Although the Liberian war is now over, I cannot wish away the memories. There are nights in my sleep when I still find myself dressed in army uniform, AK-47 ready. On these nights I hear the voices of parents calling their children; others joking, shouting: “Where’s your bunker?” The air cracks and I hear the sounds of diving jets and stuttering LMGs. Fire, blood, bullets and bodies everywhere. Things soon simmer to normal as danger passes. People fill the streets, young boys and girls going on various errands. Then he appears in a blood-stained enemy uniform. His oily dark face is teased with abandon. He’s about to aim his rifle at me. In my dreams, he dies in different ways. I’m his killer. Something tells me that he is my son. But I’m too afraid to believe it.
“Daddy, that’s the toy section!”
I manage to smile. “Go on, make your choice. I’ll wait right here.”
My son’s gait is a proud and happy one as he follows one of the shop attendants.
I was the one to survive, not my fellow comrade and best friend, Silas. I think of his family and friends that he left behind. I can only hope that I won’t be called back into action any time soon. The fiery cover of a magazine on the counter grabs my attention and brings me back to July, 2003.
There is no way to communicate with the rest of our platoon. The only option left is to return to base, west of Monrovia. We are barely a meter away from a shelled restaurant when a bullet zings past us. It’s obvious that our enemy is a splinter group with the RUF. Silas returns fire, I quickly take cover. Bullets rain in all directions. Concrete walls and glasses fall recklessly. I fire, ripping off a few arms and heads. Defeated, the last of our enemy limps away and out of view. Silas wants to go after them. I hold him down.
We make our way down narrow streets, pass people staring hauntingly through open windows. Tattered pieces of clothes are hanging on the lines above us. Fresh bloodstains on the walls and destroyed vehicles suggest a recent shootout. This is no sign of relief. I’m about to flip my map open when a shrill cry pierces the air. Silas and I make eye contact; we agree to move after fifteen seconds. Deep down, a new fear confronts me: what if the cry is a signal for some other militia in the area? We scurry off the main pass, find refuge behind an enormous boulder and wait.
No noise. Not even the sound of birds.
We crouch around bullet-ridden buildings and try to avoid the morning sun, lest our shadows give us away. We walk five steps, stop, and then repeat the pattern. The front of a hotel comes into view. Choice point, none of the options are good.
We scan our sides and agree on heading into the building. Just when I thought that stealth had kept us safe, I hear a loud blast. I flatten my back against the wall. Shortly after, I can see Silas’ hand jerking, trying to reach for his weapon.
“Shoot you blaady Nigeria sojah!”
I open fire. A skinny figure crashes into the wall. I hurry over to Silas’ side. As I go down on one knee and hold his hand firmly, he says, “He…a…boy.”
I’m shocked, confused. Indeed our enemy is just a boy who is now looking at me with pitiful eyes, blood oozing from the sides of his body.
“Look!” My son shows me a toy gun. “This is the type of gun I saw in the Rambo movie. I want it.”
I shake my head. I hand the shop attendant the toy and say, “I need you to help Lex to find something else he could play with. I’m not paying for this.”
The young female is clearly baffled.
“But dad, you said I could have anything in the toy shop. You—”
In an attempt to calm my son, the cashier tries to coax him into taking another toy in the store. “No! I don’t want them,” he pouted.
I frown, then extend a hand to him. “Let’s go, then.”
Slowly he takes it and we walk out of the mini-mart. I try to convince myself that I did the right thing as we head toward the parking lot. Inside the car, Lex begins to sob quietly. He’s trying to fight back the tears. I start the engine and back the car into the street. Half way out, I’m attacked by pangs of regret. It weakens my hands on the wheel so I pull over.
Lex doesn’t respond. He doesn’t even look at me. I take a deep breath. “I want you to have that toy gun.”
“Really?” his face lights up like bright bulbs on a Christmas tree.
I nod and put the car in reverse.