Chapter Fifteen: Turning
[Chapter Fourteen can be found here.]
Turning back, they saw that the bustle of Ouahigouya had disappeared. Even the hurrying soldiers were gone. The shops, so recently so busy, were shuttered, the marché vacant. On the wide, empty streets no youths peddled cigarettes or lounged in the doorways, no women sold soap from their little hand-made stands in front of family compounds. No children peeped out from entranceways—their disappearance an eerie cause for comment.
As they walked, quiet, spooked by the emptiness especially as they both knew that the spaces behind the walls had to be crammed with people, the apparently empty roadside became more and more repellant to them. They angled toward the middle of the street as they headed back toward the compound where they had last felt any sense of safety, hurrying, but trying to look unconcerned to unseen eyes. As far as either of them could tell, the only other things moving were vultures circling quietly against the pale blue sky overhead, their wings beating only occasionally and ever so slowly. After a few minutes, the bleakness above pushed them back toward the walls where they could walk under the trees lining the road, feeling a little less vulnerable.
Paul led them away from the main street as quickly as he could, taking them first down the centers of broad, silent avenues lined with bancobuildings, then threading them through narrower streets toward the Sawadogo family’s home where they had slept the night before, walking quickly, ever close to the buildings now, hesitating at every vacant corner. He said nothing to Sam, motioning for him to shut up the few times it looked as though he were about to question him.
Following through the twists and turns, growing more anxious and lost, Sam finally recognized the Sawadogo restaurant before them, orienting himself for the first time since the gendarmes had told them they couldn’t leave town. They had rounded the last of what had seemed to him to be interminable corners, moving as fast as they could, still in the shadow of the banco walls. The restaurant building was shuttered and as barren as was everything they had passed, but at least it was familiar. The silence they were fleeing had transformed it from a piece of alien landscape into a warm and beckoning haven. He stared at it with longing and picked up his pace, hurrying after Paul, who was already rounding the corner toward the compound’s entrance on the street behind the restaurant.
No one came out when Paul clapped softly. They waited, unsure what to do, looking around for signs of life. People had to be there. They stepped toward the open-air stove, moving a little off to the side to reduce their visibility from the road. Finally, across from them, the cloth hanging over a doorway at the back of the restaurant moved aside and a hand and face appeared.
“Venez.” Come. Almost silent, more motion than words. An older man, one of Yusef’s uncles, ushered them into the dark room shrouded by the curtain. “Come in. Quickly. It is not safe to be out there.” He sounded almost angry, but relieved when he was able to let the cloth back down. “Yusef is not here.”
Immediately after he had ducked through the curtain, Paul asked the uncle what was going on. Both Americans quickly shrugged off their packs and sat, when the uncle did, on low stools while they waited for an answer. The uncle looked away, the deepening lines on his face reminding Sam of a slowly deflating balloon. The uncle was silent for more than a minute, perhaps unsure of what to say. Finally, he spoke, keeping his words simple, without emphasis or, or so it seemed, judgment.
“La guerre. War.” Reluctant, expressionless. His eyes stayed averted, but they seemed somehow accusing. “Weren’t you in town? Thought I saw you walk that way. You should know. Mali bombed us. Hit the cattle marché. Killed some children.” He stood and walked deeper into the darkness of the restaurant before returning to them empty-handed and sitting once more.
Paul looked at Sam and paused before translating. He had known, of course, that war was a possibility, but had never really believed it would come. It never had before, after all, not while he had been in this part of Africa, at least, and that had been some years. Certainly, there had been chances. Certainly, there was strife, and conflict, but all-out war took money, and few of these countries had enough of that to waste shooting at each other. War, he had felt, also required either desperation or greed, and he had never believed that any of the countries around had reached the required pitch of either.
There had been conflicts—still were. The Tuaregs in Mali and Niger were armed and sometimes fought the governments, as did a variety of other groups. The various coups—including the recent ones here in Burkina Faso—could be bloody. But the worst of the quarrels, the Biafran War, that Nigerian civil war, had ended over a decade earlier. He hadn’t believed that the days of warfare would start again. There was too little to fight over, too little to gain.
So, he didn’t know how to react to the reality of what he was hearing—or even if the uncle knew what he was talking about. But something had happened, something bad enough to bring an entire city to ground.
So, Paul stalled, again looking at the uncle. Somehow, putting this into English was going to make it too real. Watching Sam’s reaction was going to force him to consider that their situation might really be desperate now. He’d rather put that off.
