The Heart Is Not Made of Bone—Krio Proverb
I was sent to Freetown, Sierra Leone by the Dallas Morning News to write a story on the nation’s recovery after its bloody civil war. One night I went to Paddy’s Bar and Chinese Restaurant. Paddy’s was a favorite haunt of Westerners and had a reputation for being a place where Africa met the world. The food was good, the drinks affordable, and usually the bar was crowded to capacity. I had made an appointment to meet with Father Ambrose, a priest whose mission and village in the northern district was overrun by RUF soldiers. I knew it would not be a pretty story—there were no pretty stories coming out of Sierra Leone—but I hoped it would give me insight into the soul and hearts of the nation’s people. My first question was: “What is the most important truth you’ve learned from your experience?” He sipped on his Scotch, then answered: “I learned that the heart is not made of bone.” Father Ambrose and I talked and drank long into the night. His bandaged right hand rested on the bar, a reminder of a night he and many others would never forget. Here is the story he gave me that I submitted to my editor. It was never published.
A Priest’s Tale: Machetes and Words
A writer I read somewhere said that if it weren’t for the AK 47’s they carried, the Zebra Small Boys Battalion would have appeared to be an African version of the Boy Scouts out for an afternoon stroll, dressed in a collage of fatigues and American T-shirts and jeans. Their hands and clothes were spotted and crusted with the blood of those newly slain or violated. The soldiers surrounded a small herd of captives like malignant spectres. A line of porters, even younger than the soldiers, trailed behind them, and they were loaded down with the looted goods of Kamakwie and Kamalu.
As the invaders entered the mission compound in the Northern District of Sierra Leone, Father Ambrose contemplated the scene. Many of the villagers were terrified. The screams, weeping, moans, and prayers blended together into a demented chorus, and the sounds of the choir’s grief and terror burned and burrowed into his soul.
In the eyes and faces of the soldiers, he recognized the signs of drug madness and bloodlust. He whispered to Sister Agnes, “Calm the villagers. Tell them they must stop the wailing. It will only feed the soldiers’ rage and frenzy. Find out what has happened in Kamalu. Minister to any wounded the best you can without attracting attention.”
“I will, father. May God help us,” Sister Agnes said. As she tended to the terrified villagers, the priest counted twenty boy-soldiers. Two older soldiers hung in the background. One was white, the other mulatto. The aloofness of the two older men suggested they were either mercenaries or senior RUF officers.
One of the boy soldiers sauntered to the truck and barked a command. All the soldiers dropped their prizes and snapped to attention. He spoke again and pointed, and a soldier set a wooden rocker upon a stack of wooden crates.
A teenager with a Machiavellian smile, he slowly scanned the eyes of villagers and the young soldiers. He clambered up the boxes and sat on the improvised throne, impatiently drumming his fingers on the chair’s arm. A soldier rolled a stump to a spot directly in front of the prisoners. The enthroned one spoke dramatically, as if he made an important speech.
Father Ambrose couldn’t understand the young boy-leader. He thought the dialect might be Mende. He stepped forward.
“I don’t understand you, my son,” he said. He addressed the two older soldiers. “Do any of you speak English? Or Temne? Is he your leader? Why does he not speak Krio?”
The white soldier held his hand up, palm toward the boy-leader and caught his attention. The white soldier motioned toward the priest and said in Krio, “The priest-man, he wants to know who you are and what you want. Can I tell him?”
“Tell him,” the boy said in English, and then continued speaking in the unknown tongue.
The white man stepped closer to the priest and translated: “The General prefers to address his audience in Mende. He understands some English, and Krio of course, but it makes him feel more important to be translated. God, these black buggers I work with are vain. I’ll tell you what he says, priest. He says, ‘I am General Share Blood.’ He greets you warmly. He says, ‘We are soldiers of the Revolutionary United Front. At Papa’s orders, we are here to liberate you from the corrupt government in Freetown. I have been told that you warn your Christians to not join Papa’s Army. Why? Is this a sign that you mean to betray us? You must learn you cannot show such disrespect.’ ”
General Share Blood pointed to two Kamalu boys.
