The crisp mid-November air bit through Yusuf’s throat and he pulled his jacket tighter as he held on to Zainab by the waist pushing through the row of people eager to board the buses and escape the morning chill. The bus station wasn’t crowded as he had expected this time of the year. A woman in a grey shawl covering her head and mpst part of her face scolded a toddler in Swahili. He stopped to look at them and then scurried away, with Zainab hurriedly on his heels. A man stood near a wall with an unlit cigarette. Two suitcases on his left and a guitar with so many bumper stickers sat on his right. He had a distant dark look in his eyes as he fumbled for a match. He gave them a – mind your own business look and then lit the cigarette.
A few more not so interesting people scattered around the bus station. Yusuf found an empty bench at the far corner near the booking office and beckoned Zainab to sit down but before she could make herself comfortable, a man’s voice came over the intercom announcing that the bus number 113A to Nairobi would be arriving in five minutes and that passengers should get ready. Yusuf pushed their suitcases closer to Zainab who was now breastfeeding their daughter.
It was not long before the bus arrived. The intercom screeched and this time, the voice of a woman started calling out the names and seat numbers of the passengers. Yusuf’s name was called followed by that of Zainab. He took the baby from her leading her by the hand towards the bus. He would come back for the luggage when she had settled in.
As they stepped inside, a gust of cold air hit them. It was a bit colder than he had expected. A young woman with her headphones on sat at the front seat. A young man cuddling a baby and singing lullabies to it sat right behind her. The woman with the shawl came in with her toddler right after them.
Their seats were at the back close to the window. The baby was still sound asleep oblivious to everything that was going on. He settled Zainab and went back for their luggage. He came back a few minutes later with a small cup of coffee and doughnuts for her. It would be a long journey to Nairobi and the only other place they would stop was Mtito Andei. He took the baby from her so that she could eat before they set off. By the time she was done, the bus was already full and wading its way out of Mombasa town.
Having woken up very early in the morning, Zainab soon fell asleep.
Yusuf fetched his phone from the shirt pocket. It was time to call his contact who would pick them up in Nairobi when they arrived. It would be close to nine hours before they arrived but he thought it best to inform him. It had been long before he had been to Nairobi. Last time he was in the big city, was when he was still in lower primary when his father took him with him, to buy goods for their shop.
“Hello,” he said as a husky voice came through on the other end.
“Hello, Yusuf. Where are you,” the man inquired.
“We have just left Mombasa and I thought it best if I informed you early.”
“Yes yes, it’s a good thing. Though it’s several hours to Nairobi, it’s best that you have told me. I will be waiting for you. Just call me at around 5. I know by that time you will be close enough and then I can come pick you up. We will journey to Somalia first thing tomorrow morning.”
“Okay,” Yusuf said as the caller disconnected.
The journey was long and they slept through most of it, with Zainab waking up several times to breastfeed the baby. They had something to eat at Mutioti Andei and were soon off. At around 6:30 they arrived in Nairobi. He had already called the man and he was waiting for them at the bus stage.
When they alighted, a little distant away, a man waved at them. He was a bit short with some meat on his bones. His hair was frizzy forming small puffy and tight curls. He had a pulpy face with a goatee that seemed to exaggerate the size of his face.
“That must be our contact person.” He said as he took Zainab’s hand and pushed his way through the crowd of people who had gathered around, some waiting for their relatives and others to travel to Mombasa.
“Yusuf?” the man asked taking his hand.
“Yes, and this is my wife Zainab and our baby.” The man took a long hard look at Zainab who until now had not said anything and only gave him her hand meekly in greeting.
“I didn’t know that you were traveling with your wife and child.” He said looking rather disturbed by the fact.
“I couldn’t leave them in Mombasa alone. They needed to come with me.”
“Okay, Yusuf. As you say. Let’s be on our way, shall we? We still have a long journey ahead. You had a long journey and you need to rest for a few hours before we set off. Someone will be picking us up at my place at exactly four in the morning.”
“Let’s make haste then. Zainab is a little bit tired and the baby too and they need that rest more that I do.” He said picking up the suitcase and handing one to the man who until now had not introduced himself.
They had been introduced, by a friend of his but had only spoken on the phone. This was the first time they were meeting. His friend had mentioned that there was work in Somalia and that this man would help take them there.
Life had not been easy for the two. With their parents dead and marrying young, they had had so many ups and downs. His job at the museum wasn’t bringing in much and could only afford meals which at times were hard to come by. This is the reason he jumped on this opportunity when it presented itself. From what his friend had told him, this job would give them more that they even needed.
The estate was lined up with pine trees on both sides of the street. Each homestead had a gate of its own and it seemed like one of those lavish neighborhoods he only read about in the newspapers.
“This is where I live.” The man said ushering them into a neat compound with flowers surrounding the bungalow that lay at the very center of the compound.
