Corralled into one group, all fearful of the guns the Para-militaries carried, the effect and their willingness to use them all too evident, the whites hesitantly exchanged stories in hushed tones. Brian confirmed Rebecca’s ordeal, describing the raiders laughing as her screams tore the darkness.
Further communication was halted at the arrival of a large figure in full military camouflage garb who looked over the assembled group of sat and crouched people now under his sway.
“You.” He addressed them in heavily accented English. “Will come with us. You do not belong here and so we will take you away.”
No one responded.
“Which of you is the cooking man?” He questioned at which, Brian rose hesitantly to his feet. “You will,” the large black guy continued, “make rations for all here. Water, food, three days.”
Brian said nothing. The guy almost exploded. “Do it!” he shouted. “There is one hour, and we will go, food or not!”
“I need help.” Brian told him. “Two others.”
“Take them.” The guy responded as he turned. “Your people, not mine.”
Brian took two others and in less than twenty minutes had found and filled a plastic carrier bag for each of the seventeen. Each bag contained at least two bottles of water, two cans of beans, some packet soups, canned and dried fruit and three or four cans of either spam, corned beef, beef patties or frankfurter sausages plus in some packs he’d placed shrink wrapped patties. He took the temporary freedom to search out better means of transporting these bags and came up with a variety of shoulder and belt bags plus a few hessian sacks. While Brian and his picked helpers were collecting provisions the corralled group was able to get a better view of their tormentors. Almost without exception they looked incredibly young. All had some form of military webbing and were dressed with at least one item of military clothing complementing the mish-mash of muted colour civilian tee shirts, denim jeans and jackets. All were armed with at least the ubiquitous Kalashnikov, some had pistols others carried rocket launchers. These were not regular soldiers, more freedom fighters, insurgents or terrorists.
Of the prisoners, lined up in two groups of six and one of five, each with leading and trailing guards, only Rebecca did not have an extra pack to carry. She had been in the camp all night and her load was mental rather than physical. For the first time in her life, Joanne was glad of her small bust and tomboy looks. For the past week she had lamented how the humidity left her hair lank and skin blotchy. Added to the dirt and previous days dried sweat and blood on her coveralls, with her bush hat sat firmly on her head it would take more than a close look to ascertain her sex. The rucksack Joanne was directed to carry must have weighed thirty kilos but in these circumstances she was not wont to complain. At least it wasn’t just a sack like Alan in front of her had. He carried it on one shoulder, the hessian sack of his own rations that Brian had provided in the other hand.
A tropical rain forest isn’t as dense as you might think. There is a thinning from some twenty feet up and all the way to the canopy and even that has gaps in it that allow light to penetrate down. Even at ground level the vegetation is not solid, just a tangle that makes transit difficult unless you have a machete, and the raiders had machetes, plenty of them. They took turns at the front of the column, hacking a way through the low-lying fauna until they emerged onto a ready cleared path. An experienced eye would recognise that the path had not long been cut, most likely it had originally been an animal trail made passable by the raiders on their way to the survey camp. For sure the ground was not heavily trodden and under the traffic of the column broke up where it was dry and turned to a slippery mire where it was wet. Everyone struggled to keep an even keel and to keep going. In sympathy with the steaming foliage surrounding them everyone was wet, the heat and humidity forcing perspiration out of every pore.
Entirely conscious through his painful ordeal Martin lay unable to move and in abject agony. His entire body pulsed with pain, so much that if anyone had asked him he could not say which part hurt more. He had lain still as the final kicking took place, his mind telling him to play dead. In truth he wondered if he was actually dead. Only the incandescent pain of the tiny breaths he was taking and the buzz of flies on his blood soaked body told him otherwise. He was conscious of the fall of darkness and the incredible cold of the night. It could not be cold his mind told him. This was Africa, it must be his condition that made it seem so. Huddling up helped against the cold but caused even more discomfort. If he hadn’t been so cold and dry he would have cried with the hurt.
Awoken by snuffling and the tickle of insects on his face Martin dragged himself up to a sitting position and painfully brushed the insects aside. God but he hurt. His head hurt, his neck hurt, his arms and body hurt and his leg was excruciating. Around him he could see dead bodies. No human being in his proximity was alive and the smell of blood hung strongly in the air. The realisation came that if he just sat there he would most certainly die and it crossed his mind that it might actually hurt less if he did die. If not just from exhaustion then surely predators would arrive and finish the job. That was the bit he wasn’t keen on.
