If you were to write a story about Africa, what would it be?
We arrived in Africa to shouts of jubilation and the beating of drums. The people of Bamako, Mali were happy to see us and tired of being pushed around by the Islamist rebels. The balloons fell and music played from the overhead speakers. Half naked children ran along the military trucks, excited at the sight of white men in desert fatigue. We felt like heroes, the only thing missing were the champagne bottles.
“Welcome to Africa!” the people chanted.
On 11 January 2013, we launched Operation Serval, named after an African cat. Our mission in Mali as French Special Forces was to rid Mali off the Islamist rebels and bring peace back to the country: prevent al qaeda from turning the country into a strong hold on which to launch their attacks on the western world. As a former Colonizer of Mali, we, France also had a responsibility to protect our interest in the country and live up to our moral obligation.
On 12 January 2013, and with the help of the Malian soldiers, we launched an offensive in the battle of Koma and with a strong air support from the French warplanes and helicopters, the rebels had no choice but to retreat farther North. With hundreds of boots on the ground, and the persistent thump of gunship helicopters above us, we secured the towns of Markala and Timbuktu, killed almost sixty Islamist fighters in Gao and finally entered Kidal, the last town in North Mali to be held by the militants, two hundred kilometers from the Algerian border.
I walked around the camp and congratulated the boys on a job well done. We had taken minimal casualties and my goal as the Major was to make sure that the boys returned home to their wives and parents. I looked into their haggard and sun burnt faces and I knew that the pressure was slowly getting to them. The farther North we pushed, the deeper we got into the Sahara Desert. The sun burned like a torch, the night wind howled like a ghost. We all knew that Kidal was the last town before we handed over operations to the Mali Government and a United African force. It was the one thing that gave us hope for tomorrow: the thought of going back home.
A young soldier stood up and saluted me. “Major Sir! It has been an honor riding with you!” His eyes were full of bravado but underneath I knew that he was just as scared as the rest of us. The rebels were armed with superior artillery and we weren’t quite sure of what they were capable of. We were flying blind confident of our superior air support.
“At ease soldier!” I said. “What’s your name son?”
“Xavier, Major sir!”
“Xavier,” I said. “I promise you that in the next three months, you will be home in France eating unhealthy burgers and fries.”
“Yes sir!” the boy snapped to attention again and I turned to address the other soldiers.
They all rose to their feet and waited anxiously for my rousing words. Most of them were in their early twenties, still living in their parents’ basements, brave and unaware of their fragile mortality. “Tomorrow boys,” I yelled, “when you look up and realize that you can’t see ahead, and the sand is in your eyes, do not be afraid because you are already dead and the Sahara is your new home!”
The boys laughed nervously.
“But remember this boys.” My voice became solemn. “No matter what happens out there: no matter who we meet, you do not stop fighting because the moment you stop shooting is the moment you die! To France and to Africa!" I yelled.
“To France and to Africa!” the boys chanted.
We launched a covert operation at dawn the following morning. The French Army helicopters would arrive later once we pinned down the rebels’ locations. By the time we arrived in Kidal the sun was up high burning our skins. Rifles high on their shoulders and desert fatigues for camouflage, the men prudently combed one street after another: short barrels for kicking down doors and long barrels for accurate long range. The soldiers used hand gestures for most part but occasional a word came through the radio. “Clear!”
There was no one to be seen, Kidal was deserted, both civilians and rebels and I realized our folly, we should have attacked the previous night while the rebels were still on their heels.
Suddenly, an explosion sounded in the North and I turned and saw a cloud of smoke rising into the sky.
“You two, come with me!” I yelled as I headed in the direction of the explosion.
“We’ve been hit!” a desperate voice came over the radio. They couldn’t give more details as there was no knowing who was listening in on the channels.
“There sir!” one of my boys yelled and I looked up and saw the muzzle flash behind the sand dunes, the rat a tat of a machine gun. The rebels had been expecting us, rocket grenades at ready. I grabbed the radio and requested for air support. It was an ambush! The operation was compromised. The smell of burning diesel drifted into my nostrils.
A movement caught my eye in the sand and I saw a French soldier crawling on the ground trying to get back behind the cover of the walls. It was Xavier, the young boy I had promised to bring back home. Without pause or thought, I yelled. “Cover me!” Bullets tore around me as I ran into the open.
I crouched low and scanned the top of the buildings, then back at the sand dunes. Sniper fire whizzed over my head and I turned and dropped a man with one shot. I felt like a deer caught in the headlights. They could see me but I couldn’t see them.
“Xavier!” I yelled and the boy looked up and saw me. His watery eyes lit up with hope. I reached out and grabbed his right hand as we both leveled our guns at the sand dunes. “Can you walk?” I yelled.