The white soldier left the priest and yanked two boys away from their parents. Father Ambrose thought that neither boy could be over ten years of age. The white soldier cocked his AK 47 and thrust it into one boy’s hands, pointed to the other who was less than five feet away, and said, “Kill him.”
The victim pleaded, “Please, I know you. Do not kill me!”
The mercenary slapped the boy’s head. “Do it now!”
The boy pulled the trigger.
“That’s a good soldier. Gud pikin.” The white soldier snatched his rifle from the boy’s trembling hands and shoved him toward the other soldiers. “Sit down.”
Father Ambrose bowed his head and prayed for murdered and murderer. This action had forever separated the young boy from the village of Kamalu. The new recruit could never come home.
General Share Blood pointed to Father Ambrose. “You have diamonds for me?”
“No,” Father Ambrose said. “We have no diamonds. All of the diamond mines are far from here.”
“You do not speak true. You have diamonds.” He clapped his hands three times.
The boy soldiers herded another group of villagers forward and gunned them down. The slaughter was followed by an ecstatic dance around the bodies. As they danced, the drunken and drugged executioners howled and fired their guns wildly into the air.
“Now you have diamonds for me?” General Share Blood asked.
Father Ambrose feared the mission staff might be killed next. He once again attempted to communicate. “I tell you we have no diamonds. This is cattle country.” Father Ambrose called out to the white man, “Who are you? Why are you here with these boys? Are you a mercenary? Are you not a high-ranking officer? Do you not see what they have just done? You must order him to stop this senseless killing. These people have done nothing to harm or threaten you. Have you no conscience?”
The white man sat down in front of Ambrose. “No, I don’t.” He dropped a box of cartridges on the ground in front of him, and slowly reloaded his rifle magazine. The box was covered with Arabic writing.
“Conscience is a luxury I cannot afford,” the white man replied. “I ‘m here as an advisor. About what’s happened—I don’t try to make sense of these buggers’ politics.”
General Share Blood stood and stretched lazily, then resumed his seat. “It is time for the games,” he said in English. He drained a gourd of palm wine, then looked down upon the throng before him as if he were indeed perched on a royal throne. “I am thirsty for my daily drink of blood. Who among you will provide it? Perhaps you?” General Share Blood pointed at Brother Thomas.
One soldier in a Rambo T-shirt grabbed the mission’s gardener by the shirt collar and dragged him forward. The gardener’s little girl clung to his leg screaming. Brother Thomas tried to pry loose his little girl’s hands, but she clung stubbornly. When Brother Thomas and his daughter in tow reached the stump in front of General Share Blood, the Rambo soldier placed the man’s arm across the top of the stump and drew his machete.
As he raised the blade, Father Ambrose stepped forward and placed his hand on the young soldier’s shoulder. “No, my son. Do not hurt this man. He is good man, good friend.”
The soldier holding the gardener squinted at the priest through cocaine and
ganja-glazed eyes. He glanced at the general, then back to the priest. Something human etched itself upon his face.
“Father, I do not know what I do,” he whispered.
“Put the cutlass down, my son,” Father Ambrose said quietly. “You are a Christian man. I know you are afraid, but God will give you strength.”
The trembling blade rose for a moment, then the young soldier stabbed the machete into the earth, and knelt before the priest with his eyes to the ground.
Some of the soldiers hooted and laughed. General Share Blood shouted for the soldier to continue.
“No,” the young Rambo replied. “I will not hurt this man.” Then to Father Ambrose he whispered, “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.”
Father Ambrose knelt and gave the repentant man absolution in an abbreviated form, confident that God would accept the adaptation.
General Blood’s retort was sharp, and two soldiers dragged the rebellious Rambo forward and held him before the General. After the General clumsily climbed down from his wooden-box throne, he plucked a long, dry leaf from a nearby tree, and rolled it up like a cigar. He lit it with a cigarette lighter, then as his troops held the man’s face, pressed the burning leaf into the soldier’s eye.
