quarta-feira, 11 de dezembro de 2013

The Exile by Andrew Britton Chapter One

The Exile by Andrew Britton
Chapter One

Camp Hadith, West Darfur
     To the untrained eye, the inhabitants of Camp Hadith might have seemed like any group of refugees the world over—a cluster of lost souls bound by poverty, persecution, and a complete lack of hope. To the untrained eye, they might have seemed tragically the same. But in reality their squalid existence was one of the few things they had in common.
     They comprised a strange demographic made up of black Christians from the south, African Muslims from the north, and poor Arabs from the slums outside Khartoum. They came from a multitude of tribes, which was arguably more important than their religious differences given the lack of a single national identity in Africa’s largest country. They were Dinka, Masalit, and Fur. They were Berti, Bargo, and Beni Jarrar. But while sharing only the terrible circumstances that had thrust them together, they could all agree on this: were it not for the woman—the American nurse—their life in the camp would have been a living hell.
     As it stood, they endured a daily struggle for survival despite the woman’s devotion to them and their unrelenting plight, which was apparent to all. Situated one kilometer east of the paved road from Al-Geneina to Nyala—the capital city of South Darfur—the temporary settlement consisted of nothing more than three hundred hastily constructed shelters. Most were crudely composed of clothes, rugs, and plastic trash bags draped over a rough framework of interwoven branches. A few lucky families—those who had arrived in the early stages of the camp’s development—had access to sturdy canvas tents supplied by USAID, also known as the United States Agency for International Development; UNICEF; or Médicins Sans Frontières, the Paris-based organization better known as Doctors Without Borders.
     Surrounding the entire camp was a two-and-a-half-meter fence as crude and impermanent as the tents it was meant to secure. Covered by black tarpaulin sheets, its wooden poles were spaced at three- meter intervals and thrust two meters into the sodden earth to provide a reasonably stable frame for the makeshift barrier. The fence, in turn, was topped by a single strand of barbed wire that ran the length of the perimeter. Beyond it there was nothing but the road and the sun-scrubbed landscape, which stretched for miles in every direction.
     The hospital, the only permanent structure to be found within the flimsy tarpaulin fence, rose like an island from the sweeping sea of tents. It was a sprawling, one-story structure of reddish brown mud bricks, each of which had been forged by a careful pair of hands before being laid out to bake in the harsh African sun. The humble building was topped by a roof of corrugated tin, its windows sealed with clear plastic, which provided some protection against the tiny winged predators whose flights could be as lethal as that of any stealth assassins in that part of the world.
     Both the flies and the mosquitoes could kill a healthy aid worker with a single bite or sting, especially when the rains came in late July. For the vast majority of Camp Hadith’s residents, the risk was far greater. Unless caught at an early stage, malaria was a virtual death sentence in the internally displaced persons camps—the young and the very old being at highest risk. African trypanosomiasis, or sleeping sickness, could be added to the long list of rampant scourges that included measles, tuberculosis, and the worst killer of all, the HIV retrovirus, which had held the continent in its iron grip for decades.
     And, of course, there was the poverty and ignorance. The terrible, persistent unavailability of basic health care, education, and nutrition, which flung open the doors to every opportunistic strain of disease emerging from the steppes and woodlands to the north.
     Never far from the nurse’s mind, the many dangers that plagued the camp accounted for her sense of profound sorrow as she quietly made her way down the narrow aisle separating the hospital’s forty beds. She always felt this way when she stopped to consider the magnitude of what the African people had suffered. Of what they still suffered on an hourly and daily basis. Lily Durant had been in West Darfur for just six months, but during that time she had come to see the true depth of hardship that her patients endured. Not to understand it, but to see it in front of her, around her, everywhere.
     For Lily, that was an important distinction. She wanted to help these people, but she didn’t claim to identify with them. Nor did she pretend to understand what they were going through. Her refusal to do so wasn’t a matter of Western arrogance—in fact, it was the complete opposite. In Lily’s eyes, the situation was simple. She was there to help. Not to judge, not to empathize, not to intellectualize. But to help. Nothing more, nothing less.