As the light grew he heard the commotion from the camp and stayed still until it subsided. With the presence of people gone, already Martin glimpsed the shapes of vultures way up in the sky. Martin was not a quitter, he’d navigated the oceans and steered his yacht through some terrible storms. Giving in then had not been an option, giving in now was not one either. Forcing himself upright and dragging the injured leg he made his way slowly and painfully into the deserted encampment.
Falling by the way
On the trek, fatigue quickly became a greater problem than the footing, the raiders pushing a hard pace and giving no quarter to tired limbs. The threat of a machete or Kalashnikov pushed hard into a shoulder or back by an irate and shouting raider was incentive enough to get a fallen body back up and moving.
For the fifth time Paul Philpot stumbled and fell as his knee gave way again. The beating he’d been given on capture involved multiple blows to his legs, one of which had cracked his left patella. He’d been at the back of his line since the second time he’d fallen and the bastard keeping up the tail had grown tired of getting him up. Again Philpot was in tears and openly weeping at the pain and humiliation. His guard just raised his gun for the umpteenth time and this time fired. At such close range Philpot’s body was punched to the ground as if a sledgehammer had struck him and he lay still. The warning cries of a thousand species had accompanied their passage in a cacophony of sound that instantly went silent, such that the last exhalation of air from Philpot’s lungs could clearly be heard.
The raider reached down, pulled the pack from Philpot’s dying fingers and with his boot callously shoved his corpse off of the track.
Joanne, second in her group passed right by Philpot and could not help staring at his shattered body and pale visage, his eyes flickering as his death throes ended in a final shudder.
Despite their fatigue, no one fell and failed to immediately get back up after that.
Night came, as it does near the equator, with almost incredible swiftness. Under the dense overhead canopy the light had an extreme contrast with pockets of shade broken by shafts of blindingly bright light stabbing their way down to illuminate the ragged file as it wove through the heavy undergrowth.
At the first indication of failing light and the proximity of a clearing by a small river the hostages had been corralled in their separate groups with gunmen all around them. After the way the raiders had shot Philpot down like a dog, everyone was cowed. This could be where they all were executed. The mood was sombre, relief at not having to carry their heavy packs further, exhaustion at the efforts of the day and the disruption of the previous night, dejection bordering on despair at their predicament. Almost too tired to eat the prisoners caught a whiff of the fire Ryan Lithgow and Pierre Thibodeau had put together and were cooking a tin of sausages on. Instantly stomachs’ growled and listlessly the two other groups edged toward the smell of food.
The one they had already discerned to be called M’longwe kicked them away at gunpoint. “Soulement l’un.” ‘Just one.’ He dictated to each group a single finger raised to convey meaning. Hesitantly, fearfully just one from each of the other groups came forward to put a can on the fire.
Joanne didn’t want to accept the sausage from Lithgow’s tin. She hadn’t liked the man in the first place and his dispassionate behaviour since had irked her. At no time had he, like the others in her group or for that matter the other two little groups, tried to help when people slipped and fell or when they dropped their loads.
Lithgow wouldn’t hear of it. “There are a dozen frankfurter sausages in this tin.” He quietly but firmly told Joanne. “And six of us in our group. You want to get all high and mighty on me, go ahead and starve. Just don’t be surprised or come complaining when you can’t keep up and they shoot you as well.”
“Take it.” Pierre Thibodeau told her, his voice as low as Lithgow’s. “You have had nothing since bread and cheese this morning. You need your strength or you will end up like M’sieur Philpot.”
Joanne took the stick that Thibodeau had thrust through one of the sausages and offered her. She nodded her thanks and nibbled the delicious meat.
Pete Swanson and Alan Roberts gulped down the sausages like they were manna from heaven. Thibodeau, the local man ate more carefully while Rebecca Jones, deep in her traumatized world had gone into robotic mode, chewing slowly and mindlessly long beyond the need to chew.
