The Future Is A Coffin
by Tammi Pratt

 

Sierra Leone, Africa

December, 1995

The sun rises with a spectacular start over the horizon, and Adanna wakes with a jolt, rubbing her eyes.  Her small fingers stretch out, fumbling for her sister’s shoulder.

“Candis, wake up.” She gives her a little shake, but she doesn’t stir.

Adanna feebly reaches for her sister’s hand.  Curled, cold fingers wrapped tightly under her flimsy blue cotton night dress greet her.  There is no breath from her neck.  Adanna screams while drums beat furiously around her.  The noise pierces her ears.  She holds her hands over her head and screams again.

*****

Adanna awakes. An older girl on the ground beside is shaking at her, pushing down on her chest, and leering in her face.

“Shut up!” she hisses. “The guards will hear you! Don’t draw attention to yourself.”

Adanna wriggles from under the girl’s grip and her rancid breath. She sits up. There are other girls and they are standing, dressed. Military drums beat outside. There is yelling and shouting amongst the ordered formation. Young boys are carrying their guns and stepping in time to the congas. The youngest couldn't be any older than 5; the oldest no more than 13.

“Get away from the window and get dressed!” The older girl pulls her back. Adanna doesn’t know where she is. The older girl tosses her a skirt and a blouse. Adanna looks for somewhere to change. The older girl reads her mind.

“Don’t bother,” she scorns. “They’ll see you undressed soon enough.”

Adanna slowly peels off her night dress and changes awkwardly. There is silence amongst the girls while they watch. She is new—untouched, and unbruised.

The older girl hurries her along.

“They are coming,” she pulls back from the same hut window and glares at Adanna. “Move it or we’ll all be done over,” she warns her again.

The makeshift bamboo hut door swings open, resounding with a bang. Dust swirls at the feet of a pair of black boots. Adanna cowers. She hasn’t seen this uniform before. It is green and gold and worn by a soldier—a rebel soldier—and he is tall, and angry.

He shouts, “To the kitchen!”

The girls quietly but quickly move, heads down, fists clenched in fear. The older girl turns and jostles past him. He stops her with a large hand on her shoulder, slowly pushing her down, twisting her arm until her knees buckle and she falls to the ground. He pulls her sharply by her hair, and she whimpers. She looks up at Adanna sobbing—fear and anger all in her eyes at once.

“You, stay.”

He looks ahead at Adanna. “Get out now,” he sneers, “or I’ll make you stay, too.”

*****

The boys in the corner toss the crushed Marlboro packet to the other side of the hut. Several cigarettes fall mid-air and land near Rashad. He flicks them aside. He doesn’t smoke. He tries not to take the drugs either, but some days he is forced to snort the cocaine while the guards hold his head down. He remembers the pain. Not in the nose, but on the chest. He bears on his ribs the initials “RUF”, and recalls the day they were carved.

“Here, rub this in.” A soldier threw him a small packet of the white powder after retracting his knife from Rashad's skin.

Rashad looked down at his chest where the soldier pointed. He was giddy with pain and blood.

“Rub it in!” the soldier shouted.

Rashad shook his head. He didn’t understand. The soldier snatched the packet back, broke it open with his teeth, and punched Rashad in the face with his fist. Rashad fell to the ground. The soldier pinned him down with his knees, and smeared the powder—rubbing it deep into his wounds, burning his flesh and sending him livid with madness. Rashad screamed, and then hollered, thrashing his head against the ground.

The soldier slapped him again and laughed. “There, you’re one of us now.”

Rashad pushed the sheet across the floor, and lay on his back with arms under his head, shivering. This was his bed now. He closed his eyes.

His parents were crying, pleading for him to leave. Rashad could not see them—they were a blur. His brothers were pulling at him, begging him to come, but Rashad could not move. He heard gunfire in the distance. He turned around and saw bullets fire past him. Guards were behind him, shooting. His father fell first, taking a bullet as he leant over to protect his wife. Rashad’s mother was spared—only for hours—while the soldiers pulled her inside their home and ravaged her. And his brothers fell last. The guards tied them to posts and sprayed bullets across their chests until they slumped where they once stood. Rashad screamed in agony.  He couldn’t save his family.

He woke with a start, sweating. Rashad wiped his brow and breathed heavily. The same dream, he shook his head. Every night it was the same dream—the same nightmare. He shivered. It was almost the same dream though this time—with one small detail. This time, he was holding a gun.

He looked down and rubbed the scars on his chest. It was his branding, and now he remembered clearly when he became one of these brutal soldiers. It was the night Rashad had murdered his own family. Of course, he held the gun. It was his orientation.

*****

Adanna let the cold water run over her hands. They were bruised and bleeding from carrying the buckets of water from the makeshift channel against the riverbank. It was only her third day here in these strange surroundings. She couldn’t remember how she arrived. She didn’t know where her family was. She thought about her sister, Candis. What would she do without Adanna? How would she fend for herself? Who would bring her water, bring her food? Her baby sister was only 5 years of age—only 4 years younger than Adanna herself. Her mother was bedridden and dying, and her father had left them long ago. Oh baby, Candis, I wish I was with you now.

