The splash of cold water stung my face. My eyelids fluttered open in shock, and I gasped for air. I don’t know how long I was out, but I was lying on the floor and my left hand had been bandaged. The masked man was back. He stared down at me, arms folded behind him.
“My friend, are you ready to continue our discussion?”
“Sir, please, I’ve told you the truth.”
“And maybe I believe you”
He tossed a bundle of clothes on the floor, and left the room. The men barked orders at me as they stripped me of my own clothing. I smelled like a goat. One of them disappeared into a corner of the room and returned holding a bucket of water. The cold water stung me like a thousand needles. I washed what I could but I knew I would not be clean. Hastily, I put on my new clothes. A bag was dropped over my head. I heard the door open, and I was led out once again.
We drove longer this time. At a point I felt like throwing up. I was hungry, and my body shook with fatigue, but I was afraid that if I closed my eyes, they would never see sunlight again. The length of our travel and the uncertainty of our destination reminded me of life itself. We all start our journey but none of us truly knows how or where it will end. All we can do is be grateful. And hopeful.
My lips were parched and I thought wryly that the stench of my breath was a weapon in itself – should the need arise. The weather had changed from scourging heat to soothing coolness. I could even feel a light wind blowing around me. And then the truck stopped.
When my hood was removed I found myself staring at the most beautiful constellation of stars I had ever seen in the night sky.
“Move!” a guard shoved me with his gun.
I suddenly realized that we were in the forest. As we trudged through, I tried once more to glance at the stars, but the canopy of green blocked my view. I could hear noises, sounds, and something like music coming from deep within the forest. It grew louder with every step, until finally, we arrived at a large clearing.
I stared at a gathering of men seated around a large campfire, singing what must have been old folk songs in a dialect I could not decipher. They were drinking heartily from large gourds. They looked very much like a party of local hunters, but then I saw their firearms and quickly reviewed that impression. The men didn’t seem to notice as we passed by. Or maybe they did, as occasionally one or two of them would shoot sporadically into the air, and the others would cheer wildly. I just kept praying that I shouldn’t be hit by a stray bullet.
I was led to a tent at the other end of clearing. Within it, there was a man seated behind a large table piled high with papers and a couple of laptops. Honestly I was shocked. He looked up from poring over some document and smiled cheerfully.
“I’ll be with you in a minute.”
He sounded just like one of those banking executives and even more surprising was that his fluent English bore traces of a distinct British accent. My mind raced through the online video messages from the terrorists – their leader surrounded by guards, looking aged and scruffy, with bitterness in his eyes as he promised vengeance. This man and that image did not match. He was handsome, neatly dressed in a black flowing kaftan, spotting a well-trimmed goatee. About him was the aura of a king, the kind of power that came from wealth and fear. A guard walked into the tent and with unmistakable reverence picked up the documents and laptop in front of his master and quietly left the tent.
“So, you are the reporter who seeks the teacher.”
Lean fingers stroked his beard thoughtfully.
“I must say, your arrival is indeed fortunate, as we have just dealt a blow to the capital. My men are celebrating.”
“H…how? When did this…happen?” I couldn’t help the stutter.
The man looked at me. He smiled and shook his head sadly.
“My men advise that I execute you.” He paused momentarily. “But I want to understand if you’re bravely foolish or just foolishly brave”
“You speak English very well” I blurted.
“Thank you” he smiled. “I went to a good school.”
“But don’t you and your people hate western education?”
“Everyone hates western education, the only difference between us and you, is that we express how we feel.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Take yourself for example. All your years of schooling led you to become what? Someone’s errand boy? Living off a salary that is by no means equal to your worth. Would you say that’s fair?”
“But you just said you went to a good school?”
“I did. But my education truly began after I left school, just like you. Wouldn’t you agree?”
“Then why do all of this? The bombings, the kidnaps; these are murders!”
Again he smiled.
“Think of this as a business. For a business to remain relevant, it has to keep sending new products into the market. I’m an entrepreneur.”
“And fear is your product?”
“Exactly. And the profit is power. The more fear I create, the more power I have. Doesn’t the mere mention of our name strike fear in your hearts?”
“So, is that what this is about? And at the cost of so many lives? This has nothing to do with religion. It’s sounding more like politics.”
“Hmmm. Did your Aristotle not say that man is first and foremost a political animal by nature? We are not the problem. We’re only a symptom. One of many. The disease that plagues this country is one you people are not ready to cure.”
“And what is this disease?”
“First look in the mirror and tell me what you see. A westerner, a southerner, an easterner or a northerner? Each of you selfishly strives to be above everyone else and I simply exploit that to achieve my own ends. And the end does justify the means.”
“Why are you talking so freely with me?”
“Because no one will believe you. If you print this, you will be ridiculed. Your entire journey up to this point will be brushed aside as the wild imaginings of a washed-up journalist. I have nothing to lose.”