“No sir, am sorry sir!” Blood soaked through his fatigue pants.
“Don’t be son. You did good, I will get you back safely!”
We needed to make a run for it but I knew that the moment I turned my back to carry him, we would both be dead. I motioned for my two boys to come forward and carry him. I knelt on one knee and scanned the sand dunes, waiting for someone to show face. All was quiet, the wind howled and dropped sand around me. I glanced back and saw Xavier and the boys ducking safely behind a wall, I took one step back.
But that was as far as I went. A soft thud a few yards away caught my attention and without looking, I knew that it was a stun grenade … 2 seconds delay. I dove in the opposite direction. Boom! The blast came and threw me farther than I had anticipated. I lay still and tried to shake myself back to life. My ears were ringing. I wasn’t hurt but my bones were rattled: my vision blurry as I searched for the gun in the sand. I’m too old for this … I found the 45 pistol just as a silhouette in blue appeared through the smoke. I fired twice and the man fell. The pistol clicked empty, I cursed. The wind raced and dropped sand in my eyes again, my vision was hazy. I heard a noise and turned. The man who appeared through the dust was huge. Sunlight beamed from the long curved knife in his hands. I shuddered and rose to meet him. He swung at me and I ducked, simultaneously throwing a desperate hook that caught him on the chest. He span around as though falling but his boot came flying in an arc and connected with the side of my head. I dropped like a rock, sand in my face. Move Major!
I raised my body in a semi push-up position then knelt down on both knees, my head on my chest. Blood oozed from my mouth and I looked like I was done. My breathing was labored due to the sand, heat and exhaustion. I watched from the corner of my eye as the rebel picked up his knife and walked over for the kill. My mind was blank but my eyes could still see. The knife came down and I moved like lightning and caught the man by surprise. I grabbed his wrist and twisted it, forcing the rebel off balance. He turned to face me and I sliced the curved knife through his throat. I watched with revolt satisfaction as blood gushed out and life sipped from his eyes.
“Don’t kill him!” Voices and footsteps behind me.
I turned but it was too late. Something hit me on the head and a flash of orange light exploded in my brain. With my trained mind, I knew that it was a rifle butt, right before the darkness consumed me.
I woke up in a dimly lit room. My hands and legs were tied to a chair, my eyes staring at the floor. I slowly raised my head at the sound of voices outside. An argument.
“We should kill him Salim!” An angry voice. “He killed our brothers.” They were speaking in Bambara, the most common language in Mali, spoken by eighty percent of the people.
“Be brave young man,” a deeper voice of reason said. “We will need him and other hostages to shield ourselves from air attacks. The French will hesitate to attack if they know that we have hostages.” I could hear every word they were saying. And they were right too. With hostages, they could drag out the war for a very long time.
I looked around me and saw wooden walls, old wood. Suddenly, the door opened and a woman dressed in a black abayat dress walked in carrying food and water. She wore a niqab face covering and I tried desperately to catch a glimpse at her face. Her eyes were a beautiful brown and I could tell that she was young and dark skinned.
“You are from the South?” I spoke in fluent Bambara language and she almost dropped the bowl in shock. The people from the south were darker than the north.
“Yes, am from South Mali. How did you know? You speak our language?” Her eyes narrowed at me and I shrugged.
“I was born in Mali,” I said. “My dad was one of the French Colonials.”
She understood but still she looked shaken. “Why do you fight your own people then?”
“My people would never oppress their own brothers and sisters. Why do you amputate people’s limbs for not practicing the Sharia laws?” I asked her.
She thought about it for a moment then said. “Why did Moses in the old testament kill three hundred people for worshipping a golden calf?”
Tu shay. I opened my mouth but no words came out. She continued. “The western world is like a … how do you say it?” She paused and recollected her thoughts. “The western world kills spiders and insects that scare them. They say a conflicted Mali is grounds for al qaeda, yes?”
I nodded out of curiosity. She continued. “We fight for what we believe in. We are not monsters you know? We have families too… children we want to see grow into young adults.”
I tried to lock eyes with her. “Every human being has a right to chose his or her religion,” I said. “You and I both know that the South are not strict on the Sharia law. Why impose it on them?”
Sharia laws. Definition. Moral code and religious law of Islam. Examples: praying five times a day, paying alms to the poor, fasting during the month of Ramadhan, strict dress code, strict marriage and divorce laws etc
Footsteps outside. She picked up her bowl and walked hurriedly to the door.
“Wait!” I yelled. “What’s your name?”
She turned like a snake. “Jasmin,” she said then bolted through the door. It was a beautiful name.
