In retrospect, I never thought I would use a word like retrospect.
It is one of those words I have learned in the camp. Our language instructor, a very small man, loves big words, the other boys laugh at him, and I do too some times, but I listen when he teaches. He says I am his best student yet, that it is a pity we met in such unfortunate circumstances, when he said the last sentence, it was a whisper.
I do not know when it will be my turn, I would love to be eighteen before I die, but if there is one thing my short life has taught me, it is that we cannot always get what we want. When I think back to my life before now, I realize it was scattered, just like under the bridge at night, not arranged at all. I was always trying to survive. Either carrying cement blocks at construction sites or mixing, I didn’t think of the future. When I ran between speeding cars on the expressway hawking pure water, I never thought of death.
So in a way, I am happier now, or maybe this is not happiness, I don’t really know, I used to think happiness was to be inside a fine car and live in a fine house, and eat anything you want. But at least I know where I will sleep today, and what will happen sooner or later. Keeping a diary is not against camp rules, the camp commander told us on our second week here, all thirteen of us, new members, that when we were gone, our personal effects, he said effects means our things, will be returned to our parents, I have no parents, I do have one uncle, but I do not know where he is, so I guess they will either burn this diary or keep it. I like to write, I went to school once when I was little, I don’t remember it all, but I remember some parts, little flashes come to me if I lie down and look at the clouds — I am a little boy, about five or six, walking with my exercise books under my arm, multiplication tables, dictation, blue short knickers and black and yellow striped pencils, also flash before my eyes. When I stopped going to school and started hawking, I never needed to write, but by the second week here, I found that I had a beautiful handwriting as our writing instructor calls it, some of the other boys cannot write at all, but I can, that is one reason I decided to keep a diary, because I love the way the thoughts in my head come out in blue ink on this paper, it makes me smile.
Let me tell you how I came to be here.
We were packing up our wares for the day, under the bridge, hurrying, so we could get a place to sleep beneath the flyover. I was in a haste, ‘haste’ means I was rushing, I bent down to pick something, I can’t remember what it was now, when I heard a man’s voice, he sounded like Sergeant Demola.
“All of you kneel down!” he shouted.
I turned to look, it wasn’t the sergeant. I wasn’t afraid — I could run faster than most people. And this wasn’t the first time the police had come to raid, but my first thought was that they were too many and they had us surrounded. Then I noticed the guns, the waiting trucks and the silence, the police we could outrun, they would catch some and we would pay their bail the next day. These were not police, they were not even army, they were too calm. It was getting darker, they were all wearing black, we all had stopped packing up, but we didn’t kneel down. We just looked at the men in confusion, then one of them calmly raised his gun, and the fear came over us like the black clouds that come over the sky when it is about to rain, what scared me most were their masks.
“Kneel down” the voice repeated. We began to drop like raindrops to our knees, someone started to shout for help, I wanted to laugh, no one would dare come up against this people, they didn’t even look like humans, the masks covered their mouths so that I wasn’t even sure who was telling us to kneel down. They arranged us in a straight line on our knees, then one of them bent beside the first person, I was the sixth, I wasn’t sure what he was doing, it was totally dark, he got to me and gripped the hem of my shirt, I wanted to run, up till now, I think Allah kept us all alive, because none of us ran, I am sure that if anyone had moved, they would have shot the person.
He tied my shirt to that of the boy in front of me, I was very still, I wasn’t even breathing, his rifle was slung over his shoulder, so that when he knelt, it was pointed at my face. When we were all tied, they told us to march into one of the waiting pickup trucks, everywhere was silent, there were no cars passing, I was surprised the road was so quiet.
It was hard to breath, the thick smell of urine filled the truck, I tried using the neck of my shirt to cover my nose, I wished I was closer to the entrance so I could breathe well, but then they covered the tarpaulin and started all the trucks, the one we were in started moving, and we went on for a long time, I didn’t know it was possible before that day to fall asleep despite being afraid. I woke up when the truck stopped moving, a man pulled up the tarpaulin and told us to get down, we stood up, my leg was shaking, and we were led inside, it was very dark outside, there were no stars in the sky, because we were tied to each other we had to move carefully.
My second day in this camp, was an introduction.