“This was my brother’s house. He was a soldier for the UN and he died four years ago on a mission in Iraq. He left me to take care of his wife and children and protect his wealth until they came of age, which is what I am doing.”
Yusuf looked around. The man must have been wealthy. The compound looked so neat and well taken care of with pots of flowers scattered all over.
They were ushered into a large living room, which Yusuf couldn’t help but think was twice the size of his entire house. They freshened up, ate and retired to bed. Tired of the long journey, Zainab drifted off to sleep easily. Yusuf could not sleep. All he kept thinking about was the new life they were about to start. They had struggled for too long and he felt that Zainab deserved to at least enjoy a good life for once in her life.
“Yusuf, it’s time. We should be leaving any moment from now.” Rashid’s voice came through from the living room. It was hard to believe that four hours had already passed.
He woke up Zainab and within a short while they were ready to go.
The person who was to pick them was already there. Seated in the new looking probox was a bald man. He got out of the car when he saw them to help load their suitcases. Before long they were speeding off from the estate and joining the main highway on their way to Somalia where life would begin for them.
They had driven for hours when they came to a police roadblock just a few kilometers from Garissa town. The man who had been asleep all through woke up all of a sudden when the car came to a stop.
A heavily dressed soldier walked majestically towards the car. He came and leaned on the driver’s door and looked inside as if searching for something he had lost.
“Rashid,” he said a smile registering on his face.
Rashid gave him his hand in greeting before opening the door and meeting him on the other side. He took his hand and they walked a few meters from the vehicle where they spoke in hushed tones. It was hard to make out what their conversation was about but one thing was clear, these two were not just meeting for the first time. They must have known each other for years and were probably friends from the way they kept smiling and patting each other on the back.
Maybe he was a friend of his brother seeing that he is a soldier too, Yusuf thought. After a short while, Rashid came into the car and gave the driver a sign that it was all clear for them to proceed with their journey. After several hours they were at the border of Somali. Throughout the journey, till they arrived at the border, they had encountered several roadblocks and Rashid seemed to be acquainted with all the men in uniform manning them.
At the border, they would pick up two young men also heading to Somalia. They did not look older than 20. From the look of things, they were acquainted with Rashid. At that moment Yusuf found himself pitying the young men. What responsibilities did they have that made them seek work in Somalia? They were so young to be carrying such weight on their shoulders.
They pushed on in silent and before long they arrived at a sort of a military camp. The baby had woken up by now and seemed to be in distress from the high temperatures in the region. Zainab was trying her best to make her stop crying but nothing helped.
“Let me hold the baby Miss,” said the younger boy. Zainab was reluctant and held the baby even tighter but Yusuf nodded to show her that it was okay.
She silently handed the baby to him and sheepishly looked at Yusuf as if he should assure her that things would be alright.
He rocked the baby for a while, talking to her and assuring her that things would be okay and shortly after her cries stopped. Her eyes were now fixed on him and he handed her to the mother.
“My name is Luka and this is my elder brother Swale. I used to take care of the young ones back at the orphanage. They used to love me and my singing.”
“You are orphans?” Zainab asked with the shock evident on her face.
“Yes, Miss. Our mother died giving birth to me and our father followed a few months later. We had to go to the orphanage because we had no relatives to take care of us. We left the home two years ago and have been working at a quarry all this time until my brother was told of decent work here in Somalia.” He said looking at his brother who just nodded.
Everyone in the car including the driver was now attentively listening to Luka. For such a young man, he had been through hell in his short life.
“We are also here because of work Luka. How old are you?” Zainab inquired.
“I will be turning 15 next month miss.”
“Such a young soul. And call me Zainab.” To the surprise of Yusuf, Zainab had softened up to the boy and there even seemed to be affection in her eyes- a mother’s kind of affection. Being an orphan herself, it explained why she grew fond of the boy in such a short time. Swale was quiet all this time. When the car stopped, he jumped out, taking his brother by the hand and they both disappeared behind some tents.
“Don’t worry about him, they are nice kids. I was introduced to them by a friend of theirs who wanted them to find work. That’s why they had to come here,” Rashid said as he ushered them out of the car.
The camp was set up way inside the dense forest. Clad in mud-smeared combat fatigues, young men trained in picturesque camp, hurling what seemed like imaginary grenades, wielding sticks as mock rifles and chopping watermelons in what seemed like stimulating beheading.
An elderly man, supervised what they were doing, correcting those who didn’t do it right and showing them how to. Yusuf held on to his wife and baby as a group of men came and exchanged pleasantries with Rashid.
“Aye Rashid. Is this him?” The one who seemed like their leader asked. “I didn’t know that he would be having a woman and a baby with him.”
“It’s his wife and child. He said he couldn’t leave them in Mombasa. Perhaps they could both find work here.” Rashid said in a voice that seemed to indicate that he was scared of the man.
