Somewhere in Eastern Nigeria, 16th of June, 1968
I avoided looking at the dead man’s face even as I approached. My intention was to quickly search the body for weapons and ammunition. I wasn’t particularly picky, even a knife would do at the moment. Guilt scratched at the back of my mind, preaching a sentimental sermon about not stealing from the dead. Bah. All is fair in war. Besides, this particular dead was an enemy soldier—the ugly green shade of his uniform was proof enough. I did a quick pat-down his legs and came up with a half-empty pack of cigarettes. I pocketed it and continued my search. A dark splotch at the side of his torso drew my attention. It did not look like the wound was what brought him down; the blood loss appeared too minima—
The dead man jerked.
I snatched my hands away, staring in shock at a face I recognised. Dauda. I stumbled a few feet back, fear and disbelief stealing my ability to act sharp.
I should have run when I saw Dauda rise to his feet, his tall frame casting a shadow over me. I should have flung my empty rifle and escaped when I saw the flash of recognition in his eyes. My God, he remembered. But my pride, that stupid cog in the wheel of rational reasoning, made me look into his eyes and point my rifle—yes, my empty rifle—in his direction.
As I write this, I shake my head at my profound stupidity. Nothing scared Dauda, especially not a five-foot Biafran soldier pointing a gun that trembled like a leaf in the wind.
Dauda’s eyes shifted from the barrel to my eyes. I’m not sure what he was looking for but at that moment, a foolish kind of boldness overrode my senses. I made up my mind to fight him to the bitter end. The enmity between us reached far beyond the Civil war. My hate was much deeper than tribe, much broader than religion. He knew it. I knew it.
“Chicken shit,” he spat in Hausa.
I didn’t reply. My rifle remained, anger and fear making it tremble in my grip.
“Why don’t you shoot?” He cocked his head, dark eyes sizing me up, staring as if I were already a dead man.
“I will kill you today,” I said in Igbo. Why didn’t I say the words in his language? Was that even a question? Even in the midst of my idiotic boldness, a fierce sense of self-preservation still burned bright. I wanted him dead and not the other way round.
The key was to know where to hit. Dauda was the largest man I had ever seen and that made it impossible to forget that night. I gave my head a quick shake, discarding the memory that was ever so near to my heart—a dagger that never stopped piercing.
“Chicken shit that cannot say the words to my face,” he snarled, the skin between his nose and eyes squeezing. Ah, he was ugly.
It was early afternoon in the bush. I do not know how he ended up sitting at the base of that tree, wounded and so far away from his men, but I knew how I ended up there. Being the only survivor of my regiment had cut my morale to small cowardly pieces. In one day, we were levelled. Men I knew and respected, blown to bits or gunned down in rapid-fire attacks. Chai. It was madness—a hellish madness I knew would worsen the nightmares I already suffered whenever I shut my eyes in sleep.
“Your wife. I never forgot her; should have severed her pretty head from her neck.” He cracked his knuckles, all the while watching me like I was prey and he, the predator.
The memories pressed in. Her screams had seemed unending at some point.
“And I found you, didn’t I?” I asked, hating that I had to speak his language for him to fully understand me. “How have you healed?” I glanced at his crotch and smirked.
I had planned my retaliation well. When he brutalized my wife along with his ragtag local champions with me as an audience, I had sworn to retaliate. It had been hard, to watch Nwakaego cry for weeks on end, her wounds, how she pleaded with me not to do anything foolish, that we could not be bold in the land of strangers, how I should cover her shame. Her shame? Ha. What she didn’t know was her words fanned my rage instead of placating it. All it took was careful planning and a few willing accomplices. We left Kano never to return that same night. If I knew I would face Dauda four years later, I wouldn’t have stopped at just castrating him.
“I go chop your father. You dey hear me? I go chop your father.” He threatened in heavily accented pidgin English. The promise was stark in his gaze; he intended to kill me. This was no David and Goliath story. I was about to be ground to dust, but shame be on me and Nwakaego if I take it like a spineless sap.
“All the charms I swallowed to fight for my country…” Dauda took a step forward; I took three back “…I will finish them on your head.”
“Why didn’t you swallow a charm to give you back your scrotum?” I spat the words with all the derision I could pump in.
When Dauda charged at me, it was like the ground heaved with each fall of his feet. I barely managed to grab on the barrel of my rifle and swing. The weapon connected with his jaw with a satisfying crack. He stumbled to the side, flailing his arms about like he was struck with sudden blindness. Good.