“You are all Shahid1 from this day on!” the man’s voice rang out, he had a blue turban on his head and was wearing a white Jalamia2, we had been woken by a loud bell and pushed into the open courtyard, the early morning air was very cold, almost as if it was about to rain, I knew some of the boys around me, the one we all called Baba because he looked older than the rest of us, was standing next to me, we looked at each other. The yard we were in had a high fence, I couldn’t see anything but the platform on which the man was standing, there were armed men dressed in black moving around, the man in white was the camp commander, and he gave us the rules.
He explained that we had been rounded up to serve Allah as soldiers, and we would do so even if it meant martyrdom, this was part of the Jihād3, we were told our mealtimes, and also our prayer times, then he added:
“You are no longer part of this world, you have received the highest calling from the Holy God, love your Fidayi4 brothers, Allah is great!” he walked away from the center of the platform. Then he paused as if there was something he had forgotten to say:
“Children of Allah, we want you to give yourselves willingly, not being forced, so if you cannot die for Allah, please come forward” he looked at us, at me. I swallowed the lump in my throat, everyone looked at the person beside him, then one of the boys stepped out in front, I knew him. One of the boys beside him was going to come out too, when one of the soldiers beside the camp commander raised his rifle, and we heard a shot, I tripped over Baba’s leg in shock. I stood back up, craning my neck, the boy was on the ground, there was blood on his chest and on the ground near him. The silence was greater than before. The camp commander raised his hands to heaven and asked:
“Do we have any other cowards here?” no one moved, my legs were very heavy. That was the day I knew I was going to die for Allah, they led us into another enclosure, and handed each of us a bar of white soap and a long blue Jalamia, we were told to bathe and change, our pockets had been emptied the night before. The bathrooms were not very big, there were white tiles and it was very clean, all lined up in a row, they had no doors, I was ashamed to remove my clothes at first, but when nobody entered the bathroom opposite me, I removed my clothes and started bathing, I was in a haste, and the white soap fell down many times, when I finished and changed, I felt cleaner than I have ever been in my life. A tall man was waiting for us and he led us to the dining room. Eleha5 women brought our food, I had never seen so many of them in one place before, they served white rice and stew with the type of meat I only saw on Sallah days. My stomach rumbled, I looked around the dining hall for a sign to start eating, some boys had already started, so I started eating too, I finished everything on my plate, but I didn’t move, I looked around to know what to do, then I heard a bell outside, some of the boys, stood up quickly, I did the same too, they left the dining room, and went left, towards the classrooms.
As the weeks passed, I stopped being afraid of the teachers and even the guards, I attended classes and prayers. I wanted to see outside and know where I was, because at night and even during the day, I never heard any sound, it was very silent, outside the walls. We have bunk beds four boys to a room. The blue Jalamia is becoming tight around my stomach, my new friends say I am fat, we were given two more Jalamias as spares. While I enjoyed the classes and food, it was hard to wake up by five every morning to go to the general mosque for prayers, but after I was punished twice, I understood why the bathrooms and toilets were always very clean, and I stopped sleeping so much.
I was born a Muslim, but I never really thought of it before now, I only remembered my religion on Sallah day, and joined the other boys in any Alhaji’s house to eat meat. But here, it is a very serious thing, it is all we are encouraged to talk about, the walls of our classroom are painted with pictures of Aljana6, and our teachers say we should meditate, they say it means to think very deep about our lives, I tried it once, but as I counted the Tesbir7, I usually felt like sleeping. One day in class, the teacher had some of the older boys bring in a huge television, and then he played a video, on the screen, I saw a white man, he spoke Arabic, and even though I can now speak fluently now, that day I did not really understand him, but he was very calm for someone who was about to die. When the video was finished, our instructor explained that like us the man was Shahid, then we were given a book each, on the cover page was a colorful picture of Aljana, it was titled the ‘Virtues of Jihād’ and written in English. When we went back to our dormitories at the end of each day we were free, to gather together and discuss our lessons, mostly our discussions were centered around where we had been kidnapped, we were surprised to learn that some of the boys in the camp had being brought willingly by their parents, I sat and wondered, why parents would bring their sons, here to die for Allah, I didn’t say this out loud, but it was on my mind, why did we have to die for Allah? What kind of God wanted us to take our lives and kill others in the process?
