Wednesday, 13 February 2013

The Tales of Makhmat Bisvov (Part I) : Duty

Where are the men? Where are all the men in your village?”

While the translator interprets, Malcolm turns his head to take in the scene. He knows what he will see: a flat plain with little dips and hollows still filled with the remnants of snow, the low hills to the south west catching the light of the morning, their dips and hollows accentuated by the shadows. The hills look at this hour like wrinkled, humped cloth.

It is a dead place, a cold place, a place that man should not inhabit, but there is no such place anywhere; and men are here too, in the small round huts that Malcolm can see all around. More tents than huts, the walls and roof of skin drawn taut over poles, only the bottom part of the walls made of stones piled on each other. He cannot quite believe that anyone who lives in something like this can really be human. But he has seen inside these huts; inside they are lined with rugs and blankets and sometimes are quite clean and liveable. Sometimes.

The woman mumbles something and Malcolm looks back at her. She is ruddy faced and plump, her hair pulled back from her face, wisps of it hanging over her ears. She may be about forty; with these people it is hard to tell.

“She says they are all off herding.”

“Bullshit.” Malcolm sweeps his arm round the little village. “Look at this place. Not a single animal enclosure. Where is everything? The posts for tying camels? The dung piles? Where is the fodder? Who does she think she’s dealing with?”

The interpreter talks to the woman again. It is an odd language, full of inflections and abrupt changes of pitch. She mumbles back to him as before. She is a large woman by these peoples’ standards, red faced and slant eyed, but her voice is only a low mumble. Malcolm has to strain to hear her; he does not understand, of course, but he tries to get the feel of what she is saying.

“She says,” the interpreter says to Malcolm, “that they are all off herding.” His face is closed. He is one of them too; Malcolm cannot trust him either.

“The hell they are.” Malcolm addresses the woman directly now. He has to restrain a powerful urge to hit her. Not that he will lose out if he does; Black Diamond Associates stands up for its employees. It’s just that it’s neater not to beat up women, and in any case Malcolm doesn’t think she will actually say anything if he does hit her. She’s not the type. He leans close to her, though, thrusting his face into hers until she blinks and looks away. Maybe she has never seen a black man before, especially one as big and black as he. “They’re all rebels, aren’t they?” To hell with it; he’s so angry now that it no longer matters that she doesn’t understand him. He gets ready to smash her in the face. ”They’re probably setting up nice little ambushes for us, aren’t they?”

A few of his men come out of the huts they have been searching. He knows that most, if not all, of them will have “liberated” something – small jade statues, rings, bracelets, decorated plates, silver picture frames, maybe a samovar if one could find space for it in one’s equipment bag. That is all quite all right. They are not soldiers and are not subject to military laws on looting. If they do their jobs, Black Diamond ‘s happy. Whatever extra they make is not the company’s problem. The inhabitants know that complaining will do no good and have learned not to open their mouths.

“Find anything?” Malcolm turns round to his second in command with a sense of relief. The man has saved him from having to hurt the woman. “Any weapons, anything?”

“No.” The second in command has a thick Afrikaner accent. Malcolm is sure he has never reconciled himself to the end of apartheid. He probably calls him, Malcolm, a kaffir behind his back. “Nothing. You think maybe we burn the place?”

The obvious eagerness in his voice puts Malcolm off. Also, suddenly, he feels very tired. “No,” he says, looking at the other women, standing where they have been ordered to gather, along with their children. “That’s not in our job description. Let’s go.”

The South African studies him with undisguised contempt. “You’re too bleddy soft, man. That’s what’s wrong with you.”

“Perhaps,” says Malcolm. “But I’m still in charge here, and when I say let’s go, it means let’s go.”  


Another day Malcolm is accompanying a government search party as escort. He detests this job; the “government” officials are the scum of the earth, looters, rapists and worse. Of course Black Diamond’s employees do this too, all of it, but at least they don’t do it to their own people and Malcolm doesn’t have to stand guard for them when they do it.

They are in a town, an anonymous town with an unpronounceable name loaded with consonants strung together. The town is all tall apartment buildings, boxlike and featurelessly alike, with little balconies at all floors. There has been fighting here, recent and relatively heavy. Many of the walls show scorch marks and many of the windows are boarded up. There are craters on the ground.

