Saturday, February 20, 2010


Paul Reidy

He turned to look squarely at me. I thought for a brief moment from the look in his eyes that he was challenging my authority and a wave of embarrassment passed over me. I showed him nothing though – I had long learned how to disguise such emotion from Silas. I felt ashamed nonetheless at the carelessness and throw-away nature of my remark when he was so confused and frightened that day, as they all were.

‘And why do you think we’re leaving, Mister Paul? Do you think we want to cross that border, to be killed, or even worse imprisoned? Where have you been this last while?’
‘I’m sorry, Silas,’ I replied. ‘I was just thinking aloud.’

I couldn’t be sure, but it looked like he shook his head at me. This was so unlike the Silas I had grown to know so well. I hoped he didn’t think too poorly of me after all this time. Not now. I wanted so desperately for us to part on a level of mutual respect, at least professionally if not personally.

He took his usual seat behind his desk in our Camp HQ, and stared at me in silence for some time, not unkindly, but uncomfortably. His face was drawn, lined, and stressed. He was clearly exhausted.
‘Sit down, Mister Paul, please!’ he said at last. ‘I have a parting gift for you.’

Outside the long day was coming to an end. The half light crept quickly over Ngara. Fifteen minutes of twilight was all the time we had left. It was Christmas week and somewhere in the distance were groups of people chatting loudly, perhaps downing the last of their banana beer in some futile effort to dull their senses. And then that solo voice rose above the din, a female one singing Usiku Kimya – Silent Night. It was at once the most beautiful and saddest sound I had ever heard.

‘We’ve worked together for how long now, Mister Paul?’
‘Three months. Well, closer to four.’
‘Ah, yes.’ he said. ‘Four months. Four good months. We worked well together, you and me. We had some good times, yes?’
‘Sure, Silas. Yes.’
‘And you know that tomorrow I am going to die.’
‘Going to die, Silas?’ I said in outrage. ‘That’s ridiculous! Stop thinking that way. You’re not going to die. Just explain to them that you’re innocent; that you had nothing to do with any of it. I’ll write you a reference letter for God’s sake. I’ll tell them.’
My voice had begun to rise and my cheeks were hot. But as I spoke Silas just sat quietly, with a sad smile upon his lips. He knew something I clearly did not.

He opened the bottom drawer of his desk and removed a sealed envelope with my name written neatly upon it.
‘Open it when I’m gone,’ he said. ‘Promise me to wait until then.’
‘You’ll be fine, Silas. Things will work out, you’ll see.’
‘Promise me!’ he urged.
‘Okay, I promise,’ I said. ‘I promise.’
We shook hands as we had done that first day when he had stood at the foot of the steps of the ten-seater plane that had brought me from Mwanza to a machete-cleared strip of runway on the Tanzania-Rwanda border.
‘Mr Paul, I presume,’ he had said. ‘I’m Silas, Camp Manager of Lumasi Refugee Camp. I am here to help.’
I was soon to realise that he was a man of his word.

We waited for three days in the safety of our expatriate compound, nine kilometres from the Rwandan border as the Tanzanian army moved into Lumasi. We had expected to hear much shooting in the distance over our Christmas turkey dinner which had been flown in from Dublin to make us all feel a little less homesick. With half a million or so reluctant refugees on the move again, the silence was eerie.

By St Stephen’s Day, the job was successfully completed. I remember that it was a particularly beautiful morning, the sun still low enough in the sky to throw shadows of the few remaining trees on the red clay. There were twenty or so of us, volunteers from the remaining organisations, a search party, standing in a line to sweep the camp, sector by sector, checking every individual mud hut to see if any vulnerable persons had been left behind in the furore of the sudden exodus. Who needed the old and infirm to slow them down under such circumstances? No one knew what lay across the border.
Some of my expatriate colleagues that day had reported standing at the roadside on Christmas Eve, watching them move down the surrounding hills like colonies of ants. It was true that there was hardly a sound to be heard but the heavy tramping of feet. Sacks of their belongings were held above their heads with smiling children skipping and waving to their munzugu (or white man) spectators. As they spoke, I could think of little else but Silas and his young family, praying they had made it home alive.

We began to scour the huts in groups along designated routes, one by one. It had not occurred to me before how little I had truly known of this camp that I had managed for so long now it seemed. It looked different. Some of the huts were hidden away behind bigger ones. Some were so large they had a number of rooms and an internal pit-latrine or two. In the market square – an open clearing close to one of the Food Distribution Centres – were barber and tailor shops, restaurants and bars. It was a small functioning city like any other, and all abandoned in a matter of days. It painted a lonely picture.

Then near Buffalo Crossing – an intersection that saw a poor, confused buffalo approach one day, unprepared for the hungry excited chase that ensued and the animal’s ultimate capture and clubbing to death, some time before my arrival – I found Silas’s hut. I had only been there once before, but I recognised it instantly. It was what I had come to find.
I entered, having to bend low so as not to strike my head off the low frame. At first it was like any other inside – humid, bare but for some straw mats, with a leftover tin cup or two. But when my eyes adjusted to the scene, I noticed that there in the corner of the room were flimsy Christmas decorations made from bits of discarded cardboard and paper from the boxes and tins that we had so often distributed to the camp population. He had been taking them home with him habitually after work, something I had noticed but never bothered to question him about. Now, as I stood in the house that he had occupied for two and a half years, a house where his wife had given birth to twins, I saw him working late at night in the dark, in the painful build-up to Christmas, to bring some sense of normality, some sense of hope perhaps, to the madness of his situation.

I instantly remembered the promise I had made him, and removing the envelope from my pocket, I tore it open there and then. It was a photograph, taken shortly after my arrival to Lumasi, of Silas and me, lifting a sack of maize on to the back of a truck. We were laughing for some reason – I can’t recall why. On the back he had written the following message:
To my very good friend, Mister Paul –
Joyeux Noël and a Merry Christmas.
May God bless you and your family always.
Ngara 1996.

I read it a number of times and cried unashamedly. Never before in my life had I felt so far away from home.

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