THE WHITE MAN'S GRAVEYARDchapter 15 (3)
He got in the car, rolled up the window and locked the door, started it and drove onto the road toward the airport. Either his watch was wrong or something was in the wind. Maybe it was just his own paranoia. He drove on up and turned into the airport, hoping they'd have cold minerals at the bar, if nothing else and he could check the clock on the wall there.
The 11 o'clock daily plane to Kano obviously hadn't left yet. He wheeled the car into a spot under a tree. There were lots of cars and people were still standing or sitting around. But it never left on time. He went inside, stepping over some bags and pushed his way between those crowding around the ticket window trying to get passes, as usual totally ignoring the sign on the wall that said "Cue Here."
It seemed that the western configurations that made it look like an airport were mere cosmetic ornaments. They'd run for the plane because they issued more boarding passes than seats. It was first come, first serve and if you dashed or knew the guy, you got a boarding pass even without the O.K. sticker on your ticket. Signs with rules and regulations were mere window dressing. They had their own system.
He looked at the clock over the bar, then at his watch. The clock said 10:50, his 10:45, but it was close enough. He hissed to get the attendant's attention.
"Akwai mineral?" Alex asked. The guy looked up. "Coke," he said authoritatively. Directness always got better results. There was no room for politeness. "Please" was seldom used in the Hausa language, in fact, he didn't even know the word for it. "Sani, ba?" he felt the coke to check if it was cold. He put 30 kobo on the counter and stepped aside for some breathing space, to take a long swig from the coke. Close to noon, it was getting hot outside already. Another hour or two and everyone would be looking for a piece of shade.
Plenty of people were inside the terminal, sweating, anxious to run for the plane. They can move when they want to, Alex thought with a smirk, either to fight for a seat on a train or lorry or when a stick or whip is brought down. They'd rush when they had to - when they wanted a seat or to get something. There was always a shortage of everything and always too many people fighting for whatever it was.
I'd push too, now, he thought. That was one way he'd had to adapt here from you civilized ways. If you were polite they'd trample you, so you learned to fight and push back just the same. If I could go home now, he thought, nobody'd beat me in that hundred yard dash to the plane.
Alex could see the heat waves rising from the tarmac and the wing of the plane through the expanse of grass. It would fly to Kano alright. Some of them would probably go to London, where his wife and daughter were, staying with her sister. At least they are out of here, he thought, safe and sound. He wouldn't let them come back. He only had to finish his contract now and get out too. For good. He'd come as a volunteer. He'd put in his time in two two-year tours. Some stayed longer, but that was it, enough for him, for his own sanity. He'd take final leave, get out while the getting was good. So far, he'd survived the years in Africa. He had enough saved that they could buy a house when he got home, if he got home.
When the soldiers burst in, Alex was rudely shaken back to reality. He rarely saw the military going around the town in the banks and places in their uniforms -- never carrying weapons. They looked anxiously around. Everyone froze. One man stayed there and the others passed through and started looking outside. It happened so fast that no one moved. Their presence with the big AK-47's put authority in the air. Everyone waited for their instructions, for they were in charge now.
"Just stay put," came the order. "The plane is cancelled and the road is closed back to the town."
Jesus, must be a coup, Alex thought. Closed off the airport and the road to town. Two other soldiers came in and stayed by the door while the original guard moved round the room searching everyone and checking them over. A couple were given a short interrogation by him.
The soldier turned to him and asked for his passport. He reached into the pouch inside his shirt. He always carried his passport hung around his neck. The soldier glanced at him and gave it back as soon as he saw the G.O. Stamp. All teachers with the Ministry of Education had the Government Officer work permit and it always made things easier. When he was satisfied studying everyone, he went outside but the other one remained.
"You can relax, you might be here a long time," the soldier said, "no one is to go out." There was sort of a murmur and some objections from those in the room. They'd all been expecting to catch a plane. The grumbling went on for some time before it settled.
When things seemed less tense, Alex went over to the soldier to speak to him. "Is there a problem?" he asked as lightly as possible.