The escort party advances cautiously, fingers on triggers, their gun barrels sweeping across windows and rooftops. They do not seriously expect resistance. The rebels have abandoned this area for the time being. But one can never be sure when some nationalist might suddenly take it into his head to start a private insurrection.

And so it is that when the small figure bursts out of a doorway and comes running at them, their rifles all fire at once and the little form goes tumbling head over heels, the Molotov cocktails it carries in each hand spiralling away to crash in pale blue patches of spreading, liquid fire. A squad rushes the house it emerged from; Malcolm goes over to look at the corpse itself. Its hair is beginning to burn from the fire but enough of its face is left to recognise it for a girl. She seems about thirteen or fourteen. The enemy.

Someone mumbles something. It’s the interpreter, standing at his elbow. Malcolm ignores him. He would, he thinks, like to do something for the girl, but he does not quite know what; meanwhile, his men are advancing and he has to be going. He looks back after walking a short distance away. The interpreter is on his knees beside the girl’s corpse and seems to be trying to put the flames out with a hand towel.

At some time, later that day, Malcolm stands in a little kitchen listening to an old man talk. Unlike almost everyone else, the old man has blue eyes and what remains of his hair is still blond; also, he speaks fair English. Malcolm does not quite remember how he ended up here; he hears sounds of things being smashed on the stairs by the government search party. He has no desire to be out there watching.

The old man is talking. Malcolm turns his mind back to what he is saying.

“So we thought we could handle our own problems the way we want. You -  we never called you here. You know that the people don’t want you here. Otherwise that outside would not be going on.”

“Yes, but your government hired my firm to fight for it. Your government…” – he looks through the window so he does not have to see the old man’s eyes and lets his voice trail off.

“Our government. You know yourself how much legitimacy this government has, how much popular support.”

“That’s not our business.” Someone screams from the corridor outside the flat, a thin agonised screeching that goes on and on. “We just do our job. We were hired…”

“Hired – hired.” The old man gets up excitedly. “You were sent. As invaders. And who asked you to come? Those people there who are crying?”   

“No, but – “ The screaming has stopped. Malcolm sighs with relief. “I must go and see what is going on there.”

“Go. Go.” The old man has sunk back into torpor; he is sitting at his kitchen table, looking down at the tablecloth. The animation of a moment ago is gone. He appears almost senile.

Outside, something dark and body shaped is huddled at the angle of wall and floor, not moving. The corridor light is out. Pieces of glass crunch under Malcolm’s boots. Some of his squad are lounging at the far end, near the window, where a little light comes in. There is no sign of the government agents or of the interpreter.

“There you are. Through?” One of the men has seen Malcolm. “We were waiting for you.”

“What the hell has been going on here?”

The man shrugs elaborately. “don’t know. We weren’t here.”

“I told you to guard the corridor and the stairs. Where were you, damn it, if you weren’t doing as I said?”

“The government people ordered us out. We work for them, don’t we?”

“Where are they?”

“Gone. They’re waiting for us. Downstairs.”

“Did you find anything?” Malcolm asks the interpreter on the way back. The man pretends not to hear.


Two days later Malcolm is demoted. Black Diamond has decided that he is far too severe on his men. They do transfer him to another unit so that he will not have to serve under his erstwhile subordinates, but that’s standard policy, not a special gesture in his case. 

They are cruising the highway that is the supply line to the capital. It has not been attacked for a long time, the rebels having shifted their attention to the pipelines, but they patrol it constantly. The contract specifies that they have to do it. They are in sports utilities, the vehicles with their stubby snouts shattering the silence of the roads with the snarl of their engines.

All around the road the land stretches out, flat and bare to the horizon. In the far distance mountains are like white frosting half way up the sky, floating detached from the ground. Winter has not yet given up its grip on the land for all that going by the calendar it’s spring.  

There are four of them in the car, the team leader driving, Malcolm riding shotgun and two more in the back with the windows rolled down. The wind blasts in like a knife, and they are dressed warm, jackets, caps and gloves. The others have the fingers cut off their gloves for ease in handling weapons. Malcolm’s blood is too thin for him to do that, but then he’s from West Africa, not Connecticut.