“Do you have any other news? Who attacked first? Where do things stand now? Anything? Have you heard anything?”
“Is there fighting around here? Were other places bombed? How serious do you think it is?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, what do you know? Tell me.”
Not much, it turned out. He had seen little more than Paul and Sam. He had been trying to open the restaurant when soldiers came by, yelling at everyone to get off the streets. So, he had pulled the shutters to, and had waited in the dark, since.
When Paul finally turned to Sam, he starting out by telling him that they would still try to leave town as soon as possible, and would continue on their way south. If they had to, though, they would sleep there in the Sawadogo compound once more, and leave in the morning. Things should be quieter by then, he was sure, but he doubted there would be any bush taxis going. So Sam was going to have to travel with him, riding on the back of the motorcycle.
“But it is war,” he said, speaking as quietly as he could, perhaps lessening the impact of his words, “and we may be right in the middle of it. Discomfort is going to be the least of it, as long as we can get out of here.”
Sam stared at him.
“I’m sorry,” Paul continued, “I should have told you to stay in Mopti. Nothing would happen to you there.”
Sam continued looking at Paul, his eyes shaded in the room’s gloom so that Paul couldn’t see them. “Look, it’s not your fault,” Sam said, finally. “I’m the one who decided to go with you. And I couldn’t stay there, anyway.”
“But you shouldn’t have to face this.”
“None of us should. But even this is better than that sitting in Mopti waiting. At least I know I’ve tried something, that I’m not just a sitting victim.” Sam looked over Paul’s head at the vague shapes in the darkened restaurant as he spoke. He was scared, of course but, as he had meant to imply, he had been scared before, and had learned that fear, by itself, holds little threat.
Strangely, Sam realized, he was also feeling relief. It didn’t really matter where he was; he didn’t have control of this situation. Much less experienced with Africa, best he could do was rely on the others. He wasn’t responsible. His own decision had been made, back there in the Mopti taxi gare.
So, he couldn’t blame Paul for getting him into the war. He had made the choice to accompany him rather than continuing to wait for someone else to get him out of Mopti, where he’d been stranded by language barriers, bureaucratic errors, and antagonistic police. He had an ally here, at least, something he had lacked back in Mali, where there had been no one he could really talk to or plan with, not at the hotel, not anywhere in town. Almost all Europeans had left at the first sign of trouble, the first hint of border conflict. Paul had been the only one who that he could talk to. And, though he looked like a bum, he knew a lot more than Sam did about Africa. No, it was better to have left with him than to sit, unknowing and inactive, in Mopti.
Though Yusef’s uncle refused to speculate about the events of the morning, both Paul and Sam willingly did, especially once they had been sitting in the darkened restaurant for an hour or so and were feeling starved for information. Once the uncle had gotten up and disappeared into the dark leaving them alone. Speculation broke the tension and passed the time as they waited, wondering if and when they could leave—and how. They planned. They tried to decide what they should do if they were even able to get out of the compound. Paul argued that it just did not make sense to stay in a war zone any longer than necessary. As soon as they had some idea of what was going on, he said, they would leave. Neither country could possibly be equipped for a war reaching much beyond the common border. He was sure of that. Paul explained that it shouldn’t take long to get out of the problem area, especially on a motorcycle like his Yamaha. A good, strong dirt bike, 250cc, it could take them across the countryside off-road, if need be.
Sam at first argued that they should wait, at least a little while, but not passionately. He knew he really had to let Paul make the decisions. The uncle, on one of his short stints sitting with them, agreed (Paul translating), but he didn’t make the case loudly or firmly, either. The natural inclination to hole up until he could make sense of things propelled Sam’s thinking, but the idea of staying in such an alien and dangerous place also repelled him, as it had in Mopti, and it eventually weakened his enthusiasm for staying put.
Paul couldn’t tell why the uncle agreed that they should stay; he assumed that the family might be better off with the Americans gone. His point that they had to move simply because they were only a few kilometers from the border finally convinced both of the others: being close to the action could get them into trouble, even just by sitting. Paul and Sam were strangers, after all, though Paul had spent much time in the region, making them immediately suspect to any scared soldier or gendarme who might come across them. And, no matter what they did, someone would soon point them out. And someone would come for them. They were too different, too clearly foreign.