When he straightened, he slowly brought a hand to his mouth. Blood trickled down the corner of his lips and when his fingers swiped over it, the man roared. I do not know how he did it, but I can swear that was the sound that came out of him. In his rage, he looked like a beast. His broad neck was corded with strain, and visible veins webbed across his temples and bald head. The way he stared at me, it was like a fire was about to burst out of his bloodshot eyes and incinerate me on the spot.
I gave my shot at Goliath but he did not come tumbling down. It was time to flee. Judging from the cool temperature of the place, I guessed there had to be a river or stream close by. I was an excellent swimmer—The Eel was what they nicknamed me. If I dive in before he reaches me, I would drown him if he thought to come for a swim, too.
The foliage around was thick but I slapped past it. Branches tore at my face, snagged my uniform, and made running a herculean task. And the trees, too, I nearly slammed against one but I was fast enough to draw myself to a stop. Panting hard, I took my left and ran blind. That was my first mistake. I wasn’t observant enough to notice the bushes were beginning to thin out and the trees growing smaller and fewer. I had run myself to the edge of a slope, barely managing to save myself at the last moment. I glanced down and drew back immediately, shaking my head.
Just then, there was a crashing of feet behind me. How had he located me so fast? A less rational part of me began to consider his charm actually worked. I looked down again and shuddered. The distance was not too great, throwing myself over shouldn’t be that difficult. But my body wasn’t in tune with my mind; my body—the treacherous thing—froze on me.
Dauda crashed into me, sending both of us tumbling down. Stars dotted my vision as my face hit the ground; the ensuing pain was explosive enough to steal a yell from me. I gritted my teeth; the taste of blood and earth filled my mouth as I fought but failed to break my descent. I hit the base of the slope with my back and before I could catch my breath, he was upon me like a raging ape. We slid in the mud and every punch delivered was accompanied by a wet smack. He landed more punches, one even got me in the left eye. It was agony. I wanted to beg for mercy but my jaw. God, the pain. Another punch to the gut and I peed a little.
The mud helped when I slipped from under him, but Dauda—like a bloody dog with a bone—came after me. He wiggled like a worm, snatched and pulled my leg. My foot slammed into his face, my boot leaving a muddy imprint and a bleeding nose behind. But he still came at me. The animal.
I managed to give him a few good hits but the beast hardly responded—a dull grunt and he was coming right back, delivering blows that made me want to wail. At a point, I remembered the wound at his torso and I aimed for it. Two sharp blows to the spot got the desired effect. He groaned and rolled off me, hands pressing against his side.
My exhaustion wouldn’t let me rise to my feet as quickly as I wished, so I panted, drawing in huge gulps of air as I braced my palm on my knee and drew myself up. Dauda still clutched his wounded torso, face contorted in agony.
“I looked for you all these years,” he said between harsh breaths. When he straightened, he brought his bloody palm to his lips and licked the blood off it. “Fate brought you to me and I would not reject her offering. You cut me like a cow. I swear to cut you, too.”
There was no strength in me to indulge the mad man. So, I turned and ran like a drunk in the direction I hoped the river was.
One second I was stumbling farther away and the next my eyes glimpsed the sign nailed to a tall palm tree. I squinted. It was two dyed planks forming an ‘X’. Quicksand area. Skidding to a halt, I had barely glanced around when Dauda lunged straight at me. It was a thing of luck, really. Just as I stepped out of the way, he breezed past, stumbled, and dived headfirst into the murky trap. There was no way I would have known what lay beneath the calm muddy surface. By God, I was deeply thankful for Dauda’s selfless sacrifice.
Sighing, I sat opposite my sinking enemy and fished out a stick of cigarette from the very pack I stole from him. I lit it and took a long drag. I was in a fine mood to be entertained. Of all the ways to fall into quicksand, Dauda had to go in with the head. I had never loved Fate more than I did at that moment.
All the while he struggled, I watched and never tore my eyes away. I took in every moment like the finest Scotch whisky. When the memories of her screams filled my mind, I embraced it and wiped a stray tear.
“My wife… you are being avenged,” I murmured.
He fought and fought and fought, legs kicking about and body wiggling. Ah, the shame.
I made sure to finish my—his cigarette, toss the butt at his feet, and blow a cloud of smoke to the heavens before I stood. His body had finally stilled in death and with the knowledge came a bone-melting kind of relief. I allowed myself a slow, genuine smile for the first time in a long time then looked around—every colour looked brighter, even the air smelled fresher.
Today was a good day to kill an enemy.