General Blood smiled at the soldier’s screams. He swaggered around, looking at his soldiers and his captives, holding a fist in the air triumphantly.
Father Ambrose stood and shouted, “Listen to me, all of you!” He looked at the white mercenary. “Please, do not let him do this. Ask your leader to take what he wants, but please, do not injure anyone else. We will not assist any of your enemies. ”
He was cut short when the mercenary barked a command and one of the soldiers pushed him roughly to the ground. The mercenary slung his rifle onto his shoulder and strode toward the priest. On his way he kicked the sobbing young boy-soldier who was clutching his eye and writhing on the ground like a wounded snake.
“That’s the problem when you don’t take them young enough,” the mercenary said. “I thought he was going to make a fine soldier, but I guess I was wrong. Our training was wasted on him. Now, if he lives, he won’t even be fit to be a porter.”
“You do not talk like a man should, but like an animal,” Father Ambrose said. “No wonder the people of Salone fear and hate your soldiers. The RUF once were men of ideals who talked of helping the people of Salone. But now . . .”
The mercenary knelt and whispered, “Priest, I tend to like men in your occupation, but we don’t have time for a long philosophical discussion. The situation is actually very simple. The towns of this district and your mission are now under the control of the RUF. The ideals you speak of left Salone with the educated elite émigrés, and the same ideals left the RUF when Papa discovered how much money he could make in the diamond trade. Now, you cooperate and I might get you out of this in one piece. I want you to hook up your radio and call whoever you need to call and have them send money and diamonds. The general wants diamonds; but he and I both will settle for American dollars. Then, maybe he will let you go.”
“Diamonds? He wants blood diamonds?” Father Ambrose felt a rage coursing through his body and he surrendered to it. He shouted, “And you want money? You want us to ask for ransom? You white devil! You want me to cooperate with this sadist and ask for money to buy our freedom? No!”
The mercenary patted Father Ambrose’s face, turned to General Share Blood and in Krio said, “The priest, he will not respect the General.”
Shouting, the General leaped from the chair to the ground.
Father Ambrose felt boys’ hands clutching and dragging him forward. He was thrown to the ground next to the mission’s gardener and his daughter, and the three of the knelt together before General Share Blood.
Ambrose looked up into the face of a young girl beside the general. She drew a machete from her web belt and nodded toward Brother Thomas, the gardener. Two soldiers stretched Thomas’s arm across the stump, and with a deft stroke, she amputated his right hand. Then she pointed to the little girl. Two strokes this time. The girl swooned and fell to her knees, a Lavinia holding up two bleeding handless limbs.
At the sight, the priest felt his heart break within himself, and he knew now that all the sadness he had ever felt and all the evil and suffering he had ever seen had reached a culminating point, a climax. As if in the audience of a tragic play, he waited for the drama’s catharsis, the purging of his heart through pity and terror.
The machete-welding girl smiled and pointed to Father Ambrose.
Father Ambrose felt the rough top of the stump against his skin, felt the wetness of Thomas’s blood underneath, saw the whiteness of his own skin in the fading light.
General Share Blood held the mission’s gold communion cup in his hands. The general turned dramatically, displaying the chalice to the group. He handed it to one soldier who knelt in front of the stump and held it at the ready. Father Ambrose flexed his fingers, staring at his hand.
What followed seemed to happen in slow motion. A machete flashes in the fading sunlight. He hears a thwack, a thumping sound. The fingers wriggle on his detached left hand, convulsing on top of the stump as if they now had a life of their own apart from his brain. The hand rolls to the ground with the other three hands where it seems to crawl about. Another boy lifts the priest’s arm so the blood drips into the communion cup. His heart pumps four times and the cup is full. White hands wrap coarse twine tightly around his arm to stem the bleeding.
