The rains were returning gradually and the roads were deteriorating gradually too. It’s only a matter of time before travelling along these roads would be next to impossible. Water-logged mud earth on the roads would sink and stick lorries and any other vehicle travelers use.
As the lorry travelled at what could be the fastest speed it could possibly move by, Joseph Dahr grew more impatient. It felt to him like time stood still in the wrong moment, like a nightmare that would never end.
In the forty two years of his life, he had seen tumultuous times and mountainous challenges aplenty, but nothing comparable to this one. Nothing ever made his heart feel this heavy yet empty. This was the moment he wished would never come and now would never be able to wish away. This was his darkest night.
He gazed up at the black, bulky man sitting next to him on a more elevated bench, “You know you do not have to do this, my friend.”
“What?” Lawrence Ottoise widened his big black steady eyes at his troubled friend.
“I mean you do not have to come with me, if you had stayed back in Kinshasa it would be fine with me all the same.”
He was a Don Cheadle size of man with a shiny black skin, like a skillfully polished black leather shoe. More so when the day’s heat is turned up and his skin goes oily.
Lawrence grabbed his friend’s left shoulder with his thick hand, “I know Joe, but you need me to do this. Trust me; you will need the use of a friend when we get there.”
They were friends; nay, brothers, as friendship falters. Each man never had a better companion.
“You know, no one knows what we might find when we get there, we even have no idea how difficult it would be to find them.”
“We will be fortunate.”
“You do not know that.”
“My hopes do not fail me.”
“Hopes,” Joseph bowed his head slowly, “we would never be sure until we see them.”
Joseph took a heavy breath, rubbed his palms together furiously, and then puffed out his cheeks. None of these calmed him down one bit from his distraught. Only having Rosa and JJ safely with him once again would.
His hands were clamped over his mouth with his elbows resting on his slightly trembling knees. It was hard to hide his devastation. What just happened to him was every man’s nightmare where he comes from. He could not summon hope at all. No one in his shoes does.
The LRA does not leave room for that.
“Of course we would not, that is why we need to keep praying,” Lawrence squeezed the off-white rosary in his hand before making a cautious hand movement over his face to cross himself.
“Prayer…” Joseph muttered under his breath, now wondering if that ever worked for anyone, “Rosa prays a lot.”
It was April of 2009 and the scourge of the terror of the Lord’s Resistant Army had brought north eastern Democratic Republic of Congo to its knees.
The LRA was the deathly crew of the most ruthless and inhumane persons that ever walked the surface of the earth. They were led by the most vicious of them all, Joseph Kony. They were tribal cleansers the Nazis would have envied. When they raid a village or other settlements, mercy is blotted out of everyone’s vocabulary and anything short of complete sorrow is unimaginable.
They kill, they maim, they rape the women and abduct them as sex slaves for eternity and they make the boys into soldiers, little soldiers whose innocence has been snuffed out prematurely.
“I was confident they will not attack Sadi,” Joseph bit his lips regretfully.
“Me too,” Lawrence lied, but it was to make Joseph feel less guilty.
“Fate is cruel sometimes, what have I done to deserve this?”
In the Christmas of 2008, Joseph spent the holiday with his family in his tiny village of Sadi, a settlement of mostly hunters and few farmers about two miles north of Faradje. That Christmas, Faradje was attacked. Over six hundred people were killed and as many abducted in Faradje and some surrounding villages, but Sadi was spared.
Dwellers of Sadi however knew it was only a matter of time before they taste from the LRA’s pot of misery. Only Joseph disagreed, he called Rosa his wife paranoid when she insisted the entire family moved with him to Kinshasa, but he promised to do that within the year anyway.
His back was rested on the chill metal wall of the lorry’s carriage as it galloped along the road. He stared blankly at the straight faces of the other commuters, saying remorsefully, “It is my fault, you know. I could have been able to move them to the city before this happened if only I was man enough.”
“Come on, Joe, do not put yourself through this torture. I can testify that you did your best to raise money for the apartment; it just was not early enough. That is ill luck, not your fault.”
