I don’t know who started the nightly march, but the idea seemed to be working. We all walked back because there wasn’t enough room for adults. We remained in our huts, taking our chances, after escorting the children to town. If the children didn’t go, the rebels had more reason to attack the village at night. Then, they’d steal the little ones in the darkness to man the rebel army. Too young and traumatized to know to run, they were led away compliant. Why didn’t they scream, the little ones? They’d start to cry, but get beaten for it. Instead of crying more, their tears dried up.
We marched the children every night for hours to a town that had a building with a gate that locked. They had lights, too. The wrought iron didn’t seem like much of a deterrent to me. Weren’t they just gathering all the little ones into a farm ripe for the picking? It was hard, the march back, leaving the little ones behind. In the black jungle with the mothers, no one talked.
The rebels had machetes and guns. We had them, too. I also had my M4 with an adjustable butt-stock to accommodate my short arms. So, we marched.
I didn’t speak whatever language I heard them use, but they didn’t speak our language either. I know the look of tired terror and grief on any face. We understood all the same. A woman with no French pointed to the man, angry that he was with us. She had no trust for him. I motioned a little circle around us with my hand, pointed to him and, then, my heart. I pointed at him, again, hit my gun and, then pointed into the forest. She understood, but kept beside me, never fully assured. No one spoke English, except for the Aussie man.
I knew it was about more than just the children. A mother would come, with the children she still possessed, to the camp when the husband abandoned her for shaming him. The gang rapes weren’t enough to conquer these women. Broken they came, but not conquered. They must be the strongest women on the planet.
The scars were the worst. They were torn inside and out. I wasn’t the doctor, but stood guard as she examined them. She spoke French, too. New women arrived daily. Rebels used sticks on them, others penetrated them, and, still, others liked to use the barrel of their handguns. Sometimes they fired. Even some of those women lived. You’d tell me it wasn’t possible and to come home, but I stayed.
Once during the day after the return march, the children played with a soccer ball a little low on air. I had to go behind the hut and out into the bush to vomit. The sight was unbearable and the truth that they’d be alone without us, like they’d been in their villages when the rebels came for them, was a heavy burden. Sometimes, I just couldn’t keep the food down. I rested on my knees next to the putrid puddle and cried, trying not to wail for them, for all the inhumanity because no one greater came. They had no resources to encourage international armies to land on foreign soil, nothing to plunder for themselves. The civil war raged for years before I got there. I usually get paid for jobs, but this was pro bono. I’d collect myself and return to camp or not. That’s when the Aussie stood guard.
I’d take my days to the jungle. I waded through the lush vastness crouched down waiting for a shot. The homemade silencer worked well enough after the manufacturer one broke. They were always close-by, sitting, waiting for the March to begin. They’d try to break it up and run-off with the little ones that they could grab. You remember the woods, the draws, the spurs, the hills, your knuckles. In these parts, the birds stopped chirping. They’d be close then. It wasn’t me. The birds knew me.
In the neck. That’s the spot. Painful, silencing, and efficient enough. They always stood then, gasping. The others’ heads popped up. Easy enough. One, two, three, four, like whack- a-mole. You remember that, surely. I’d empty the magazine every time. They’d retreat, but they wouldn’t know which way to go. I had spares. You remember when they taught us that: attention to detail, back-ups for the back-up. But I’d be solo there on the daily hunt. The Aussie’s excursions alternated with my own. He remembered. But I always found them first. I could smell them; it was in their blood, their crimes. It was a stench different from my own. That’s when I bathed with water, so they couldn’t smell me. I’d stay downwind that week. Remember that?
I was more effective than the Aussie.
“Watch for the broken sticks or flattened leaves,” I’d tell him.
“From their inexperience in the arts,” he knew.
“Makes for easy pickings, but they spread out’,” in case he didn’t know.
“All lookouts,” he’d say.
One at a time. That’s how it was. The deeper I’d go, the closer I’d get to the commander of that band. He’d never return. My scope still worked fine. I’d save him for last. Remember, no prisoners. No mercy, they taught me that. I boiled from the inside out. The sun was no match for me. Land nav. I was the best back then. Couldn’t run worth a damn, but I never got left behind, never got us lost. But, I didn’t need to run. I didn’t perch, either. Too obvious. They aren’t’ deer and their meat is worthless. There wasn’t any deer anyway, just chimps and birds. They perched and I protected them, too, making the rebels starve. I’d leave them to rot. Theirs would come to gather them when the stench found them. That way I’d find them, too. Too easy, but slow. They had only numbers on us, few skilled. They’d been the little ones once, but lost and assimilated now. Rebels, every one.
No blood on my hands. I’d return with some rabbits for stew. Everyone was excited. The ladies smiled and the children more. I don’t know how. Dinner was by the fire. They’d dance, those that could. The others clapped. I’d sit and clap, too, before the march. My knees were fine. Finer was the hunt.
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