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Earlier that day, while watching black soldier ants’ march in a not too straight line into the bushes from under the tree where he took shade, Small Boy picked his nose as he thought about food. His rumbling stomach continued to remind him that it has not received any offering since the afternoon before. He frowned. His mother has not mentioned food all day and the hunger biting his stomach was giving him a headache. He has never understood the connection with his head and hunger, from what he knew it was the stomach that was hungry not the head. He picked a pebble then threw it at Shortie’s crouched figure not too far from him, busy drawing figures in the sand.
‘Stop it Small Boy!’ Shortie said in an irritated voice as he rubbed the spot where the pebble had hit him.
‘Does your head hurt when you are hungry?’
‘It doesn’t but it might be possible that your large head shares your stomach’s offerings and because it hasn’t received any today, your head has nothing to feed on.’
‘Shut up! Spider legs’
‘You shut up box head!’
After a few minutes of silence, Small Boy spoke as he moved closer to Shortie who was still drawing, ‘I’m bored. Let’s play jump in the box.’
‘I don’t want to play. I’m tired, besides the game needs more than two people. I don’t know where others are.’
‘You are always tired.’
‘And you are always hungry!’ retorted Shortie.
‘Shut —‘ Small boy was cut short by shouts.
‘They are coming! They are coming!’
A wide-eyed Shortie stood up staring at his friend, ‘did you hear that? The ones from the bush are here. Let’s go!! Let’s go!!’
Although he didn’t see her, he heard his mother’s voice loudly telling him to run and hide. So they sped off into the bushes. This was not the first or second raid Small boy had encountered and he was always ready but unlike those days where he had the strength to run, Small Boy felt tired. He thought about his family and hoped nothing would happen to them and this raid would be like the others where the rebels just came to take their food and whatever else they found useful. They beat up and injure people but hardly killed anybody. The people in his village had gotten wind of stories of young boys and girls abducted by rebels, which has never happened at theirs but to prevent such the young ones were often told to hide and come back at nightfall whenever raids happened.
His heartbeats pounded against his chest like an angry caller at the door. Run Small Boy!! Run!! were the words that echoed in his head. His stomach hurt from hunger and his legs were tired but still he ran because their pounding steps were getting closer. It happened that the rebels caught sight of them when they ran and pursued. Shortie’s tall figure and long legs were ahead of him. Small Boy had always wondered why someone with such features would be named Shortie. They were both eleven-year-olds but Shortie’s physique sometimes made people think he was older. He frowned at the thought of Shortie throwing jabs at him later on for being too slow to catch up but he would be ready for him. Small Boy’s thoughts drifted back to his pursuers, he had to lose them.
‘It’s better you stop running and surrender yourself!’ one of them shouted.
He looked back to see how close they were but was unaware of the fallen tree branch in front of him hidden in the waist length overgrown grasses, which made him trip face flat on the ground. Small Boy raised his head in time to see Shortie’s retreating figure ahead. Lucky Bastard he thought to himself as he forcefully swallowed the painful scream that rose to his throat waiting to be let out so as not to alert his pursuers, which unknown to him like a pride of lions waiting patiently to pounce on their prey they were nearby watching his failed attempts to get up. As he tried to crawl his way into hiding, something hit his back hard. He felt a painful lump in his throat and closed his eyes regretfully as two men pulled him roughly into a kneeling position.
‘We told you to stop but you ran.’ said one of the men.
‘And for the stress you put us through, we would have killed you but you’ll be useful.’ said another voice.
‘Where is your friend?’
‘Yes they were two, where is your friend?’
‘There was—was no one else, it was just me.’ He said in a wavering voice as his eyes darted everywhere but the men’s faces.
‘He’s telling lies, there was another boy.’
‘Both of you, search the area. He wouldn’t have gone far.’
The one who seemed to be in control stared at Small Boy fiercely, a red hue spreading across his cold experienced eyes—that seemed to have recorded more than his mouth could relate—as he grabbed him by the shoulders, ‘Where is he?’
‘I don’t —’
The slap that landed was unexpected.
‘I—I swear it was just me. I swear.’ Small Boy held his face with his sweaty palm, spat out blood as tears filled his eyes.
He would rather die than reveal Shortie’s hideout and prayed silently that the guys who went in search of Shortie wouldn’t find him. His pulse jittered as a flash of Shortie’s bloodied lifeless body crossed his mind but he erased the thought as quickly as it came.
‘We didn’t see anybody.’
They whispered amongst themselves, as Small Boy began to cry silently at the thought of what might become of him but was a bit relieved that his best friend wasn’t found.
‘Look at him crying. Let me tell you something, you are wasting your tears. Save them because you’ll have a lot to cry about later.’* The one who slapped him gave instructions.
‘Carry him, let’s go.’
Small Boy knew there was no point struggling or fighting back against four armed hefty men. They laughed and chatted as they half dragged and carried him through the bushes. The tight grip on his arms was painful and his legs hurt from the bruise he got as he fell. They soon got back to his village and Small Boy’s mother’s eyes widened in shock as she saw that they caught him.
‘Small Boy’ she whispered sadly, teary eyed.
His parents and other people he knew were on their knees. Some had their arms up and fingers entwined at the back of their heads.
‘We found the boy’ one of the men carrying him said as they dumped him in front of the man that headed the raid.
‘I thought they were two. Where is the other one?’
‘We thought so too and even searched the area but didn’t find anyone else.’
‘The boy said it was just him.’
Small Boy pulled himself to a kneeling position and was scanning around the few inhabitants of his village for the rest of his friends when he caught sight of Shortie’s hut and few others on fire. The smell of burning flesh, smoke, screams and gunshots amongst other things filled the air. His hands flew to his mouth and tears blurred his vision as he watched everything around him fall apart. The rebels shouted orders and killed people who didn’t co-operate on the spot. Some of them took girls his age and raped them in front of their shocked parents. The rebels laughed at the girls’ cries for mercy. He saw his sister struggle with one of the rebels while his parents watched helplessly. Ignoring the commotion around him and his mother’s pleading eyes to stay put where he was, Small Boy broke into a run towards his screaming sister but his run was cut short when he felt something hit the back of his head. His mother’s piercing scream and gunshots was the last thing he heard before he blacked out.
‘…Do you understand?’
‘Do you understand?’
The brutal kick that resuscitated him out of his thoughts was enough for him to realize he was in hell on earth but not enough to digest everything Master or any other person had said as he passed out with tears in his eyes, a silent prayer for death on his lips and the thought of his raped sister, probably dead parents and his friend Shortie who he might never see again. The sky rumbled as the gathering dispersed, it seemed like rain was going to pour down in any minute. Five captured girls were led to Master’s tent by one of the men for him to choose from. Instructions were shouted out and the fire was killed. Master walked towards the unconscious body but turned back and made his way to his tent. One of the young boys standing around moved towards Small Boy’s figure to drag him under one of the makeshift tents but was stopped in his tracks by Master’s cold voice.
‘Don’t you dare!’
‘Yes sir!’ the boy said as he took a pitying glance at Small Boy’s body then hastened away from it.