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THE DARKNESS BEFORE DAWN

It was an early farming season when farmers planted their crops and waited for the arrival of rainfall; one of the seasons when the harmattan lingered. Those days, some farmers in my village, including my father, never missed going to church on Sundays to pray and ask God for rain. Some, who worshipped Amadioha, clung to their god. They believed that it was the only way God would draw his ears closer to hear their pleas and open the floodgates of heaven till rain drummed wildly on roofs and the land was saturated with water. On a Monday evening, after one of those Sundays, my village experienced a great disaster. The land was drenched with the flow of blood instead of water, the cries of sorrow instead of joy. It was one of the darkest nights I ever witnessed.

The morning of the following day, having dawned with a cloudless sky, I emerged from hiding. The faint chirping of birds could be heard from a distance; dewdrops were over the green grass, and the morning sunbeam peeked through the clouds. The atmosphere was gloomy, gentle breeze rustled through the trees. I dozed off last night in the bush, leaning my spine against a tree.

I woke up, rose to a sitting position, and rubbed my eyes briskly. I stood up and staggered through the bush, agony tearing through me. I tripped and landed hard on the ground, hitting my head against a thick piece of wood. I writhed in pain, my eyes moist with tears. I placed my hands on my bruised head, blood oozed. With teary eyes, I surveyed the area to see if I could find anyone – maybe someone who might have fled the village the same way I did – but I saw nobody. I tore out a piece of cloth from my gown and tied it across my head to stop the bleeding, and I began making my way to the village, having fled the carnage of the previous night’s attack.

The closer I got to the village, the more I heard the distressed cries of people screaming the names of their loved ones; parents searching for their children; some children crying over the dead bodies of their parents. The thick, musty smell of burning wood and gunpowder hung in the air. In the middle of the main road were the charred remains of a man and the corpses of two young boys, lying in their blood. Their heads, arms, and legs were severed from their bodies; their eyeballs were plucked out of their sockets. Flies buzzed around them.

under the sheets

My hands trembled and my knees shivered. I clamped my hands over my mouth and gasped in horror. Fear spiraled through me and hot sweat trickled down my face. I quickly turned and took a different route, through a bush path. My heart thumped hard against my chest as I wondered if the route I took was safe. I wondered if the assailants were still hiding in the bush. I wondered if I would see my father again if he survived the attack. 

I stopped when I suddenly heard the cry of a lady along the bush path. Her voice sounded so familiar that I could tell who it was. It was my neighbour’s, Mama Obinna, a young widow who lost her husband barely two years ago, after giving birth to her first and only child, Obinna. She lived in the house next door. She scooped her three-year-old son into her arms. She screamed out his name many times, shaking him as if he was in a deep sleep.

“Mama Obinna.” I sprinted towards her. “What happened to your son?”

“Nne, my son has refused to wake up.” She gazed up at me. Her crying subsided to sniffs and quiet sobs. “Obim, wake up, bikozienu, please.”

“Is he…” I stopped when I observed the deep cut at the side of his neck. It was bleeding profusely. The blood of the little boy was on the hands and yellow Ankara wrapper of his mother. “Mama Obinna, your son is bleeding. Is he dead?”

“Ada,” She called, tears streaming down her eyes with a runny nose. “No, my son can’t be dead.”

She clutched his body to her breast, tears seeping down her cheeks. Her scream pierced through the quiet air. My heart melted. I didn’t know what to say or how to comfort her. I bent and patted her shoulder. I recalled how sweet a little boy Obinna was. I recalled how Mama Obinna had been mocked by her mother-in-law in the past for her inability to conceive before she finally bore a son. The birth of her son was a miracle that didn’t only bring back the long-lost love in her family but also earned her the name, Mama Obinna, in place of her given name, Chinenye.

“It’s okay. God knows best,” I said, not knowing the right words to use.

“God knows best and he allowed my only son to die in the hands of those wicked people?”

She began to narrate how she had left her son at the entrance of her apartment to get her wrapper from the room the previous night, while everyone scampered for safety. When she returned, her son was nowhere to be seen. She told me how she searched for him that night and wasn’t able to find him. Then, she finally found him lying in a pool of his own blood, with a deep cut by the side of his neck, along the bush path.

