Charlotte Mande Ilunga
The sky is angry, the wind is mad, the blanket of dust spreads in the air, heavens are crashing down breaking loose the cords which maintain them in their foundation. Confusion in the sky, the clouds are spitting fire, fuming, smoke from earth echoes the thunders and lighting from above. The war has intensified. Storms of dust follow the trajectory of the jet fighters pounding and launching bombs on the towns and surrounding villages. Flames blaze, rising from the rumbles, the magnitude of the destruction is so immense.
The ruins have replaced the old beautiful town and surrounding villages, turning them into ghost towns, a land of the dead, a paradise of wild animals and insects. Bodies are left to rot on the ruins, in open air; the lucky ones are dumped in shallow mass graves. The decay of the corpses has left a haunting odour no amount of fine perfume can eradicate.
Dogs, vultures, wild dogs and hyenas are all over the place feasting. The meat for ants, maggots, and insects is free and so abundant. The flies have found a breeding ground like never before.
Two months have passed since the war began and no ceasefire has been declared. What next? Next is tomorrow, tomorrow is a mystery, tomorrow is where God resides. Two weeks ago, we left the town of Musumba, our residential sanctuary. We are on the run, on a journey into the unknown destination, an unknown but hopefully safe place.
We move every day from one location to another. We cross hundreds of streams, pass villages and go through the wild forest. The group is shrinking day by day. Some comrades have given up and turned back to join the army of liberation of Katanga, some are lost in the jungle, some are dead; the mines, the shells and stray bullets are killing many more. We don’t stop to mourn. Let the dead bury the dead.
Hunger, lack of clean drinking water, malaria, meningitis outbreak, insects, scorpions, snake bites and poisonous thorns are ending the lives of many more. Death has many stings in its arsenal. A navy blue lady bag with a long strap, a gift from my cousin Genevieve on my confirmation day, is my treasure. A Bible, a note book, a pen, my family photo and my rebel card or pass are my only belongings. Same dress, a pair of shorts, a jersey, and a wrapper are the clothes on my body for months. The black sneakers on my feet are torn, but they keep me going. Limping from the injury I sustained on my left foot, I find myself tracking always at the end of the queue.
I wish for a quick death, rather than a long perilous journey into the unknown. The lice are not invited, but they become my hosts. There are ticks on my toes, and tropical bugs find a nest in my clothing, hair and body. My entire body is covered with scabies, my nails are sharp, hard, long and dirty, but I need them for many chores and for my survival.
For three days the rain pours, and the downfall turns pathways into streams and rivers. In one place the current is so strong it sweeps away a group of children. We find refuge in the rubble and ruins of an old school. Soaking wet, weak, cold, shivering, hungry, bruised and thirsty we manage to make a shelter with wood and pieces of iron sheets left from the aerial destructions.
‘People of God you must quit this place now. Run as fast as your legs can carry you.’ In his white garment, with beads around his neck and wrists, charms over his body, a hat of leopard skin on his head, we see that it is a traditional healer who warns us. ‘I overheard an informant telling the soldiers that the mutineers of the army of liberation, a group of thirty to forty people, have found refuge in the school. They are traitors, friends of the government,’ he says. ‘Don’t follow the stream, they will catch you, turn left and go straight wherever your ancestors lead you.’
Before the old man ends his sentence, we continue on the run, moving so quickly. The sun had set down. We keep moving in the dark until we are told by the leaders and the elders to stop and find a shelter nearby in the cassava farm. We are welcome to rest, to be quiet and to spend the night in the field.
We camp in the cassava fields. A fire is lit, and we warm our bodies and dry our clothes. The cassava trees are uprooted to keep the fire burning until dawn. Smoke engulfs us, we smell it, breath it and inhale it like never.
‘Abominations, sacrilege, taboo, unthinkable, confusion, curse − this is a cemetery,’ someone cries out. ‘Where is the cassava field?’
‘God of spirit have mercy! What have we done?’
No word can be uttered, no amount of ‘sorry’ and ‘forgive us’ can appease the act of such abomination. We have defiled the resting place of the spirits, the dead and the land of our ancestors.
We run like mad people. But before leaving the cemetery, the elders stop us.
‘No one steps out from this place. Come down, we have wronged the dead, disturbed the spirit and committed abominations.’
The elders and the leaders plead with the spirits on behalf of everyone who spent the night in the cemetery and made a fire with crosses.
Money and valuable items are deposited on the places where the fires were lit. The traditional healer and high priest are called to come and appease the spirits and cleanse us from evil and curses. They perform rituals and ceremonies. Then they tell us to leave the place, not to look back, to head towards the east and to bathe in the stream nearby.
On that fateful night, I spent time among the dead, in the land of spirits, the sanctuary of ghosts, I was running from death, but that night I sat side by side with the dead. I shared their tombs, resting place, but death showed mercy on me. The gates of death were closed and telling me in a language of the dead: It is not your time.
Your time will come. It is a mystery, said death to me. What is next in this journey into the unknown? Next is tomorrow, tomorrow is a mystery, tomorrow is where God dwells.
Charlotte, it is not your time. Go and sprout like a sweet potato.