Gunfire rang out across the bone dry desert. The sun had just fallen off the edge of the world and Joseph Takana was worried about the increasing sound of the wind. Whistling through the open wasteland, it might be a sandstorm brewing.
Joseph had nothing to protect him. He gripped his blue American rucksack. Filled with all the earthly belongings that he now possessed, it would provide no cover from the swirling sand. Sand that could overpower his breathing and cause immense irritation to his eyes. Sand that was the least of his worries…
Fourteen hours earlier Joseph’s life had been tranquil. His small border farmstead was bathing in early morning sunlight. His flock of some two dozen sheep were crowded in the corner of their makeshift bamboo pen, near to the brick building which Joseph called home.
Joseph could just make out, from his bedroom window, the brilliant reflected glint of the Blue Nile shining as though a shimmering, mirrored ribbon had been stretched across the horizon. Looking back into the room, he glimpsed his beautiful wife Nadia, asleep on their wicker bed, and their son, Elias, his tiny arms clasped around her slender neck. Pulling the white linen sheet up over the boy’s tiny body, Joseph fastened his sandals and headed down the spiralling wooden staircase. He quickly passed the small living area that connected, via a makeshift patio, to the yard.
Since inheriting the farm, four years earlier, at the death of his father, Joseph had risen every day at five fifteen to perform the same half hour ritual.
The walk to the standing tap that served all the local farmsteads took him only minutes. First of all, Joseph would fetch water and return with a large pitcher-full that would provide for his family for that day. Joseph would then push an old tin bath on some disused wheels and wait as the grey, rusting, vessel slowly filled up. Gradually, enough water would trickle its way in. Soon, the early morning thirst of his flock would be quenched.
On this morning, having left the pitcher for his family in a shaded part of the downstairs living area, Joseph pushed the tin bath back towards the community’s water supply. Even direct sunlight failed to produce a hint of a reflection on the old bath, which had been passed on through three generations of the Takana family.
As the wheels trundled haphazardly across the red gravel path, Joseph’s was beginning to feel alive. He was truly thankful as he considered his family sleeping peacefully at home. Whistling cheerfully, he made his way up the final few yards, taking the slight incline in his considerable stride.
"Good morning. God’s blessing to you, Shepherd Joseph!" said Sidira, suddenly joining him on the path. Her sing-song tones seemed to mimic the warmth of the day.
"God’s blessing to you, too Sidira. It’s such a fine day isn’t it?" said Joseph.
In Sidira’s presence, it was hard not to respond with a smile. A mother of two teenage boys, she had managed, with their help, and in spite of drought, to keep her small piece of land producing just enough food to keep them going. The death of her husband, a victim of the civil war, had left her a widow at the age of twenty-eight. Her devilish grin and a perfect array of bright white teeth, revealed the fact that somehow, she had managed to remain positive. Her reaction in the face of loss, had inspired many other widowed Ilyuan to keep hoping too.
Chatting all the way, they soon reached the standing tap. Joseph stood aside to allow Sidira to fill her large plastic bucket. The pedestrian flow of the water was, for Sidira, the perfect opportunity to chat to her neighbour. Her eyes gleamed as Joseph recounted a tale of Elias’s early attempts to walk. At first, his near refusal to let go of his firm grip on Nadia’s fingers. His uncertain footing. Being coaxed into a few tiny steps. The joy of collapsing into his father’s arms. Finally, the endless repetition of success as he continually launched himself, with the wobbly uncertainty of a newborn lamb, from the outstretched arms of one parent into the arms of the other.
"These are precious moments Joseph. Hold on to them forever," said Sidira, as the bucket wrestled her right arm slowly towards the ground. "It only seems like yesterday when my boys were that age. Now they just tower over me! I don’t know why they still do what I tell them! But, they are a real blessing! I could not do without them."
Joseph smiled when, as Sidira wound her way back down the gravel track towards her home, she sent a final message booming over her shoulder: "Thank you for your kindness! Take care of your beautiful family, Shepherd!"
Then, moving the bath into position, Joseph returned to his task. He turned the tap anti-clockwise and the dribble of water steadily increased until, ten minutes later, the bath was ready to be wheeled back towards the Takana farmstead...
It was the timing, rather than the arrival of the vehicle, that had caused the stabbing fear that rose within Joseph’s body. As he started to push the makeshift trolley, Joseph heard, somewhere in the distance, the unmistakable sound of an engine. Although cars passed sporadically on the country road nearby, it was usually too early in the morning for anyone to be using such a backwater route.
Joseph’s stride quickened slightly as he strained his six-foot frame upwards to catch a glimpse of the vehicle over the huge fence of hedgerows that hemmed in the gravel path on both sides. His heart hammering inside his body, he began to look down the pathway towards the entrance to Sidira’s home. Suddenly he heard the slamming of her door.
Seconds later, the peaceful air was shattered by the appalling crack of a machine gun, as silver bullet casings burst into the sky, accompanied by the squalid, unmistakable hollering of Ethiopian militia…
Cross border raids had happened rarely in recent times, but part of Ilyuan folklore was to pass on tales of raiders who arrived without warning. Some members of Joseph’s community had lost family members, taken into slavery or worse, by the brutal olive-skinned soldiers of doom. Joseph’s first reaction, flight, was based on these accounts.
He faced his fear and sprinted down the path towards home.
