1. From the village
“Kosisochukwu my son!” Ozioma called repeatedly as she ran along a slightly dangling narrow bamboo bridge towards a building at the fringe of Udi village. It was a small building constructed on the top of a creek that had been rendered lifeless by oil spillage; nearby rivers and streams where they once drank from were equally useless. There were other similar buildings above the creek and they were all constructed with split tree trunks, old planks, and bamboo trees. Important men, of course, did not have roofs of raffia leaves, for they could afford old corrugated sheets to roof their houses. It didn’t matter whether there were perforations in the metal left by nails from the original buildings.
These buildings were linked to one another by bamboo bridges. The people were careful to rebuild them at least once a year after harmattan seasons, which dried up and made brittle the wild creepers with which the bamboo logs were bound. These bridges were not stable, and there had been occasions when someone had slipped off and landed into the water. But such occasions only provoked hearty laughter instead of pity. In fact, the villagers considered themselves fish ‘that can never be drowned’, for as far as they could remember, only a toddler had succumbed to such a fate. It had been her mother’s fault, though. She had forgotten to close the opening where they pass out feces, urine and other rubbish into the water, and left to check what she was cooking in the kitchen. When she returned to the room, the child was missing. The mother realised she had not only left the hole open but also the door to the restroom. The lifeless child was picked from the bed of the black creek.
“Kosisochukwu my son please leave immediately before they get here!” Kosi heard her mother’s voice and rushed out of the building to the veranda. He was bare-chested with only a very tight short on, his India hemp sticking out and smoking between his dark lips.
“Mama, what is the problem!” he called. By now Aisosa was standing at the door post, leaning lazily on the left frame.
“Run! Run! Police. Your brother has been…” A gunshot was heard and Ozioma dropped dead on the bridge. Aisosa yelled and wanted to rush to Ozioma’s aid, but Kosi caught her wrist just in time and dragged her into the building. Before long, three heavily armed police men were running towards the house. One stopped by Ozioma’s corpse and pushed it into the creek with his boot.
“Level the house. Fire!” shouted one of them, obviously their leader. Bullets perforated the building until it caught fire and burned to the ground.
“Any need to check for their corpses?” asked the policeman who had pushed Ozioma into the creek.
“No,” the police chief replied. “They’re obviously dead.”
Kosi had dropped into the creek with Aisosa through the building’s shithole before the shooting began. It was a narrow escape though, for a bullet had nearly hit his head. He had tilted his head to peep through a crack when the first shot sounded. The bullet smashed a mirror behind him. They vanished undetected in the water under cover of noise and commotion; Aisosa had even let out a loud cry when her ankle hit one of the poles that supported the building. They escaped through a trench which Kosi had deliberately dug and hidden in between hedges for occasions such as these, gunshots echoing in their minds. He covered Aisosa’s mouth with his right palm and then lowered her into the trench.
A week earlier, a white man who worked with one of the oil companies in that region had been kidnapped, and the kidnappers demanded a hundred million naira ransom which the company was unable to pay because government had recently criminalized ransom payment. The militia group gave a one day ultimatum which elapsed without the company or the government doing anything to that effect. Mr Richard Anderson was promptly executed. To spite the government, the militia group filmed the atrocity and released the video. The militia leader was heard in the video saying:
“You cannot deny us food and expect us to let you eat in peace. You have killed our fish and our fishermen can no longer survive. You have turned our waters into poison with your oil and rendered our farmland barren. You have deliberately starved our children for generations, and you tell us to go to hell when we protest with placards and helpless songs and chants. This time we will protest with guns and bullets and knives and monstrosity, and nothing will stop us. So go ahead and criminalize ransom and watch us answer you with more blood and death and vandalism.”
As expected, the government responded by sending heavily armed police to the village with a special order to kill on sight. They arrived at the village with saboteurs and collaborators, those who feed fat off the misfortune of others. Names of militant leaders were mentioned, and Kosi was one of them.
