Peter Paul Rubens. Massacre of the Innocents, 1611–12 (Art Gallery of Ontario).

The automatic gunfire erupted abruptly in the bustling main street. A chorus of screams pierced the hot
November air as people scuttled for cover. Shoppers ran in all directions. Street-side stalls were
upended and goods crashed to the ground as people dived for cover. Cars hooted madly while
hysterical people scattered all over, crossing the street at dangerous points, looking for a safe spot to hide. A car veered off-lane as the driver got hit. An oncoming taxi collided with the victim’s car head-on and stopped. Women with babies strapped to their backs screamed and panicked. Some of them unstrapped their babies as they crouched to safety. Whilst the automatic rifles continued to cough and mow people indiscriminately, Jette Okoro instinctively threw herself down. Her newly plaited hair with rebellious teenage blond cornrows scraped off the red dust as she rolled under Mr Moodley’s red, beat-up ’62 Chevy for cover. Mr Moodley parked his Chevy at the same spot every morning, opposite a hardware store. There were no parking meters on the umarked streets, so the truck parked there all day long. He’d reverse into the spot, lock the truck and then unlock the door to his photographic shop-cum-studio. Moodley & Sons had been in the hands of the same family for 60 years. For decades it had been a feature on the recently renamed Che Guevara Street. Now from where she was hiding Jette watched in juvenile horror as bullets, flying over Mr Moodley’s Chevy, shattered the huge shop windows. Shards of glass rained down on the dusty sidewalk besides her. Inside the shop the photo frames, film canisters and cameras on display were ripped apart by bullets from automatic rifle fire. The bits flew up in the air and came scattering down to litter the polished floor. Mr Moodley lay slumped over his counter. Blood, which from Jette’s viewing point looked like carelessly thrown paint from an upstart portrait artist’s canvas, ran in lazy streaks down the side of his chest. Amid the horror, Jette stifled her sobs. Tears ran down her caramel-coloured oval face. She was scared of making noise and alerting the shooters. From outside her hiding place, casualties of the noon massacre littered the unlined street and sidewalks. The rebels, who were repelled by uniform, walked around in tattered threadbare shorts and flip-flops, jumping over the fallen townspeople, and removing valuable items. There was no time, even purpose, to check for wounded people’s pulses. Those with a breath still laboriously twitching their riddled bodies were ceremoniously finished off without as much as a flicker of conscience. From the west side of Che Guevara Street, adjoining Kenneth Kaunda Street, a batch of unwashed rebels appeared, herding a group of captured young townspeople towards the square. Jette Okoro had never been so scared in her life. A warm, wet rivulet of pee down her thigh attested to the horror. All of her 13 years, she watched as the innocence of life expired before her eyes. She never knew, and certainly no one knew that a short trip to buy rice and some beans would end up as a witness to senseless killing. It felt as if the incident was staged, and she was an extra in a badly scripted Nigerian movie.
Now Jette began to comprehend why all the men were required to help the government army ward off guerrilla fighters. Her father Salo had been one of those given the presidential order. The family was worried the day he was picked up. Without military training, he and others were forced to carry out national duty for which they were not skilled. Salo was wounded in the spine. He he laid   home helpless, bedridden and could not tend to the tiny family plot anymore. The government had no policy in place to compensate fallen men by way of pensions. Even if it had such policy, there was simply no money. Jette’s mother Lamer, God bless her, tried all she could to keep the family together. However, under these difficult circumstances she could not afford to feed Jette and six other siblings. Only three of Lamer’s children attended school. Jette was fortunate to be one of the three. The schools in Malamu functioned intermittently. For much of the year children were on the move, displaced by unpredictable fighting and sporadic attacks. Hunger and tent-hopping were constantly on children’s minds. Those lucky enough to escape malaria, as Jette did, could get a few months of schooling in the year. Jette’s school, Malaza École Primaire, was situated beyond a raging, crocodile rich river. République de Malamu had no mining industry to speak of. Concessions to explore and exploit minerals had been halted by endless wars. The landlocked country depended on coffee and cassava for revenue. Agriculture had all but ground to a halt. Exports suffered severely, and inflow of direct foreign currency dried up. There was no money to waste on building bridges and proper infrastructure. The scant government money was needed to fund the fight against the ever resourceful rebels. With stakes like these, it took a will of steel for children in République de Malamu to graduate beyond junior high. Girls like Jette were affected the most. Education for girls was perceived as an unnecessary luxury. Love school she did, but even through the poor standard of education, children’s aspirations for a better life fizzled out. Jette remembered the time her teacher scolded her for daring to dream to be a chemist. ‘Not in Malamu!’ the teacher had said disparagingly. ‘Here the rebels hold sway. The rebels determine your future.’ The whole class had erupted in hostile laughter. She was nicknamed Madame chimiste. She was hurt.