The two other groups fared little better, squatting in separated little circles around the meager ration. The set of four were particularly quiet and seemed leaderless, the same could not be said for the other group of six. Mike Davies called on his senior position as chief surveyor to take a moral lead for the five in his charge.
“Who didn’t they get?” Mike whispered to his group huddled close to him and the beef patties hot off the fire.
“Seventeen of us here.” Rob Greggson replied under his breath. “So not including the two guys we know are dead I make it eight of your team are missing.”
“I saw Isaacs and Derek Brown go down.” Brian Osborne told them, acceding to the hushed tone. “The bastards were just shooting up all our black boys and Isaacs rushed in trying to stop them. A hunting rifle versus a Kalashnikov is no contest, poor bastard. Derek went down with the boys. It was just plain murder.”
“They got Phil Jones too.” George Adams put in. “Not a bloody chance.”
“And Pete Edgecome” Mark Nuttall added. No-one was going to forget Pete. His dying had been long, painful and helplessly witnessed by too many of them.
“My Trevor took one in the head.” Sean Montgomery told the gathering. “Much the same time I got this one.” Sean’s leg did not look good. It was a minor miracle he had kept up all day.
“Have to assume Dick Vere and his patrols didn’t make it or they would have warned us. Neil Parsons anyone? Chris Hill?” Davies queried.
“Maybe one of the others knows.” Davies conjectured. “Next opportunity we need to mix and ask.” Tom said. “Just nobody do anything stupid. Two martyrs are enough. That they haven’t killed us yet is a good sign. Let’s keep our heads and keep our lives. Agreed?”
The grunts of approval were enough to attract the attention of one of the guards they hadn’t heard a name for yet. He was over them in a heartbeat with a boot in Brian’s side and a rifle butt to George’s head. His incomprehensible words had a completely comprehensible violent message attached.
Sleep would have been almost impossible were it not for the state of exhaustion. At night the jungle is alive and crawling bugs have no respect for supine mammals. Everyone woke to bite marks, fortunately or not, all insect bites. Only the raiders and Pierre Thibodeau seemed unaffected.
“I need to pee.” Joanne whispered to Thibodeau. “I don’t think they know I’m a woman and I don’t want to get raped. I daren’t ask because my voice will give me away.”
Pierre looked into her eyes and stood. “Monsieur M’longwe.” He addressed M’longwe, who looked up from chewing on something.
“Nous nous avons besoin d'utiliser les toilettes.” Thibodeau told him. “Je croix que nous tous.” –we need to go to toilet- I believe all of us do.’
“Pisser la.” M’longwe responded. –‘piss here’
“Compte tenu de la femme?”Thibodeau queried. “Et la femme en vue des homes?” –‘with the woman in full view? and she can see the men?’
M’longwe grunted. “Avant les arbres.Mais ne pas faire quelque chose de fou.”- ‘behind the tree, but don’t do anything stupid.’
“Bien sur.” ‘of course.’ Thibodeau assured and pulled Roberts to his feet. “We go make a space for toilet.” He announced to the others.
M’longwe clearly didn’t understand and saw collusion. Up came the assault rifle from across his lap. “Non!” He shouted. “Pas deux.”
At the sound of conflagration the leader of the raiders came over and after speaking with M’longwe addressed all three groups in his broken English. “I understand the western way with defecation. It is stupid but I will accept that for now. You must make the toilet one by one. If one does not return I will shoot the next. Make the toilet quick because it will be the only stop this day.”
The day, once it got going was interminable. The trail, hacked out pace by pace was a foot turning, exposed skin stripping, strength sapping, sweat soaking, insect biting hell. The heat insufferable, the thirst unquenchable, the pace unsustainable. Joanne was a walker. She and Mike had walked the peaks of Scotland, trekked the Lake District and followed the Army boys across the Brecon Beacons. She considered herself fit but this was way more than she was up for. At the point Joanne began to think she could not go a step further a halt was called. It was done without warning such that she nearly walked into Alan’s back.
M’longwe, at the front of her group was gesturing them to be quiet and kneel down. As Pierre, Pete, Rebecca, then Alan kneeled Joanne could see that the group in front together with their guards were also down on one knee. A marked difference between the two types of people was however plain. The whites were glad for the break, their heads down and loads on the ground, the raiders tense with heads and guns up and ready.