“It’s okay. We can do with both of them. And where are the young things, you talked so much about?”
“They tagged along. They are somewhere here. Swale! Luka!” He called out loud.
Just then Swale emerged from behind the tent where they had disappeared to with Luka tagging behind him. They came and stood in front of the man who closely examined them as if looking for any signs of weakness.
“These ones will do.” He said cupping Luka’s face in his hands.
“Ahmed. Go with the four of them and show them where they will be staying. Let me be left with Rashid. We have got some issues we need to sort out.
A man with a slight limp on his left foot came forward and beckoned to some young boys to come pick up the suitcases and follow them. He then led the way through a narrow path scattered with make-shift tents.
Yusuf and Zainab were summoned to one of the tents while Swale and his brother took the adjacent one.
“Once you are settled, someone will come for you so that you are given a brief of the work you will be doing.” He said and left them.
They expected to see Rashid again but that never happened. All they were told is that he had gone back to Nairobi but was in a hurry hence could not say goodbye.
It was during the next day that, the four of them came face to face with the horror that was this place when they witnessed a young boy behead a man who from the look of things had been a prisoner for a while. This was not an ordinary military camp. It was a terrorist camp. Yusuf had only heard of stories about such camps in the local news. He suddenly realized why they were here. They were not here to earn a decent living as Rashid had claimed. They came here to be soldiers of war – agents of a holy war that they would be forced to participate in. Swale seemed to be at peace and even went for training with the other boys, unlike his younger brother who had no idea why he was here.
It then hit him, that like them, Luka was also clueless. His own brother, who was supposed to protect him, had deceived him in the most brutal way. He obviously knew that they were coming to join a terrorist group – the most dangerous terror group in the region. The group was responsible for so many attacks including a number in Mombasa.
Yusuf had heard stories of people who were beheaded for trying to leave and he knew that they were here to stay. There was no escape. Nothing could explain the feeling of guilt he felt at that moment when he broke the news to his wife who just stared at him not knowing what to say or how to react.
“So our baby will grow up in a terror camp?” she asked after a long silence.
“What about the young ones? Swale and Luka? Did they know about this?”
“It seems as though Swale knew exactly where they were coming and what he was here to do. He just didn’t tell his brother.” Yusuf said.
“We should escape Yusuf. We can’t stay here. Our baby deserves to have parents not have two dead parents who died as suicide bombers.”
All they had to do was wait for such an opportunity but it never came. Their efforts to contact Rashid did not bear any fruits. The camp was heavily guarded all the time against attacks from other rival groups or the peacekeepers. They were all alone. Swale had adapted well and had already received his first mission. He and other boys were to carry out an attack in Mogadishu. Luka would follow back later with a suicide mission in the heart of Nairobi’s capital.
Zainab knew that if she could not escape, Luka did not deserve to die for a war he had no idea about. News would come back that the attack in Mogadishu didn’t go smoothly. Many of the boys lost their lives including Swale. They were celebrated as heroes of the holy war – the war of religion. A party was held in their honor not regarding that these were young boys with their whole future ahead of them.
That is when Zainab decided that she would rather make a run for it or die trying. At least her baby and Luka deserved to live their lives free from the violence created by madmen who were out to justify their evil actions in the name of religion. She had already shown her loyalty and they trusted her.
In the dead of the night, while everyone celebrated the heroes who died, she saw an opportunity to escape. She took the baby and Luka and carefully made her way to the end of the forest. They walked until she was sure they were far from the camp. nobody would notice they were gone.
“I can’t come with you but I want to give you a chance at life. Take the baby and go. You are so young and you both deserve to have a future.” She told Luka giving him the baby who was carefully swaddled to protect her from the biting cold.
“Where do I go Zainab? You should come with me. You and your husband. We can all escape this place.”
“Oh, my dear boy. Look, Luka, your brother is already dead and I don’t want the same fate to befall you. You have to go. I am sure you will find a village somewhere away from here. Ask for help. Ask them to help you get back to Nairobi. I promise we will meet you in Nairobi with my husband later on. Assured that he wouldn’t be alone, Luka looked at her and hugged her before he began walking away, the baby in his arms.
Zainab looked at them as they disappeared into the dense forest. Her eyes welled with tears until she could no longer hold them in.
She was a mother and she knew any other mother would have done the same. That was probably the last time she was seeing her baby but at least she would be safe. She hoped that one day, young Halima would learn about her parents. That Luka would tell her about their bravery and how they lost their lives just so she could have hers.
She looked back. It was time to go back. She was ready to face the consequences of her actions. Her days and those of Yusuf were slowly coming to an end. Soon it would be their time.
Would they behead them, burn them or just feed them to the wild animals? I guess she would just have to wait. She had already made her peace and she was ready to go so that she could watch over her baby.
Written by Lillyanne Gathoni