“Who have I offended?” she exclaimed. “Why did they kill my son? Ogini ka nwam mere ha, what did my son do to them?”

I stood, staring at his corpse. I wondered what the murderer had gained by killing a little boy. Who must have done such a horrible thing to a harmless child?

Suddenly, someone lurched out of the bush with a hunter’s rifle in his right hand. My jaw dropped open in fear. I thought it was one of the assailants. Auspiciously, it was my father. He was badly wounded. He had his shirt wrapped around his right arm to stop the bleeding.

“Ada, is that you?” He called, a smile engulfing his face. “Thank God you’re alive.”

“Papa.” I ran and locked him in an embrace. “Yes, I’m alive.”

His embrace was warm. Despite his body being sticky with perspiration, his singlet and trousers caked in dust, I couldn’t let go of that moment. I hugged him tightly. My head ached when he touched it and kissed my forehead.

“What happened to you?” he asked, breaking the embrace. He untied the piece of cloth I used on my head and examined the wound.

“It’s nothing. It’s just a slight injury I sustained while coming out of the bush.”

His gaze flitted to Mama Obinna who had her son scooped in her hands. “Ogini mere, what happened? Why are you crying?”

“Obinna, my son,” she said, placing her hands on her head in despair.  “They have killed my only son…”

My father approached her. He positioned his right hand on his neck and shook his head in dismay before he carried the lifeless body of the boy from his mother. “Chinenye, there’s nothing we can do now. It’s late. Let’s go.”

She screamed and collapsed to the ground. I held her. I helped her up and removed the tiny grass that hung on her wrapper. I watched as my father carried Obinna over his shoulder despite his bleeding arm. I saw the glumness on his face, the same look he wore when he came back from the village council meeting, a day prior to the evening of the massacres.

************

The night preceding the carnage, he came back home and lapsed into a sullen silence for an hour. He sank into the cushion in the sitting room; a long sigh escaped his mouth. He rested his back against the chair, his gaze fixed on the ceiling. He mumbled repeatedly.

“Papa, your food is ready.” I placed a tray of food on the stool next to him. “You look worried.”

He didn’t respond. He brought his head down and hissed without saying a word. This was the second time I saw him in such a dejected state. The first time he was like this, I was ten years old. That was when I lost my mother and my only younger brother to a fatal accident. It’s been eight years now. And ever since, he has always tried his best to put on a joyous mood, even when I sensed that the pain he feels inside is expansive.

“Papa, what’s going on?”

“Hmm… It’s nothing,” he finally said. He sighed again before making a silent prayer, and then he began to eat.

“But why the sad face? You don’t look happy.”

He gnawed the rice in his mouth and swallowed it. “It’s Mazi Anozie. I’ve said it before that this man and his entire household will put our community in trouble.”

Mazi Anozie, one of the clan chiefs whom the entire community resented for his difficult personality, once had a dispute with my father over a piece of land given to him by his uncle. Mazi Anozie told my father that his uncle stole the land from him before he was born.

“Mazi Anozie?” I sat next to him. “I’ve always known him to be a troublesome man. What did he do this time?”

“Today, at the community hall, I talked about meeting with the head of these herders over the destruction of crops done by their cattle, but Mazi Anozie insisted we forcefully drive them out of the community. This man has placed the entire community in jeopardy. I wish our wise king was still alive, things wouldn’t escalate to this.”

For the past three years, the community has been a breeding ground for conflict. The clashes have been between the nomads known as ‘herders’ who rear cattle and the farmers. The paucity of pastoral land had turned the farmers and herders against each other. This forced herders onto farmlands and resulted in the destruction of crops, and ended up in conflict. In retaliation, the aggrieved farmers sometimes attacked the herders and their livestock. The herders, despite the attacks launched by the men in my community, didn’t budge. Rather, they kept increasing in number.

“Papa, I hope nothing bad happens?” 

He took another spoonful of rice. “Yes, something happened. While driving these people out of the community yesterday, one of the herders, a fifteen-year-old boy, was shot by Okoro, Anozie’s son, and ever since, these herders have been threatening us.”