Although Kosi was a leader of a militant group, he was not part of the group that killed Mr Richard Anderson. In fact, he learned about this after the attack on his house. His only brother was shot in the head by the police that humid morning when they had reached his home. When the police discovered their mistake, they pursued Ozioma, whom they saw escaping through the back door.
Later, Kosi’s second-in-command calmly laid the facts before him, and in addition added the name of the chief betrayer. His name was Chief Amayenabor. Chief Amayenabor lived in a luxury mansion in the best part of the town, two or three miles from the creek.
Kosi puffed his weed, and listened to his second-in-command in their hideout. It was a bunker, squeezed between the trench that led to his house on one side and a mosquito-infested swamp on the other. Air and rays of light entered the tunnel through a square opening in the roof. There was silence as the story was told, and puff after puff rose through the dim air. In the end Kosi stood up abruptly, dipped his left hand into his trouser’s left pocket and brought out a pill, a tramadol tablet. Two 500mg pills were placed on Kosi’s tongue. He dipped his right hand in the other pocket and brought out a small bottle of codein, a cough syrup, opened it, filled his mouth and swallowed.
“Target!” he shouted as though the startled Target wasn’t sitting at his left side.
“Chairman!” Target answered, leaping to his feet. “I dey your side chairman,” he added, drawing heavily from his smoldering weed.
“Correct!” Kosi replied. “E no go better for chief!” he added.
“E no go better for chief!” said Target, as Kosi extended the pack of pills to him.
” Ready the confirms, put plenty groundnut seed for inside and carry others follow body,” Kosi instructed.
“Confirm. At your command Chairman,” Target said.
“Government!” Kosi yelled, and the Second-in-Command rose to his feet.
“Chairman,” he answered, his weed hanging from his lips, smoke oozing from his nostrils. “I be your loyal boy. Command me.”
“Chief go fall today.”
“I hear you, Chairman.”
“Get the other boys ready at once! We’re out of here,” Kosi said and marched into the jungle.
They went by boat in the night. Before dawn Chief Amayenabor was missing and three of his personal security personnel were confirmed dead. Two days later, his head was found hanging on a stake before government house, and three days after this his headless body floated down the creek.
The killing of a high government official like chief Amayenabor was an assault on the government, an unpardonable offence, according to the 9:00pm Newscaster on NTA. The government was determined to crush the riff-raff and have normalcy in the region. That day, the Inspector General of Police deployed twenty-four police officers from the dreaded Special Anti-Crime Squad unit to the village. This time they were to intensify their operations.
Unfortunately, these men were met with a kind of fierce resistance they never envisaged, and during one of the gun battles which had lasted for the whole night, twenty-one out of the twenty-four police men were killed. The three who made it out of the village that night didn’t do so unharmed, for one of them later died in a general hospital at Abuja where they were all hospitalized. The militants counted only lesser casualties, and this infuriated the authorities even more.
For three weeks, there was a news blackout, nothing was mentioned publicly. It was as though normalcy had truly returned, and the militants halted their operations. Then one night, the whole village was awoken by the sound of jets piercing the heavens. A sudden blast from one dead end of the village shook buildings, and brought others to the ground. The village was under siege, and screams and cries of women and children rose to the moonlit sky. Beneath the bombs, helter-skelter through a hail of bullets, villagers ran in all directions.
Some made their way over the bamboo bridges to nearby bushes, and were cut down with machetes by soldiers. That night, two thousand five hundred villagers died. Kosi, Aisosa and his militant group were in their bunker when the noise reached them. From their position of safety, Kosi escaped to Benin City where he met Omos and Efe, and planned to travel out of Nigeria. He was a wanted man in Nigeria, and had to flee for his life. Omos, on the other hand, wanted to leave the country because there were no jobs for him, not even with his university degree, ten years of training as a mechanical engineer. Efe’s reason for leaving was not clear.