Pierre whispered to pass the message on. There was a road ahead, the Al Shibab fighters were checking it out.
‘Al Shibab?’ Joanne asked herself. ‘Who the hell are they?’ She whispered the message back to Ryan Lithgow, last in the line.
“You sure?” He whispered back. “Bit off their track isn’t this? The local boys are more likely Boko Harem or ANU.”
“It’s what Pierre says.” She whispered. “Aren’t they?”
“Islamic State in Africa.” Ryan returned. “Now I know we’re in trouble.”
“But?” Joanne queried, only to be hushed by a look that would kill from the rear most guard. She shrugged her shoulders at him and deliberately did not smile. She knew from her reflection in the river that morning that the streaked blood on her face gave her a look like the devil and she wanted it to stay that way. A smile might give herself away.
Ryan broke the impasse. He had dragged out a bottle of water and took a swig, then offered it to the guard. The guard declined, a look of disgust on his face. Ryan offered the water to Joanne and she took it. Just a swig, half a mouthful, and handed the bottle back. Ryan nodded his approval, not that Joanne wanted or needed it.
It wasn’t much of a road, more a wide gravel track but it had seen vehicular traffic and was kept clear which meant that traffic was regular and recent. The verges were wide and although they had low-lying vegetation they were tree-less. The road itself was so straight in both directions Joanne thought it could have started life as either a firebreak or a survey line. The raiders set people either side of the road and had lookouts a couple of hundred yards in both directions when they hustled their captives three at a time across the open ground. What difference a couple of hundred yards would have made on a road so straight was anyone’s guess. Once across, there was another delay while the raiders got themselves back into order and then the trek began again. “North-east.” Joanne heard Ryan utter. She looked back in hope but he looked down, uncommunicating.
Over what passed as dinner that evening, a packet of shrunk wrap beef patties and the last of the bread, Joanne quizzed Ryan on his words. She, like all the others was mentally and physically drained. Any little thing might just be something to grasp. On the verge of tears, she reigned them in and in a strained voice, asked her question.
“They, that’s we, are heading north-east.” Ryan told the small group.
It wasn’t easy to keep her fear and emotion in check and ask the follow up question. “What’s north-east?”
“Nothing.” Ryan answered, the pause and his voice exhibiting that he too was under strain. “For a long, long way.”
“Jungle.” Pierre offered. “There is the jungle. It is easy to hide in the jungle.”
No words came quickly or at any volume, each speaker at the extreme of their endurance. “I don’t know if you noticed.” Alan queried. “But we’re in the jungle already.”
“Less than a day from a road.” Ryan responded. “They will want to be in deeper.”
“And what would they be hiding from?” Alan queried
“Government troops. Anyone sent to get us back.” Pierre returned. His voice and demeanour seemingly more in control than those around him.
“I still don’t get what this is all in aid of.” Alan said at length.
“Money.” Pierre told them, and then expounded his theory. “It’s not been done this far south before but these groups routinely take people for ransom. They prefer whites because they’re worth more. I am thinking this is the start of a new campaign.”
“Who are they?” Joanne asked. “You said Al Shibab earlier.”
“Jumat Al Sunnah Al Shibab. You must just have heard the Al Shibab part because you have heard it before.”
“Who the hell are they?”
“It means the young people who preach. They are part of Wilyat Garb Afrique. The Islamic State in Africa.”
“Boko Harem.” Ryan breathed. “Could it be worse?”
“Hells teeth.” Alan hissed, his words cracked and almost in a cry. “We’re fucked.”
“No, no, no.” Pierre attempted in comfort, his hand reaching out to Alan. “I don’t agree. They have taken us for a reason. I think that reason is ransom. Do you see any of the local guys here?” He paused. “Non. Because we are worth money and they are not. The Shibab needs to feed their own people and buy guns. For that you need money. The west pays well for hostages and they know it.”
“I’m not a hundred per cent with them being Boko.” Ryan put in. “But it’s also well known that those guys aren’t adverse to killing a few just to make the point and it looks like that’s what they’ve done, so I’m not going to argue.”
“Go ahead, make me feel better.” Alan responded, his voice a few decibels louder than the rest of the discussion.