Adanna watched the other girls pick at the trees and bushes for berries. Two guards stood behind them, smoking cigarettes and laughing. A small rustle in the bushes stopped them still in their tracks. They cocked their weapons and spoke in another language.

A young boy appeared. He was much the same age as Adanna. He came through the growth on the side of the bank. He held his hands in the air. The soldier approached him, yelling.

“No harm, no harm,” he called out. He lowered his head and retreated. “Guard Itjona sent me,” he continued. The soldier pushed him to the ground with the muzzle of his gun. Adanna watched in silence. She knew this boy. He attended her classes at school. His name was Rashad.

*****

February, 1996

Rashad woke to yelling. The soldiers’ voices commanded attention, and ordered the boys into single file with no more than the light cotton shirts and shorts they were wearing. Rashad still couldn’t understand all that they were shouting, but followed the other forty or so boys out into the open space between huts.

“They are being moved out to follow government army forces along the coastline,” the older girl informed Adanna. The two watched from the kitchen window where they were cleaning the dishes from the breakfast meals. Adanna had since found out her name was Camille.

“Don’t call me that though,” she had quickly warned her. “I don’t want these pigs to know who I am. There are some things that I won’t let them take away from me.”

Rashad wore nothing on his feet, but held a gun in his hand. Adanna watched him. They had recognised each other some months back, but had not spoken. The boys and girls did not mix.

Rashad shivered. February, and the harmattan winds from the dawn circled him.

“In front!” The soldiers swooped around the children, pushing them to the front. Today they had several new boys—the youngest dragged his gun. It was too heavy for him to carry. They walked out in front to detonate mines—the newly recruited always lead the way.

Evening fell in the camp, and Rashad lay down his gun and sat in a makeshift tent. There was silence for a moment until he heard some soldiers cross between the fields with rapid gunfire, rustling, screaming and yelling. It’s not the boys, this time, Rashad pricked his ears. None are injured today—no need to shoot any of them. It’s something much larger—a worthy find or catch. He heard the guards laughing, whistling. Some of the boys ventured out of the tent—the older ones stood and clapped.

“Bring him here, bring him here,” they chanted. The guards fired in the air.

They like their boys excited, but they don’t want them out of control. The guards bring him over the hill—a government guard, bound by the arms, shot through the legs, and dragged along the ground. The guards kick and spit at him. They reach the tents and walk to the oldest of the boys. They push the soldier to the group. The boys cheer.  Tonight is torture night. They throw them some shackles, pliers and chains.

“Go crazy,” they instruct.

*****

Adanna bent over the bucket, dabbing ice cold water on her wounds.

Her elbows reveal grazes from a fall she had that morning with the timber cuttings. She is lost and hungry, and it’s all she can do to survive.  The other girls don’t talk much—they don’t share their backgrounds or how they got here—or why they are here. Adanna’s tears fall. They have fallen every night for the past few months, and yet no-one comes to save her, no-one has found her. Oh baby, Candis, I wish I was with you now.

A guard walks past. It is dusk and she should be in her hut. The girls are talking amongst themselves and she still hasn’t come to know any of them. She doesn’t want to. She’s got a home, and a mother, and a sister, and she needs to be back there with them.

The guard pauses, and turns around. He feels an urge. She’s young. He knows the other guards haven’t touched her yet. They try to wait till the girls are ten. Ten is a telling time for a young girl—she is ripening and she is ready. This one—she is still young.

He turns back, and continues on. Adanna holds her breath. He stops again. His urge is greater the more he thinks about her. He could have her first.

“Come,” he nods his head towards a hut. Adanna doesn’t move.

“Come,” he says again, this time a little louder. She stands still.

He walks to her. He looks carefully at her. She has green eyes, he observes, and very pretty lips. She is quite lovely.

“Come with me. Now.” He takes her wrist, and Adanna pulls back from him, all the time watching him defiantly. I won’t go with you, I won’t go with you. Candis, I wish I was with you.

He raises his hand, and hits her hard on her face with the back of it. She stumbles back, and her face bleeds from the cut he leaves with his ring. He bends over her. He’ll take her right here, cheeky little witch. He unbuckles his pants and drops them to the ground. Adanna sits up and crawls backwards, edging closer to the water trough. He yanks her legs back towards him, and crouches on the ground, over the top of her. Adanna lifts her knee and kicks him between the legs. He cries out in pain and then bites his lip. He doesn’t want to draw attention. He punches her in the jaw and quickly pushes his hands down over her mouth, stifling her screams and sobs. Her body trembles. He likes it this way. It arouses him. He pushes her legs apart with his other hand, tearing off her loose panties. He takes her. She screams again, barely able to breathe between his thick, hardened fingers. He writhes on top of her—back and forth, back and forth—grunting and groaning. She feels searing pain in every part of her body—shooting through her legs and her stomach. He crushes her with his being, and she loses consciousness.

*****

Camille is dabbing cold wash clothes on her legs. The sun is piercing her eyes through the small hut windows, and she is fevered with hot and cold sweats. She looks down and sees blood all over her. Her blood—from the cuts, the beating and the rape.