The foaming cup is placed reverently into General Share Blood’s hands. Father Ambrose stared at the smooth, flat wall of bone and nerves and tissue where his hand used to be. The thought was odd, but he thanked God the machete used was sharp. He had heard tales of how the machetes were often dull and how they mangled the limbs of victims. Ambrose remained on his knees. He knew his body was in shock, but he couldn’t think of what he should do or say about it.
He glanced up into the smiling, drugged face of the machete-girl. He studied her blood-splotched face as if it were an icon of a black Madonna. An amazon, Father Ambrose thought. This girl is a true amazon. She would amputate anything, even her own breast if it were in her way. He heard her chatter to the others in Krio. He felt a strong hand on his shoulder, and he turned. Another icon. This time, it is the tear-stained face of Sister Agnes. “What is she saying?” he asked her. “The machete-girl there.”
Sister Agnes drew him to her bosom. Her breast felt soft, warm, comforting. “She calls herself Betty Cut Hands and she is General Shareblood’s queen. Here, open your mouth.” She pressed two tablets onto his tongue. “Swallow them. They’re pain pills. We have no water, so you’ll have to swallow them dry. Now, close your eyes. I’m sure you are in shock.”
He swallowed the pills but he didn’t close his eyes. From within her embrace, he watched as drugs were mixed into the communion cup holding his blood and stirred with the General’s finger. The General, still thirsty for his daily blood, drank the priest’s blood and thumped his chest with his fist. He pointed to other soldiers who one by one came to the altar of the stump to sup and share in the sacred ritual of his perverted communion. The chalice was returned to the General and after he drained it, he set it on a crate next to him. He licked his lips, and his eyes rolled with delight.
Father Ambrose turned his head and wept. Through the veil of tears, he spotted Tejan. How long had it been since that terrible day when the RUF kidnapped Tejan and five other students? Four years? Tejan possessed the same glazed eyes as the others, and an AK 47 was slung over his shoulder.
Father Ambrose tried to focus his blurred, swirling vision. He raised himself and rubbed at his burning eyes with the stump of his right hand. He attempted to stand and go to Tejan, but the world spun in a strange mosaic of black and white faces, and he collapsed backwards into Sister Agnes’s arms.
“Father, here, I will wipe your eyes,” Sister Agnes whispered. “What can I do? What will happen with us?”
He willed himself to answer her, but his tongue was thick and slow. Finally, he uttered, “Vado mori.” He buried his face in her bosom. It was time to leave this sad earth. He knew too much now, had seen too much.
“No, Father,” she whispered. “You cannot die and leave us alone.”
When he woke, he was still alive in the sister’s arms. Everything of value in the mission and village had been piled in front of General Share Blood, who had returned to his throne of boxes. The priest’s hand was now buried beneath a pile of black hands, arms, legs, and ears. Several buildings and houses about them were burning. From within one he heard screams and saw black arms reaching out from the flames like anguished souls trapped in a torture chamber of hell.
The General’s soldiers had found more palm wine. As they drained gourd after gourd, they fired their guns into the air, and they danced and staggered about a large fire like stiff skeletons in a danse macbre. One soldier had donned a nun’s habit, another a choir robe. Father Ambrose watched the one-eyed, disobedient soldier embrace a palm tree and struggle to pull himself to his feet. When he finally wrestled himself upright, a machine gun riddled his body and he died with his one good eye open, his arms still clutching the palm.
Father Ambrose thought the RUF soldiers had executed the one-eyed soldier until he saw the mulatto fall. Then General Share Blood and his chair throne tumbled backwards. When the general’s body hit the ground, the gold communion cup bounced toward the priest. There was no blood in the chalice. Several of the dancing boy-soldiers dropped one by one as they too were splattered with bullets. An enemy presence was perceived and the boy soldiers of the Zebra battalion broke and ran.
The white mercenary stood his ground, methodically taking aim and firing his automatic rifle. Bullets peppered his white skin, and he fell to his knees. Then when a bullet struck his forehead, he fell face-first to the dark ground. A group of black shadows swarmed him, and Ambrose heard the sound of the clubs and spears as they struck and tore at his corpse.