Those decibels were enough to attract the attention of their guard. This time it was not M’longwe. They’d been listening enough to get a few of the names, this guy was still an unknown as regards a name but had been seen to be uncompromising. Not as dark as most of the others he was clearly from a northern tribe, and used Arabic rather than French as his first means of communication. “La tatakalum.” He demanded angrily. “Al Infidel arif yafhamun, aljamie samitun.”
Pierre stood in defence. “M’sieur, nous ne parle mal du les soldats du Jumat A Sunnah.”
At short range the bullets from the gun punched right through Pierre, the blood and gore ejected in a spray and his body thrown in a flail of limbs to the ground, the awful rents in his torso instantly depriving him of breath. The surrounding jungle fell suddenly silent, a vestige of the deafening gunfire ringing in everyone’s ears.
Pierre’s body contorted, his back arching and jerking like a landed fish. For a short time the only sound was the soft gurgle of Pierre choking in his own blood and his fingers desperately scrabbling for life on the jungle floor, then that too ceased as his fight for life failed.
Pleased with the effect of his action on his hostages and the surrounding jungle, the guard spoke again, this time in heavily accented English. “I said to be silent.”
Slowly, almost cautiously the jungle came back to life, albeit almost in respect, at a moderated tone.
Another day, another interminable trek in heat and humidity. The rebel leader made a change, moving Rob Greggson into group two and evening out the group numbers. With a single pause for water beside a rare stream people used the break and availability to splash wash. Ryan had an empty water bottle he’d retained and used it to fill and then empty over his head. Passing it down the line each in turn followed his example, loosening clothing to let the water reach as much skin as possible before they were hurried along. Mindfully, Joanne undid her coverall front and splashed as much as modesty would allow.
“C’est une femme! I’ly a une femme!” M’longwe screeched excitedly. Through her wet blouse he had noted her brassiere and leapt forward his hands grubbing for her small breasts.
Joanne stood and grasped her coverall front together hissing at M’longwe to bugger off. He ignored her ire, continuing in his attempts to grasp her breasts and Joanne was compelled to strike out at her assailant. Her left knee rose uncommanded to impact his nether region and he instantly doubled up, his eyes wide and mouth gasping for breath as the pain hit.
Collapsing to the floor, M’longwe’s hands cradled his genitals, her breasts forgotten.
The event had attracted attention and others of the raiders came over angrily. One grabbed Joanne forcibly and hit her to the ground then reached to rip open her coveralls and reveal her underwear.
A big grin erupted on his previously angry face and he reached down in an attempt to touch her crotch. She left hooked him off of her to face a third raider’s gun. Only the swift intervention of the raider’s leader saved her from the bullets.
“You are lucky.” He told Joanne. “There is no time now for these things and an English woman is very valuable. If you were otherwise,” And the correlation with Rebecca Jones was clear, “I would let the men rape you tonight.” He paused to let the words sink in. “Now there has been too much delay. Move.”
M’longwe was sullen and kicked out at Joanne as she passed, then took up the rear of the party for the afternoon regularly prodding Ryan Lithgow in spite.
The temporary overnight halt was conducted in much the same way as had the previous night’s been excepting for M’longwe’s bullying. Despite this Ryan managed a small fire and cooked more patties. “This pack is courtesy of Pierre.” He said, handing out the patties one at a time to each of the small group huddled with Joanne at the centre for some form of protection, just in case any of the raiders thought to disobey their leader.
The physical and emotional trauma was writ large in each face reflected in the firelight. Dull and sunken eyes looked back at Ryan from pale, dirty, drawn and haggard faces.
“How do you put up with it?” Pete Swanson asked Ryan. “I’m about at the end of my tether.”
Pete was genuinely struggling with the injuries he had taken. Although not carrying a bullet wound he had been severely beaten and was covered in cuts and horrific bruises.
“It could be worse.” Ryan returned stoically.
How could it be worse?” Joanne hissed. “We’re stuck in the middle of no-where in this stinking jungle and kept prisoner by a bunch of homicidal maniacs. We’ve got next to no food, precious little water and no idea which of us these bloody fanatics will kill next or why. So tell me how could it possibly be worse?”
And then it started raining.