“Then why not just release me?”
“Because there is still a lot you have to learn.” He nodded slightly towards the tent entrance and one of the guards came forward.
“Take him to the square.”
I was seized and roughly pulled out of the tent. All the while, he just smiled.
The square was another clearing shaped exactly like a square. The place was crowded with cheering men through whom I was pushed and shoved until I fell to the ground at the centre. There was a sudden burst of wild cheers. Something about it reminded me of a boxing ring. I looked around at the faces I could see. They looked happy, in a malicious sort of way. A young boy no more than sixteen jumped into the centre with me. He removed his shirt to louder cheering. Mine was torn off me. Just then, the man from the tent appeared through a path in the crowd.
“I would advise you don’t stay down too long. Otherwise, they will beat you to death.”
He turned and left through the parting crowd.
I turned to face my young opponent. There was a referee – an old man. He blew a whistle and what should have been a fight started. This young boy lifted me up in the air and slammed me to the ground more than six times. Believe me, I fought back. But every time I got up, I found myself once more lying in the dirt. Then things got much worse. I couldn’t pick myself up, and I experienced the fury of my fans. I was flogged, kicked, and punched by more hands and feet than I could imagine, all to the cheering of the roaring crowd. Then I was tossed about from one to the other like a ragged doll to still more beatings until finally I collapsed.
Someone splashed water on my face. I came to, on my knees, facing a camera, and two powerful strobe light banks. I was handed a paper.
I read .
The lights went off and I passed out.
I opened my eyes and saw the man from the tent looking at me. He smiled and then moved out of view. Two armed men propped me up and I realised I was in a tent and there was food in front of me. I suddenly felt such hunger that I failed to notice anything else. I devoured everything.
I was again dragged through the forest and dumped on one side of a narrow but very deep hole in the ground – a little larger than your regular grave pit. The man from the tent, was on the other side. He had a small army of guards with him, and there was a man kneeling at his feet, bruised and bloodied.
“Everything has a price.” He spoke sombrely
“If you want your freedom you must pay the price.”
“What is the price?” I asked this staring at the man kneeling, dreading the answer I already knew.
He tossed a handgun towards me “kill him and you can go home”.
“What? No!” I gasped
“Then you will die instead, for disobeying.” The smiley faced executive was gone and I was face to face with the monster.
“Please, I cannot kill this man.”
“I see.” He sighed
One of his men picked up the gun and tossed it into the ditch.
Now, he spoke to the man kneeling. “If you kill this man, you will be forgiven.”
The man only glanced at me, blood dripping from a deep gash in his forehead. Hope. It was clear in his eyes. With a sharp cry he lunged into the ditch, and I jumped in after him. We struggled to cheering and laughter from above. I can still remember the moment I got the gun. I fired twice without hesitation, and then I watched him die.
A life for a life.
I sat there crying, while the men above cheered my victory. They pulled me out of the ditch and the man from the tent stepped forward.
“Everything has a price my friend, but you never know the value until it’s over. You wanted a story and I have given you one. I hope it was worth it?”
“No” I whispered.
“I understand.” His reply was almost kind. “This is where we part. Follow this path, and you will find a military checkpoint ahead. Tell them you escaped. Remember this, if you try you will not find us, but we will find you.”
I could feel them watching as I ran down the path. They fired a few shots, but when I looked back, they were no longer there. It seemed like the forest had swallowed them. I kept running, not knowing whether it was day or night, and finally I saw them – soldiers.
That was six months ago. The insurgents loaded the video of me onto the internet. I had become the famous reporter held captive for three weeks and news of my escape made me a hero. I was interviewed by all and sundry. The government agencies complained that I told them nothing of value. This was because I had nothing of value to them. I received invitations to speak at seminars on security issues. The Teacher had made me. And then one night he found me.
I remember the raw fear I felt when I ran into him during an exclusive national summit at the capital.
“Good Evening, old friend. His smile was the same. My legs were shaking beneath me. I wanted to edge away but I felt familiar strong hands grip my arm from behind.
“What do you want?”
“Nothing. I just came to congratulate you. You’re now famous.”
“Thank you.” My voice was barely more than a croaked whisper.
“Still, you never met the teacher? Are you sure you wouldn’t want to meet him? That was your mission, wasn’t it?”
“Er….no please. I’m glad I met you instead.”
“Really? But I’m just one of his students.” He smiled again. “The Teacher will be disappointed, but I’ll communicate your apology.”
The strong hands relaxed a little on my arm.
“Well, the next time we meet, it’ll be your turn to return the favour.”
I stood still while he strode past me, not daring to turn around even to catch a glimpse of the man with the strong hands.
That was exactly an hour ago.
Right here, right now, in a hotel room five floors higher than any other in the capital, my fingers are typing this into my laptop while I shake with trepidation, expecting them at any moment to come barging in to take me once more.