     Reaching the end of the aisle now, she heard a small noise to her right. As she turned toward the sound to check it out, she moved quickly to the side of the bed and knelt by the hard mattress. Her calves and thighs immediately screamed out in protest, as if to remind her that she’d been on her feet for the past twenty hours. But Lily ignored the pain and focused on the patient lying before her.
     She leaned forward, her fingers brushing against the mosquito net that covered the squirming figure.
     “Hello, Limya. Badai lo cadai?” she whispered, asking the sick girl if she needed anything in the Zaghawa tribal dialect. It was one of many local phrases Lily had made it a personal imperative to master. While it was nearly impossible to absorb all the languages of the camp, she had found that even a few key phrases could help bridge the cultural and linguistic divide.
     Do you need anything? And they all did. More than any one person could give. But nothing was worse than nothing, and that was the sum total of indifference.
     Lily felt she’d waited a long time before the patient replied. Then, without warning, the girl let out a short, high-pitched squeal that sent a shiver of alarm through Lily’s body. She grasped blindly for the girl’s fragile hand through the mosquito netting. When she found it, she squeezed it gently in an attempt to reassure her. Only then did Lily realize that the girl was dreaming, caught up in the tangled web of her own terrible past.
     She continued to squirm and cry out for a few minutes longer.
     After what seemed like an eternity, the moaning began to subside. Then it stopped altogether.
     Once Lily was finally sure that the girl was asleep, she closed her eyes and permitted herself a deep, weary sigh. She was mentally and physically exhausted and knew that the strain was starting to show. Even as she acknowledged the truth of this, though, she silently rebuked herself for being so weak. What business did she have complaining about her minor aches and pains when the people in this very room had lost so much? The sleeping girl whose hand she even now continued to hold was a perfect example of the terrible things taking place in the region.
     Only sixteen, Limya Sanoasi had lost her mother, father, and two younger brothers one week earlier, when their village was razed by the government-backed Janjaweed militiamen who terrorized the non-Arab population of Darfur. Their methods were notorious. Rape, torture, and murder were all considered acceptable tools of war—and since they had the support of the country’s ruling party, they were virtually unstoppable.
     Lily freed her hand carefully, doing her best not to wake the girl. Then she got to her feet and started back down the aisle in her foam- bottomed clogs, heading for the building’s single entrance. As she passed each bed—all of them were occupied—Lily silently thanked God for the relative security of the camp and its perimeter fence, however symbolic the protection offered by the thin tarpaulin walls might be. The Janjaweed had attacked the IDP camps before, but such incidents were rare, as they typically resulted in a diplomatic outcry against the regime of Omar al-Bashir, the Sudanese president. Even al-Bashir—a man who topped Parade magazine’s annual list of the world’s ten worst dictators in 2006 and three years later was charged with crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court—had little interest in stirring up serious trouble with the UN or the United States.
     At least, that was the general assumption. Personally, Lily wasn’t so sure. Less than a month earlier, the United States had levied harsh sanctions against the North African country, adding to the heavy restrictions already in place as a result of the ICC’s indictment. The punitive measures had touched the highest levels of the Sudanese government, most noticeably in the case of the defense minister, whose U.S. accounts had been frozen.
     Al-Bashir had responded to the ICC arrest warrant through polite, if evasive, diplomatic channels—a public fight with its 109 member nations was the furthest thing from what he wanted or needed. But the United States, a nonmember still trying to dig its way out from the global ill will generated by its Iraqi conflict, was another story . . . and a convenient target for his chest-thumping wrath.
     Months after the new sanctions were imposed, he’d given a fiery speech condemning them. And while he’d stopped short of threatening outright retribution, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that he was on the verge of striking back at the world’s lone superpower and sending out an indirect, albeit powerful, message to the ICC— namely, his intention of submitting to foreign justice was nil. He was not going down without a fight and had cast himself in the convenient, familiar role of a victim forced to retaliate against the imperial American bully.
     The question, in the big picture, was how, and when, the first blow would come.
     Lily Durant’s recent experiences at Camp Hadith, however, had given her a more close-up perspective. For Lily the focus narrowed down to a little refugee camp in the middle of an African nowhere, a teenage girl caught in the throes of her fever dreams, and her fear that the inexorable madness of attack and reprisal would come, rolling them into the ground.
