotiating and kept glancing at the soldiers in the truck. The sergeant smiled and waved more vigorously until Mugu returned the greeting. But the trader was still shaking his head in the negative.
Musa dipped into his pocket and fished out a bag of coins. But the trader again shook his head and threw something back into the big box. The men in the G-Wagon only caught a glimpse, but they recognized it immediately as a packet of cigarettes. Paulo grabbed his gun and dived out of the car.
The trader jumped onto his bicycle. The sergeant was still talking rapidly to the trader while gesticulating at Paulo to get back into the truck, but the trader wasn’t listening. The handlebars in one hand and the AK-47 in the other, he started to peddle away.
Paulo raised his gun as the trader was gaining speed. A thin curtain of vegetation stood between him and the truck, but not enough to prevent Paulo from getting him in his sights. Just then trader glanced over his shoulder, saw what was about to happen and leapt off the bike. Paulo shot him in the head.
The blast seemed to echo forever. The ensuing silence was so profound that it seemed as if they’d all suddenly gone deaf. The trader’s body lay partly hidden in some bushes, only his legs visible from the road.
Sergeant Musa started toward the bushes, keeping his gun trained on the motionless form. Then Paulo ran toward the same objective. When the sergeant saw Paulo running, he ran too.
“Ya ya ya ya yeah,” Mugu called, still behind the machine gun, watching the two men race each other toward the fallen bicycle.
The sergeant got there first. Scarcely stopping, he snatched the cigarette pack that had fallen out of the cardboard box and sped past the corpse. Paulo reached it a couple seconds later and began rummaging frantically through the box. But he found no more cigarettes.
The sergeant was running hard now. Paulo raised his gun and fired twice. The sergeant disappeared into a small grove, of trees. Paulo followed.
The car radio crackled into life. “Patrol,” a voice said in Swahili. “Patrol. Reply.”
Macho hesitated until Mugu nodded encouragement, then crawled back into the cab. As he picked up the radio he realized his palms were wet. “Afande,” he stammered.
“We hear shots coming from beyond the town. Isn’t that where you are?”
Macho looked at Mugu, then towards the trees where Paulo and the sergeant had disappeared, their branches as still in the windless air as though nothing unusual had happened.
“We heard the shots too,” Macho said. Mugu hissed at him angrily, but Macho ignored the hiss and reached for the small bottle in his pockets.
“Go and check,” the voice ordered.
“Macho flipped off the radio and took a long swig from his bottle.
“What are you doing?” Mugu said, climbing down from his perch behind the gun. “Why are you dragging us into this? We didn’t tell Paulo to shoot anyone! Now if we don’t say what happened Sergeant Musa will tell afande what happened and then we shall all be in trouble!”
Macho took another swig, shook his head, drained what was left in the bottle and tossed it out of the window into the rest of the litter on the road. Mugu tried to pick up the radio, but Macho slapped his hand away.
“We have to report him!” Mugu insisted.
“No. If you want to end up in the same fix, I don’t. I won’t be cooked for this madness!”
Mugu tried to get out of the truck, but Macho grabbed him by the shoulder and pinned him against the G-Wagon. “I’m the commander here, and I make the decisions. He’s my friend. We’ve been through fire together. I won’t let him go down over a packet of cigarettes!”
Mugu saw the look in Macho’s eyes and stopped resisting. Macho let him go.
“Musa won’t talk,” Macho added in a calmer voice. “He is out of camp illegally. He made illegal contact with an armed local from one of the sides we came to keep apart. He has put us in a bad position because everyone would say we secretly take sides. So he won’t talk. Anyway,” he said, “there is only one patrol car, this one. We are the only ones who can investigate this matter. The colonel will accept whatever we say.”
Mugu climbed back behind his gun. Macho sat down on the bonnet, and they waited. The colonel in charge of the mission called them twice again and each time Macho said they couldn’t see anything, that they were still investigating.
Half an hour later Paulo reappeared,
drenched in sweat and his eyes so red you couldn’t see the pupils. He walked
over to the trader’s corpse and kicked it. Then he searched the box, but
still couldn’t find any cigarettes. He started to beat the corpse with
his rifle until he had turned the head to pulp and still went on hitting
it until Macho and Mugu restrained him.