Shortly after dusk, after a long day of waiting, eating only cold food, and venturing no further than the compound entrance, Yusef himself finally appeared, sneaking into the courtyard over the wall from next door. He told them he had spent the day at the house of another uncle, until finally deciding it was dark enough to make his way home, avoiding the streets as much as he could. He had seen nothing on the way, no soldiers, no one. Everything was quiet. Maybe the one bombing was all that would happen.
Paul wanted cigarettes, and Yusef knew one of the youths across the street who usually sold them. They pushed through the curtain and walked quietly over to the compound entranceway and peeked out. Two children, the first people they’d seen on the street since the bombing, saw them and ran up to them. They silently held out pieces of twisted metal, bits of the bomb that had fallen that morning, or so they said, speaking in hardly more than a whisper. Would the nasara like to buy them?
“No.” Both Yusef and Paul shook their heads quickly. “No.” They decided to forget the cigarettes and stay put for the night.
It was still an odd feeling, next morning, looking around at emptiness where normally life should thrive. They peeked into the street where, every day of any other year, vehicles—cars, trucks, bicycles, mopeds, donkey carts—were constantly passing, where people sat in doorways watching and waiting, others walking through selling fruits and vegetables, and even chickens. Not even the dust, so normal in Burkina Faso, hovered in the air. Everything had settled; all was still. After a little hesitation, Yusef and Paul walked slowly across the street and into the compound opposite to find the kid who could sell Paul a pack of cigarettes, a chill seeming to shiver the heat around them. The purchase quickly, quietly and furtively made, they hurried back to the Sawadogo’s.
They had spent most of the previous evening with Yusef’s uncle and Sam, just the four of them in the shuttered restaurant, Paul doing most of the talking and drinking, buying beer from the uncle (though neither Sam nor the uncle drank), the doors and windows pulled tight around them, a hurricane lamp turned low their only light. At one point they had stepped outside, just to look about. The town was black. Silent. They hurried back inside, Paul to another beer. They tried to sleep in the restaurant on cushions Yusef dragged from somewhere, though the stillness kept them awake.
Things were as quiet as the evening before as they crossed back to the Sawadogo’s, though a few window shutters had been thrown back and, here and there, drying laundry fluttered. Paul wondered at the incongruity: who would have gotten up to wash clothes at a time like this?
Given the apparent calm, Paul and Yusef pushed open the restaurant’s front door and stood on the verandah that served, normally, as the main dining room looking up and down the street, hoping they could see something, anything that might tell them a little of what was going on. They turned back inside, leaving the door open to throw a little light on the stacked tables and chairs against the wall. Sam, who had been sitting on the steps beyond the curtained doorway looking into the compound, came and joined them.
The three of them talked over their situation, Paul translating, all keeping their voices low, oppressed by the general quiet. They decided that it would be best for the Americans to try to leave as soon as possible, perhaps pushing the motorcycle until they were out of town to keep notice of them to a minimum. Yusef said that the soldiers were sure to be jumpy. Sam nodded, though the idea of riding behind Paul into who-knows-where still did bother him slightly.
Paul, strangely enough, now didn’t seem quite so sure. Staying in the known might be better than making Sam face something all the more uncertain. Yusef, though, pushed for leaving. The military was scared and itchy, he said. He had seen that as he made his way home. And so were the cadres of the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR), those kids with automatic rifles. Paul and Sam, he argued, did not want to deal with them in a situation so uncertain. And, Paul was sure, Yusef was worried that having two strangers around was endangering the Sawadogo family. And he couldn’t blame him for that.
Heeding Yusef, Paul and Sam finally hauled out their packs and tied them to the moto’s rebar rack in front of the tool kit and directly behind the seat. After thanking Yusef for all his help and advice, Paul, began pushing the bike to the entranceway. He looked around for the uncle, but the man seemed to have disappeared.
A pop. It could be barely heard, but all three noticed it. They looked up. A burst of black opened above them. More pops, a little louder. More black clouds. Then the scream of a jet, and an explosion, loud, close enough to shake the ground under them, the walls near them. Without thinking, Paul quickly wheeled the moto back into the compound. Yusef and Sam ran before him into the restaurant, Sam pushing himself as far into the darkness as possible, into a chair among the stacked tables, Paul and Yusef following.
Silence. After a moment, Yusef and Paul crept to the still-open doorway, stopping on opposite sides of it. Both moved their heads slowly, hoping to peek out. But small-arms fire erupted, the first they had heard. They scurried back and sat with Sam. It wasn’t worth drawing any attention right now, not even pulling the door closed. The three of them waited in silence as the shooting continued, gunshots occasionally dying down, leaving them in silence for a moment or two, then picking up again.
