There is something about a war-torn country that reeks of hopelessness and desperation. When a country has been at war for long, there is nothing left for its citizen. They start living in a state of merely just existing and getting through each day. Their dreams are shattered, schools are burned to the ground and those still operating are too dangerous to venture into and so all hope for a brighter future is gone. There are no careers apart from being soldiers and so dreams for being accountants, chefs, writers, painters, are all gone.
The children suffer the most. Those born during the war, have no knowledge of peace. Those born before the war are left to adapt to their new lives and deal with the nightmares of watching their old peaceful lives go down the drain. There are also children who loose their childhood during the war when they are forced to take up guns and join the fighting. These children can no longer play or enjoy the innocence that they once had. Instead, they become killing machines who will most likely die by the gun, wasted lives.
This was the life at Meharib. The country had been at civil war since the 1990’s. There had been a short period of peace when the military government took power. However, different clans in the country started feeling that Meharib was being run by only one clan that made up majority of the military government. This brought a resentment especially since there claims of nepotism and discrimination against the clans not in power. In addition, the military government was accused of not reinforcing the religious laws of the land. Women were allowed to walk around without the proper religious attire, they spoke however they wanted, worked wherever they wanted and even dared challenge the men. On the other hand, men indulged in drinking alcohol and failed in their roles as the head of households. Prayers were not even observed as they should have been. There was so much liberty in Meharib because the government had allowed it. This discontentment led to the coup d’état that saw the military government loose power. Soon the whole country went into war with everyone trying to get into power.
In the midst of the chaos and mayhem in Meharib, there was a thirteen year old girl named Soita. She had been recently orphaned when a radical militia group attacked her village and killed her parents. Together with the other women, they were rounded up and taken by the soldiers. Although barely a teenager, Soita had heard stories of what the soldiers did to the women who they captured. Most women were found dead in the forests, tortured, raped and murdered. It was a worse fate than what her beheaded parents had gone through.
The night that the militia came, Soita ended up being frog matched with the other women into the forest. They set camp with the soldiers as the women were put in shackles and then sat down at a corner in the camp. The soldiers would then pick two women every night and then have them to all chores such as cooking and serving meals around the camp. These women would then sleep in the tents with the soldiers and after that, nobody would ever see them again.
The soldiers kept changing camps now and then, this meant that the captured women had to walk for miles at times still with their feet shackled up together. There was no time to rest, eat or even talk to each other. They hardly said a word to each. However, every night when the soldiers came to pick two women, the others were left weeping wondering when their turn would come to make the final meal before they too disagreed. Some wished that this would be sooner than later and that way, the desperation and fear that they experienced every night would then be gone.
Soita soon noticed another young girl in the group who was in the same age group as her. She was always so quiet, her head forever hang low and every night Soita could hear her sobbing. One evening, when the soldiers unshackled them to give them a break, Soita quickly moved from where she was sitting and went to sit with the young girl. The young girl didn’t even look up at her. She just sat there with her head down. When they were shackled again for the night, Soita reached out and took her hand in hers. It felt weak, bony and very tiny. She still didn’t look up or stop sobbing but she held on to Soita’s hand. A friendship was formed that day.
Weeks later, the women were still moving camps with the soldiers as the numbers continued to dwindle. Sometimes the soldiers would leave them at the camp all day whenever they were launching attacks on villages. The women never planned to escape or even get rescued. There was simply no where to go. Merahib was in such a horrible state that no place was better than the other. They also knew that one way or the other, they would have been captured by the same or different soldiers and their fate would still be the same. They sat down all day and waited to find out which two women would be leaving.
There were times when the soldiers would come back in great spirits after a successful raid. They would then spend the night singing and feasting around the camp. However, they would still come for the two women. There were other nights when the soldiers would be back to the camp in somber moods. Sometimes in smaller numbers than they had left in. Again, even in mourning, the women would not be spared.
By the end of the fourth week since Soita was captured, the number of women had dwindled down to just four. There was Soita and her young friend and two older women. With such a small group, they four knew that they would be dying either that night or the next one. There was no other way.
As luck would have had it, that night the soldiers picked the two other women. Soita and her friend were left behind waiting to see their last sunrise. They stayed together holding hands with each left to her thoughts.
“Mariam…” Soita had a soft whisper.