She had heard often that it was education only, and not guns, that could unlock any door she wished to open. She didn’t understand how killing and maiming people contributed to knowledge and a better life for the poor. Needless to say, being a police officer or a soldier was the dream of choice for many whose aspirations were clipped by the hardships of warring countries. Then as abruptly as it started, the gunfire stopped. The streets fell quiet, all still. Even adventurous town strays were reduced to silent whimper. The irritating smell of gunpowder lingered in the air. Somewhere along the street, the only radio that was not shattered by gunfire crackled Salif Keita’s song Africa, in a terrible treble. Malaza, the small town on the banks of Doti River, in the north of the Republic of Malamu, had in recent years seen relative calm. That was until the rebels, under the formation Front de Résistance de Kanga, or simply Kanga Rebels after their general, made an about-turn. They pulled out from the negotiating table when their demand for the defence and finance ministries could not be guaranteed. The delicate attempt to integrate the armée rebelle into the Malamu force de défense was derailed. It was a show of fire-power characterised by ambushes and assassinations, which drove divisions even deeper. The Kanga Rebels left towns and villages and headed back to the jungle where, it was widely believed, large caches of armaments were hidden. The rebels’ numbers were swollen by a patchwork of bloodthirsty solidarity soldiers from a number of friendly countries. As a result the country imploded into civil strife again, which in turn worsened to a regional war. While the African Union dilly-dallied, looking for an African solution for this unique African problem, thousands of civilians were brutally massacred. Main urban centres, rich in unexploited mineral resources fell under the rebel command. Since then the south of the country had seceded from the central government and formed an unofficial southern state christened Malamu du Sud. Many analysts watching these developments predicted peace and stability since Malamu du Sud was proclaimed. Yes there was stability for a while, but things changed for the worst when massive oil reserved were confirmed in what was now called Malamu Nord. The northern Malamu army, weakened by corruption and several months of non-payment of wages, were reluctant to act tough on the rebels. With empty stomachs, the disgruntled army was highly corruptible. Often they looked away whenever the Kanga Rebels advanced and launched attacks. The rebels were largely better equipped than the northern state, with its ancient French colonial-era hardware. It was no match for the Kanga Rebels, who had found a new ally in the next superpower called China. It was not always a winnable war. And now with the discovery of oil, things could only go downhill.

As Jette laid still, unmoving under the truck, she thought about her family. Her mother, together with her brothers and sisters, were preparing the plot for the planting season. Were they safe? Did they know where she was? Had the rebels got to her house? She stopped breathing and listened intently. The sound characterising the attackers was subsiding. The rebels appeared to be retreating. Jette could hear orders being shouted. Heavy feet hardened by months of jungle training, stomped past Mr Moodley’s truck. Jette cringed and noiselessly shrunk away towards the centre under the truck. After a while, which could’ve been hours, all traces of the rebels’ southern accent faded away. Still Jette laid  still, afraid to move a muscle. The sun was dipping down the western sky. Shadows filled empty spaces where the sun danced in heat waves before the rebels struck. Jette continued to hide a while longer. She could hear no ambulance sirens, no police barking orders.
There were no government soldiers that came to rescue the victims. The town was overrun by rebels, who were in control. Eventually Jette flexed and cautiously rolled out from Mr Moodley’s Chevrolet truck. When she came clear in the hot afternoon sun, she sat and waited, listening for approaching sound. She feared that someone would see her and begin shooting. There was no one, not a soul in sight. Then she stood up and turned to look around at the damage. The buildings were pock-marked by gunfire. On the upper floors of the buildings, tattered curtains stirred in the breeze. A block away,  a building was engulfed in flames. Countless bodies lay scattered on pavements and in the street. Each body was accompanied by a puddle of congealing blood.
