Casualty

by Edward Eremugo Luka

In the enclosure next door to where Nyambura slept, the single cock crowed at the usual time.  The cold early morning breeze blew through the tiny window in the circular mud and thatched roofed hut. The sun rose in the east, between the mango tree and the tall twin pawpaw trees. That night, the usual gunshot was also heard, breaking the eerie silence of the night with a deafening, heart wrenching echo, reminding everyone of the dangers that abound every night. 

Right behind the hut he slept in with his brother, Nyambura had a small patch of land that he used for planting. His father was adamant that he learn the art of farming the land. How else could a man live if not from farming? For his father, the education he was giving his son had been forced on him when has a boy. He gave in just because the other children in the village were going to school. In his heart he knew it would not bring much change, for his children must dig the land and live off of it. He had seen countless children go through the school but who never got anywhere, only to come back to the village and start all over again with farming. He wanted to give his children both options. That was why Nyambura had a small farm for planting tomatoes and beans.

At just eight years old, he had been doing fine with his little farming experience. Ever since his father gave him the piece of land to try out his skills, he had loved the practice. His tomatoes had grown bigger every day and had started to produce small flowers. The beans had crawled all over the place. They had started eating the green leaves already. He would have to put some posts in between the plants so that the creepers could climb without covering much space. The tomatoes would need small supporting structures too when they started developing. He would have to go to the forest and collect some wood to make the needed structures. Maybe, he would become a great farmer one day, his father told him. 

Or maybe a cattle herder? Nyambura never liked going after the cattle. His father had taken him several times to the cattle camp but he never liked it there at all. Sleeping beside the smelly animals under the moon light, covered in ashes to ward of the mosquitoes was no fun for him.

The old rusty gong brought Nyambura back from his dream. The whole school shouted as one, the roar coming out of a hundreds of tiny mouths crying out in unison. The kids ran out of the classrooms into the main playground in the middle of the school. The school was not that big, six class rooms and teachers’ offices in the shape of a badly drawn ‘U.’ Being the beginning of the year, their uniforms were still bright and new, the green shirts, khaki shorts and skirts shining in the midday sun. As they ran out, the small bags with thin straps dangled on their backs, the same on every kid, courtesy of Unicef. They were filled with exercise books and emblazoned with the Unicef logo on them.

The long war had come and gone and now children must go to school, the chief had said. The elusive peace had at last been found. Nyambura had no memory of the war. During the war, they were moving from one camp to another as refugees with his family. He was too small to remember anything. He was probably too small to remember the night their village was attacked and destroyed to the ground by the high-flying planes sent from Khartoum. He could not have known how his family had to run through the bush as fire rained from the sky. Maybe, he would understand when he grew up. His mother had told him the stories but he could not comprehend them well enough. Maybe, one day he would. Nyambura thought about his father. He never knew his father. His mother had told him that his father died the day he was born several years ago. He still could not come to grapple with this reality. Maybe the stories were not true. He had believed deep inside that one day he would return.

Nyambura stopped at the far end of the school compound to await the rest of the team. Ever since the schools opened and classes resumed, they had been exploring the areas around the village like crazy. Just the four of them brought together by friendship: Jada, just turning twelve; Wani, eleven; Bidal, ten and Nyambura. They had been inseparable right from the start of the school year.

Jada led the group. He has a big physique for his age and commanded respect among his peers. He seemed to know everything and had answers to all questions. When he did not know something, he always said, I will find out. And he always did. That was him. The teachers liked him too. 

When the whole group had assembled, Jada led them off the track towards the forest path.  They stopped under a mango tree behind the school and took off their school shirts, to reveal football jerseys underneath. Since it was Friday and there would be no school the next day, they stashed the shirts into their school bags. The day was for exploration. The boys always planned something different every day of the week. Last week they had gone toward the other side of the river on a dugout canoe to the mango fields where Jada has his uncle’s plantation. Although the season was still early for mangoes, they had gotten the semi-ripe ones and ate them like salad, with salt, pepper and lemon until their mouths became sore. During their expeditions, they always returned home late in the evening in time for the evening meal.

Jada led them through the shrubs and bushes as they filed behind him. He was making fast struts, his school bag dangling on his back with every step. Soon they were sweating in the afternoon heat, even as they trudged through the forest path with the sun appearing now and then through the trees. 

They came out into a clearing on the far side of the village. There were women working in the field, using their small hoes to clear weed from the groundnuts field. These fields had been no-go areas just six months before. When the conflict ended, several people were maimed by landmines and other unexploded bombs there. People said the village was at the frontline of the war and was heavily mined. Now the fields were safe for cultivation.

Several groups had worked in the fields to clear it of those mines. It was a painstaking work to watch. Before their schools opened, the boys used to climb the trees near the village to watch the men work. They wore strange looking contraptions and stooped low to the ground, with their machines whining in the heat of the day. From time to time, they would stop and one would kneel down to plant red-triangular flags in the spot. Another team will follow to dig it out. The road from the village was once dotted with these red flags. The road had a fading sign, which said ‘Stay on the road always: landmines around!’ Although the roads are now free of landmines, no one had bothered to remove the old sign.