Their shift ended an hour later. They returned to camp just as a fire-fight was starting, with AK47s, machine guns and RPGs erupting at the other end of the camp. Soldiers were running in all directions and armored vehicles, painted a benign white, were roaring into life.
The colonel quickly assessed the strength of the attack and decided some of his men could go back to their dinners while others fought off the attackers. Macho, Paulo and Mugu sauntered over to the lunch tree to get their meals, then sat down on the grass with scores of other soldiers holding platters full of posho and beans on their laps. The fighting only lasted a short time, but when the colonel returned to the camp he was upset.
He walked straight towards Macho and his comrades. “I’ve spoken with Karim,” he said. “He says his men attacked us because our people shot one of his men near the town.” The three soldiers looked at one another as if surprised to hear this bit of news. “Did you see anything?”
“No, afande,” Macho said. “We found nothing. Not even a corpse. Maybe they shot their own man and are using it as an excuse to attack us.”
The colonel stared hard at him, chewing on his lip. “I’ll talk to you three later.”
When the colonel was out of sight Paulo grabbed his gun. “I’m going to look for Musa,” he said and ran towards the fighting. Macho and Mugu watched him run off, then grabbed their own guns and followed.
Paulo stopped to talk to a soldier driving a cart containing four wounded. The soldier nodded and pointed in the direction Paulo was already headed.
At the edge of the camp where Karim’s men had struck, about a dozen soldiers were re-erecting the barbed-wire fence. The fighting had meanwhile moved down the hill towards a valley through which a small river ran. Macho and Mugu spotted Paulo diving through some tall bushes and followed.
When Paulo reached the bridge over the narrow riverbed, some other soldiers crouched behind the trees and rocks motioned to him to get down. He did, moving towards the big rock behind which they were gathered.
The front was silent save for the buzz of insects and the hiss of muddy grey river flowing calmly between the two forces, observing an unannounced ceasefire. The afternoon sun was getting hot.
“Where is Sergeant Musa?” Paolo asked the soldiers.
“You are not supposed to be here,” a lieutenant replied. “What do you want Musa for?”
“He has something of mine.”
The lieutenant pointed towards the river where there lay three dead peacekeepers. The first lay half way across the bridge, shot in the head. The other two lay near the bank, both shot in the back. One was only ten meters away, the corpse lying partly on the bridge and partly on the dirt road. It was Musa’s.
Macho and Mugu joined Paulo behind the rock. “You men are not supposed to be here,” the lieutenant said again.
“Yes, sir” Mugu replied, then turned to Paulo. “Have you seen him?”
Paulo kept looking at the dead sergeant, his blood making a puddle on the road.
“Let’s go back,” Macho said.
Paulo didn’t respond, his eyes fixed on the dead man.
“I’m in charge here,” the lieutenant said. “You have to tell me what you three want or else you’d better get lost.”
“Let’s go,” Mugu urges. “He’s dead.”
But Paulo could not be distracted from the corpse. He rose to a crouching position as if preparing to make a dash towards the bridge.
“No!” the lieutenant barked. “We are peacekeepers! We only shoot when shot at! If you go out there Karim’s men will take it as a provocation!”
But before anyone could stop him, Paulo had darted away from the rock and was running straight for the bridge. “No!” the lieutenant shouted, but by then Karim’s men had already opened fire.
Somehow Paulo made it to the prostrate body unhit and began searching the dead man’s pockets. Bullets struck the ground all around him, throwing up little clouds of dust. Some hit the corpse. The peacekeepers returned fire.
At last he found the cigarettes. He might even have made it back to safety of the big rock, but at the last moment a bullet hit him in the center of the head. He crashed face downwards beside his crouching comrades, making them all start as if someone had pinched them.
His fingers relaxed, releasing the cigarettes, the packet crumpled and soaked in blood. The lieutenant looked on in bewilderment. Macho stared at his dead comrade in disbelief.
Karim’s men stopped shooting, so the peacekeepers had no reason to shoot back. Silence returned to the river.
(Dila Dilman loves penning multi-genre
stories, especially those about the dark side of humanity. His short works
have appeared in local newspapers and a number of online magazines and
book anthologies. In 2006, he participated in Mira Nair's Maisha Film Lab,
and directed his first short film later that year.)