When the angel of death plotted my death, he convinced me to be patriotic. I sat at a makeshift desk and signed attestation forms and, months later, took the Oath of Allegiance.
In Somalia, the world floated cloud-like upon the billowing smokes of explosions; my eyes stung from the combustion of gunpowder. Scarlet blood seeped into the depths of the earth, and bodies of my brethren-in-arms lay motionless, eyes eternally focused onto the heavens.
In the rain of falling bombs, I crawled for cover beneath a body of a fallen brother, his blood the water I desperately needed.
“Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar!” The cries were more of a benediction than a declaration. The attackers were everywhere, killing the already dead who lay singly or in piles, pitiful fragments of humanity.
Terrible, I thought, and my stomach knotted more as darkness welled up from within me, a resignation to the impeding loss of my life. It was like the wings of a heron enclosing around me to snuff all the life out of me.
It is Eid al-Fitr, and life has never been better in Somalia. The last of al-Shabaab strongholds fell a year ago. Jilib is now a bustling city, and our Civil Military Cooperation (CIMIC) Operations have brought the people closer. We were not infidels after all.
This day, the Commissioner of Jilib district invited us to celebrate Eid with them. The AMISOM Headquarters in Mogadishu approved.
The garden is decorated with palm leaves and coloured bunting. In the middle is a large marquee worked with national symbols in blue, white, and green, the coat of arms of Jubaland, and two spears and ears of wheat and corn for fertility. Beneath it, the ceremony would take place, a benediction for the new Somalia.
Trestle tables covered with bright cloths and set with bowls of the finest of Somali cuisine—a cocktail of Arab, Turkish, Indian, Italian, and Swahili menus; Xalwo, jalaato, basbousa—and other delicacies stand crisp and gay. No VIP lounge, only enough space for over five hundred guests, an open space for dancing, and a raised timber stand hanging with Somalia, Jubaland, and AMISOM flags.
The Governor of Middle Jubba is expected, so are the Commissioners of Bu’aale and Sakow districts.
An army of waiters moves around, happy and merry. A platoon of armed Jubaland Security Forces soldiers has deployed at strategic points for security. Besides these, we have our own security in plainclothes. It was decided that we had to trust JSF and the Somalia National Army to provide security.
I am watching each waiter as they serve. The hairs at the back of my neck go up just as I intercept surreptitious communication between two of them. The marquee is a cacophony of laughter and applause of the guests, all oblivious.
Without a warning, a burst of automatic gunfire quiets everyone, just as a stream of bullets slash through bellies of whoever is in the line of fire.
“All soldiers are dead,” the voice in my earpiece says.
How do you fight an enemy armed with automatic machine guns with pistols? I ask myself as I drop flat on the ground. A hurricane of screams and shouts and desperate cries joins the roar of the guns.
I see several of my soldiers in plainclothes respond, but they fire only once before heavy gunfire sends them reeling back against a table, or another falling body. Bright blood spurts from the wounds, drenching their fine celebratory garments.
Chaos is a constellation of panic-stricken mob screaming, falling, and crawling and dying beneath the flail of the guns.
I have my pistol in hand, with so many targets to aim at but not sure which one. I see one of the gunmen drop his machine gun, tear his waiter clothes and reach for something inside the clothes he had hidden. He comes up with a grenade in each hand and hurls one towards me, and the other to another crowd.
The grenades explode simultaneously, a twin blast of white flame and terrible sweep of shrapnel. Women’s screams cut above the din, and another explosion swallows their screams.
I hit the ground before the grenade explodes, just in time to see the gunman poised to throw his next grenade, right arm extended behind him, both fists filled with the deadly steel balls: Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar! His war cry above the screams of his victims.
My body is a caterpillar, senseless, moving without bidding; I am numb, only my elbows willing to crawl me to safety—beneath the dead, or the dying.
“OC,” a voice said when I came to.
I moaned, breathless, seeing nothing.
“Sir?” I asked, turning to the direction the voice had come from.
“Welcome back, we thought we had lost you.”
“I can’t see.” I commanded the eyelids to split open, but they disobeyed.
I can’t see! I groped for nothing.
“It’ll be alright,” my Commanding Officer said, and my heart shattered.
Elgon Ward at the Defence Forces Memorial was eerily quiet.