Eventually the shooting quieted for longer periods, then stopped altogether. After about an hour.
As though on an unheard command, people were suddenly running past the restaurant, filling the empty street, silent but panicked and clearly intent on getting as far away from town as possible. There were more and more of them. Surreal.
But gunfire began again, clearing the streets once more.
Other lulls followed, each culminating in a rush of people, each ending in renewed shooting. From where they sat, the three could see just a slice of the street, their longing for a sense of safety frustrating their desire to learn what was going on around them.
Once they had gained a little confidence, one or the other of the three would creep over to the doorway and look out—only to scurry back when the shooting once more got too close or too frequent.
Yusef’s uncle eventually rejoined them, from somewhere. After a time, astonishingly, he asked them if they would like something to eat.
Paul stared at him. He said he had a fire going, so why not? When Paul translated, Sam, to Paul’s additional surprise, nodded, and asked him to get him something. The uncle disappeared, returning some minutes later with a tray with bread, coffee, and eggs on it. Paul and Yusef watched, amazed, as Sam made himself a sandwich, cutting bread with a fat Swiss army knife. Shrugging, the others eventually did the same. As they ate, they continued to watch the activity outside, sometimes now even daring to stand in the doorway, ducking again back, as was becoming habit, when the shooting started to get loud and too close.
They didn’t talk much, but each noticed that time was allowing their fears to be transformed. No longer did they want to burrow and hide, though none seemed quite ready to venture into the street. The uncle had again disappeared, but they didn’t think he would have attempted to leave the compound, either.
It was Yusef who made the first joke. Paul ducked his head to laugh as Yusef giggled. He wasn’t sure he should translate it for Sam, but decided he had to.
“Yusef says he’s just learned the new Burkina national anthem. He hopes he doesn’t have to start on the Malian one now.”
Sam looked at them both for a moment, then laughed, too, setting the others off again. It was a stupid joke, yes, but…. They started telling other jokes, all as bad as the first, but they laughed anyway.
Every once in a while, something would happen to sober them up again, usually gunfire, unusually close. A couple of times it was the sound of jets again, though no more explosions followed.
Yusef’s uncle appeared once more. He watched with them for a while as people continued to race down the street during the lulls. When firing had died down for a longer period, twenty minutes or so, and the numbers fleeing had been reduced to little more than a trickle, he announced he would ride his Mobylette the short distance down to where the bomb had fallen—when they went to the door and craned to the left, they could see the black smoke of fires it had started—and find out what had happened, how many had been hurt, or killed. Part of his wife’s family lived down there, he explained. He had to go; she demanded it.
When he came back, he told them that at least nine were dead, many more hurt, most missing limbs. From the description, Sam told them that it must have been some sort of anti-personnel bomb that had fallen. Its fragments had torn through the mud walls of the compounds.
He had only been allowed in the area, the uncle said, because he was known to the military who were taking care of first aid and transportation of the wounded to the nearby hospital.
Most of the injured and all of the dead were either very old or very young.
And by the way, he said, there are no Malian troops around. They were safely on the other side of the border.
Though the sound of AK-47’s still recurred, it now rarely sounded close enough to startle them. Some nervous soldier, they told each other, accidentally firing off a few rounds. Others would hear, and start shooting, too. It continued around the town, rising in one place and eventually dying out somewhere far away. Sometime later, it would start again, from someplace else, and circle around the town again. But it was nothing like it had been.
Though the number of people running had died down for a time, now more people seemed to take the chance to run toward the bush, to escape town, the gunfire, and the chance of more bombs. In the relatively longer silences, the street was now constantly packed with men, women, and children, all scurrying from town, on foot, on bicycle, and, now, occasionally on moped or motorcycle, in car, on truck. More, and then many more. More than Sam thought could have possibly lived in the town.
Most carried hurriedly-packed parcels. All were so silent, so intent that it was almost a shock when a motorized vehicle moved among them, scattering them. Some lugged chickens or other valuable household items. Many pulled children after them, or carried them. As before, as soon as firing started, they would disappear—all except the vehicles, which would then speed up, rocketing around corners as quickly as they could—leaving Sam again wondering where so many could have gone so quickly, until the road filled once more as guns went silent.