She looked up to the girl and found her staring at her with soft eyes that clearly mirrored her defeated spirit. At first Soita was unsure about what or who Mariam was.
“My name, Mariam”… The young girl said again. “Soita is mine”. She responded. Both girls looked at each other for some time silently.
“It will be our turn tomorrow”….. Mariam continued. “You must be brave Soita, do not beg or cry, okay?” She continued.
Soita stared at her for sometime wondering why she was telling her that. Before she could respond, Mariam went on, “If you cry, then they will have won”.
“They have already won, they took everything we had and then now they are making us wait for our death”. Soita replied.
“They may have taken our freedom and will soon take our bodies and lives but they have not yet won”. Mariam said sounding very convinced. “They do not have our spirits yet, we have to leave with that”.
Soita sat silently looking at their feet chained together wondering how Mariam could sound so strong after having cried for four whole weeks. She thought about her words and wondered whether they truly had any fighting chance.
The girls stayed awake that night and as the sun came up, they had already accepted their fate. As always, the soldiers did not stay at the camp that day. Instead, they left very early in the morning leaving Soita and Mariam chained at a corner in one of the tents. For the first time, Soita thought of escaping.
“We can run Mariam”. She tried to convince her friend.
“They would still catch us. Worse still, we may be captured by the other soldiers and then wait for another month before we are killed”. Mariam responded.
“We may get lucky and get shot and die like human beings”. Soita tried to convince her but Mariam would hear none of it.
Unfortunately, with their feet chained together, they could only escape together. Mariam refused to take part in the plan. This meant that there was nothing that Soita could no do. She sat down dejectedly and watched the sun go down as she counted minutes before the soldiers came back.
“Its okay Soita, paradise awaits us”. Mariam tried to encourage her worried friend. However, Soita still believed that they had one more chance to get out alive. She thought of her father and wondered what he would have done if he was around. He definitely would not have died like a coward like they were about to. Even before being beheaded by the soldiers, he still fought and tried to defend her mother.
This thought gave Soita a new resolve. “They have not yet won!” She kept telling herself. She devised a plan in her mind of how she would try making a run for it. She could even get a gun from one of the soldiers and then try and rescue Mariam too. Soita made up her mind not to die without a fight.
Suddenly, they had the footsteps outside the tent. The soldiers were back. The two girls looked at each, holding hands tightly. One was saying goodbye; the other was gathering strength to fight. As the boots approached the tent, they continued to look at each other as they waited. Suddenly the zipper of the tent went down as the light flooded into the tent.
“There are two little girls chained here”. Someone shouted.
Confused, Mariam and Soita looked outside the tent. There were soldiers alright. However, these were not Merahib soldiers. They wore a different shade of uniform and had red berets. They also had badges and tags on their uniforms written “UN”. The girls had no idea what any of these meant. Perhaps they were being captured by other soldiers?
They watched silently as the soldiers came and got them from the tent. Once the shackles were removed, Soita suddenly sprung into action. Whoever the soldiers were, she was not going to be taken alive again. She gathered her strength and quickly grabbed Mariam as they took off running towards the forests. They ran as they waited to feel the sharp pain of a bullet tearing through their bodies but no guns were fired.
They heard the boots though and they knew that they were being pursued. They ran until they were finally captured again. This time, they were put at the back of a truck that was fully covered preventing the passengers inside from looking outside. The truck drove off with nobody saying anything to the two frightened girls. Soon more people were brought into the truck. This time, even men and young boys were brought in. They all sat together, heads bowed just waiting to see what would happen next. The war had broken all of them. They knew that whatever would happen next would just be as bad.
Fifteen hours later, the truck finally stopped for a longer period now. There were about 30 people seated close together at the back of it. Finally, the cover was pulled up and they could all see the new location.
“Fashid Refugee Camp”, was written on sign board. In front of them there was a fenced, gated community with many neatly arranged tiny houses. There were soldiers everywhere but no fighting was going on. The people around the area looked happy as they all went on about their business. The truck was opened and everyone got it and joined a queue. They were registered as they went through medical checks before being moved to the houses. They were then fed and given new clothes.
It was hours later after settling into the community when finally, the two girls looked at each other as it dawned on them that they had gotten out of Merahib, alive!