“Lie still,” Camille urges her. Her body is wrangled with pain. She feels nauseous. She rolls to her side to be sick.

“There, there,” Camille soothes. She strokes her head. “They weren’t supposed to get you this young,” she informs her. “I found you last night, passed out by the wash trough. Went looking for you when you hadn’t come in for bed.”

Camille does her best to quiet Adanna as she weeps uncontrollably. Inside, though, she feels relief. The guards will give her some rest now with this new one.

*****

The consistent rocking motion disturbed the children. Adanna was first. She woke with a start—her arms flying about in the air to beat the brutal guard off her—but he wasn’t there. The motion was from the truck that she was on. Rashad rolled over toward her before opening his eyes slowly—seeing her first, and then the small slit in the canvas where the rain was tricking through. His head was damp.

“Where are we?” he asked, wiping the drops from his face.

“On our way to Freetown,” Camille answered. She was sitting beside them. She had been awake most of the night.

“Why?” Adanna sat up. “How?”

“We’ve been released,” Camille replied.  She yawned. “I heard that we are being taken to Benin Home.”

The children sat in silence.

*****

August, 1996

Chairs were being flung from the front of the classroom, and eventually one hit a window. One boy grabbed another by the collar of his shirt and slammed him up against the blackboard and began strangling him. The teacher stormed in and ordered ceasefire amidst the chaos. The children retreated, and sat back down again. Adanna wondered when she would be able to leave this place and return to find her family. Oh baby, Candis, I wish I was with you now.

Camille found her later that afternoon, sitting in the court yard.

“Good news.” She sat down beside her. “They have located Rashad’s uncle. He’s in Freetown now, and they are going to send him to stay there.” Camille paused. “We might be next, you never know.”

Adanna’s tears fell again, landing in the palms of her upturned, clenched hands. Her tears turned to sobs, and then wails, and she began rocking, stomping her chest and howling. She held her hands over her ears, and screamed as loud as her lungs would let her.

Camille waited. She watched Adanna, and when her grief was spent, and Adanna had curled up in a ball at the bottom of the stair, stayed beside her and hugged her tightly.

*****

November, 1999

The demonstration was chaotic. People lined the streets, standing around with placards, pushing up against each other, air fraught with aggression. Guns danced in the air above their heads and the crowd chanted in several tongues about the glory of the army, and protection to the people.

One young boy, no more than 13 years old, stood still while the crowd buzzed around him, and then fell to silence as a leader took the stage.

The leader called to the mass for support—stay united with the country, remain armed, and send them their children to help combat the government. He spoke of the Revolutionary United Front, and how the country must band together to win a war that would result in its people receiving free education, health care and diamond revenues.

The young boy’s ears were pierced with the pain of these promises. He didn’t want another child to suffer as he had. He didn’t want another child to bear the burden of war—and fight for the adults, alongside the adults. No more good could come of child conscription.

He fired his gun in the air. Not once, but several times, and the crowd let out cheers. They thought he was saluting the messenger on stage—quite the opposite though. He stood back, cocked his gun as he had seen before, and fired—not once, but several times—through the heart of the leader. The leader fell to his knees on the stage, clutching his chest.

The crowd went wild. People scattered, screaming, in stops and starts. The young boy dropped his gun. He could see armed soldiers pushing their way through the crowd—coming toward him—yelling at him to stay still. He did. More people followed—all leering toward him now he was unarmed—and they began pulling at him, kicking him, ripping his clothes. He stood still, and with every blow he counted the days since he had seen his baby sister. It had been years. The people continued to push and pull at him—stripping him of his clothes, and now his head gear. Frightened eyes looked up from under it. They weren't those of a young boy—they were those of a young girl. A guard lunged at her, flung her to the ground, and the people stomped. Adanna held her hands over her head and screamed.

*****

She dreamed.

It was sunset and the glow in the sky set fell softly behind the trees and created shadows on her bed. She huddled under the covers a little more—her soft nightdress warming her under the feathers of her blankets.  Silence radiated all around.

She reached over and felt her little sister, Candis.  She was warm, too.  Her ears were covered with small muffs to keep the harmattan winds away, and her legs were curled up under her.

“Don’t,” Candis giggled, as Adanna tickled her neck.  She snuggled closer and gave her a kiss. “Oh baby, Candis, so glad I am with you.”

 

###

 

Notes on The Future Is A Coffin: A third of the world child soldiers are in Africa. The Revolutionary United Front, during the timeline of the story, was one party responsible for child conscription, promising health, education and diamond revenues to families who were struggling. Demobilisation programs are run by UNICEF and the government to release children and return them to rehabilitate them back into society. Benin Home is one such place, and often issues around stigmatization still hinder the children on release back into society. The title of the story is a quote from journalist Jimmie Briggs who has done a lot of work on this subject.

Tammi Pratt resides in Brisbane, Australia, and writes when she has the chance. Working full-time and mother to three children, Tammi has completed several qualifications, including a Diploma of Professional Writing, which has allowed her to concentrate on the art of writing, and pursue something she enjoys very much. Currently, she works within an Australian University library, and with books above her head on the second floor, she is in her element.