They pass a cart pulled by a camel, the heavy two humped shaggy camel of this part of the world. There is a pile of sacks full of something on the cart, and a woman in a black coat and a headscarf sits on it. Her face can’t be seen, but her posture, hunched over, the set of her shoulders, all indicate age. A man walks beside the camel. He is short and stubby, and wears a cap with earflaps. The vehicle roars past them at high speed. Malcolm glances back: the camel cart is already just a dot in the distance.

Then the road widens slightly and they slow down, stop, and the driver reverses and turns the vehicle round. They move off again, much more slowly, and the camel cart begins to grow again in the windshield, larger and larger, taking on definition, dots growing legs and long gangling neck and huge shaggy head and a pile of sacks and wheels and a headscarf over an old woollen coat. Malcolm glances curiously at his companions. No words have been spoken, he doesn’t know why they have turned back, this is his first run and he doesn’t know the rules. He does feel the driver tense up. They all – everyone in the car but he – is tensed with excitement. They begin to drive past the camel cart again.

And then the rifles begin firing from the back, and the man leading the camel is down, the camel is down and kicking, blood spraying across the road, the vehicle hardly moving at all and the old grandma on the cart is beginning to clamber down to make a run for it, a sitting duck, and the bullets enter her and lift her off her feet and hurl her headfirst off the road and into the frozen waste on the roadside. The cart topples over on its side, sacks spilling on the road, one wheel spinning against the sky. The camel is shrieking and another brief burst at it and then it’s over. The interior of the car stinks of cordite.

Malcolm is shaking. “What the hell?”

The driver grins. “Fine kill, no?”

“What the hell did you go and do that for?”

“They were rebels. They fired first.” The man in the left rear is happily clearing the chamber of his rifle.

“What?” Malcolm is flabbergasted. “They never fired.”     

“You didn’t see them fire?” The driver smiles at Malcolm and brings the car to a dead halt. “You’d better get your eyes checked, my friend.”


Malcolm is sitting in his room, sorting through his kit, when the driver enters without knocking. Malcolm looks up and waits.

The driver gets to the point. “I hear you’re planning to submit a report that that lot we killed on the road today didn’t fire at us.”

“That’s right. Because they didn’t fire. They hadn’t anything to fire with.”

“You saw the guns we found.”

“I saw guns on the ground afterwards, when you went to check. I was asked to stay with the car, you know that.” He looks down at his webbing harness.

“We found guns. It’s your word against ours that there were no guns. And frankly I wouldn’t advise you to disagree with us. I’m telling you this in your own best interests.”

“Just tell me why you shot them.”

“All right.” The driver sits down, uninvited. “Look, the company needs to have some level of violence to report, some attacks to suppress, or we don’t keep the franchise to guard the road. The company needs some bloodshed. I mean, it’s not as if they’re really important people we killed. And for all you know they may have been enemy sympathisers at the least. We really can’t take chances. Besides, the boys need some kind of release. It’s hard to be cooped up here for months on end with only the net and the TV for company.”

“So you’re telling me…”

“Yeah, if you put in that contrary report, it’s the company that will come down on you. Nobody will touch us anyhow. That’s what I’m telling you. Put in the same report as us, or it’s your ass, not ours.”


He’s not a bad looking chap,” says the other man, looking at the Wanted poster of the rebel leader.

Malcolm shrugs. “By their standards.” He is disgruntled. He had come last evening off a two-day tour of duty, and still had not been able to rest. Sleep had been interrupted when a whole salvo of enemy mortar bombs had landed on the base. They are still clearing up the debris at the other end of the square. “I don’t see that it matters what he looks like.”

“Odd name, Makhmat Bisvov. It would have been Mohammad elsewhere, I reckon.” The man’s accent is broad Yorkshire. Malcolm finds it extremely difficult to understand what he is saying. “Still and all, I’d like to see that face through my sights. It would fetch me a tidy bonus.”

Malcolm peers at the poster. The features are not too clear, the photo taken from a distance, but he can make out a broad round face and a bullet head over muscular shoulders. The eyes are thin slits under a high broad forehead. “So that’s who’s been organising them and leading them now.”

“Yes.” The Yorkshireman sounds almost fond. “He’s really turned things around, hasn’t he? He’s just about raised the rebels up from the fucking grave.” He sighs. “I’ve got to go out again tonight. Would I love a break? Yes I would.”

“Well, you’re being paid enough. Earn your keep.” 


