Just three days earlier, I had seen my father walking slowly from work. His hard hat was under his arm and his long face was sweating from the hot afternoon sun. I was sitting on the verandah. I had not seen him for a while, as another stepmother had destroyed our relationship again. But that morning my father smiled at me as he came up the steps. He examined my face, and his lips were about to utter something, when my stepmother came out. He looked away, then at my stepmother, who pretended not to see me. They quietly went into the parlor. I held back my tears and left the verandah to meet with Junior at the junction where we waited for the lorry. We were on our way to see our mother in the next town about three miles away. When our father had paid for our school, we had seen her on weekends over the holidays when we were back home. Now that he refused to pay, we visited her every two or three days. That afternoon we met Mother at the market and walked with her as she purchased ingredients to cook for us. Her face was dull at first, but as soon as she hugged us, she brightened up. She told us that our little brother, Ibrahim, was at school and that we would go get him on our way from the market. She held our hands as we walked, and every so often she would turn around as if to see whether we were still with her.
As we walked to our little brother's school, Mother turned to us and said, "I am sorry I do not have enough money to put you boys back in school at this point. I am working on it." She paused and then asked, "How is your father these days?"
"He seems all right. I saw him this afternoon," I replied. Junior didn't say anything.
Mother looked him directly in the eyes and said, "Your father is a good man and he loves you very much. He just seems to attract the wrong stepmothers for you boys."
When we got to the school, our little brother was in the yard playing soccer with his friends. He was eight and pretty good for his age. As soon as he saw us, he came running, throwing himself on us. He measured himself against me to see if he had gotten taller than me. Mother laughed. My little brother's small round face glowed, and sweat formed around the creases he had on his neck, just like my mother's. All four of us walked to Mother's house. I held my little brother's hand, and he told me about school and challenged me to a soccer game later in the evening. My mother was single and devoted herself to taking care of Ibrahim. She said he sometimes asked about our father. When Junior and I were away in school, she had taken Ibrahim to see him a few times, and each time she had cried when my father hugged Ibrahim, because they were both so happy to see each other. My mother seemed lost in her thoughts, smiling as she relived the moments.
Two days after that visit, we had left home. As we now stood at the wharf in Mattru Jong, I could visualize my father holding his hard hat and running back home from work, and my mother, weeping and running to my little brother's school. A sinking feeling overtook me.
Junior, Talloi, and I jumped into a canoe and sadly waved to our friends as the canoe pulled away from the shores of Mattru Jong. As we landed on the other side of the river, more and more people were arriving in haste. We started walking, and a woman carrying her flip-flops on her head spoke without looking at us: "Too much blood has been spilled where you are going. Even the good spirits have fled from that place." She walked past us. In the bushes along the river, the strained voices of women cried out, "Nguwor gbor mu ma oo," God help us, and screamed the names of their children: "Yusufu, Jabu, Foday . . ." We saw children walking by themselves, shirtless, in their underwear, following the crowd. "Nya nje oo, nya keke oo," my mother, my father, the children were crying. There were also dogs running, in between the crowds of people, who were still running, even though far away from harm. The dogs sniffed the air, looking for their owners. My veins tightened.
We had walked six miles and were now at Kabati, Grandmother's village. It was deserted. All that was left were footprints in the sand leading toward the dense forest that spread out beyond the village.
As evening approached, people started arriving from the mining area. Their whispers, the cries of little children seeking lost parents and tired of walking, and the wails of hungry babies replaced the evening songs of crickets and birds. We sat on Grandmother's verandah, waiting and listening.
"Do you guys think it is a good idea to go back to Mogbwemo?" Junior asked. But before either of us had a chance to answer, a Volkswagen roared in the distance and all the people walking on the road ran into the nearby bushes. We ran, too, but didn't go that far. My heart pounded and my breathing intensified. The vehicle stopped in front of my grandmother's house, and from where we lay, we could see that whoever was inside the car was not armed. As we, and others, emerged from the bushes, we saw a man run from the driver's seat to the sidewalk, where he vomited blood. His arm was bleeding. When he stopped vomiting, he began to cry. It was the first time I had seen a grown man cry like a child, and I felt a sting in my heart. A woman put her arms around the man and begged him to stand up. He got to his feet and walked toward the van. When he opened the door opposite the driver's, a woman who was leaning against it fell to the ground. Blood was coming out of her ears. People covered the eyes of their children.
In the back of the van were three more dead bodies, two girls and a boy, and their blood was all over the seats and the ceiling of the van. I wanted to move away from what I was seeing, but couldn't. My feet went numb and my entire body froze. Later we learned that the man had tried to escape with his family and the rebels had shot at his vehicle, killing all his family. The only thing that consoled him, for a few seconds at least, was when the woman who had embraced him, and now cried with him, told him that at least he would have the chance to bury them. He would always know where they were laid to rest, she said. She seemed to know a little more about war than the rest of us.
The wind had stopped moving and daylight seemed to be quickly giving in to night. As sunset neared, more people passed through the village. One man carried his dead son. He thought the boy was still alive. The father was covered with his son's blood, and as he ran he kept saying, "I will get you to the hospital, my boy, and everything will be fine." Perhaps it was necessary that he cling to false hopes, since they kept him running away from harm. A group of men and women who had been pierced by stray bullets came running next. The skin that hung down from their bodies still contained fresh blood. Some of them didn't notice that they were wounded until they stopped and people pointed to their wounds. Some fainted or vomited. I felt nauseated, and my head was spinning. I felt the ground moving, and people's voices seemed to be far removed from where I stood trembling.
The last casualty that we saw that evening was a woman who carried her baby on her back. Blood was running down her dress and dripping behind her, making a trail. Her child had been shot dead as she ran for her life. Luckily for her, the bullet didn't go through the baby's body. When she stopped at where we stood, she sat on the ground and removed her child. It was a girl, and her eyes were still open, with an interrupted innocent smile on her face. The bullets could be seen sticking out just a little bit in the baby's body and she was swelling. The mother clung to her child and rocked her. She was in too much pain and shock to shed tears.
Junior, Talloi, and I looked at each other and knew that we must return to Mattru Jong, because we had seen that Mogbwemo was no longer a place to call home and that our parents couldn't possibly be there anymore. Some of the wounded people kept saying that Kabati was next on the rebels' list. We didn't want to be there when the rebels arrived. Even those who couldn't walk very well did their best to keep moving away from Kabati. The image of that woman and her baby plagued my mind as we walked back to Mattru Jong. I barely noticed the journey, and when I drank water I didn't feel any relief even though I knew I was thirsty. I didn't want to go back to where that woman was from; it was clear in the eyes of the baby that all had been lost.
Excerpted from A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah. Copyright Â© 2007 by Ishmael Beah. Published in February 2007 by Sarah Crichton Books, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.
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