Henry Chukwuemeka Onyema
It was the kind of night when spirits and human beings contested ownership of the earth. This was the period called morning-night. The sky was an inky blanket of darkness unpunctured by a moon. The stars fought valiantly but vainly to occupy the heavens. Crazy forms emerged and dissolved, given substance by febrile imagination.
This was the hour when nature surreptiously stole the alertness of even the best guards. This was the moment when human nerves were sapped by the mysteries of the dark. The hour when the gates fell to the barbarians; the wooden horse penetrated the city’s defences. This was the hour of the commando.
Danji wondered whether the pounding he heard belonged to his heart or head. Whichever, what was clear was that it emanated from his body. Sweat bathed his face beneath the balaclava mask he wore. He wondered if his finger could effectively curl around the trigger of the Uzi submachine gun hanging from a strap on his right shoulder. He glanced at the man crouching in the darkness a few feet away. Ajayi was almost invisible; only the inkiness of the night contradicted the darker hue of his commando outfit.
Danji held his breath and wondered for the umpteenth time how it would turn out. How It was his first. And absolutely nothing he had learnt prepared Danji for this numbing fear; this awful urge to pee though the newest member of the 249 Special Battalion, Burning Spear Company Squad 9, knew there was nothing in his bladder. The images in his head were better locked up in the deepest recesses of his brain but somehow, in spite of his best efforts, they kept zooming in his face.
There was some justification for this. Danji and his mates were about to assault a stronghold of Kamadeem, the notorious chief of the Holy Warriors, the deadly group of terrorists who had held the country, especially the far Northern provinces, by the balls for the past five years.
Kamadeem had become a law to himself, slaughtering, raping and rampaging at will. Even the security forces of the state were not exempt from the group’s attacks. They attacked military bases at will, captured senior police and army officers and videotaped their beheadings.
The gory tapes were either put up on internet media platforms or sent to the offices of the country’s security chiefs.
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The Holy Warriors shook the country when they openly attacked the country’s only military airport. Although the assault was foiled the terrorists destroyed a number of transport aircrafts and attack helicopters and did substantial damage to the airport’s facilities. The group captured and held large swathes of territory and openly poked their bloodstained fingers in the eyes of the government. It appeared they were unstoppable. Till the new helmsman took over in an election he won by promising the terror-stricken citizens that he would kick out the Holy Warriors in a year if voted into office.
The electorate believed him. After all he was a retired army brigadier, a veteran of countless anti-insurgency operations and a winner of many blood-soaked battles against all kinds of territory-seeking marauders and fanatics.
Almost two years had gone and the war was far from being won. There were forces, both internal and external, who ate their hair as they swore to keep the bloodbath going. A few did so because they believed in Kamadeem’s mad ideology, some because of political and tribal designs, including undiluted hatred for the brigadier and all he stood for.
Many opposed him because an end to the war would block their sources of influence and power. But an overwhelming number of opponents opposed him because the bloodbath nurtured, fertilized and enriched the soil of corruption from which they fed fat: the inflated sums for weapons that never got to ill-clad and ill-equipped troops; the allocations for a war on terror that ended up in coded bank accounts; the hydra-headed contracts. A vigorous pursuit of the war would stop the flow of the milk and honey.
But the brigadier, against stomach-bursting odds, did not relent. The result was that on this fateful night, midway into the president’s tenure, this group of handpicked commandos was making an assault on Kamadeem’s lair. The journey to this hell of a night had been long, arduous and bloody. The turning point was the establishment of the 249 Battalion which was commanded by a protégé of the president.
The battalion was closely patterned after the British Special Air Service Regiment (SAS), a force whose officers had been earnestly requested for by the president to set up the unit. The British Prime Minister wisely sent him retired SAS officers to do the job. In the finely nuanced but no less gritty world of politics and diplomacy there was a subtle difference from sending serving officers.
