STILL LIFE IN RED DRESS
Western Darfur, Sudan
The thread of one's life, if one is fortunate, is circuitous and endlessly surprising, replete with tragedy and triumph, virtue and sin. Yet if one's heart is pure, it leads straight as an arrow to the point of completion.
Sonny nudged the bandana back over his nose with the back of his hand, his splayed fingers sticky with blood and grit. He turned and looked back at his companion. Khatir, his turban half-unraveled and dragging in the sand, strained under the weight of the last two bodies. A pair of vultures nipped at the young Dinka’s heels, their wings spread as they hopped from leg to leg, squawking, and mocking him. Khatir, anxious to be done, cursed and kicked at his tormentors without breaking stride. A permanent scowl had set in on his broad, dark face. Sonny watched him for a moment longer, and then let his gaze fall back on the bodies piled haphazardly at his feet.
Nineteen of them. Twenty-one counting the two Khatir would add. The chances were good there had been more of them when they left their village. From the tribal scars and their clothing, he guessed that they were also Dinka. He could only guess how Khatir felt about burning his dead kinsmen, an elaborate burial being the more traditional means of earthly departure amongst his tribe. Any sentiment on the part of the young African was obscured by stoicism and the fact that neither he nor Sonny shared much of a common language, their only discourse a crude mixture of Sonny’s rudimentary Arabic and Khatir's refugee camp French. Hence, they stumbled through their workday communicating with little more than shrugs and flicks of the eye.
He started to reach into his shirt for his cigarettes when he remembered his hands. Squatting, he took a handful of the coarse sand and rubbed it over his hands and between his fingers. The blood came away like old paint, part flakes and part gummy. As he scrubbed, he stared at the face of a young woman sprawled at the edge of the pile, her arms pinned unnaturally at her side. It was difficult to guess her age; a side effect of deprivation. In this part of hell, adolescent girls masqueraded as old crones; their fly speckled eyes sunken and distant.
Unlike most of the others, her face and throat appeared unblemished. He felt tempted to turn her over and look, but he knew all too well what he might find. Several of the women had been disemboweled, their intestines looped over the scrubby undergrowth like some grotesque banquet for the vultures. Wedged beneath her was a small, skeletal child and what appeared to be another woman. The battered, bloodied face made it difficult to tell. The thread of one's life. He swatted at the flies as he glanced up at the white hot sky and thought again of the prayer card nailed to the tent pole beside his cot.
"And if one's heart is pure," he murmured. "Always the hard part." He looked back down at the corpses and rose to his feet.
And the point of completion? It had come around much too soon for these poor souls. Although for some of them, not soon enough, he guessed. And the setting for their demise a scant two miles from The Doctors Without Borders camp which promised at least temporary salvation. He thought again of the prayer card and the young boy at the Nairobi Airport who had handed it to him.
"I have message for you, bwana. You say this prayer every day and God help you. Yes? Only give me five shillings. Five shillings, bwana. Okay, four."
He had slipped the boy several greasy bills and stuffed the tattered card into his pocket and forgotten about it. It was only after he arrived at the camp and began unpacking his meager belongings that he bothered to read it. Something in its sentiment appealed to his burgeoning willingness to embrace possibility. The slip of paper became part cosmic lottery ticket, part mantra. Reciting it aloud became a ritual he performed every morning, followed in short order by a resolute stroll to the crude latrine just outside his hut.
His co-workers marveled at how he had survived four months in the camp before contracting the digestive malady that befell most of them in their first week. Part of it was luck, part of it conditioning. He liked to believe that half a lifetime spent in the tropics and a stint in a Spanish prison had bestowed upon him near perfect intestinal invulnerability.
Afterwards, with an empty gut and an open mind, Sonny offered the prayer as his intention for the day ahead. To open his heart. No matter what. To kindness and hope, or death and despair – the latter being far more common. In the end, it always seemed to come down to the same two choices – serenity or delusion. It bothered him to no end that most days he had difficulty telling the difference. And his point of completion? This current misadventure made him ponder the possibility that he might well have reached it.