They are out on a search operation, again, under a freezing grey sky. Where are the fabled hot summers of Central Asia? They are walking over the plain, having disembarked from the SUVs when those vehicles could go no further, even in four wheel drive. The ground is broken and rocky. Up ahead is their objective, a low ridge behind which an entire rebel unit is alleged to be hiding. A tiny helicopter owned and operated by Black Diamond hovers far overhead, high enough to be out of range of ground fire and fitted with flares against missiles. The men in the copter have so far spotted nothing.

The army should be the force doing this, the real army, but the army has disintegrated just as what passes for the government has. No one really knows who is the enemy any more. It’s just safer to assume that everyone’s hostile except other Black Diamond employees. Malcolm rubs at his chest. Under the bulletproof vest, it itches fiercely, but he can’t reach to scratch. He looks up at the ridge and imagines a hundred gun barrels pointing down at them.

“Bet there’s nothing,” says the man next to him, whom he does not know. There are so many new faces coming in that he can no longer keep track. “It’s just another wild goose chase we could do without.”

They make it to the ridge without incident. The ground is full of crevices and folds. The helicopter hovers, lower now, but the men in it still have not seen anything. A thin drizzle begins to fall.

There is a loud flat sound like a paper bag bursting. Someone has thrown a grenade into a hole in the ground. Malcolm looks around, but no one reacts and there is no firing. They move on. A few more grenades are dropped into a few more holes. It is hard work checking the ridge, but the tension begins to reduce as the chances of combat recede. The helicopter blatters off, low on fuel. There is no other to spare at the moment.

“No one here,” Malcolm says.

“Don’t you believe it,” says the man next to him. He seems to have changed his mind about the wild goose chase. “The boys over on the flank found a couple of kids in one of the holes. They were probably lookouts. Someone’s here, depend on it. Maybe Bisvov himself, or one of his deputies.” He opens his mouth to say something more when the entire hillside seems to explode.

Heavy fire is raining down on them. Bullets are flying in from every direction, cracking sharply off rocks with splinters flying. Malcolm throws himself down behind a rock. A spear of flame streaks past, trailing brown smoke. It’s a rocket propelled grenade, fired from somewhere close by, but the noise is so intense he has not been able to hear its individual report. Malcolm wriggles his body backward, trying for the greater shelter of two rocks. He tries to find a target to fire at, but there is nothing. He can see nobody even from his own side. Then there is a descending scream from the sky. “Mortar,” he thinks, an instant before there is a terrific red flash and darkness falls and all is silent.


When Malcolm opens his eyes it’s still dark, and for an instant of utter terror he is sure he’s lost his eyesight. Then he sees the low glimmer of firelight and realises that it is night. There are voices too, but they are pitched low and he cannot understand any of what he can hear. He is intensely thirsty. He tries to move his arms and legs, but they will not move. After a while he comes to the conclusion they are tied with rope. His head hurts when he tries to raise it, and he moans.

The voices cease, and someone comes over and peers down at him. The man says something over his shoulder and someone else arrives. Malcolm looks up and recognises his old interpreter.

“You,” he says.

“Yes.” The interpreter grins cheerfully. “You’re surprised? But there are many of us now, you know.”

“We were paying you.”

“You couldn’t pay enough. Not when you were shooting my country to pieces. But that’s not the point. You owe me your life.”

“I do?”

“After your lot left, we found you. We don’t usually take prisoners. It’s too much trouble. But I recognised you, and you’ve always been the best of a bad bunch, so I told the commandant and he decided to spare your life.” The interpreter squats down next to Malcolm. He suddenly realises he doesn’t even know the man’s name. He smells strongly of stale sweat. Malcolm tries to breathe through his mouth.

“All right. Thank you. What are you going to do with me now?”

“That’s up to the commandant. He’s rather interested in meeting you, though. I think he wants to know what makes you tick.”


Dawn finds Malcolm stumbling between two of the enemy, his hands still tied though before him. He has been fed a broth and his head no longer hurts. There is a rough bandage above his eyes. It is so dark that he can see almost nothing.

They are moving at a cracking pace, much faster than Malcolm is accustomed to. Black Diamond employees are basically dependent on vehicles for movement. Walking is not something they do too often.

The interpreter materialises next to him. “You’ve to go faster,” he says. “Or someone might decide to shoot you.”

“I’m going as fast as I can.”