2. Across the sea
“Omos!” Kosi shouted from the sinking edge of the deflating balloon boat. There were over a hundred of them stuffed in this bloating object and that was probably why it deflated too soon, and it happened far from shore. “If you survive this please don’t tell Aisosa that I am dead! Tell her that I shall return to marry her! Tell her to name our child Ozoemela!”
That was Kosi’s last words before the next wave knocked him off the balloon. In his Igbo ethnic group, name must be significant, for it was beyond a mere means of identification. Names to the Igbos were marks that followed children from the spirit world, and most times the living knew about them even before the children were birthed. So a name must represent at least an event, and it didn’t matter whether it was good or bad- as long as it highlighted and emphasized something; if he must be called Bush, then his mother must birth him in the bush.
Ozoemela is a name with a deep meaning, filled with pity and grief. It pleads for another, Ozo, not to happen again. Some things should never be repeated. Many in this makeshift boat ended their journey on the sea bed, those who could not swim, or those who were caught up by rolling waves as the boat capsized, and currents drove them apart. Those born near rivers and creeks kept themselves afloat for a very long time, and were for the first time in their lives grateful for having been exposed to the dangers and hardships of unknown waters while growing up.
Efe was the most grateful, for all he could remember when he regained conscioussness was that he had let out a muffled shrill with his last strength and then began to sink. Omos was as much grateful even though he could not remember anything beyond drinking a lot of the salt water when his arms became numb and could no longer move to keep him afloat. He lay face-up on the shore, his eyes wide-open yet, not fully alive.
The Libyans who found them on the beach walked about. From time to time, they bent over their motionless bodies for a closer look. Omos thought they were shadows, nameless creatures pulling him down towards the depths of the ocean. A half dream, from which he struggled to escape.
“He is stirring,” one of the Libyan rescuers yelled and signaled his colleagues, “this one is still alive.”
“Mop up the water running from his nustrils,” the other said. And as the man lowered his face a little closer and was about touching Omos’ nose with a piece of cloth, Omos jerked fully awake, throwing up on his face and all over his body, brown water that smelled like urine.
“Let me be!” Omos yelled in a panting fright.
“You black piece of shit!” the man said and hit his mouth so hard that it bled. Efe was lying beside him still unconscious.
“What’s the problem?” a voice asked in Arabic. The man responded in Arabic too and then fixed an irritated gaze at Omos as he gradually stood up.
“Come on black ass; your mates are eating inside!” The voice came again, but this time in English. But the accent was a caricature; a mockery of the English language. When the man left, Omos sat up properly and tapped Efe on the shoulder. Efe didn’t stir, then he tapped him again and again until he sneezed and blinked his eyes open. Omos helped him sit properly. Efe gently surveyed his surroundings and asked where they were. He, too, would occasionally cough up brown water.
” Thank God we’re alive, ” Omos said in almost a whisper.
“Where are we?’
“On a shore in Libya. “
“Where is Kosi?”
Omos turned his head, “Maybe in that metal house?”
Efe yawned and stretched his hands above his head.
“Hungry?” Omos asked.
“Let’s hurry into the house, I think some of us are already eating there.”
“Some of us?”
“Yes. We aren’t the only survivors.”
Halfway to the metal house, a few yards from the sea, a heavily-bearded Libyan with a perfectly round face and an AK47 rifle hanging from his left shoulder threw the door open. With a broad smile he beckoned them to move faster. He cursed them in Arabic and introduced himself.
“Come inside and eat, you black idiots. I am Ahmed Abdulahi, the head of the rescue team. Thank Allah, you’re alive!” He patted them on their shoulders and stepped aside to let them enter. Omos sensed something sinister in his eyes. The man’s handshake was too loose. There was an impenetrable darkness waiting inside the metal house.
“It would have been a great loss for us if you hadn’t made it to the shore alive,” Ahmed added. Omos stared at his brown teeth and a long scar that ran from the corner of his left eye and crossed his nose bridge to the corner of his mouth. Omos thought of a gunshot, but finally concluded it was a slash by a very sharp-edged weapon. Ahmed must have noticed their hesitation and said, “Now let’s go in”, and led the way.