He lit his cigarette, his face bent away from the hot wind, and studied the pile of bodies a moment longer. What had the Buddha said? Life is suffering. Lately life did indeed seem like one big shit eating contest. If so, these people obviously had at the very least tied for first place. Their kharma was simply to move on to the next life. Better luck next time. What else could he think? Lately, his half-ass Buddhist fatalism seemed to be his only explanation for the hopeless mayhem that he witnessed on a daily basis. Fatalism and some deluded sense of penance. Maybe burning the dead and ministering to the near dead was his point of completion, if not his penance.
He took two quick drags of the cigarette and flicked it over his shoulder before picking up the two jerricans of petrol. They had found the corpses that morning as they were returning from a re-supply run to the U.N. airfield. Twenty-one of them, scattered along the roadway like litter. They had to stop and remove a half-dozen or so in order for the trucks to continue down the rutted track. Henri, the head driver, had wanted to leave them, but Sonny had volunteered Khatir to help him drag the bodies off the road and dispose of them. Don’t wait for us, he had told the Frenchman. He heard Khatir object, but Henri had only shrugged and nodded. The camp, a mile or two away, would be an easy walk, even in the heat of the day. Besides it would give Sonny time to think. Empty his mind of the bedlam and confusion of the camp.
He circled the pyre, sloshing the gasoline over the bodies, then tossed the empty cans to the side of the road before nodding to Khatir who stood poised, lighter in hand, awaiting Sonny’s signal to light the strip of bloody rag he held primly at arm’s length. Without waiting, Sonny turned and started up the road, pausing only to retrieve his day pack from beneath a rock where he had stowed it to discourage the marauding vultures. He heard the whoosh of the gasoline igniting, and a moment later the sound of Khatir’s sandals slapping the hard packed dirt road.
Neither of them had any interest in observing their handiwork for the smoke was bound to attract attention. At best, maybe only a band of curious rag pickers, at worst the same predators whose work they had just disposed of. Gauging from the mutilation, he guessed the perpetrators to be janjaweed, the Arab militia responsible for most of the depredations that plagued Darfur. Or renegade SPLA rebels. Possibly even a Nuer raiding party. Take your pick. He only hoped they were long gone by now.
Sonny glanced over his shoulder. Khatir had stopped and was staring at something behind them. Without breaking stride, Sonny turned and walked backwards, squinting at the shimmering mirage of the road as it disappeared into the washed out line that fused the desolate terrain and the white monochrome of the sky. It took him a moment to make out what his companion had seen. A lone vehicle, the ubiquitous white Land Rover from its silhouette, had stopped a couple hundred yards or so down the road. Sonny slowed and shaded his eyes from the glare. After a moment, a single figure seemed to separate itself from the vehicle. Khatir muttered something unintelligible. As they watched, the Land Rover appeared to swing around and head off in the opposite direction. Even from this distance, Sonny could sense something of the disgorged passenger's ambivalence. After a few seconds, Sonny could see that the person had started to walk down the road towards them.
Khatir glanced at Sonny, his jaundiced eyes and the row of scars on his forehead the only features visible beneath the swath of his crimson headdress. There was curiosity registered there, but also unease. His gaze seemed to say it might prove foolish to wait for this stranger, but then again it was not his people’s way to abandon someone in the desert. Sonny studied the advancing figure a moment longer, unsure of his own inclination. He turned in a slow circle, his gaze pausing on the flinty, eroded hills that encircled them before settling again on the shimmering silhouette on the road. What could it hurt to wait? Maybe plenty if they weren't alone. He glanced over at the pillar of greasy, gray smoke curling up from the pyre. Maybe someone from the camp would see the smoke and come for them. Then again, maybe not.
“Khawaja,” Khatir said.
"A white man. Yeah, sure."