Far down the street, just in sight as they stood on the restaurant’s porch, cars and trucks had started lining up—back around the block and out of sight—waiting for gas from the BP station just barely in sight. Every five minutes or so, some armed official vehicle or other would roar past the others toward the station, certain to demand its prerogative, leaving those in the waiting vehicles, Paul imagined, angry but necessarily silent. Most, when the line moved, pushed their cars forward, rather than starting them and wasting gas.
Though the crowds leaving town were huge, a surprising number were staying, and many were doing nothing but watching like the trio in the restaurant, heads popping into windows and around doors. Paul, Sam and Yusef could see them up and down the street. A few others now came into the restaurant or onto the verandah, purchasing cups of coffee from Yusef’s uncle who seemed happy for the business. Now that gunfire had stopped for quite some time, one or two were sitting on the curb in front of the restaurant. Paul, Yusef, and Sam joined them, sitting with their own plastic cups in hand.
A little later, in a thunder of starters and accelerators, the vehicles waiting for fuel raced and roared away, speeding in every possible direction, each driver seeking to beat the others to some place where fuel could be found at whatever price asked—for the BP station, evidently, had run out of gas.
“Have you ever experienced anything like this before?” Sam was clutching his coffee cup and staring down the road, which was quiet for the moment. No one had told a joke for some time, or talked at all. Watching the intensity, the single-mindedness, on the faces of those fleeing down the road in front of them had taken the last remnants of that away. It would have seemed like laughing at a funeral procession.
“No. The worst I have been through was a coup attempt. That was crazy, and pretty scary, but it was nothing like this.” That one had merely been military trucks roaring down Ouagadougou streets. No shooting where he was, no flight.
“Doesn’t it bother you? I mean, you just seem to keep on like you were before.”
“Nothing else to do, I suppose. I mean, what can we do? But, yes, it bothers me. I guess you just get to a point, around here, where you are well beyond surprise.”
He set down his cup and walked back into the restaurant.
The flight finally seemed over. Yusef and Paul decided the streets were now safe enough and clear enough for the Americans to follow. They pushed the moto onto the street. Paul, now astride the bike, having decided that noise, at this point, wasn’t going to matter, jumped and came down on the kick-starter, the roar of the engine breaking the silence once again dominating the neighborhood. He motioned for Sam to get on behind him, gunning the engine a bit to smooth the idle. Over the roar, Sam asked if the Sawadogos were all staying. Paul answered that most of the family had already left. Those staying remained only because they had been delegated to protect family property.
“Did they volunteer to stay?”
“I doubt it. I’m sure Yusef’s grandfather made the decision. Now, put on your helmet. We really do have to get out of here.”
They waved back at Yusef. He stared after them, not moving.
After the first turn, they were stopped by a group from the CDR, not one of them more than twelve, all armed with automatic rifles. Paul slowed as they came running out of a building, forming a cordon across the street, guns pointed at the Americans. Carefully, he pulled to a stop in front of them. They asked who they were and what they were doing, shouting in high, belligerent voices. Paul and Sam held their passports out to them.
Normally, CDR kids were swanky, proud of their status and their guns. These were scared. They wanted to get back inside, where they might be safe from the Malians, more than they wanted to deal with Paul and Sam. They spent little time over the papers before scurrying back to the safety of their comic books.
It didn’t take long for Paul and Sam to catch up with the crowd heading south. First they passed ones and twos, then larger groups, then found themselves riding at the side of a gigantic, slow-moving worm of people. Paul took the motorcycle off the road, for they could move faster over the fields, though the going was bumpy. They were far enough out from town to be away from the buildings that would make such maneuvering difficult. He kept them close to the road, though; a motorcycle racing off-road in the middle of a war might prove too tempting a target for a skittish gunman. Still, with the weight of another person behind him, plus bags and a tool kit, the motorcycle was extremely difficult to manipulate at slow speeds. So Paul found what paths he could, close to the road, never straying too far from sight of it. Most of the column of refugees ignored them as they passed, zigging closer for a stretch and then zagging away again.
The sun glared; Paul stopped for a moment and put his feet down so that he could fit his sunglasses behind his goggles. His hands were already shaking and numb from the work of keeping the moto up and on track and sweat was dripping down his arms and into his gloves. Sam, fortunately, was doing what he had been told, staying still on back of the bike, uncomplaining.
Aside from the noises of the engines straining to take people away from town, Paul realized, the day was still and quiet.
[Chapter Sixteen can be found here.]