That was the day I decided to start writing down what I saw and heard, I asked my writing instructor, and he said it was ok, but he warned me not to name anyone or any place, and that is what I have tried to do, this is my second entry about one thousand, nine hundred and eighty-five words, my teacher says you count the number in the first line and multiply by the number of lines.
Today we went outside the camp for the first time, my heart was beating very hard when we got into the truck and sat in the back with four of the guards. We had been in Quran study class, when I was told by one of the older boys, that I was wanted outside, when I got outside the class, I noticed four other boys being led out of their classes. One of the guards said we were going for driving lessons.
“When you get outside, do exactly as you are told, do not try to run or disobey in any manner”. I found it strange that he had mentioned this, running never crossed my mind, I had come to accept the camp as home, something I never had before, as the truck drove out. I remember once when three boys had stolen a chicken, we had gathered round to kill and eat it under the flyover, when the ropes on the fowl’s legs were cut loose, it stood for a while, unsure, I remember thinking that if it had run immediately it was cut loose, it could have escaped death, I felt the same way the chicken must have felt, if I took off running immediately they told us to get out of the truck, I might have escaped, but like that chicken, the sight of the outside world, held me in place. Then the four armed men surrounded the rest of us, and the first boy got into the truck to learn. When it got to my turn I entered and sat down, in the driver’s seat,
“What is your name?” I told him.
“Good, now, start the truck, by turning the key there” I did, it started with a smooth sound, the truck was very new and shiny black.
“This is your gear, before you start any vehicle, look at it, to make sure it is in neutral”, I looked at the letter N on the gear and nodded, “now press down on your clutch, it is the last foot pedal on your left, look up as you do this, place your foot lightly on your throttle, no not the middle, far right, good, don’t press down, lightly, take one hand off the steering and push the gear forward, now slowly remove your foot slowly from the clutch and press down slowly on the throttle”, we were there till late in the evening, the driving instructor spent a lot of time with each one of us, I was able to move the car after it stalled about four times. I think I would have done it on the second try, but I was memorizing everything that was happening so I could write it down. We stopped the lessons when it became dark, I later learned that only the best students from each class were picked, I feel very proud right now.
Today, news went round among the older boys, one of them had been taken very early this morning after prayers when the air was cold. It must have been when we were still praying. We prayed first in the morning, 5am, with eyes not fully open. When we were done we went back to our rooms to wash up and prepare for class. As I bathed that morning, the boy opposite me, washed his naked body, he must have thought my eyes were closed, because he started touching his hard penis, I turned my back, and finished bathing in a haste.
Later we were gathered in the open courtyard, after the noon prayers, we sat on our prayer mats, and the sun was very hot above us, they had set up one of the huge televisions. The tall man, who was also our explosive device instructor, pressed the remote in his hand, at first I thought it was another Jihād video, but the man in the video was wearing a suit, he looked sad, but I wasn’t sure, white people always looked like they were frowning. He pointed behind him, the sound had been muted, so I couldn’t hear him, behind him was smoke, cars which had stopped burning but smoke was still coming from them, my language instructor says the word is smoldering, people were being carried, they looked dead, I shifted my aching neck, then they switched off the television.
Our camp commander spoke:
“Today we won a great victory against the infidels”. I think he pauses to catch our attention; all eyes were on him.
“A star student gave his life for the cause, and you know why you should be happy?” he paused again, his eyes swept the compound, I was sure he was looking at me. One of the older boys started up the shout and soon we all joined in:
“Allah is great! Allah is great!” We kept shouting, I felt strong, I wished I was the one who had been taken, who had killed the infidels. Then he raised his hand to silence us,
“He is now in Aljana, he will now present seventy names to Almighty Allah for Aljana and Allah will honor that list! He will! Because we are Shahid!” It was the third lesson, in our book — Virtues of Jihād, but he said it with such great force, his eyes open wide and shining, I felt my heart swell with the promise of Aljana, I felt like I was going to cry, inspiring, yes, that is the word. We were told to go in for lunch, and as we moved to the dining hall, we were all smiling, soon it will be our turn to enter the glorious Aljana and be welcomed by Allah, as one of the honored Shahid.