Who else would be crazy enough to abandon the security, false as it was, of a Land Rover and set out on foot alone in this country? Ill advised at best, dangerous and stupid at the worst. A right on estimation of his own current circumstance, he thought as he reached into his daypack for his water bottle. He took a swallow, and handed it to Khatir. The water tasted of chlorine and the tea he had filled it with earlier that day.
“Khawaja, yeah? Then I guess we better wait.”
Khatir stared at the bottle a moment before raising his eyes to meet Sonny’s. His gaze revealed nothing. Not gratitude, not amusement, only silent consideration. It frustrated Sonny to no end not to be able to communicate with the young man standing beside him. He wondered what Khatir thought of this hellish world, or felt about Sonny and the other khawaja crazy enough to join him here. Regardless of what they shared, the gulf separating Sonny and his fellow refugees seemed to loom larger by the day.
As he waited, he thought of the prayer card. The thread of ones life. Be it accidental, predetermined, or intentioned. A chance encounter in the waiting lounge at Charles De Gaulle airport had led him here. How much of this – the grisly task they had just completed, the end of these lives – might be predetermined? That left only intention – his path to completion.
As the distance closed, Sonny could now make out the approaching figure. It appeared to be a woman from the gait; tall, and burdened by a large duffel bag. It suddenly occurred to him that they could have possibly forgotten to pick up a new volunteer at the airstrip. No one at the camp had mentioned anything.
The two men waited in silence, Khatir nervously scanning the horizon while Sonny rummaged through his shirt pockets for the last of his cigarettes. He had started to smoke again while in prison, a habit that had only grown worse in the camp. Now only half a pack remained of the carton he had begged off one of the nurses. He had resigned himself to quitting, rationing them carefully in the hope they would last until he left. Today he was already three over his limit. He removed a couple from the crumpled pack of Gitanes, cupped his hand around his lighter, and lit them both before handing one to Khatir.
As they smoked, they watched the woman approach. She wore a pair of khaki colored camouflage pants, a long sleeved chambray work shirt, oversized sunglasses and a baseball cap pulled tightly down over her head. She stopped ten meters before them, dropped her duffel bag in the sand and lifted her hat, revealing a thick mane of coarse red hair. He could see some of her features now; a high forehead, a wide mouth. The rest of her face was concealed by the sunglasses. Her skin tone was reminiscent of an early summer tan. She stared at them a moment before glancing at the funeral pyre. The spectacle of a pile of burning bodies didn’t seem to faze her in the least.
“Bonjour. Le camp? Est-ce loin?” she asked.
Her voice sounded hoarse, as if she hadn’t had a drink in a long time. Before Sonny could reply she swung a large camera from behind her shoulder and in one smooth motion began photographing the pyre, the whirring click of her speed loader breaking the desert’s silence.
“I should've guessed," he muttered under his breath. "How come they left you?”
She glanced at Sonny before looking back into her viewfinder. She moved to her left and leaned forward, scanning for the best angle.
“An American. Great,” she said as she squatted on her heels, refocused and took another series of shots. “I’m not sure why they left. I got the impression a pile of burning bodies didn’t suit their interests. That or I didn't pay them near enough." She looked at him and shrugged. "It is only a few miles to the camp, right? Just over those hills they said."
She stared through the viewfinder for another moment before slipping the camera over her shoulder and walking over to them. Freed of the heavy duffel, she had a cat like stride, her figure lithe and fluid in its movement.
Sonny nodded at the duffel bag she left lying in the sand. “You gonna bring that?”
“It’s heavy. And it’s full of supplies. Antibiotics and stuff. Least you could do,” she said, lifting her sunglasses.
He took a final drag from the cigarette and flicked it over his shoulder, his eyes never leaving hers. Another prima dona journalist was his first thought. But she did have nice eyes. Deep set with a thin delta of wrinkles at the corners, the irises copper colored in the midday light. Her dusky skin tone looked natural, something ethnic. He allowed himself a smile as he recalled the expression an uncle from East Texas was overly fond of using when referring to someone of mixed blood, especially a woman. High yellow. The phrase always seemed to conjure up something pleasantly carnal.