Omos was relectuant, but there was no choice. He was the last to enter, and the door was shut with a metallic clang that startled them both. They heard a chain dragged across the lock behind them.
“Are they inside?” a voice asked from one end of the darkness. Loud and ominous, the statement ended with a few Arabic mutterings. Then a switch was pulled and there was light. Not very bright, but at least there was relief. What then revealed itself to Omos was very unexpected. Where were the meals and his mates? Where was Kosi?
Five men stood in that vast room. Ahmed Abdulahi was by the door with his rifle, by his side a man whom Omos remembered from the beach. One rifle leaned against the wall. At the far end Omos saw a man seated in front of a table. On the table, another rifle. He saw the aging hands of a black man in a grey hood resting on the table by the door as he was leaning forward. As soon as the light came on, he turned quickly to another Libyan that was standing behind him.
“Are they your cargo?” the man in front of the table asked.
“Yes, they are,” the black man responded. The accent was Nigerian, Edo precisely.
“Here is the check,” the Libyan said, handing the sheet to the black man, who took it, frowned and grumbled. “You know this is the first time this has happened. That’s all I can pay for the two. We lost so many of them at sea,” the man added.
“Well, I understand,” the Nigerian said. “Another boat is on the way.”
“Let’s hope they arrive safely. It’s a pleasure doing business with you.”
The two shook hands, and the black man turned and made towards the door, his eyes fixed to the floor. As he approached, Omos and Efe gave way for him to pass. Ahmed Abdulahi opened the door and light from outside shone bright on his face, and just then Omos recognized him.
“Uncle Irobosa!” he shouted, hurrying towards him. But it was too late by then, for the rays of light vanished and the door shut with a heavy bang. In the dark, Omos crashed his head against the damp metal wall. Suddenly he was unconscious on the floor. The last he heard was a muffled scream from Efe. Within seconds, Efe too was knocked down from behind and unconscious.
When Omos opened his eyes, he was naked on a narrow bed in a very small room. He could see and hear, but his body was unable to move. This bed was almost a solitary piece of furniture positioned very close to the window. There were voices, not far off beyond the glass pane. By the foot side of the bed he suddenly noticed low stool with a silver tray containing surgical equipment. There was a pair of bloodstained rubber gloves. A gown hung on a pole close by. He wanted to shift his gaze when someone shouted. It was the voice of the man he had seen in front of the table in the dark room.
“This is not what we bargained on the phone! A kidney costs more than this and you know that! Do you how much I pay to get them here? “
“Well, gentlemen, I don’t think it has come to this. I am only but a middle man in this business,” another voice said. “If I…”
“Then tell your master what the market price is. Don’t come here with few dollars and expect to go back to Saudi with this!” the harsher voice said. “Get him on the phone right now!”
“Erh…he wouldn’t want to be disturbed, and moreover I, we have…”
“Get him now or I drill your skull with a bullet! I pay that doctor over there, or you think he’s doing this job for free? I want to speak to the big man directly.”
“You can’t speak directly to my master. He is a busy man, but you can talk to his doctor in Saudi.”
“Then get me the damn doctor!”
Somebody was speaking Arabic on a phone. When he was done, he switched back to English.
“Well, he has agreed to pay thirty thousand. He’s also interested in the second kidney at the same price. But we can’t do that without ending him. “
“In that case, we shall wait until Mr Chin Lu arrives for the heart.”
Omos tried to lift his head towards the window, but his neck was stiff and firm. He rolled his eyes to his left hand and discovered that he was not only on a drip, but also restrained. His hands and legs were chained to the bedframes. Suddenly, he felt moisture in his right abdomen. Blood was dripping out, he was cut. There was a sharp pain and an urge to scream, but his voice was long gone.
By Ify Iroakazi