They are surrounded by trees now, and the land is rising, slowly but steadily enough to feel the slope. Dawn is just a deep navy blue in the sky. At some point Malcolm stops noticing things. He is too focused on walking fast enough to stay alive to care too much about other things. These short men move incredibly rapidly, so that it is only his long legs that allow him to keep up.

They stop just as Malcolm’s energy runs out. He raises his eyes to see a tangle of undergrowth. The trees are not those that he is familiar with, their branches now heavy with leaf growth, their trunks slim and straight. The rebels are falling out of line, easing packs off their backs and sitting down on the hard ground. For the first time he sees them clearly. There are between seventy and a hundred of them. Most are dressed in green uniforms with camouflage pattern jackets and black balaclavas. A couple have helmets. Their weaponry is impressive, but expected: AK series rifles and rocket propelled grenades, a few light machine guns and mortars. He looks around. He is the only prisoner.  

“Sit here,” says the interpreter, suiting himself to his words. “We’ll stay here for the day.”

“What happened to the rest of my unit?” Malcolm tries to ease the strain on his wrists from the rope. He is beginning to feel the bite now that he has stopped moving.

“They pulled out after we ambushed them. We killed a few but most of them got away. They didn’t stop to fight, or we might have got more.” The interpreter smiled. “They left a lot of weapons behind, though, for us.”

There is a stirring among the resting rebels as someone comes through the trees. He is dressed like the others, and carries an AK47 with a folding stock slung muzzle down over his shoulder. He walks straight over to Malcolm. The interpreter scrambles to his feet. He salutes and says something.

Malcolm looks up past his bandage to see a face made familiar from posters, a face an Englishman once wanted to see through rifle sights. Makhmat Bisvov is of medium height and his round features look pale and exhausted, but he has an unmistakable air of authority. He has grown a beard since the photo Malcolm has seen. The hairs are sparse and curling.

“You’re the prisoner we captured,” he says in English. He has an odd accent, with the stresses on the vowels. It makes him sound sing-song. “I’m told you aren’t really the enemy. They say you’ve tried to protest against atrocities.”

Malcolm makes an attempt to get up, but his exhausted legs will not obey him. “They didn’t listen to me,” he answers. “So it doesn’t really matter what I said or didn’t say.”

“Yes it does.” Bisvov says something more to the interpreter, who takes hold of Malcolm’s bonds and after some struggle with the knots undoes them. The blood rushes painfully back to Malcolm’s wrists. “You might want to be on our side?”

“Your side? But you’re the enemy.”

Bisvov sits down carefully, but upright so that their eyes are on a level, but far enough away to be out of reach. If they had both been standing Malcolm would have towered a head over him. “The enemy?” Bisvov’s voice is quiet and even. “Whose enemy? Did we attack you?”

“No, but we’re hired by the government.” Malcolm has a sudden mental picture of the old man in the apartment block.

“The government.” Bisvov actually grins. “What government? The lot in the capital? The ones with mercenaries like you as bodyguards? Oh sorry,” and his mocking grin grows wider. “I didn’t mean mercenaries. I meant security contractors.”

“Well.” Malcolm swallows. “Since the army can’t protect them and all…”

“And because the army can’t be trusted and half of it has come over to our side anyway.” Bisvov scratches reflectively at his scraggly beard. “Look,” he says at last, “let’s not talk stupid. You know there’s no longer a government in this country, it’s the oil and gas companies that run the country and pay you.”

“Yes, but the oil companies came here after signing agreements with the government, didn’t they? And they pay revenues on what they earn, don’t they?”

“Revenues? What, ten per cent of profits? Chickenfeed, and you know it.” Bisvov gets up and says something to the interpreter before walking away.

“He says,” says the interpreter, “you’ll have opportunity enough to see for yourself what the government’s revenues have done.”


Three days later Malcolm opens his eyes to the interior of a little hut. It is dark and far from comfortable. The beams are heavy and smoke-stained and hang low over his face. He is lying on straw, which pricks him through his clothes. It is only because of his exhaustion that he could sleep at all.

He has not seen Bisvov again these last few days. He has hardly seen the interpreter either, so he has mostly had to stay without talking. None of the others understands any English.

They have moved every night, all night, as soon as it is dark, moving at the same cracking pace that had driven Malcolm to near collapse that first march. The group has split, and then split again. Now it is just Malcolm and three others. They arrived in this village sometime in the small hours of the morning. Malcolm had just had the energy to drop into the straw before he fell asleep.