"No problem. Disturbance in the town," the soldier answered. "Kano, Jos and Kaduna. They started trouble in the mosques this morning -- the fanatics, the Matisine sect again. We're going around the town. It's just Bulunkutu so far but you'll have to stay here till the road's cleared."
Alex looked out the door. He could see the Army truck parked at the entrance to the airport and a few soldiers milling around. No traffic was moving on the highway in either direction. There was a permanent roadblock just past the airport so they must have closed the road off at the other end he figured and if there was trouble no one could travel in and out of town unless they took a bush road off to the side.
He took another coke and leaned against the wall, listening for any sounds outside. There was nothing so he settled down for a long wait. It was just one of those day to day occurrences you couldn't do anything about. You got used to it, the delays, the problems, things happening.
The afternoon dragged with the stifling heat. How they could create problems in the heat, he never knew. Finally, around 4 o'clock an Officer came in and he asked him how it was.
"You can go out to Damaturu," the Officer said. "Where do you want to go?"
"The GRA," Alex replied. The Officer left and came back a few seconds later.
"You can try it if things are under control. You want to drive slow."
It was almost dark by the time he left the airport. Before he got to the roadblock he could see smoke rising from Bulunkutu, the area on the right side of the highway. Three policemen rushed for the car as he stopped slowly, well before the barrels they'd set up. All were brandishing Uzi's, Israeli-made small automatic weapons. Off to the side a couple of soldiers had set up a piece of heavy artillery and he saw the explosion when they lobbed a shell randomly into Bulunkutu, without setting the sights. They aren't kidding around, he thought.
The policemen relaxed a bit when they saw it was a "bature". "Sannu," he said greeting them with his usual friendly smile he used at the roadblocks.
"Good evening," came the answer in English. "Where are you going?"
"Trying to get back home to the GRA. How bad is it?"
"Not a problem," came the answer.
"What of Yakubu, the D.P.O.? He's a friend of mine. Is he around?" He knew Yakubu from the first year he'd spent in Ngami before he'd been promoted and transferred Maiduguri.
"Sorry. Yakubu was finished. We sent 110 policemen and trucks in this afternoon and the D.P.O. went in too. Only 13 came out. That's why we had to bring in the Army."
"Oh," he digested the significance. Same as Kano. When the military's called in it means the police can't control it. In Kano the Air Force had bombed Sabon Gari market. That went on for four days. "Can I make it to the GRA? How is it there?" he asked, now worried of the risk.
"It's only here. You'll be O.K. in the GRA. We've closed off this road. It's contained. Go on through but don't stop till you get to the other roadblock."
"Thanks." It was serious. He drove slowly through the opening in the barrels when the pipe was raised for him.
Alex continued cautiously but his muscles were tense. The road was lined with police vehicles and a few Army trucks were pulling up also. Police rode on horses and manned a machine gun mounted in the back of a one-ton. He could smell the tear gas and saw a couple of bodies lying in a ditch. One truck was stacked with corpses and smouldering cars and burned-out vans littered the road.
He got to the other end, to where the roadblock was set up outside the police barracks by the "Welcome to Maiduguri" sign. A van loaded with people was being searched and the police had the passengers lined up and were checking their stomachs. Yes, it's the Matisine people again he thought, realizing they were checking for the tattoos the sect members had.
Alex pulled up slowly behind the van but they didn't pay him much attention. One policeman started for the car then suddenly reached up and started firing past the car. He looked over his shoulder and saw the Peugeot over in the ditch side trying to run the roadblock. He saw the metal burst in splatters across its length. The windshield shattered, the Peugeot swerved wildly, overturned, flipped a couple of times and smashed into the cement gate post of the Polytechnic, then burst into flames. The policeman was still running for the car, firing off his whole clip into it. When he was satisfied no one was coming out, he walked back to the roadblock to resume his duty.
They waved him on. He drove slowly through the roadblock and through the arch of the "Welcome to Maiduguri" sign. Automatically, he went halfway through the round-about and swung up the well-lit road to the GRA. It was only then he noticed that his back was drenched in sweat. He'd have to have a shower when he got home.