“I did not do enough,”
“You did what a man would do.”
“You do not understand, Law.” he looked up at his friend, “In December she wanted to move in. I was foolish; I insisted we needed a bigger apartment. Will I not rather have them in a hole than not have them at all?”
“You took a decision you thought was best for her, which is what every man would do,” Lawrence still had his hand on his friend’s shoulder, “you can still have them in your big apartment. Sure.”
“I shall never forgive myself for this.”
“If you want to beat yourself up for this, fine. I will not stop you, but do realize that it will not help us find them. We will turn Sadi upside down and inside out. That is how we find them.”
Joseph made a forced grin and fixed it on Lawrence, his best friend. They go way back from the days of their service as young soldiers in Laurent Desire Kabila’s rebellion army. Joseph had met a fellow troubled young man who shared his wonder if they were in the real sense doing their country a service as their generals would want them to believe. Or were they just being mere mindless elements in the war chest of yet another heartless warlord who couldn’t wait to get his own chance for dictatorship.
“Time would tell,” the young Joe would assure his friend.
“I do not want to be here when time tells me I might have taken part in another cruel dictatorship.”
“What would you rather do?”
“Quit the military when Kabila gets power.”
“You should wait to see what he does with it.”
“What do they ever do with absolute power?”
Joseph never gave an answer to that question. They resigned after Kabila became President to return to their villages. To the trade they’ve always known. Tilling the earth and reaping from the fertility of the Congo basin. Joseph got married to Rosa, the second daughter of Sadi’s prime herbalist. After the birth of Joe Junior, Joseph travelled back to Kinshasa with his friend to take up a factory job in a truck assembly plant. A few years later, they were able to set up their own auto repair shop. For them it was a huge leap forward that held bright promises for their families.
They travelled half the day along a hundred mile distance on land and water to get to Sadi.
Sadi was the aftermath of Armageddon and rapture put together. The calm and crusty village Joseph grew up and was raising his son had now become a site of colossal destruction and desolation. The huts and family homes were empty. Some were completely burnt down. Joseph and Lawrence walked close to each other as they went from hut to hut; inspecting and hoping there would be a living soul to find. Just one person who would give them details of what happened, perhaps they can find clues as to how to find Rosa and Joe Junior.
“How many people use to live here?” Lawrence asked in a low tone.
“Eight thousand plus, maybe ten.”
There was no sign of human life anywhere near them. Birds chirped on trees, cats meowed around empty huts, foxes barked from the forests nearby but no baby cried.
There was no human sign.
This place is dead…as dead as Laurent Kabila.
They walked past four bodies. Two of children, an old lady with a fairly deep chest injury, and a young man who had multiple machete wounds on his head. Joseph spat disgustingly as they past the last of them.
There were a few fresh body parts lying around. Some domestic materials like sooty iron pots, low wooden stools and utensils were scattered outside some huts.
“The attack took them unawares,” Lawrence kicked a bowl of half eaten yam porridge.
“Typically LRA,” Joseph nodded.
Just above them, the vultures were calling a huge feast. They were circling with wide spread wings around the dead village.
“Let us get out of here,” Joseph said. “It makes me sick.”
Lawrence followed him without a word. They started making their way into a nearby farm of vegetables and banana trees at the edge of an uncultivated fallowing forest of heavy shrubs and bushes.
“What might have become of the rest of the Villagers?” Lawrence asked, walking closely behind Joseph and looking over his shoulders.
“They would run to nearby villages for refuge. Some would begin to live in the middle of their farmlands. Usually, some would return to their huts immediately the LRA are gone.”
“And sleep with an eye open?”
“Sleep is a luxury. They have nowhere to go.”
“Why is there no one at all here?”
“I am at a loss too.”
“Maybe the LRA men are not gone. That is what it could mean.”
Joseph paused and turned to his friend, “You are right, we have to be watchful.”
Lawrence ducked his head to lower his body quickly and began to take gentle steps.
“What are you doing?” Joseph winced confusedly at him.
