One last beer at the Black and White

ABC Open has published a short story I wrote about an encounter with a ‘small-small’ brigade at the start of the Sierra Leonean war: https://open.abc.net.au/explore/159059

child-soldiers

The tropics in the build-up to seasonal rains. Dust swirls between mud brick buildings, children kick a dud football, a pile of burning rubbish sends off an acrid stench.

In evenings we would sit on the veranda of the local pub, the Black and White, savouring cold beer and cool breezes, appeasing our conscience by throwing coins to the polio-crippled beggars. Father Bob’s whisky odours, engineer Johnny’s beery breath, and the vinegar taste of cheap wine gone warm.

Bo, Sierra Leone, and now I am the last expat in town. Across the border a brutal civil war. Rebels announced that this weekend they will take Bo. Government forces, aid organisations and the expatriate community have fled, leaving the local population to hastily construct rudimentary defences.

I’d been asked to provide logistic support to the aid organisations till management sent an instruction to cease operations and relocate all vehicles to the national capital. By midday Saturday the instruction is clear – “Drive directly to Freetown. Do not divert or stop for any reason.” They might be the but I think one last beer at the Black and White can’t hurt.

As I swing round the corner, my throat dry for a beer rasps with fear. Heads wrapped in bandanas, chests encircled by bullet belts. Goggle eyes, hysteric laughs and the reek of marijuana. A group as big as the guns and machetes they bear surrounds me. They are the feared ‘small-small’ brigade and the leader, almost to shaving age, shouts, “Now what for you do here?”

A heartbeat, or two, then, “Hey white man, come and have a beer.” The Commander, alone at the bar, seeks a drinking companion. I do the gunslingers walk. The pub seems different – the raw timber floors more splintered, the tears in the laminated tabletops more pronounced, the depth of the bar has turned into a shadowy tunnel, while the Commander, standing, towers over me.

A former General in the Liberian army, he has been operating in the refugee camps, recruiting retreating soldiers and others, to try and create a new invasion force. He mocks rumours of an imminent attack. “Now what for they do that? They don’t want big fights that go kill ‘em. They do what they always do – cut off the entrances so no one gets out or comes in, and then they strangle slow-slow, like the python.”

He orders a beer, which I eagerly grasp. At least the fridges are working. We discuss whether the forthcoming rains will halt the rebel advance. “A big rain ‘e go wash them scum into the sea,” the Commander asserts. We talk about ex-Liberian President, Samuel Doe being tortured to death to prove he was not protected by black magic. Captured on film (which I refused to see) the Commander reflects prevailing opinion, “He die like a man,” then switches to English football, “MU, this year they going to win the FA cup again.”

When I say I need to go, he orders another beer, and then he says, “Now you go look-look big time. That road’s not safe no’more.”

The road to Freetown is crammed with hundreds, possibly thousands, of walking refugees and mine is the only vehicle. People charge at the speeding car begging a lift. The rules say, “No passengers”, but then rules are made to be broken.

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