June 28, 2005

Almost War

We were out in Lake Karimba, the north shore a ragged dark line of bush perhaps two miles away, the Rhodian shore lost in the haze to the south. Warm blue and slightly smelly with drifting clumps of water hyacinth, the lake was new enough that the crocs and hippos were still establishing their yearly routines and dead trees stood on drowned hills, perches for fish eagles . We were using a government boat to get to areas of the north shore with no easy land accesss, doing a soil survey for the Zabian Ministry of Agriculture , traveling at ease in one of those well -used boats with a chugging engine and a nice shady canvas roof - if you ever saw Hepburn and Bogie in The African Queen you have some idea of what she was like . This one was maybe 25 ft with a shallow draught and about 3 ft of hull above the water, room for 6 of us with tents and gear for a week - stopping each evening at a chosen spot and going inland taking samples early each morning before the December heat set in. I was there for the fishing, a lazy extra taken along as a favour to my stepfather , bored in the city and occupied with those teen boy perennials eating, sleeping and grumbling, convinced the world would resolve into perfect harmony if everyone did things my way. South of the lake Mr Seth and his supporters were in a stand-off with the British, wanting to maintain their hold on things without all that nasty one man one vote stuff, and sporadic land mining and burnings, imprisonments and speeches were a daily background grumble. When we drove south to visit Aunt Boom in Salbury thered be roadblocks and armed men everywhere, it was always a relief to get back north where things were definitely more casual .
Over our horizon a tiny aluminum boat appeared, outboard motor screaming and bow high, two guys crouching together in the stern. Suddenly with these sweating desparate guys casual had gone flying; both were wearing dirty camouflage and dry blood, the one handling the motor with jerky speed, the other lost in a world of pain, clutching his right arm in a soggy dark shirtsleeve. -- ” Help, my friend needs help “ -- the steerer burst out as they hauled up along side our starboard -- north -- side. “ We only have a small first aid kit with us “ answered Andy, who was running things. “ Youre better off heading straight on for Siavonga, theres a clinic with a nurse there.”
“ No no man, they’re right behind us , you know hot pursuit man. They’re gonna shoot us on the water. You have to help “
“ But what can we do? We’re just with the Ministry of Agriculture, I suppose we can tell them this is Zabia and they should go home, but they will probably do whatever they want anyway. We dont have any weapons or anything, we arent involved in your quarrel. You guys , what have you been doing anyway, how do we know you arent just murderers or something, running from the police ? Ok we’ll just talk to them and see what they have to say, they cant just shoot you, they’ll take you to prison, arrest you and take you back.” Andy was indignant, fuming at this intrusion into the morning , ten am and alrready a steamy 110 out on the water, at least another 2 hours travel to the next planned landing at a small new village of Tonga people from down in the drowned river valley.
With an authoritative roar a speeding black rubber Zodiac packed with men, all khaki shorts , bristling beards and weapons arrived to put an end to indecision. “ Hey you guys see a couple of terrorists, we’ re after the bastards for two days now , theres only a couple left from the band, we got the others yesterday, they been laying fucking mines all over” shouted one with a slightly cleaner shirt “ We are Rhodian Government anti terrorist action forces and we’ve been tracking the bastards down “
While we gaped in heat - fuddled astonishment at these new arrivals we suddenly realised that we were right in the middle of a real live shooting war. Our first guests were now ducking down below the level of our north side while their hunters were pulling up to our south , as yet unaware of just how close their quarry was.
Until there came a yell “ Back off or you’ll get it , I’ ll throw this, if you shoot me it’ll go off and blow us all away “ from the first guy, who was now brandishing something black and sinister looking in his hand - a grenade held up for all to see .
Everything froze into slow motion, the background fell out of focus, all attention centred on the weapons and their wielders, nobody moved or remembered to breathe; as the zodiac drifted up and bumped against our side. All anybody wanted to do was get out alive, the best thing to do seemed to be dont move , dont set anything off, dont start the showdown yet, let’s get out of here. With a swift sure movement Andy broke the impasse, by grabbing the AK47 from the hands of the black-bearded guy in the bow of the Zodiac. He pointed it down and ordered “ Right then, this is Zabia here and we are Zabian Government officers on Government business, you people have no right involving us in your war or even to be here. Get back to your own country and fight your bloody war there, leave us alone. You can start by throwing all those guns overboard and then leave, get out of here. Do it now or I’ll shoot a few holes in your boat and you can swim back”
Reluctantly they accepted the situation, “ What happens if we throw our weapons away, you going to take us into Zabia or hand us to the terrorists ?” asked the officer
“ You can go right back where you came from “ answered Andy “ We just want you out of here, let us go on with our business and let these guys go their way. If they go back into your country you can chase after them all you want, but this isnt your place, this is our country here . We will see these guys are safe and will just go their way. Now do as I say, get rid of all those guns.
“ Okay then , men just drop them in the drink, and lets get out of here” ordered the officer. With a sudden bustle of movement the impasse was broken as the guns splashed over the side into the lake. “ Right, now we’re leaving - lets go , hit it Jim “ he ordered. With a roar their idling outboard revved up and the bow lifted as they turned and accelerated away, bouncing over the low waves.
Our other guests were overjoyed at this turn of events and whistled and laughed as they watched their pursuers turn and run . “Go on then , run you bastards , run before I throw this “ yelled the grenade wielder redundantly , then seemingly disappointed at losing his chance at martyrdom turned to us and yelled “ Your in with them , why did you let them go, we could have given them a fair trial and shot them like they deserve. We had them and you let them go “
Exasperated Andy growled “ You didnt have anything but a standoff , with a pretty good chance of being blown away, those guys would have shot you if youd thrown that thing and they probably would have tried to get you before you could throw it. We are all very lucky to come out still breathing. Now just get rid of the bloody thing and take your friend ashore, he needs to be seen to and all we have out here are band- aids, the nurse at the Siavonga clinic there knows what shes doing.” As he spoke he swung the gun he still held and pointed it right at the grenade man “ Come on man be sensible , we arent your enemies, the Zabian government lets you guys stay here because they sympathise with your cause, but we arent in your war, we are just trying to get on with our own business .”
The wounded man reached to his friend and grabbed him by the arm , whispering something in an urgent hiss which produced first a scowl and then a shrug as his protector listened intently, eyes on us, daring anyone to try something. Then finally with a great swing of the arm the grenade went flying over the lake to produce a dull thump and a dirty roil of weeds and water as it finally exploded. “ All right then Andy” I yelled , “ You sorted that lot out -- Hey good luck you guys “ as the dinghy swung away towards the shore . Everyone on board except Andy had been lying or crouching down , trying to be as small and inconspicuous as possible, and now we all stood up and remembered to breathe again.
“ Good thing I met all those guys a couple of weeks ago in a bar in Salbury “ grunted Andy, “ They recognised me and knew I ‘m honest and neutral in this whole business, we spent hours arguing with them trying to convince me they had a just war - of course theres no such thing . The other guys know me too , I took a baby to the clinic last month , gave the mother a lift; I think the wounded one there is the father, he recognised me too. Small world hey ?” He turned and casually dropped the gun over the side “ Good riddance to that ; come on now, lets get going “

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