She appeared older than first impression – just either side of fifty. It had been a while since he had seen an attractive woman. The few women aid workers had little inclination or time to spend on their appearances, much less their hygiene.
She lifted the camera again and fired a volley first at Khatir and then at Sonny who held up his hand to block her shot. She lowered the Nikon and stared at Sonny for a moment.
“I’ve seen you somewhere before,” she said, offering a smile.
She lifted her shirt tail to wipe her face. “No. I don’t forget a face. Give me a minute, and it’ll come to me. Maybe…”
Khatir grunted in alarm, and before Sonny could even react, Khatir started to run.
Sonny glanced around to see what had startled him.
“What is it?” the woman asked.
Sonny didn’t reply but continued to scan the horizon. Then, out of the corner of his eye, he saw them. Fifteen, maybe twenty riders breached the low rise of hill to their left. Most rode camels, a few others astride horses.
He glanced back at Khatir who sprinted towards a solitary stand of stunted acacia trees and jumbled brush.
“Who are they?” she asked.
“What’s your name?”
She stared back at him, her eyes registering nothing more than mild curiosity. “Harper.”
“Harper. We’re in a bad situation here. One we’re going to have to be real smart about. Understand?” he said, glancing back at Khatir who was scurrying on all fours into the clump of dried brush. Several of the riders had already split off and galloped toward the brush.
“They’re janjaweed, right?” she asked, her voice still oddly devoid of concern.
“Give me the camera.” Before she could react, he lifted it off her neck and tossed it into a nearby bush. “What else do you have in the bag?”
“I told you. Some medicines. Food. Personal stuff.”
“No more cameras?”
“No. My spare got stolen. Why?”
“All you've got to say is we're doctors, okay? Médecins Sans Frontieres. Canadians. You got it? Nothing else.”
Sonny glanced once more over his shoulder and saw that some of the outriders had surrounded Khatir’s hiding place. Harper moved to his side, and they both turned to face the other riders who now reined in their horses and camels around them in a whirlwind of dust, creaking saddles, and heaving animals. Sonny could smell the leather mixed with sweat and dung. They all wore the prerequisite jallabiya – white robes and headdress, several of which appeared smeared with blood. Most of them carried AK-47s, the rest, an assortment of machine pistols and generic assault rifles. All of them wore at their waist the long curved swords favored by the raiders.
For a long moment, no one spoke or moved. Finally, three of the riders swung down from their horses and walked towards them. Their leader, his status obvious by his posture and the deference of his companions, appeared quite young, no older than perhaps his early twenties. He stopped in front of Sonny and studied him for a moment before turning his attention to Harper. The young Arab was handsome, fine featured with gray, intelligent eyes. Only his tea-stained, maloccluded teeth marred his appearance.
“As-Salaam Alaykum,” Sonny said.
Without taking his eyes from Harper, the Arab barked an order and his two lieutenants shoved Sonny onto his knees.
“Médecins Sans Frontieres. Doctors Without Borders. We are doctors,” Harper said, her voice quavering.
The Arab laughed and reached over and flicked Harper’s cap off her head, then reached for her sunglasses. Harper raised her hand to stop him, then thought better of it and allowed him to take them. He examined them briefly before handing them to one of his companions. Several of the other men had started to go through Harper’s duffle bag, scattering the contents into the sand. Suddenly, a torrent of shouts and jeers erupted from the others as they pointed to something.
Turning, Sonny saw that their companions had set fire to the brush where Khatir had sought refuge. A moment later he heard Khatir scream.
“Don’t look,” Sonny said to Harper.
One of the men behind Sonny slapped him in the back of his neck with a riding quirt.