Several men sprinted past Father Ambrose in pursuit of the fleeing Zebra battalion. Some of the men were in fatigues, and others wore animal skins. One pushed Ambrose to the ground.
“We have come to help you, Fader,” he said. “ Please, you are to stay close to de ground.”
“Father?” Sister Agnes whispered as she ducked down next to him. “What’s happening?”
“Government soldiers and Kamajors,” he said. “And maybe some Nigerian troops from Makeni. Stay down until we’re sure it’s safe.”
“Oh, thank God they have come,” she whispered.
A Kamajor threw a Zebra boy down near them and then machined-gunned him. The young rebel’s body bounced like a martinet as the bullets riddled his adolescent body. The Kamajor looked down at Ambrose and smiled. “It be OK soon, Fader,” he said. “Good Christians be here now.”
Father Ambrose turned his head from the sight of the boy’s body. “Yes, Sister Agnes,” he said. “Thank God they have come.”
The Kamajors and soldiers returned from their pursuit, herding several of the Zebra boys in front of them, caning them unmercifully every step. The mission captives watched as the Kamajors beat and then executed the rebels one by one with their guns or staves. A few of the younger rebel boys were terrified and began to moan senselessly, as if they were deaf and dumb. But the ruse of being a handicapped child was unconvincing, and the beatings and executions continued. The wails of the boy-soldiers filled the night and the sound could have been the audio illustration for the nightmarish paintings of Munch or Goya.
Two more Kamajors returned, dragging a body. Father Ambrose saw that it was Tejan, a boy who had been taken from the village two years ago. The priest watched as they kicked him and whipped him with sticks. When one pointed a rifle at his head, Father Ambrose shouted, “No! He is one of ours!”
“Are you sure, Fader?” the Kamajor said. “He look like rebel soldier moment ago. He fight me hard with his empty gun before I conk him on de head.”
“I am sure. His name is Tejan,” he said. With his right hand, he picked up the gold communion cup and held it out to the Kamajor. “He’s probably just frightened.”
“You can have him, Fader.” The Kamajor stuffed the chalice into his fanny pack and moved on.
“Father!” Sister Agnes whispered. “What are you doing? This boy probably did some horrible things to . . .”
“Hush, sister. The sin will be on my own soul. I knew this boy and his parents, and, demon though he is now, I’m not going to give him up to these murderers. He was kidnapped by the RUF a few years ago. Now, help me with him.”
Together, they dragged the unconscious Tejan over to their group. Fortunately, Tejan had not been shot, only clubbed. A cane had laid his head open, and Sister Agnes pressed her hand on the wound.
“Tejan . . . Tejan . . . Do you know who I am?” Ambrose asked.
Tejan’s eyes opened, and he groaned.
Several villagers shook their heads in disgust at the priest. Ambrose knew they perceived his mercy as another example of the strange behavior and values of the poo-muis and that it confirmed their long-held suspicions of the priest-man’s naiveté.
The Kamajors and government troops moved on in their search for more rebels. When the mission staff had buried the dead and every body part they could find, they filled the mission’s Toyota truck with the weak and wounded, twenty-three in all, and began the drive to Freetown. There they would join thousands of other refugees seeking safety and peace. Eventually, the RUF was defeated, some semblance of peace was restored, but nightmares are slow to fade in this land that few Americans know anything about.
* * *
From that sad priest I heard a story, a dark one of suffering, of one boy’s redemption, and of a priest who had nearly lost his faith. I learned that many reporters had covered those war days, the days of the Blood Diamonds, and written stories that were never published in our news. Some reporters, like many religious leaders, had paid with their lives. The suffering of Sierra Leone in those years is almost more than one can absorb. There is a glimmer of hope for the future, but nothing is for certain. The priest’s story would never leave my mind. Sometimes I wake from a dream in which it is my hand that is lost, and I feel that ache in my heart that reminds me that truly, the heart is not made of bone.