The door instantly swung open and a man in white walked in. I quickly appraised him: six two tall, 220 pounds, quick movements of hands and legs. His face was covered in back beard and I couldn’t get a read on him.
“Sorry we have to meet like this Major. But, we treat you good here.” He spoke in fluent French.
How about a hot bath … bikini and thongs… a safari? “What do you want from me? Why didn’t you kill me?” I watched as he pulled a chair next to me. He wore a kanzu, an ankle length garment with a white kufi hat on his head.
“You are a brave warrior. I want to learn from my enemy.” His eyes bore through me but I did not look away.
“Cut the crap!” I said coldly. “You have killed many innocent people: 350,000 people in Mali have fled their homes. Your gift to Mali is political instability, insecurity, human rights abuses, strict application of Sharia laws, lack of basic services and unemployment. Don’t talk to me about learning!”
“Ah Major.” The big man sighed and decided to get back to his element, to what he did best, a terrorist. “We bring camera tomorrow and you record a statement, yes?” A smug expression.
My eyes grew red and my nostrils flared. What a prick! “You can take that camera and shove it-”
He cut me off with a cold voice. “No need for that kind of language Major. I have killed people for less.” He stood up and touched his holster ever so lightly and then took a step towards the door. Then he turned and spoke in an obnoxious tone.
“You and I are no different Major. You give your soldiers orders and if they refuse, you court-martial them. The world needs rules and laws for things to run smoothly. People who don’t follow rules are hard to govern.” The rhetoric of a mad man. He finally touched the door and made eye contact with me. “Tomorrow, we record video.” It was not a request.
Record video my foot. I cursed with gritted teeth as he left. I fought with the ropes for four hours with practiced hands until they finally came lose. I stood up slowly and allowed time for blood to flow into my denied limps. Then I walked over and tested the doors and windows. Everything was locked. I could hear men’s voices outside. I knew that I wasn’t going anywhere.
What’s your mission soldier?
I walked back to the chair and sighed into it. I pulled out a picture of a beautiful woman from my back pocket and stared at it with misty eyes. I could still smell her hair and hear her sweet laughter. It had been five years since the cancer had taken her. Five years of pain and a dull existence … my inability to move on with life… my need for adrenaline. Her death had taken a toll on me. I kissed the picture and put it back in my pocket. “I will see you soon honey,” I whispered.
I picked up the ropes from the floor and tied them together. I searched the ceiling for a strong beam and looped the rope over it with the noose hanging down. It was time for me to check out. As a soldier, I had always prepared myself for this moment. I wasn’t sad to go, I realized. But still, I was scared of the unknown. My sweaty palms shook as I grabbed the rope: my heart pounded furiously. I did not want to die, but I recognized my own predicament… death was the only light in the horizon no matter what angle I took.
I stood on top of the chair and hooked the noose around my neck. I took a deep breath then gave myself a quiet moment. I remembered the African drums when I was a kid. A desert bird chirped on top of the roof. I kicked the chair away and dangled in the air as the rope cut into my neck and cut off the air circulation. It felt surreal. It felt like I was watching it happening to someone else. I dangled calmly for a few seconds until suddenly the brain realized that there was no more oxygen coming and my whole body begun to twitch. I kicked out and lashed out with all my limbs. The feeling was horrible and hard to describe. There was no pain but my head felt like it was going to explode. I begun to loose conscious and suddenly it didn’t feel so bad.
A crack above me. The old 2 by 4 beam on the ceiling snapped and I fell to the floor. I groped at the rope around my neck and loosened it. I coughed hysterically and took short gasps of air and when I was finally restored back to normal breathing, I lay still and passed out. I dreamt of t-bone steaks.
I don’t know how long I was out but the first thing I saw when I woke up was the covered face of a woman. It was Jasmin. “Major, wake up!” She sounded distant.
“Major, wake up, we have to go now!” She slapped me on the face a couple of times until my vision stabilized. I looked at her in confusion. “What? Go where?” My neck was soar.
She still wore the same black clothes but in her right hand I noticed the 9mm pistol held in a firm grip. She saw the look on my face and decided to explain.
“I’m getting you out of here Major. It’s now or never!” She helped me to my feet.
“How? Why?” I asked suspiciously. The last thing I needed was to be lured into a trap or a bullet in the back of my head.
“The men launched a counter attack on Gao town. There is only two men left to guard the supplies.” Her words were a rush and sensing her urgency, I followed her to the door.
One of the rebels was standing guard outside my door. Jasmin stepped out and shot him in the head. I finally believed her. The sound of the wind muted the gunshot but still the other soldier came running to find out what was happening.