As the Dinka’s screams grew louder and more intense, Harper hung her head and winced. The young Arab yanked her by her hair, twisting her face, forcing her to watch as Khatir scrambled out of the conflagration, his clothes ablaze.
“Abid! Abid!” his tormentors yelled as they tried to drive Khatir back into the flames with their whips. Instead, he ran, stumbling and shrieking, the raiders hounding him with their quirts and swords. Unable to watch, Sonny stared at the ground in front of him. The camels, upset by Khatir’s cries of agony, began to bellow as in protest. After what seemed an eternity, the screams stopped and the camels again fell silent.
“You fucking bastard,” Harper muttered under her breath.
“Hey,” Sonny said, shifting his body to get the young Arab’s attention. “We’re Canadians. French Canadians. Parlez-vous Francais? Firinzi.”
The sting of the quirt on the back of his head knocked him down on all fours. He struggled to his knees but was kicked back down. Harper started to say something, then yelped in pain as the quirt come down across her back, not once but twice, before she fell beside him.
“Malesh,” the Arab said, laughing as he placed his boot on Harper’s back, pinning her to the ground. Reaching down, he ripped the neck of her shirt.
Malesh. Sonny remembered the phrase from prison. It was a favorite expression of one of his Arab cellmates. Roughly translated it meant ‘Too bad.’ Sonny twisted his face to look up at the Arab.
“Hey! You speak English? Hael ingilizi?”
The Arab looked at Sonny and sneered. “Ingiliz. I speak. I learn in Khartoum,” he said, breaking into a boastful smile.
“The Koran forbids you to harm women. Yes? You cannot harm a woman.”
“Woman? This is whore! Kelb en-Nasrani. Christian dogs!”
“We are doctors. Medecins Sans Frontieres. Your government in Khartoum does not want you to harm us. Do you understand?”
The Arab glared at Sonny, and started to reach again for Harper’s shirt.
“Hey, you goddamn idiot. Think about it,” Sonny yelled, struggling to his feet.
One of the men behind Sonny kicked him in the ribs, knocking him back down. Before he could get up, several of their captors began striking him with their quirts. He curled up in an effort to protect his face as two of them grabbed his leg and began dragging him away. Through his hands, he saw three of the others lean over Harper and begin tugging at her pants. She cursed and kicked at them, which only intensified their efforts to subdue her. Sonny tried to scramble towards her but each time the Arabs pulled him back, punishing him with their quirts. As he tried once again to get to his knees, he was kicked and shoved onto his stomach, his face half buried in the sand. Through the dust and swirling robes, he glimpsed Harper holding onto her pants with one hand and slugging one of her tormentors with the other. One of them slapped her hard across the face, and ripped off what remained of her shirt.
Sonny tried again to struggle to his feet, but someone stepped on his back, forcing him back down. An instant later he felt what he could only assume was the barrel of a gun pressed against the back of his head. He felt a sudden wave of nausea. It was over. He would be dead at any moment. He could hardly believe it would end like this. Yet part of him accepted it, was even relieved. Kharma. His only regret was the woman. She would be just another innocent bystander paying for his mistakes.
Whatever their leader had shouted, it stopped the assault. The boot stayed planted on Sonny's back a moment longer before his assailant stepped way. Sonny lifted his head and looked up at the young Arab. The young man offered him a look of amusement, then abruptly turned and swaggered over to one of the camels. Sonny watched as he removed what appeared to be a battered radio from a saddlebag, an old Vietnam era PRC-25, guessing from its shape and size.
Harper, clutching her shirt in front of her, scrambled to Sonny’s side. He could feel her trembling.
“Listen to me,” Sonny whispered. “If I tell you to run, you run. Don't think, just go.”
She stared at him as if unsure of what he meant. He could see an emptiness in her eyes, a distance that he sensed was the ultimate defense mechanism.
“There's no nice way of putting this. There's s good chance that this guy's boss doesn't really care. Or the radio won't work. Or he's had a really bad, goddamn blood thirsty day. You understand?"