Looking at all these, Jette became sick to the stomach. She silently vomited outside Mr Moodley’s
photographic shop. Standing upright, she wiped her mouth and legs where the spittle had run down.
Then looking up and down the street, she began walking, slowly and undecided at first, then hurriedly in the direction of the police station. She had lost the money Lamer had given her for groceries. Now she’d go home without the food parcels. In the thick silence of a decimated town, Jette walked on. A well-fed dog came running past her, licking blood from its mouth. The canine sent fresh cold quivers down her spine. Whether it was its master’s blood or the remains of a sumptuous lunch Jette had no energy to ponder. After scaring her, the dog scuttled away in no particular direction, sniffing endlessly. Jette walked rapidly, her small feet noiselessly skirting one body after another. She passed a block with its opened, ruined shops. She arrived at an intersection, and stopped briefly to check for people. There was no one around, so Jette walked on and crossed the intersection. She wished she could find someone – see someone to talk to, to ask for help. Questions she couldn’t answer raced through her mind. The thought of being alone with so many dead bodies  rattled her. Block after block, intersection after intersection, Jette encountered no one. Malaza had, in a matter of hours, turned into a ghost town. Everything had happened in violent haste. Those who could, just upped and ran for the hills. Merchandise sold by small traders laid scattered in all directions. Street-side stalls selling food were abandoned with simmering pots that were now charred. The smell of burnt food, coupled with the sight of blood spilt, nauseated Jette and she vomited again. But she moved on to the next intersection. Then Jette Okoro turned a corner and froze. Her small hands involuntarily flew up and covered her face as thought she freed her  vision. Right ahead  of her a platoon of rebels, machine guns trained at her tiny body, stood menacing. Their cold eyes, burning with the desire to destruct, ravaged her small body. There must’ve been 50 of them. Jette’s legs trembled violently. It was the first time she saw the attackers face to face. And the sight was ugly. The red bandannas that the rebels tied round their heads Tupac-style made killing and destruction a fashion statement. A thickly built soldier, who appeared to be their commander, yanked a cigarette from his thick-lipped mouth. He stepped forward, casually shaking his head. Probably not more than 30, he appeared to relish this moment of surprise. He handed his machine gun to a toothless, bare-chested rebel. The rebel grinned mirthlessly. Then the leader drew his pistol and stepped towards Jette. Jette wished so bad she could turn and run away. She stood trembling and crying. Her legs could not carry her, and she reeled as if she would fall, then found the strength to stand upright. She wished her father could miraculously appear, slay the attackers and lift her to safety. But with Salo crippled by the rebels and helpless, the fantasy rapidly fizzled away to reality. She bent double, clutching her belly. The rebels laughed at this sick entertainment.
“Look what we have here!” the rebel leader stuck the cigarette back where it belonged. The cigarette looked like a prop he was born with. Then his swollen lips curled back in a hideous smile, exposing his brown teeth. “One wanna be soldier!” His accent was thick KiMalaza, popular in the south of the country and other parts of Uganda and Rwanda. In a flash, the grin disappeared. Jette could feel her bones rattle beneath the skin. She searched for words, longing to say something. Her mouth, dry, was wired shut by terror. She wanted to ask to be rescued, to beg to be taken to her family, to be given water – but all that came out was an inaudible hiss. The rebels laughed at her attempt to open her mouth and speak. One shouted sarcastically: “Un soldat mute, commandant! Un bonus!” A mute soldier. What a bonus.
Jette started as a single gunshot rang out around the block. The leader sprang into action.
“Take her in, boys!” he ordered. “Bring her to base to join the others.” A number of technicials with Malamu du Sud flags approached. Jette was manhandled, carried to one of the jeeps and thrown inside. Her crying and kicking meant nothing to the Kanga rebels. Once in the technical, her hands were bound with a thick tow rope. The jeep started and Jette was jolted violently back as the vehicle accelerated. The driver turned back to Kenneth Kaunda Street, where several other loaded technicals arrived. The rebel leader jumped in one of the technicals and the driver followed Jette’s jeep. The barrels of the machine guns mounted on the technicals swung full circle as the rebels drove to the outskirts of town. Once they crossed the Doti River using a makeshift log bridge, the company disappeared round the foot of the mountain. Jette, like the others, had disappeared.