One of the escort grunts at him. He has tried to understand what the men are saying, to learn some rudiments of the language, but he hasn’t managed it. It seems to him that they do not all even speak the same tongue. He rolls over and clambers to his feet. He even still has his boots on. He is glad he cannot smell himself. He must stink to high heaven.

The hut is so low Malcolm has to bend almost double to get out through the door. It contains nothing but bales of straw and is crudely whitewashed on the outside. There are other huts, larger and more spacious, but not many of them. The village is not large. Malcolm can hear chickens clucking and a cock crows loud and long.

The man grunts at him again and motions with his gun barrel. He has a bad-tempered face and Malcolm likes him the least among the escorts. The other two are nowhere to be seen.

They go down to the river and the man gestures for Malcolm to wash. Malcolm takes the chance to strip down, and although the water is very cold, it makes him feel much better.    

There is a giggle and he sees black eyes looking through branches. The guard yells angrily, and the girls scamper away, still laughing.

They come back up the bank. There are more people about now, but still very few, even for a village this small. They look at Malcolm curiously. A small boy comes up shyly and begins rubbing Malcolm’s hand; he takes a moment to understand the child is testing to see if the dark pigment will rub off.

Later, Mahmat Bisvov turns up again, without the interpreter. He does not need the interpreter. He beckons to Malcolm. “Come.”

They walk together on the stony path. It is sunny and there is a cool breeze; really extraordinarily enjoyable weather for a change. Bisvov is apparently unarmed but Malcolm is aware of the two men following at a discreet distance. They both carry Kalashnikovs.

Bisvov is bare headed in the sunlight filtering through the trees. His hair is cut so short it is almost shaven. Walking beside him, Malcolm can look down on the top of his head. There are small, twisted scars that look as though they were made by shrapnel.

“I could grow my hair,” says Bisvov. “But I prefer not to hide them.” He points to a hut in between trees. “Let’s go visit the people there.”

The hut’s door is so low Malcolm has to bend double to enter. Inside it is dark and stinks terribly. Bisvov calls out. Someone replies and a short form moves into the little light filtering in through the door.

For an instant the woman appears young, young and lovely, but only for an instant. Her face is smooth and ageless, but her tiny eyes are blank and almost completely without expression. Her hair is stringy and hangs around her face. She mumbles something to Bisvov, glances at Malcolm incuriously, and wanders back into the shadows again.

“She’s mad,” says Bisvov superfluously. “Shall I tell you why?” He carries on without waiting for Malcolm to answer. “She saw her husband and father both shot before her by the government. Her young son ran out to them, as young children will, so they shot him, too. The villagers try and take care of her now. She has to be fed and changed these days, like a child. She won’t do a thing for herself.”

Outside the air seems clean and doubly fresh.

“So, where are you from?” Bisvov asks.

Nigeria.” For an instant the nostalgia for the sights and sounds of Port Harcourt is overwhelming. He feels a wrenching desire to be back there, although he has always detested the city and has not visited it in years.

“Why did you decide to become a mercenary?” They may have been a couple of old friends going for a walk together. “I mean, a security contractor?”

Malcolm shrugs. He sees Bisvov studying him out of the corner of an eye. Maybe he could kill Bisvov with his bare hands; then again, maybe not. The man is much shorter but his shoulders are bulky and all in all he looks like tempered steel. “I was in the army,” he says. “And when I came out, there were no jobs going. I had no skills, you see, except soldiering. But then I heard that Black Diamond was recruiting.” It is a familiar enough tale; Bisvov must have heard it often enough before. He is nodding. Malcolm bites back the urge to say more: the love affair that went wrong, the girlfriend discovered in bed – in his bed – with another man, the utter hopelessness of trying to find a job he would want to do. The pain of seeing his erstwhile fellow pupils settled in careers and with families while he walks the street; the sheer relief of being taken on by Black Diamond, even at a fraction of the salary his American or British colleagues would hope to make. “It’s a job,” he says. “It’s a job like going to office.”

Bisvov nods, pensively. “You’ve been in this job long?”

“Six years.” It has been six years of struggle, to be taken seriously. To keep his job, because there have been others who would have been glad enough to occupy his boots, and because there are enough men who do not like taking orders from a West African, even if he is over two metres tall in his socks and broad shouldered to match.