He held her gaze for a long moment, trying to discern from her eyes alone what emotion she was feeling. He sensed first confusion, and then something he assumed was fear. But just as quickly he sensed a shadow of resignation. Almost consent. He turned away.
"What you're saying is they gonna kill us anyway,” she said, her voice flat and distant.
Sonny looked at the Arab. He had always counted on his ability to read faces and body language. Now in the span of a radio conversation… whim, good luck or bad luck… whatever… and their fate would be decided. And this juvenile, murdering prick’s face would tell it all.
He looked at the three janjaweed still surrounding them. The one closest to Sonny held his Kalashnikov loosely in his hands. He could play the hero, go for the rifle. A slim to none chance. The best he could hope for was that it might end quicker.
A long moment passed as the Arab attempted to raise someone on the radio. Sonny recalled how unreliable a PRC-25 could be, especially if it hadn’t been maintained. A burst of static and a scratchy voice came through. The Arab shouted into the radio, something about Medecins Sans Frontieres, a few other words he recognized. The word for woman. Then Firinzi. Another moment passed before the Arab, obviously angry, tossed the radio to one of his companions and strode back towards them, his swagger noticeably diminished.
He stopped and leaned down, his face inches from Sonny’s, close enough that Sonny could smell the sour tang of his breath. With his one hand he shoved Sonny’s head back, with the other he pulled a small ceremonial sword from beneath his robe and pressed it to Sonny’s throat. He held it there a moment, then reared back and struck Sonny on the cheek with the handle. The force of the blow knocked Sonny onto his heels.
“Good fortune, infidel,” he said as he placed his boot against Sonny’s chest and kicked him onto his back. As Harper tried to scramble away, the Arab grabbed her by her hair and pulled her face tight against his thigh, muffling her pleas. He held her there for a long moment.
“Inshallah,” he muttered finally, shoving her back onto the ground beside Sonny.
Their captors turned in unison toward their mounts and rode off in a wild shuffle of lumbering camels and dust. Neither of them moved for what seemed a minute, both of them stunned by their good fortune. Sonny started to struggle to his knees, then fell back, unsure he could even stand. His stomach rolled, and he felt the bile rise in his throat. He lay there a moment longer, then spit and rose to his knees.
“You all right?” he asked.
She made an effort to nod as she wiped the bloody snot from her face with the back of her hand. He started to reach over to remove a clump of dirt from her hair when he noticed his hand trembling. As he touched her hair, she grunted and pulled away.
“Come on,” he said, pulling her to her feet. He felt unsteady, shaky with adrenalin. “We need to get of here before they change their minds.”
She leaned against him for a moment, and then bent down and picked up what remained of her shirt and draped it over her shoulders.
“You’re bleeding," she said. "A lot. Here,” she said, pointing at her own face.
She tore off a strip of her shirt and handed it to him.
Sonny touched his cheek, gingerly probing the laceration with his finger. It felt deep enough for stitches.
“You’re the one they would’ve killed,” she said as she struggled to tie up one of her bra straps that had been torn. “You know that, don’t you?” She gave up on the strap and looked at him. “They would’ve let me live. It’s what they would have done.”
Something in her eyes was different now. Revulsion mixed with what he sensed as defiance. She turned and walked over to the scattered contents of her duffle and picked up a T-shirt. With her back to him, she undid what remained of her bra, and slipped on the shirt.
“Here. Don't forget this,” he said leaning down to retrieve her camera from the brush where he had thrown it. He tossed it to her and she caught it in both hands, stared at it a second, before slinging the camera around her neck. She hesitated a moment, then as if an afterthought, glanced over to the smoldering brush where Khatir had sought refuge.
"Your friend. Don't you think we should bury him?"
"Not much point," Sonny said, picking up his backpack. "He wasn't my friend. He was just someone that…" He paused for a moment before dropping his pack. "Okay. We bury him. But we need to hurry."