“Hide!” Jasmin whispered and I didn’t need to be told twice. I watched as Jasmin hid the smoking gun underneath her dress. “Help!” she yelled as though in panic.
The second rebel saw her and hurried to her side. “What was that noise? Are you okay ma’am?” The rebel soldier saw his dead comrade and turned to Jasmin with a puzzled expression.
The cold metal of the 9mm touched his forehead and Jasmin pulled the trigger. She was cold. The rebel’s head exploded like an overripe melon and I rushed over to join her.
“Let’s go Jasmin!” I yelled. But she just stood there as though in shock.
“They killed my family,” she whispered as her eyes turned to meet with mine. I saw the emptiness and melancholy and I knew that she had carried the rage with her for a long time. Her finger was still on the trigger.
“Its okay Jasmin. Maybe I should take the gun from you now. I can get us out of here.” My trained eyes told me that she had never killed a soul before.
“Follow North and don’t stop no matter what,” Jasmin said as she pointed North out to me. “With the whole world knocking on the front door, the rebels will not follow you. Once you get to Algeria you will be safe.”
I looked at her in surprise. “You are not coming with me?”
“No,” she replied. “My place is with my people and my country.” Her eyes lit up no more. She had just killed her own people.
Things did not add up. I looked at her again and saw the gun shake in her hand and suddenly everything made sense. She was grounding her mind and spirit: she was going to kill herself as soon as I left. They had killed her family and taken everything away from her: revenge was the only thing that had kept her alive. And now… she didn’t have the strength to move on.
Jasmin took a step towards me and unwrapped her face and then her head. The wind caught her silky black hair and blew it behind her. Her eyes were sad and beautiful: her face was decorated with make up the design I had never seen before. Her skin was a chocolate brown and she looked like the daughter of a Chief. I stared hopelessly in awe. She was beautiful.
“Remember me Major, remember Africa!” She said. Then she continued to cover up her head and face.
I couldn’t accept that. My whole body screamed at me to do something. “Come with me to France Jasmin! I will take care of you and when all is settled, we can come back to Africa. I was born here, my father lived in Africa all his life.” My words were a desperate plea that made her smile. She appreciated the offer.
“Go now Major before its too late.”
I took a step forward as though to say goodbye. I grabbed her wrist, twisted it and the gun fell to the ground. Her eyes widened in surprise as I placed my thumb between her neck and shoulder blade. I squeezed hard and manipulated her air supply until she collapsed into my arms. She wasn’t unconscious but she was weak. I picked her up on my back and headed north into the desert.
She was light at first but heavier with every step that I took. At 200 pounds, all muscles, I was a big man, but with the desert sun above me, I knew that I didn’t have a chance to last long. Half an hour later, Jasmin roused herself and found her hands bound.
She searched the surrounding and found herself in the middle of the desert. I waited for her to try and run but instead, her eyes watered and she begun to mourn for her dead family. “They didn’t do anything!” she wailed and I hugged her and held her against my chest.
“I lost my wife too,” I said. “I lost her to cancer five years ago.”
She pulled back and looked into my eyes and I saw the change in her face. She understood now why I had wanted to kill myself. She and I were similar in more ways than we could fathom. Life had dealt us a cruel hand but somehow, we were still standing … shaky… but still standing. I nodded at her but still, I didn’t trust her enough to untie her hands.
We walked all day through the desert into Algeria. Our lips were chapped, our skin cracked. Fatigue settled in and I finally untied Jasmin. She followed me without uttering a word. I could tell that she was just as thirsty as I was but her pride wouldn’t budge her lips.
“A lake!” I yelled at one point and ran ahead only to realize that it was a mirage. I fell on the sand thirsty and stared hopelessly into the blue sky. Jasmin laughed for the first time and collapsed next to me.
“Major?” she finally spoke.
“Tell me about the Eiffel Tower?”
I smiled to my last tooth. Jasmin had saved my life. I was in love with her. But I couldn’t tell her yet.
“What’s funny Major,” Jasmin raised herself on one elbow to look at me. I looked into her eyes and saw that the spark of life was back.
“Jasmin,” I said. “I finally understand why my father loved Africa so much.”
If you were to write a story about Africa, what would it be? Will it be about the lions roaring in the jungle or the genocide consuming the countries: will it be about the Gold in Mali or the fact that half the population live below poverty line: will it be about the fresh water rivers that cut across the golden green land or will it be about the disease that constantly haunts the people?
As you write your story, remember this, wars, diseases and famine, come and go … they do not represent the beating heart of Africa.
Off to AFRICA
My book A Whisper in the Jungle has been picked by a publishing company and approved by the board. It has been scheduled for release soon.
The music is all around you, all you have to do is listen
Without God, what are we? What do we have? What is life...