They have almost left the village, but Bisvov shows no signs of slowing down. “Six years,” he says. “You must have seen a lot of fighting. You must have seen many children like that.” He points up the path. A girl is coming on down the path, a girl in a skirt and a boy behind her. The boy moves oddly; it’s an instant before Malcolm realises he is swinging himself on a pair of makeshift crutches. He has only one leg. The other one seems to have been removed at the hip.

“He doesn’t have genitals either,” says Bisvov conversationally. “It was an air attack. Somehow we managed to save one leg.” He laughs as the children shout to him, and kneels so the girl can hug him. The boy swings himself up and touches his shoulder straps with his fingers. His face is round and doll-like, and the eyes are small and black and mischievous. He grins at Malcolm, the engaging grin of a child losing his upper front milk teeth.

Bisvov hugs the boy and takes him up in his arms. The girl trots behind carrying the crutches. “Let’s go back to the village,” says Bisvov. “I have things to see to.”


Some days later, Malcolm is back in the village. In the meantime he has been made to march up hills and down into valleys, has spent nights in tents and in caves, has been marched away and back again – and never had sight nor sound of the government’s forces. From the top of a hill he has seen the smoke from a burning oil well, and many times seen contrails high up in the air, but no more. All this time he has seen neither Bisvov nor the interpreter; so, unable to speak to anyone, he has spent the days in enforced silence.

As his wound has healed the bandage has come off, and his forehead itches appallingly. He tries to alleviate the itch by rubbing it. It works only for a moment, and then it begins to itch all over again.

When he meets Bisvov again it is in the light of an oil lamp, across a table with a hunk of bread and a jug of cold milk. Bisvov’s face is in shadow; his hands are illuminated by the lamp. They lie on the table, fingers moving slowly, and gesturing to emphasise points. Malcolm reacts to him as to an old friend.

“Did you ever wonder,” he is saying, “why I had you taken alive?”

“The interpreter said,” Malcolm answers, “that you want to find out what makes me tick.”

“Zelim?” Bisvov sounds amused. “He said that? Well, yes and no. I asked you something once. Do you remember what it was?”

“If I wanted to be on your side.”

“Yes.” Bisvov raises a hand. “Before you answer, tell me something. What were you told we were like? Monsters?”

“Well…” Malcolm tries to find the words. “We were told you were – terrorists. And I suppose we never thought you were capable of putting up a serious fight. Certainly we all were told we were just going to,” he swallows, “kick ass and take names.” He touches the healing scar on his forehead.

Bisvov laughs. He has a low, chuckling laugh, buried at the back of his throat. “I hope you enjoyed the experience of kicking ass,” he says. “Do you think your job will be waiting for you if ever you get out of here?”

“No.” Malcolm is honest with himself on this. “I’m compromised.”

“Ah. Now look at all this.” Bisvov sweeps his hand around. “All that oil and gas, and they haven’t even ever electrified this village or any other. There wasn’t even a hospital or a school here, not even a village school. Look, and tell me if the rebellion isn’t justified.”

Malcolm says nothing.

“Now,” says Bisvov, sensing his advantage. “If we aren’t monsters, and if our rebellion is justified, and if all you were doing on the other side was a job, and since Zelim told me you weren’t like the others, why don’t you join us? Wouldn’t you like to go home someday?”

Home? Malcolm wonders at the word. What is home? Where is it? “I don’t really have a home any more,” he says almost to himself.

“None of us do, any more,” Bisvov agrees. “We spend our days on the move. Every place is home. Well, you can do something. It’s up to you.”

“What do you want me to do?” It’s more than a question, Malcolm realises, and knows that Bisvov knows it too.

“Well…you said you were compromised. But if you, you know, made a spectacular escape and got back to the other side, might they not take you back? And then you could be of more use there than with us.”

“You want me to lead them into some sort of ambush? I don’t want to get any of them killed. Some of them weren’t bad people, and besides they’re just doing a job, the same as I was.”

“No, no.” Bisvov looks surprised. “We can kill them as well without your help, if we have to kill them. And besides if we got you to do something like that, we could only use you once. We’ve other plans for you.”

“And those plans are?”