It has been nearly two months since my last entry into this journal, my friends and I spend the nights discussing our instructors, and some of the young Eleha girls, their shapely bodies beneath the shapeless black gowns they are always wearing. I have hardly had the time to write, and I don’t think any of the other guys even write, these days our training has been mostly outside the classrooms, some of the boys have started naming their knives. After training each day, we are made to keep all weapons in the proper place, the armory. We are learning how to arm and defuse bombs, the importance of controlled detonations. I am really poor in the shooting classes, i rarely hit my targets, but I can drive like an expert now. We watch at least two videos a week. Sometime, two weeks ago, we were shown a video, where a plane dropped a bomb, over a village, there was a lot of dust and sand, then after sometime, I saw a man whose legs had been blown off, he was lying on the ground, the blood on the floor was drying fast under the hot sun, I was sweating like I was under the same sun. I wondered who held the camera. Our Jihād instructor then asked: “After seeing what the infidels do to the sons of Allah, do they deserve any mercy?” My ‘no!’ that day was very strong, I was angry with whoever had dropped the bomb, later I knew I was also angry with whoever had been recording the screaming man, I couldn’t taste my lunch that afternoon. We were in an explosion class some days later, and the instructor showed us a video of a Shahid boy. A male voice read the boy’s farewell note. He had been a student at this very camp and sat in this very class like us, the instructor explained, he said this, in the same way I would say, I drove very well, it was not just pride, but a fact, we watched the explosion, the instructor paused and pointed to the corners of the screen, he was smiling, and I could see why, it was a very good explosion, our Fidayi brother had made sure of maximum damage, not just the center of the crowd, but a little to the left, so that the cars would also blow up. I looked hard at the screen, because I wanted to see his movements, he walked casually, a woman with a little boy bumped into him, and when he turned to apologize, the camera caught his face, he was handsome, when the explosion was done, I noticed a single white shoe, very small, it had belonged to the little boy, it was a fine shoe, I keep seeing it in my dream, it bothers me, ever since we started watching the videos, I have been dreaming more and more, I rarely remember anything, but I always remember the floating white shoe, sometimes they are two, a complete pair.
Tonight, I am writing outside, I am sitting on a chair outside the room, so I can see the stars, I am confused, today we were given a portion of the holy Quran to read and explain, I read quickly, and turned to the next page, this was not part of our reading assignment, but I enjoyed reading, I read a verse that confused me, I looked up at our instructor and the other students, then I read it again, the verse laid down laws for warring soldiers, cultivated land and residential buildings were to be left unscathed, women and children were to be spared and taking of one’s life was condemned. I remembered the white shoe.
“What is it?” the instructor asked me when I entered his office, his eyes kind, I looked down and decided to ask him.
“Well sir, I read this verse today and I do not understand what it means” I placed the open Quran before him, and kept my finger on the verse, he looked at me, his eyes were not as kind as before, then he turned his head to the Quran, I kept looking at my feet.
“What part do you not understand?” he asked after some time, his voice was loud, like we were not alone, I began to regret asking the question, I thought of lying.
“The part of not killing women and children, and suicide” I answered, adding “sir”, as his eyes became very hard.
“Do you remember the bombing video, with the screaming man?” I nodded.
“Yes, I do sir”.
“Good, do you think Allah will not want his children avenged?” he paused, I did not know the answer. “Have you been reading your textbook on Jihād?” he continued, I nodded hastily, I wanted to leave the office.
“Have I answered your question?” his voice was soft and his eyes were kind again.
“Yes sir” my voice sounded like I was going to cry. I turned to leave forgetting my Quran.
“Take this” he held out the Quran, I stretched to collect it, but he held on.
“Are you a coward?” he asked, then he let go of the Quran suddenly, I staggered back and almost fell. I fled the office. The stars do not talk, so I cannot ask them and the air scents of rain, I will stop here.
This paper is different from that of my diary, they didn’t let me go back to my room. I was on my way to class this morning, when two of the guards, stopped me and asked me to follow them, usually this only happened when you had disobeyed camp rules. I had not done anything wrong that day, so I was confused. When we got to the camp commander’s office, I was so scared, my throat felt dry. He looked up, there were two other men with him, men I did not know, one of them looked at me and smiled. I relaxed a little.
“Sit down” the camp commander said, I chose the smaller of the two chairs, opposite him, the men were seated beside him.