With his feet pounding the hard ground, and fear welling up inside him, Joseph thought of Elias-his birth had been traumatic and the tears of joy which the father had shed on his eventual arrival had been also tears of sheer relief. Relief too that his wife was still alive. Nadia. He ran faster and momentarily glimpsed a pair of withered eyes peering through the window, as he surged past Sidira’s cottage.
Joseph thrust his body on and on. His toes stabbed through his dusty sandals as he ran. Reaching the end of the hedgerow he was given the first glimpse of his future. To his horror, Joseph saw a dirty white Toyota pick-up truck with huge 4x4 wheels parked in the yard of his smallholding. On the back stood two gunmen, their belts of bullets worn around their vested bodies like sashes of honour.
Suddenly noticing Joseph in the distance, the smaller of the two men spat out instructions and the sound of gunfire ripped through the air. Joseph fell to the ground. His stiff body lay there, as if dead, but a second wave of gunfire forced him to turn his eyes furtively towards his home. Two more men swaggered from the farmhouse. With their red bandanas pulled down over their mouths, and their machine guns resting on their bare shoulders, they slid silently into the truck.
The engine fired up and, with another random round of violence against the sky, they turned their vehicle towards Joseph. His body tightened, with every muscle screaming at him to stand and fight, but he lay there, just above the ground, a man whose life had been ripped from him. When the pickup screeched past him, barely ten metres away, Joseph resembled nothing but a corpse.
Then, as a parting shot, the taller of the gunmen, perched imperiously on the back, suddenly fired a volley of bullets through Sidira’s front window, before the white Toyota sped off, leaving an eerie silence. It was six forty-three. They did not take the trouble to check that they had killed the widow and her two sons, but the massive spray of bullets into the tiny room had left the family with little chance of survival.
Joseph's body morphed into rock, but the pain in his chest was a constant reminder that there was still life in him. Even before he managed to twitch the left leg into motion and navigate the shattered frame onto feet of lead, he knew. He knew, and knowledge burned his insides like a forest fire, spreading quickly through every part of his tall, gaunt remains. There seemed no rush, but Joseph had to move, magnetized by the small brick building that had been his home since birth.
[Twenty-five years earlier his mother, set against travelling to the newly built hospital some 50 kilometres away, and without any reliable transportation method, had taken the only real option available and asked her neighbour to help deliver him.]
Another stab of pain; this time in his right leg. Only a cut. Joseph felt the shame of relief and lumbered on, pleading inside to be wakened from his nightmare. As he approached, he saw a flow of muddy brown-red water trickling down the irrigation ditch adjacent to the side of the house.
Like a death row criminal, Joseph stumbled on towards his fate. The door had been left ajar and stepping inside, he gripped the handle as if it was his final connection to the life he used to know. The metal warmed him, having been in direct sunlight for almost an hour, but even in that moment, Joseph recognized that the sensation was only transitory. The mechanics of movement seemed alien to him as he negotiated the wooden floor towards the spiral staircase. Every creak of the boards reminded him of his grim task.
At the top, from the open doorway, Joseph received his sentence. Crimson seeping through linen. Tiny hands clamped around the neck. And the primitive look of horror that crushed Joseph to his knees. Disbelieving, life had been torn from them. Approaching the bed, his tears were instant and became merged with blood as Joseph clung to his family, until finally, he broke free and became silent, staring only at the palms of his shaking hands.
Then he heard the engine once again. The sickening taste in his throat and the bitter wrenching of his stomach caused him to awaken from his paralysis. The putrid smell mingled with the early morning heat and Joseph moved quickly to pull the blood-soaked covers over his loss, lingering only to kiss their heads.
Two stars had disappeared from his sky. A sky that was now crashing down on him. Punch-drunk, he grabbed for his backpack and thrust clothes randomly into it from a pile on the floor, as the unmistakable wrench of gears, tyres and throttle merged into his consciousness. Joseph dashed through the open doorway. The spiral staircase; the downstairs room; the patio; the yard. In an instant, he was past the little bamboo fence. He glanced at the slaughtered flock propped beside the wall and ran. The vehicle was coming closer and would soon appear past the hedgerows. Joseph headed in the opposite direction.
Soon, the lorry drew alongside him and passed onto the connecting dirt track leading towards its eventual destination of Kasala. It was carrying cattle, heavily packed and tightly caged in behind a dusty black rig. The driver had taken a wrong turn some way back. Joseph’s sprint faded to a jog. As the lorry passed on its way, it sent spirals of dust back into his face. Joseph fell once more to his knees.
Returning to the farm, his body took full control of his numb spirit, and he laid Nadia and Elias to rest as best as he could, side by side in a makeshift grave near the irrigation ditch. He waited just long enough to mark the spot with a spindly cross, made of two fallen branches, fused with twine. And then, suddenly and pragmatically, Joseph Takana simply left his old life and the Ilyuan way of existence behind forever.
Forlorn silence was his companion as he walked to the valley that night. A black hole in his mind was swirling around pictures of Nadia and Elias with every step. Putting one foot in front of the other as best as he could remember, he slowly switched his thoughts to survival. Moving along tracks that he knew well, Joseph covered twenty kilometres by the time night swiftly moved in to mimic and mock his tattered heart.
And as gunfire, the persistent ticking of the clock of war started once more in the distance, he knew that this night would not be a restful one.
Finally, making out a small, barren tree-trunk at the far side of the valley, Joseph shifted wearily on and collapsed against it. His body grasped the rucksack tightly in the vicious wind. There were many miles ahead. He closed his eyes and hoped to dream that he was dead.