“This is serious. They should have listened to you. What did the Chiefs do about it?”

“Nothing. They’ve refused to apologize. However, I’ve reported the matter to the police and Okoro has been arrested.”

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“I hope they resolve the issue amicably,” I said. This reminded me of what Mama Nnukwu, my grandmother, would say whenever she told me stories of how she and her family survived the Biafran war and even the first clash our community once had with another community, before my birth. She would say it in Igbo language, “When a man is killed unjustly, anger is birthed in the hearts of his loved ones; the anger, if not tamed, will lead to bloodshed and more loss. That’s why we must always choose peace in place of violence.”

The next day at around 8:00 p.m., I was preparing to retire to bed when my father ran into the house, screaming.

“Ada! Ada!”

My heart skipped a bit. I thought something bad had happened to him.

“They are coming. We’ve been ambushed by the herders. We need to leave right now!”

We heard the sound of gunshots followed by shrieking cries, and a big bang on our door.

“Go through the kitchen window. Run as fast as you can. Your safety is more important to me,” my father said, in almost a whisper. He entered his room and brought out his hunter’s rifle. “Be careful, Ada. Go now!”

I hurried to the kitchen and climbed down the window. Outside, I saw houses in flames. The uproar intensified, accompanied by more gunshots. Frantic voices filled the air. A chill of fear swept over me. I was still thinking of where to hide when I sighted two women running into the bush with their babies tied to their backs. They had lanterns with them. I quickly followed from behind.

From a nearby vantage point, I witnessed the horror that ensued. Five assailants attacked these women. They were heavily armed and dressed in military camouflage, while some wore long black coats with their faces covered. They asked the women to keep their lanterns and babies on the ground and take off their clothes. The light from the lanterns brightened the dark bush. They threatened them with their guns. I didn’t understand their language, but I heard them laugh huskily at the women as they fondled their breasts. These women begged, but their pleas fell on deaf ears. When one of the women tried to resist their touch, a man who appeared to be the leader shot her and her child. Blood splattered on the lanterns. 

Each of the men took turns on the other lady. They brutally raped her. She whimpered. The urge to help her surged through me, but I was scared. Who am I, a nineteen-year-old girl, to stand against five grown men with guns? I hid behind a tree, fidgeting and praying for that moment to pass. I knew they were done when her crying reduced to sobbing. That moment almost lasted an eternity. I shuddered when I heard the sound of gunshots from that direction. She went silent. Another gunshot Her child whined and stopped. Then, the men laughed.

God, please. God, please. I heard footsteps approaching. I froze. Sweat trickled down my face. They retreated. The sound of their guttural laughter began to fade. I swiped at my face with my gown and came out of hiding when I saw them take a different path. I ran to where the corpses of the women and the babies lay. I took one of the lanterns and began racing into the dark bush. I thought that very moment would be my last on earth. I imagined what would have happened if the chiefs had spoken peacefully with the herders as my father suggested. I imagined the loss their decisions had caused, the little children that paid for a crime they knew nothing about.

Once again, my grandmother’s words echoed in my head. When a man is killed unjustly, anger is born in the hearts of his loved ones; the anger, if not tamed, will lead to bloodshed and more loss. That is why we must always choose peace in place of violence.

GLOSSARY:

Nne: An Igbo word for ‘dear’ particularly used for females only.

Ogini mere: A word mostly used in the Igbo language to ask the question, ‘What happened?’

Bikozienu: An Igbo word for ‘please’.

Chim oh!: An exclamatory word for ‘My God’ in the Igbo language.

Nwam: An Igbo word for ‘my child.’

Mba: An Igbo word for ‘no.’

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: 

Nwajesu Ekpenisi is a Nigerian writer whose writing includes genre fiction (crime, mystery, thrillers, horror, and Christian fiction) and nonfiction stories set in Tropical Africa, which seek to explore the subtle complexities of family, mental health, and relationships. You can find him on Instagram: @e_nwajesu, Facebook: E.A. Nwajesu, Twitter: @E_Nwajesu. He writes from Delta State; Agbor, to be precise.

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