     The cold air of the desert night seeped in through the open door and clawed at the exposed flesh of the commander’s face and throat. He stood inside the darkened compound and watched as his men gathered on the hard-packed dirt of the parade ground in front of his office. The building was pitch-black, but the lights of the compound were ablaze, rendering him invisible to those milling about in the open area. They were laughing, joking, and slapping each other’s shoulders. They were full of life, and watching them, the commander could not help but smile himself. He could feel their excitement, and it reminded him of the first time he had embarked on a similar venture— the first time he had successfully probed the fragile constraints of his own moral character.
     He could not fully relate to these men, as they were not real soldiers in his mind, but a disparate collection of animals bound loosely by the promise of separate rewards.
     Now he watched as they checked and rechecked their weapons, an assortment of small arms procured from every possible source: Kalashnikovs from Ukraine, PP-19 submachine guns taken out of Afghanistan, and Belgian-made FAL rifles left over from the bloody civil wars in Liberia and Mozambique. A few carried AR-15s, the civilian version of the U.S. Army’s M16. Their favored tools, however, were not the battered firearms they carried, but the knives, hatchets, and machetes that hung from their belt loops.
     Just as they carried a variety of arms, the men wore a wide range of clothing. A few had desert fatigues of the sort used by the U.S. military, a uniform that carried a certain level of prestige in the mixed unit. The rest wore police uniforms, tracksuits, or T-shirts and jeans. Like the inhabitants of the camp they were planning to strike, they were bound only by exigencies. His mercenaries, with their uneven training and wild temperament, accepting a slight degree of discipline in exchange for the promise of combat and treasure. The dedicated and more practiced mujahideen sharing their desire for earthly plunder, but seeking to pad their material bounty with the eternal gratifications of Heaven.
     A patchwork force, yes. Still, the commander knew how to keep them primed and motivated as they prepared for action, knew what heady elixir was drunk by his ragtag coalition of zealots, godless infidels, and outlaws, whose dutiful prayers were only to assure they reaped the rewards of the destruction they were about to deal out. He’d savored its taste many times—and welcomed it.
     They were bound now by anticipation. Anticipation for the work they would soon carry out with brutal, unrelenting purpose. Anticipation for the job he had given them, for the blood they were about to spill . . . and for the rewards that were sure to follow.
     Their raucous laughter poured into the night and over the dark buildings like a rippling black tide.
     The commander did his best to maintain a stoic bearing as he watched them, although he shared their contagious enthusiasm. The façade was necessary to preserve the fragile balance of power that existed in the small garrison. He held control over life and death in his hands, and there were few limits to what he could do. In the space of a five-minute telephone call, he could seal the fate of 100 Masalit villagers. With nothing more than a polite suggestion, a whispered word to the major in charge in Nyala, he could condemn a dozen Dinka children to death by fire. It was the ultimate authority, and he had never used it sparingly. In that respect, at least, this night’s work would be no different from all the rest.
     A sudden noise pierced the commander’s thoughts, and he stepped through the open door into the cold night air, where the sound of approaching diesel engines was more pronounced. He shivered as he waited impatiently, his broad face twisting into a frown. As bad as it was during the day, the desert was even less accommodating at night.
     Fortunately, he did not have to wait long. Less than a minute after he stepped out of the building, the trucks rolled into view and stopped next to the parade ground, a cloud of dust rising into the air, mixing with the stench of diesel fumes, cigarette smoke, and unwashed bodies. There was a loud babble of voices, and the keyed-up men began moving toward the vehicles.
     The commander’s car, a borrowed white Mercedes-Benz, was already waiting in front of his office. The driver was behind the wheel, his engine idling. The commander walked over, opened the door, and slid into the rear seat. He shut the door and shivered with pleasure when he felt the warm air churning out of the vents. He gave a signal to his driver, and the car rolled forward, the trucks following in convoy.
     As the small line of vehicles left the main gate forty seconds later, the commander pulled a satellite phone from the deep right pocket of his field jacket, dialed a number from memory, and lifted the phone to his ear. Two rings later a man answered.
     “We’re on the move. Turn off the phones, and send the plane.”