One of the women working in the filed raised her head and looked in their direction as they filed past, not wanting to be identified.

“Hey, Jada,” the woman shouted. “Where are you going?”

Jada ignored her and continued on. His troops followed behind, carefully. 

“Am talking to you, young man,” she persisted. “Are you up to some mischief?”

Jada realized he could not shake her off simply by ignoring her comments and questions. He stopped and turned towards her. She just looked at them, her eyes asking the same question again.

“We are taking a walk through the fields, auntie”, he answered.

“Don’t get into trouble out there”, she warned. “Or I will tell your mother”.

Without another word the group scuttled off, beaming smiles across their faces as they moved further away from the women in the field. 

Several minutes later, Jada stopped at a hill and the others stood behind him, as he scanned the scene in front of him. He stood there like a commander of an army, surveying the ground where he would lead his troops into battle. He remembered coming through here with his father some months back and seeing some old trucks in the bush. His father told him they were old military trucks, remnants of the war days. He wanted to explore them today with his team.

He saw the landmark he was looking for, a tall coconut tree, way to the side. He bounced down the hill towards the trees and crossed into the bush. He leveled the tall elephant grass with his feet as he waded through it towards the tree. The others followed without a word.

Then he saw them. The trucks were covered in overgrowth, hidden from view by the overhanging trees and shrubs. He forced his way through the thick overgrowth on to the side of the first vehicle. The three green trucks were in a straight line, like they were deliberately parked that way a long time ago.

“Here they are folks,” Jada shouted, the excitement was palpable in his unusually shrill voice. “Lets see what we have got here.”

He crawled through the canopy of the first vehicle in the line. It looked intact, aside from the rusty body parts, the shredded rat-eaten seats and the layer of fine dust that had settled on every part of the interior. Jada climbed into the truck and sat at the wheels. He tried to turn the steering wheel but it got stuck. 

The other boys climbed in the back. Nyambura went round the vehicle and climbed from the back. The truck had been carrying some things, by the look of the items there. Wrappings and old, dirty cloths filled the back. Several wooden boxes lay broken, covered with cobwebs with grass growing out of their sides. There were probably snakes out there too, Nyambura thought. He immediately climbed down and followed Jada to the second vehicle.

There was nothing exciting around the two other trucks, except for the last one, which was completely burnt out. The tires were gone, only the iron rims remained. The body parts made of wood were all gone, as well as the seat cushions and other plastic parts. Jada climbed again into the driver’s seat; he sat on the iron springs, which were rusty and smelly. In one corner of the cabin, a nest sat, covered in feathers. It looked like a bird had made its home there.

Jada got down from behind the wheel and looked around the vehicle.

“I saw these trucks many months ago”, he said. “I never knew what they were until now. Army trucks”.

“Why are they here?” Nyambura asked.

“These were here from the days of the war. These were enemy vehicles. They carried their soldiers”.

“What happened to them? Why is nobody towing them away to use?”

“Probably damaged beyond repair,” Jada answered.

They walked around the vehicle to explore the rest when Nyambura’s feet got caught up in something.

“What is this?” he exclaimed.

Jada stopped and picked a small rotting bag. It must have been laying there for ages from the look of it. As he pulled it from the ground, a round metal object dropped into the grass.

“What is it?” Nyambura asked.

“Looks like iron balls. There are two of them”.

“Iron balls?”

Jada had not seen anything like these before. “We’ll take them with us,” he added

Nyambura took one of the balls in his hand. It was surprisingly heavy for its size, like an orange. The parts were rusty with age. He slipped his ball into his pocket.

“Lets go back. Its getting late”, Jada said.

Later that night, Nyambura took out his iron ball and looked at it carefully under the kerosene lamp hanging from the roof. He was alone in the hut, his sibling having gone out to the compound. Although it looked like a ball, there was a funny protrusion on one side and the surface was rough. He examined it, wondering how to use it. Maybe it was not a ball, he thought. He shook it and placed it closer to his ear. No sound could be heard. There was nothing inside he could hear. He found a protruding metal sticking from one side of the ball and pulled it.

The explosion was heard a mile away, shattering the peace and silence of the night.

Edward Eremugo Luka was born in Juba, South Sudan and went to school there. He graduated as a medical doctor from University of Juba in 1999 and worked as a physician in Darfur before specializing in public health in Germany in 2007. His interest in writing began at a young age and he contributed to the local school news board. In 1993, he attended a creative writers’ workshop at the British Council in Khartoum facilitated by renowned South Sudanese writer/poet Taban Lo Liyong that reignited his passion for writing. Later in Khartoum he volunteered as a literary editor for the Sudan Council of Churches Women’s Newspaper called Arise, where most of his short stories and articles were published. However, the pressures of medical practice kept him out of the literary scene for many years, until he moved to online publishing. He has published several short stories on www.author-me.com since then. Edward lives and works in Juba.