In a whisper, Lawrence responded with slight urgency, “The LRA might be around,”
“Come on, Law. If they are around, trust me they are watching already. You cannot tip toe and bend enough to escape their sight.”
“We have to try.”
“What we have to do is walk normally and watch out for anything that moves.”
“Okay,” he straightened himself and walked closely behind Joseph. He was still looking over his shoulders occasionally.
“There is another settlement somewhere behind this thick forest. I cannot tell anymore how far it is but I can remember it use to be bigger than this one.”
“You think we can find them there?”
“We only have to hope.”
They kept walking with careful steps and maintained a low toned conversation. Joseph noticed a slight movement of some leaves on the ground some five yards ahead and stopped. He quickly made a stop signal to Lawrence by raising a hand. Carefully pensive, his eyes remained on the point he noticed the movement but the movement did not repeat. That did not take away his haunch that they definitely had company in close proximity.
Then gently and quietly, the leaves on that point he had his eyes began to rise and Joseph could see clearly the mouth of a machine gun pointed towards them rising under the leaves. He stepped back slowly with his friend but knew running would be unwise. They stood still with pounding hearts and alerted eyes as the full figure of a man was revealed. He was wearing a military camouflage and heavy black boots.
“Put your hands up where I can see ‘em,” the gun man yelled at them.
They instantly threw up their hands as if his harsh tone transmitted electric impulses of that effect, then they began to look around. They were already surrounded by five other uniformed men, all aiming their guns at them.
“Drop the bag,” another ordered.
Lawrence quickly dropped the backpack strapped to his back.
“What’s in the bag?”
Joseph glanced at the bag on the floor, now a bit relaxed to see they were soldiers. More relaxed because two were members of a UN peace-keeping troop. “Exchange cloths for us.”
“Get down on your knees.”
Joseph and Lawrence slowly put their knees to the ground, staring blankly at each other. The soldier in front signaled another to get close and search the men. He frisked Joseph and Lawrence, feeling their shirts and pants for concealed weapons. He found a short knife on Joseph and threw it to another soldier.
“That’s all I found,” he reported to the rest.
“Why do you have a weapon on you? Who the hell are you?” one of the UN soldiers began to shout the questions.
One would think they just apprehended al-Qaeda chiefs. The four soldiers from the Uganda Patriotic Defense Force standing behind Joseph and Lawrence were evidently not taking things that seriously.
Joseph looked the UN guy in his lean beardless face, “Can we stand up now?”
“No. You fucking stay down and answer my question.”
One of the soldiers behind him stepped on Joseph’s back forcefully with the sole of his boot. Joseph bawled softly then fell on his face. Lawrence did not wait for the kick before he went flatly on his face.
“We are not bad people,” Lawrence said.
“Then start answering my questions right gaddamned now,” the lean-faced soldier shouted at the top of his voice.
Joseph raised his face at him with a rude smirk, “Can you please repeat your question, tough army man?”
One of the UPDF men bent forward to Joseph and started speaking rapidly in Swahili.
“These UN mission soldiers can be mean and never kid with anybody, so you’d be better served taking them seriously. If we mistakenly run some bullets into your head then you add to the number of LRA victims or captured and killed LRA fighters. Be smart…”
“Let us stand up for God’s sake,” Joseph banged his hand angrily on the floor.
“No, you will stay this way and do whatever they ask you to do, that is…”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa, hold on there,” the other UN guy was yelling and stepping back to aim at Joseph, he was bald and shortish, “what the fuck is going on? No local tongue please, the kid speaks English.”
Joseph eyeballed the soldier coldly. How would he refer to a grown ass man that I am as a “kid”?
The UPDF man looked up at him, “I was just telling him in stern terms how stupid it is to play smart ass with us.”
“My name is Joseph Dahr, I have come from Kinshasa to look for my family. They live here.”
“Who’s the other guy?”
“My friend. Lawrence Ottoise.”
The soldiers stared ponderingly at them for some seconds then exchanged glances with each other.
“You have some ID I can see.”