“There are more like you. We want you to talk to them, see that they understand what is really going on. Some of them might come over to our side. Some of them might give you information to pass on sometimes. All of that would be useful.” He shrugs in the shadows. “We have enough fighters. What we could do with is more inside intelligence.”

“And what happens if they send me to fight you?”

“Why then you come to fight us. Just make sure we get to know that you’re coming, so we get out of the way. Don’t worry, you’ll have contacts to pass on information to.” He stretches and yawns, lifting his arms up into the darkness. For a long moment he is only a silhouette. “So, is it a deal?”

“All right,” says Malcolm. “I’ll do it. When do I leave?”

“No time like the present,” says Bisvov.


They say goodbye on the edge of the plain. It’s a goodbye sealed with a short handshake. Malcolm looks down at Bisvov and fights down the urge to hug him. Bisvov looks up into his eyes and says nothing; just gives his hand an extra squeeze.

Zelim, the interpreter, walks on with Malcolm towards the road. His orders are to see Malcolm safely to within hailing distance of a government outpost. He carries an AK series rifle. Malcolm carries two, an AK 47 and an AK 56. They are props for his cover story.

“We already put out a story that we want you for murdering the men guarding you and escaping,” Zelim says. “The villages have been warned, and at least from some of them the word will have reached the enemy by now.”

“Oh?” Malcolm is surprised. “When did you do that?”

“We passed the word this morning,” Zelim grins. “You’re surprised because the commander only told you this evening, right? But he knew in advance that you would agree. A judge of men, the commander.” He says nothing for a while. The night sky is dark; there is no moon and clouds hide the stars.

“You’ll know soon enough who’s your contact,” Zelim says eventually. “The commander told you your password.”

“He told me”. The highway is ahead, raised above the flat ground. A wrecked tanker lies in a tangle near it. “Is this where you leave me?”

“Go that way,” says Zelim. “You should be able to see their roadblock as soon as you get on the road. We were planning to hit them tonight with mortars, but we decided it would be better to let them live.” When Malcolm turns to look at his he has already melted into the darkness.


The village lies sleeping in the early dawn when they strike.

They come in on helicopters, dropping quickly, their machine guns blazing; they set up mortars and shell the huts, one by one, the roofs collapsing and the people being shot down as they run out. It does not last very long.

Malcolm is directing the strike. He has seen this village, he knows the layout, the approaches and the clear firing lanes, so he is directing the strike.

Afterwards they gather the bodies. Malcolm looks them over, dispassionately. He recognises some of them: a woman with straggly hair, her face now vacant forevermore; a girl who may have had black eyes given to watching naked men bathing in a stream and giggling, if she had had eyes to watch anything with any more or a mouth to giggle. And there are a few in uniform: Malcolm's angry escort from the beginning of his captivity, his chest torn open by bullets, and a couple more. But no young boy without a leg, for which Malcolm is obscurely grateful; and no Zelim, no Bisvov.

“He’s not there.” Malcolm looks up from the guard's corpse as Keith comes over. “He must have cleared out last night itself. At least one civilian went with him.” He remembers Bisvov saying, “Every place is home.”

“You liked him, didn’t you?” Keith is a Filipino, not a bad sort, but too soft for this job. He looks slightly sick.

Malcolm thinks a moment. “Whether I liked him isn’t the point. The point is he’s the enemy, and we have to beat him. We nearly got him this time, but we have to beat him all over again.”

“But you said he let you go. I still don’t understand why you didn’t do what he asked you to do.”

“There’s something called duty.” This is what Malcolm has learned; not the duty towards country or company, but the duty towards himself. The duty that drives men to look for the best deal, the duty that impels one to do what one does not want to do. When one has starved, one does not wish to starve again.

“That,” he wants to explain to Keith, “is where Bisvov went wrong. He puts his cause over himself and over his men’s lives. But I have no cause, except my own welfare. That’s what Bisvov didn’t understand, that there are men who don’t think the same way as himself. That’s why he let me go, and that’s why what I think of him doesn’t matter. My cause is myself, and if I have to kill him to get my job back and a promotion to boot, why, I’ll do that without a second thought. I’m a mercenary, my friend, and you’re one too.” He wants to tell Keith all this, but he fears he won’t understand.

With a last look around he walks down the path towards the nearest helicopter to radio in his report, as the sun touches the topmost branches of the trees with the morning’s gold.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2007/13

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