With their disappearance began Jette’s initiation into the phase of her young life as a child fighter.
There, along with other child captives, the process of brainwashing them into believing the supposedly good cause of the rebels began. She was to be trained and turned into a child fighter whose conscience, innocence and compassion would be pried out of her delicate brain. There in the jungle Jette was instructed, and programmed to turn against her own folk, her kin, and unleash attacks of terror all in the effort to help Malamu du Sud win its war against the government of Malamu Nord. Rebels who kidnapped children to initiate them into the military and use them horrendous operations follow no internationally accepted war practices. Jette and other child soldiers were to be used to fight Malamu Nord’s control of newly-found oil. The welfare of the children would be the least on the rebel’s minds. Of course that would not be the only function of the girl child soldiers. Jette learned while undergoing forceful training that there was a special purpose waiting for them. Their innocence was shattered and their childhood stolen from them. The girl child soldiers were raped and ravished and forced to serve as camp wives for the rebel soldiers. While helping to fight the Malamu army, and automatically killing without remorse was a tactic of choice, it was not the sole objective. The ideal situation was where the rebels could control the little impressionable minds and enjoy seeing their futures crash in their hands. Most of the time it was done with the aid of drugs to alter the children’s judgment, thereby compromising their capacity to comprehend the atrocities. So it was true what Jette’s teacher once said. Forget dreams of bettering your life. Forget about aspiring to be educated. There would never be a better life other than hardships and war.

There,  the rebels held sway. What went was what the rebels planned  for the people. Having sex slaves, no matter how young, it seemed, added extra impetus and a message of ruthlessness, to the rebels’ agenda and purpose. It was a sick and effective ploy that the rebels used to holler to the other side: Listen to our demands – otherwise your girls will pay the price. In those conditions, none of the girls would fare well. Those like Jette, who had a tendency to develop a rebellious streak, were punished by severe beatings and torture until they toed the line. Out there the girls learnt that attempts to flee and seek freedom were solved by a single bullet to the back of the head. Jette saw it done again… and again. They were held prisoners and unleashed on the innocent civilians for similar attacks such as the ones that claimed their very childhood. Thus the cycle repeated itself, until the girl child soldier believed herself an essential part of the revolution that she can never satisfactorily explain. And God forbid none of the girl child soldiers become pregnant. It is not the aim of the rebel army to babysit babies. Babies are a liability. Likewise, no babies would be afforded humane care by being forwarded to social centres, churches or charities. The rebels drummed it into their heads that child girl soldiers stupid enough to get pregnant would be summarily executed. And execute them they did.
Those lucky enough to escape the loophole and delivered  babies were thrown back in the front-lines the moment they regained their strength. Jette saw this with her horrified eyes. The newborn was either bludgeoned, hacked with a machete or buried alive. A chilling warning that it was not ideal to be a girl echild.

Nearly a year ago when the massacre at high noon took place, Jette was at the wrong place. It was
the wrong time to be in town. Her disappearance caused Lamer heart palpitations. Salo, who had
rapidly lost the ability to comprehend dialogue, laid  wide-eyed, with no way of knowing that his daughter was the next village attacker. As for Lamer, it was a safe bet to believe that she would never see Jette again. Alive.

Rebone is a South African short story writer, novelist, biographer, investigative writer as well as a chemist. She was born in Pretoria, and after high school went on to study chemistry, labour relations management, business administration and business management. She is the only writer to have won twice in the annual Anglo Platinum Short Story Contest. Her winning stories were The Good Samaritan of 2004, followed by The Journey, which appeared in 2005. She has also produced a detailed study on prostitution in her hometown, culminating in the book The Prostitutes of Mokopane. Her most recent work is In The Name Of The Father, a court drama detailing the case of a Zimbabwean man standing trial for the murder of a Catholic priest. All her works are available in paperback and ebook format from Amazon.

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