“No I do not. Please believe me, I am not lying to you,” Joseph was talking earnestly now.
“I have an ID with me,” Lawrence said.
“Fine, let me see it. And you can sit up.”
Lawrence produced a plastic card from the back pocket of his denim pants and handed it to one of the UN soldiers.
The soldier studied it briefly then handed it to the other.
“It says something about you working in an assembly plant in Kinshasa.”
“That is right,” Lawrence nodded.
“But it also says it expired three years ago.”
“I did not renew it.”
“We resigned,” Joseph cut in, “started our own business.”
“You are sure?” he handed Lawrence’s ID back to him.
“Where are the villagers?” Joseph asked impatiently.
The bald soldier stared steadily at Joseph then asked his fellows, conversationally, “Do you believe these guys?”
“Hard to believe people around here,” the other UN soldier said.
“I think they are clean,” one of the UPDF men said half heartedly.
“You think?” the bald man shot him a plain stare from wary eyes.
He shrugged briefly.
“These could be spying for the LRA for all we know.”
“No, no, we are not,” Joseph said vehemently.
“Why would they want to spy on us?” another UPDF soldier asked, stunned by that opinion.
“What if we’re on their getaway path?”
“They would have shot us long before now.”
“We are Congolese who work in Kinshasa. LRA fighters are savage Ugandans, they…” Joseph was saying but was cut off by the bald soldier.
“What do you know about them?”
“Colonel, can I have a second with you?” a UPDF soldier took him aside and they began to converse silently.
After some minutes, the UN soldier returned, “What do you want from us?”
“We do not want anything from you. If my memory does not fail me, we were minding our business on our way before you stopped us, if you just…”
Joseph interrupted his friend, “Actually, we would need you to tell us how we can find my family.”
“How many people?” one UPDF soldier asked.
“Two, my wife and my little boy.”
“Nine years old,” Lawrence added.
The bald soldier nodded at a UPDF soldier, the one that spoke Swahili to Joseph.
“Sergeant Okutu and sergeant Kulpane would take you to the settlement they’re gathered. When you get there find Lieutenant Marcus. If your folks are there he should be able to help you find them.”
“Lieutenant Marcus,” Joseph said slowly.
“Yeah Marcus, more than six feet. A brown eyed ass-kicking son of a bitch,” he said, “don’t tell him I said that.”
Joseph nodded at the soldier and said in a dry tone, “If he does not ask, I might not tell.”
“Now get away from here.”
Sergeant Okutu led the way while sergeant Kulpane followed at the rear. They trudged along on their way, beating down healthy green undergrowth as they tried to keep a straight course without a clear path to follow.
“There used to be a foot path between these two settlements,” Joseph said to the soldier in front.
“I haven’t seen any.”
“When did you come?”
“About twenty-four hours ago.”
“The raiders were gone by then?” Lawrence asked.
“We did not see any of them. We began to gather the villagers who were scattered before we came into one settlement. That was after we’d taken over the perimeter.” he stated cautiously like he was reporting to a superior.
“Any official casualty figure yet?” Joseph asked.
“So far we put it at one zero four deaths, based on body counts. It could rise.”
“We saw four bodies back there,” Joseph told him.
“That makes it one zero eight,” he said dryly.
“For you I guess they are just numbers meant for the statistics. These are humans like you and me with hopes and dreams ended abruptly in cold blood, not numbers we state,” Joseph couldn’t be sure his reaction was borne from the connection he has with that number or if he was being naturally humane.
Would I have felt differently if I was the one carrying that gun and guarding the perimeter?
Sergeant Okutu turned around and glanced at Joseph quickly, “Okay, one zero eight humans like you and me with hopes and dreams ended abruptly in cold blood. Does that make any difference? Does it make you feel any better?”
“Yes it does.” Joseph snapped.
Sergeant Kulpane began to giggle in a manner Joseph found disrespectful and silly.
Lawrence had a good mind to beat both soldiers up if not for the guns they were carrying.
“Sergeant you should show some respect for these people. They could have been anyone’s sisters or brothers or children.”
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