Don’t grow up war-torn.
It can leave you battle-scarred in the most unexpected of ways – I have the physical scars, because very few escape without them, and the mental and emotional scars of seeing so many deaths – of a constant, agonised community bowed low under the weight of so many bodies needing burial – the ever-present weeping which works its way into your bones until they cry out in harmony with whichever friend of a friend of a neighbour of a co-worker has lost someone close.
Violent, brutal death, meted out with such vigour it is almost admirable – soldiers who never seem to tire of killing – they still found pleasure, even after so many repeat performances, in acting out the ‘how slowly can we break ‘em?’ spectacle. Their grins and shining eyes were ghastly reminders that these were once little boys and girls who played childish games of tag, or shot hoops with the other kids, high-fiving to pass the turn, now transformed into horrific, public matches of will; their desire now to score the most pain, or the most broken bones, before death; and the screams of anguish and horror (rather than support) from their audience.
They ruled unfairly, with great lists of ever-changing transgressions, waiting to trip us up and allow a new game to begin. Of course we fought back in every quiet way we could – with hurried meetings in back alleys, underground disruption parties (mine especially effective), and on the face of it, meek, cowering acceptance of their authority.
We would lower our eyes in deference as they spat on us, smiling inwardly in the knowledge that their food supply had been poisoned again, or that one of our brave suiciders had managed to take out an entire roomful just last week.
Those scars – those hurts – are manageable; borne of war, and of fighting and strife and the absolute refusal to allow our spirits to be crushed.
The scar, nay, the wound (for it is still open and raw) which won’t heal is the one borne of love.
Josh was always different, even though he’d been through the same tracts of misery as the rest of us; he had a lightness of heart and a clearness of spirit like no-one else. He refused to kill them, even when he had the opportunity, telling us “You remember poor Mishael’s mother the other week, and how she tore her clothes and pulled her hair out in sorrow when she saw his poor, broken body? Somewhere in the world, is a mother to that soldier, and she doesn’t deserve that hurt just because her kid is out being a vicious bully.”
We scoffed at him “A bully? You call a murdering, violent bastard like that, a bully? Josh, you’re from another planet!”
And his reply was always along the same lines – “Another death won’t bring Mishael back. Another mother’s grief will be of no comfort to his mother. I hate these soldiers and their bad choices as much as the rest of you, but I have no desire to bring grief to the people who love them.”
So he would cut their telephone lines or let down the tyres of their vehicles whilst we snatched at any chance of switchblade vengeance.
While we weren’t embroiled in the politics of the situation, we were busy basking in the light of Josh’s great care for us. We were a small group – one of many on the side of the oppressed – but ours was without that ever-present desperation, all because of Josh. He took time to talk to each of us, letting us see how much we mattered to him, in spite of his disagreement with our methods. He tried to teach us about compassion, and told our hardened hearts of his desire for the war to end, and for peace to reign between the two sides. He bore our teasing with humour, and still cooked us breakfast when we came in from a night of bloody justice (though it was interesting to note how, increasingly, none of us could look him in the eye as we sat and ate, spattered with gore and glory, which was somehow less glorious as it came under his gaze).
I became especially close to him, and we would frequently watch the sun rise, accompanied by somewhere’s staccato gunfire, sipping beers in unison as he told me his visions for a future of harmony. He’d tell me he loved me and that he considered us brothers. Flippantly, I’d reply that love had no place on a battlefield – that camaraderie was all well and good, but love was weak and ineffective – after all, wasn’t it his love for the unseen mothers of these soldiers that held him back?
He was frustratingly adamant:
“Love isn’t weak – it’s everything”, he protested. “If you, with all your atrocities and acts of violence, are still valuable as a person, still worthwhile and still loved, then so are they, in theirs. You can’t have it both ways, my friend.”
One night, the soldiers caught up with us. Like battering rams, they broke through the door into our midst and fired off a list of accusations, only some of which were accurate, but all of which were hastily denied by us. Without proof, we knew this couldn’t go to trial, so it had to be a random lucky strike on their part, designed to find them new fodder for their cruel games, rather than a true effort to keep us in line.
We all knew the drill, and weathered the initial beating with pleasing forbearance, none of the group letting anything slide. But perhaps the soldiers were tired of the foreplay, because they demanded a confession none of us were willing to give, and then with a swift breach of their usual rules, shot Carlo between the eyes, right then and there.
“A confession”, their team leader smirked “or we’ll keep shooting.”
I pointed at the still-twitching Carlo, trying to hide my nausea at just how much his poor head was leaking. “It was him.”
The team leader grinned, his teeth showing white in the gloom “No.” he said, with conviction “It wasn’t him – dead people can’t be made to confess anything. It was you.”
Panic obliterated me – I’d seen the tools these people used to extract confessions – I’d seen the disfigured, scoured corpses the next day, and even as those images welled up, flooding my mind’s eye, I heard a voice, as though from a distance, “It was me. I’m the leader.”
Sweet, kind, peace-loving, breakfast-making, ideological, Josh.
He clambered to his feet, his face set with resolve, only to be driven to his knees by the butt of a gun cracked across the back of his skull. Swaying, he spoke to the room, saying “If only you would recognise one anothers’ humanity – you all have people who care for you – stop fighting and let love win – put an end to this constant grief with something far more powerful than violence.”
The immediate flurry of steel-toe-capped blows which fell upon him, audibly shattered his jaw and left him unable to speak further.
The soldiers were terrifying in their ability – played out in front of us in that small room – to dissemble a person with the blunt force of boots and fists. I clung to the furniture, horror-struck and hoping to reach Josh and somehow protect him, as I watched them kick until the blood gouted thickly from his mouth. Half of the group had run as soon as they could, but Phil and Yannes had stayed, trying to pull me away, forcing their words into my ears over the sound of my own screaming “Come on – he’s done this so we can be free…don’t waste it – it’s too late for him now. He chose this.”
My fingernails ripped as they dragged me bodily from the sofa I was holding onto, the image burning into my retinas, of those soldiers reddened with my dear friend’s life, laughing at us as we surveyed their sport. Two of the men whipped out their dicks and pissed on him, letting the urine stream into his eyes, clearing them of blood as he watched us from the newly-puddled floor. One of the females kicked him repeatedly in the groin and another snapped all the fingers of his left hand, watching him writhe.
My last sight of him, through a blur of tears, as Yannes held my flailing hands and Phil carried me backwards to bitter freedom, was his misshapen body jerking to the rhythm of their brutality, meanwhile his other hand, on the floor but yet unbroken, was held determinedly with his thumb, pointer and little fingers held outwards, and the third and fourth tucked into his palm.
Again and again he made that sign, his last moments of strength going into sharing his final message for us; the reason he had redeemed our lives with his:
“I love you.”
“I love you.”
“I love you.”