     At first, Lily didn’t understand why she was awake. She lay still for a long moment, wondering what could have possibly roused her from her much-needed sleep. She was conscious of the frigid air on her face, the warmth of her sleeping bag, and the mosquito netting that was draped less than a foot over her head. The camp was surprisingly quiet, except for the distant sound of an infant’s cries. Everything was just as it should be, yet something had pulled her from the deepest sleep she’d had in a month ...and that itself was unusual.
     She lay there for several minutes, listening in her stillness. But while she heard nothing out of the ordinary, she could not shake the sense of lingering dread.
     She tugged her arms out of her sleeping bag, flopped onto her left side, and pressed a button on her wristwatch—a sturdy Alpina her uncle had given her as a going-away present. The LED display told her it was just after 4:00 a.m., which meant she had been out for three hours. After making her rounds in the hospital, she’d walked straight back to her tent, which was located less than 100 feet from the building’s main entrance. She could have had a bed inside the hospital, like the camp’s doctor and the two other nurses, but had chosen instead to sleep in a tent, not wanting to take away from the refugees the already scant space inside the building.
     Lily turned onto her stomach, covered her head with her pillow, and tried to drown out the thoughts buzzing through her mind. Literally buzzing like a hornet’s nest. There was so much to worry about. As always, the chronic lack of food and supplies, and now the troubling height and weight data from the feeding center. Earlier that evening she had learned that Faisel, a one-year-old boy from the nearby village of Sirba, was still losing weight despite extra rations of milk and close personal attention from the camp’s medical staff.
     Given his current rate of decline, Lily feared he would not see the end of the week, and she still didn’t know how she would explain his death to his parents. Two weeks earlier they’d lost his older sister, their only daughter, to dysentery. How were they supposed to understand it? What words of comfort would she find? Did a vocabulary even exist that could mitigate the sort of pain and grief she believed was in store for them?
     These were the types of thoughts she could not block out no matter how hard she tried. And meanwhile the buzzing in her ears wouldn’t stop, making her back so stiff, it ached from tension . . . keeping her awake, wide awake, on her narrow, springy cot inside the darkened tent.
     And then, suddenly, she realized that the buzzing wasn’t some kind of weird internal manifestation of nerves and fatigue, after all. When the awareness hit her, she instinctively rejected it, as the alternative just wasn’t possible. The camps were supposed to be safe ground. She had been told as much the day she arrived. But the noise didn’t fade. Instead, it grew steadily louder.
     Struggling to suppress her rising unease, Lily climbed out of her sleeping bag, pulled on a pair of flannel pajama bottoms and a thick woolen sweater, and threw back the flaps of her tent. Easing her way through the narrow opening, she got to her feet and looked around in disbelief. She immediately realized that her earlier dread was completely justified. Dozens of refugees were struggling out of their makeshift shelters, and they were all staring upward, eyes wide with fear.
     She tracked her own gaze in the direction they were looking and saw the plane at once, a black, slow-moving fleck against the starlit sky. For a second, she allowed herself to believe it was just a transport plane—a small Cessna ferrying aid workers back to Abéché, perhaps. Or a medical-supply flight making the daily run to Al-Geneina. Even as she considered these possibilities, though, she could hear— and sense—the panic rising around her.
     The refugees had no room in their psyches for denial. It had been scoured from their inner landscapes by hard experience, leaving them with a keen, stark acceptance of reality. They knew what kind of plane this was. More to the point, they knew what was coming, and they had reacted with incredible speed. Hundreds were pouring out of their makeshift shelters, and some were already running toward the rear of the camp, their children and a few meager possessions caught up in their arms.
     Frozen with dread and horror, Lily saw Beckett, the camp’s doctor, stumble out of the building, a backpack slung over his right shoulder. As he looked up at the plane circling overhead, he did a slow, strange kind of pirouette, his mouth agape. Then his eyes came back to ground level, and he looked around wildly. For a second Lily didn’t understand what he was doing. Then, as she looked on in sheer disbelief, he took off running, sprinting ahead of the steady stream of people running for the back side of the camp. The two nurses were just a few steps behind him.
     “Hey!” she screamed, fighting to be heard over the general panic. “Hey, where are you going?”

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