About 100 metres away from the trenches, dug five feet into the reddish brown earth, my comrade and I – a man who I still can’t call a friend even though I have no one who understands me better – continue to walk, each carrying about fifteen pounds of artillery.
We hear faint noises, whimpering noises of a man. I wonder if this might be my cousin, I’m told he’s in now too but I can’t bear the thought of meeting him here. I don’t want to ruin my last memory of us together – drinking coffee with our mothers. Our mothers are the sisters who held the family together. My mother is the eldest child and his mother came after her. They are best friends. I remember that time we sat drinking coffee with them and they told us stories about how I used to wait for him to sleep and then rub berbere – the hot powder- into his eyes. I was jealous of him because my mother would make me give him the sweet corn she bought for me on her way home from church. She would call him sweetheart.
“Anta Mussie shukor, nea eba temesah” she would say.
(“Mussie, sweetheart, won’t you come and have lunch now”)
She told me I shouldn’t be so jealous. I was older than him by 13 months, I should be more proud than jealous. 13 months older in a land of 13 months of sunshine. My English teacher who was a dark man from Sri Lanka never understood why we had another month here, but he accepted it, saying that all beliefs should be tolerated, even if they are untolerable. We knew he couldn’t tolerate us really, but that was okay because most of us talked about him in our language. We wanted the outsiders to always remember their place – the place they don’t have.
The repetition of lame whimpers cuts my nostalgia short. I look over to my comrade, my closest friend who is not really a friend, and ask him if he hears it. He nods his head and we begin to retreat backward.
We walk back toward our trench only to stop after approximately twenty metres. The whimpering sounds are a bit stronger now, so we know we’re closer to the source. I try to shrug off the feeling that it might be Mussie. I try to remember the funny times we shared.
My comrade-or-friend walks toward the pile of burnt artillery, remnants of the war past. The place is called Ashrak. It has become a landmark, and many people who left our country during the war come back to see this place – to see where the tanks were burned. The government was clever to make this into a tourist attraction – it saves them from paying to dispose of the potentially dangerous materials.
My comrade signals for me to come. He’s behind the heap of burnt things now. I walk over, dreading what I’ll see, dreading to see what I must remember, dreading to see what I cannot erase. I consider not looking beyond the heap of burnt things, until I realize I am already there.
We both look down at this man, his hands tied behind him. His mouth half-open, his leg severely wounded. I look down at him and realize this is one of those moral dilemmas they warned us about during the early training days.
For about thirty minutes we were lectured on what constitutes a real moral dilemma as opposed to what constitutes the mind of a weak man. We were warned against the impulse to flee when given the chance. We will be caught anyway. We were told not to talk too much to people who asked questions – the test was not to see who could answer the question the fastest, or who knew the most political facts. The test was not to volunteer information – it was to avoid it. Avoid information. Information will always make moral dilemmas harder to solve. We were also told about the dilemma before us. What to do with a soldier who is tired, or limp, or maimed. There were two categories to this dilemma: our soldiers and theirs.
I tried to remember the answer to this dilemma as I adjusted the strap of the AK slung across my shoulder.
My comrade-or-friend asked me what to do, although he knew I didn’t know. We sometimes passed time like this. We liked to ask each other stupid questions so that we could find a way to start conversations. I could sense he wanted to trust me but I didn’t know how to tell him that he couldn’t. I can’t even trust myself anymore.
The whimpering got louder as the man noticed he had an audience that took time to deliberate the scene to follow. He might have thought we were considering compassion, thinking about what angle we should carry him to the nearest hospital, about 75 kilometers away. The thought of added weight to our load was enough reason to kill him now.
I feel indifferent about this man, but feel sad that I’m indifferent. He might be a father or a son. Or he might not be a father and his own father could have died before he was born. It’s easier to kill someone when you think nobody will miss them. I wonder if he’s married but then think about my own wife and how much she begged me to wed before I left for the trenches. I’d probably do him a favour to get rid of her voice in his head.
My friend asks the man to speak.
“What’s your name. Where are you from.”
The man whimpers again. We know he is lying. He is trying not to speak to us. He doesn’t want us to know that he’s from the other side, although the flag on the side of his jacket gave him away. He knows we know. He knows we are testing our own humanity. He is trying not to beg us to save him, and he is smart. He is allowing us to show him mercy on our own terms. This is a real man’s way.
I feel guilty for thinking of shooting him there but it’s much better than having him suffer. I do not know if that’s the mercy he wanted, but it’s the only kind I can offer.
I feel closer to my comrade and wonder if it’s time we became friends. After all we just killed a man together. In the depths of our souls, in the silence of our thoughts, we know we’re really the same person. I know we are both good people who kill. It’s a special understanding, a special code of person. We are warriors. We ignore the tugs of our conscience for the greater good of peace; for the greater cause of security.