“The Governor and the Jilib District commissioner died in the attack,” my CO told me. “Al-Shabaab wanted to kill them for collaborating with AMISOM in liberating Jilib. We lost twenty soldiers, and JSF and SNA fifty. You’re lucky to be alive.”
“Over three hundred. Al-Shabaab claimed responsibility; they want the 2020/2021 AMISOM Troops Withdrawal from Somalia Plan effected. They say AMISOM lied to the Somali people, AMISOM presence in Somalia is imperialistic.”
The following day, during his routine checks, the chief surgeon told me that they had removed the bullet that had passed through my lung and lodged between the third and fourth vertebrae.
“All your eyes are okay, none was injured …”
“There’s a tiny steel fragment, certainly from a grenade. The optical nerves were affected.”
“We can’t say yet, we will conduct another surgery …”
“Permanently? Will I be blind permanently?”
“We will know when we remove the fragment, but as at now you have no recognition of shape, or colour, of light or darkness.”
My stomach knotted a thousand times. “Does my wife know? Mother?”
“Not yet, they are coming today …”
“I want to see my CO.”
“We have scheduled a major neurosurgery tomorrow to try to remove the metal fragment, but it’s not a guarantee your sight …”
“The CO, please.”
A while later, a voice said, “Afande, CO amekuja.”
I heard the CO pull a chair beside my bed.
“The others?” I asked.
“Two succumbed to their injuries last night; the other is out of danger, so are you.” He paused. “But you—”
“I know. They told me,” I stopped, my voice choking. “That’s why I wanted to talk with you.”
“Your wife and parents are coming—”
I struggled up to one elbow, my face heavy underneath the bandages, my bound eyes blindly open.
“You can’t let them see me like this, they can’t see me …”
“They are your family; you can’t possibly expect me to send them away. They have been informed—”
“Please … They can never know I am alive. I have thought about it well, and this is my decision.”
Mashujaa Home is like a haunted house in a forested section of Embakasi Garrison. Every time I tap my way around, I stumble into someone, and it reminds me that the home was geared to sudden influxes of war on terror casualties.
Most of those maimed in Somalia elect to stay at Mashujaa Home rather than with their families where we keep vigil together all our lives in the eerie home till Mashujaa Cemetery, bordering Kayole slums, shall swallow our frail bodies draped in the flag we fought for.
Every now and then, I think of the conversation I had with my CO when I requested him to do all he could, even to fake my death, so my family didn’t know I was permanently blind, useless to them, forever a liability in their lives.
“Sir, you see, it is permanent, final, hopeless. I am, never to see again. I have gone into a dark world of my own where nobody else can follow me. I have thought about it, and I am ready. The sooner I made the decision the sooner my wife started dating again without feeling tied down to a blind man.”
“I think that’s your wife’s decision to make, not yours.”
“No, sir. This is my decision. I will not see her again, even my parents. For them I am dead. Tell them I was dead, it was a mistaken identity, but they must remember me when I was alive.”
“I can’t do that, OC.”
“You have to. Swear a solemn oath to me. One soldier to another.”
“If I do that, and that’s a big IF, I will be failing as your CO. There will be boards of inquiry … you will forfeit any salary or allowance you may have. You will be dead; your benefits will go to your family as per the SOPs, the law. You will cut all contact with your family for all days of your life. The care you will receive at Mashujaa is not the same as what your family would give you. Is that want you want?”
“Yes sir, that’s what I want.”
“Why, but why?” the CO demanded desperately. “Why do you reject your family? The system is not your family, you know?”
“I know I am altered beyond all hope or promise. I know that what was before can never be again. I know that I can never be to my wife again what she has a right to—she is young, beautiful, she cannot endure; in a month, a year perhaps, she will realize she is trapped, tied to a blind man. I can’t endure that. I can no longer be her husband.”
“What you’re asking of me …”
There was a long bout of silence, then he murmured: “Very well, if that’s what you want, I will see what I can do, though I don’t promise not to try to convince you to change your mind.”
“Thank you, sir,” I said, and sunk back in the bed. When I closed my eyes, all I saw was my wife: every trace of the good times we ever had all gone, except for the lingering afterimages of the fights, the distrust, the pain of living together, and the last words she told me before leaving for Somalia: We need more money, go to Somalia like other men—a parting gift.
The words swam and welled misty in my eyes. Her fading voice was all I had left of her.