“You have an assignment”, when he said those four words. I smiled, usually they said ‘it is time’, if you were to die, however an assignment was good, it meant it was not yet time. I left with the smiling man in a car, the commander said I was to obey him, for he was my Rabhar, my guide on this assignment, we went on for a long time, and when he removed the blindfold, for the first time in months, I saw normal people, I closed my eyes, then opened them, my heart beat wildly, I saw children playing in front of houses, I saw girls chatting, when we came onto the express way, I saw hawkers, I pressed my face to the car window, I could not see enough. I am hungry, my Rabhar left me alone here, he said he will be back with food, I tried the door to the room, after he left, it was locked, my friends at camp, will be eating right now, I am tired, I must sleep a little.
I will never see my diary again, but I want to start another one, it has been two months, since I wrote the last entry, I will live to be eighteen. My Rabhar returned that night with food which I ate quickly, then I think I fell asleep immediately, because when I woke up, my head was pounding and my throat was dry. When I opened my eyes, there were three men standing by the window of the room. My penis felt itchy, I put my hand into my boxers to scratch, someone had shaved me. That woke me up, the room was hot, and when I reached to unbutton my shirt, I felt wires, I wasn’t wearing a shirt.
I stood up quickly, and almost fell back on the bed, my Rabhar came towards me, “sit down Ibrahim”. I wanted to scream, but no sound came out.
“Water” I said, he signaled one of the men, I drank it gently. I hate it when you rush water and get choked up.
“The commander said it is an assignment sir” I said when I dropped the cup, there was no need to panic, there had to be an explanation. My Rabhar, I never found out his name, stood up,
“Are you a coward?” he asked, I looked about like an animal caught in a cage, the other men were armed, I could tell, by their stance, but I couldn’t see their guns.
“No”, I answered.
“Good, this is your assignment, and like other soldiers of Allah, today, you will be in Aljana. You will recommend my name too right?” I hated him in that moment. I was given a black Jalamia, to put on. He explained, when I came out of the house, I would walk to the busy bus stop and wait for their signal, then I was to detonate the bomb. I listened, but his voice didn’t calm me, like it was supposed to, I was scared. He asked me if I wanted to record a video, I thought back to the boys at the camp, but I knew I wouldn’t be as calm as those people were in the video, and then they would discard it, so I shook my head. Then he brought out the Quran and asked me to recite the Ayat-ul-kursi, this was a verse from Surah e Yaseen, verse 43, the pages were blurry, I passed my hand over my face twice, then I started reciting it very fast. He didn’t need to explain the detonation steps to me, but he did, twice, I kept nodding each time. Then the three men, gathered by the window, their voices were low, finally my Rabhar turned to me.
“It is time” He said.
“You will walk to the end of the bus station” my eyes followed his finger, he was pointing, I nodded, “You will wait till the beeper goes off” I collected the little beeper, the time was set for five minutes, I was relieved inwardly, it gave me enough time. I nodded to reassure them, smiled and pumped my fist into the air.
“Allah u Akbar!” I could feel their relief as they repeated, “Allah is great”. I walked quickly out of the room, i had about four minutes left, I got to the end of the bus station with three minutes left, people milled around, waiting for the buses to fill up, my fingers worked fast. I was sure they couldn’t see me from the window, but if the time finished and nothing happened, they would come looking for me, I disconnected the wires quickly, silently thanking my explosives instructor. Then I walked away from the crowd, as the beeper went off, I screamed “Bomb! Bomb!” and started running. I jumped over the small fence as the crowd around me erupted, people running in different directions, screams filling the air. It would take them 10 minutes before they realized, no bomb went off, enough time to be far away from here.
I have been free for two months now, I have put my camp education to good use, I am a driver at a very big bank, I still see white shoes in my dreams, and some nights, I think of going back to the camp, if I could ever find it.
1. Shahid: Originates from the Quranic Arabic word meaning “witness” and is also used to denote a “martyr”.
2. Jalamia: Yoruba name for long gown usually worn by Muslim men and women.
3. Jihād: In Arabic, the word jihād is a noun meaning the act of “striving, applying oneself, struggling, persevering”.
4. Fidayi: Fedayeen (Arabic: fidāʼīyīn) is a term used to refer to various military groups willing to sacrifice themselves.
5. Eleha: Yoruba word for women who wear a Burqa.
6. Aljana: Jannah (Arabic: Jannah), an eternal place for Muslim people, is the Islamic conception of paradise.
7. Tesbir: Islamic prayer beads.
This story first appeared on Kalahari Review