The president accepted the compromise and so far the result had been satisfactory. Acting on solid intelligence and using methods the conventional forces were unused to, the 249 Battalion took the war to the Holy Warriors and for the first time the terrorists were on the defensive. But it was a grim affair. The battalion’s casualty rate was staggering and replacing the dead was not easy. Danji was one of the most recent recruits who met the unit’s exacting standards.
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The intelligence that led to this operation indicated that Kamadeem, who was always on the move, had a number of hideouts, some in the most unimaginable places. It took a while before he was tracked down to this one which was a big man’s palatial residence in the upper-crust King’s Boulevard. Squad 9 was the arrowhead of the assault.
There were twenty-five of them under the command of newly promoted Captain Hassan Tamuniye, one of the first members of the unit. His SAS trainers adjudged him a first-class anti-terrorism material and so far he had not disappointed. He spotted Danji during a recruitment exercise at the 563 Military Police camp where the twenty-four year old corporal had been serving since he joined the army a few years ago. Hassan had taken a fancy to the short and deceptively slim soldier and was delighted when Danji emerged with no less than eighty percent in each aspect of the gruelling training.
Danji carefully unslung his Uzi and waited. Good God, he prayed incoherently, not knowing what else to add. His insides seemed to have developed a will of their own. He took a deep breath. Try all he could, he could not muster enough moisture to moisten his tongue.
He finally tracked down the steady pounding to his heart but there was nothing he could do to control it. Without glancing at the blackened surface of the special wristwatch he wore, a unique gadget each member of Squad 9 had, he knew the boom and blast would begin in barely five minutes. He glanced towards the immobile Ajayi. The guy is hardened, he thought.
He does not look like someone about to wet his pants. Like me. The two of them would follow Sergeants Fagbeni and Ayakata through the gaping hole of the intimidating electrified rear fence which Fagbeni would blow open with the massive bazooka resting snugly across his back. Hassan and two of his boys, if things were going according to plan, were currently noiselessly taking out guards at the heavy double front gate with commando knives and other special silent instruments of death.
In prearrangement with the power supply corporation, electricity had been cut from the area. Although this part of the city did not depend on the hyper-inefficient national power supply to survive. The brief cover of artificial darkness helped the squad and their back-up get into place without being spotted.
Danji counted in his head. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. His eyes focused on the squat shape of Fagbeni as he moved into place behind the cluster of trees opposite the fence, holding the evil-looking bazooka like a toy. Ayakata was behind him to load the weapon and support him. The earth itself held its breath in anticipation. Danji and Ajayi tensed.
When it came the explosion was solid. One second, the colossal, wired and iron-tipped fence simply came apart. Fagbeni and Ayakata performed a deadly duet. Even as they threw themselves down to avoid the backblast Ayakata reloaded from the cache of rockets crisscrossing his back. One more blast and even before it totally died out they were on the move.
Danji should have moved forward. He should have followed Ajayi at full speed, his Uzi set on full automatic and firing bursts of 9mm steel jacketed death. He had done this dozens of times in training. The fear in his belly should have propelled him forward like the rocket, turning him into a killer machine. But Danji simply froze. At that moment he was a living statue caught in the deadly grip of battle terror.
‘‘Come on!’’ Ajayi’s growl was muffled by his balaclava mask. Danji’s ears rang with the sounds of war and his booted feet started moving as if they were not his. They hit the yawning gap created by the bazooka. At that moment three fleeing terrorists nearly ran slap bang into them, their rifles blazing. Danji’s finger curled around the trigger as he screamed from unalloyed fear. Ajayi opened fire with sharpshooting speed and accuracy. None of the trio had a chance as the high-velocity bullets hurled them into the night. Ajayi grabbed his colleague and pulled him into the shadow of a wrecked car.
“Guy, you want to stay alive?” he thundered, yanking down his mask to reveal feral eyes and clenched teeth. Danji could only nod.
“Then get a grip on yourself. If you try that rubbish again I swear I will kill you myself and save these bastards the labour.” He meant it. Danji shuddered. At that moment he realised he had more to fear from Ajayi than the terrorists.
They broke into a run.
It was a bloodbath. Kamadeem and his men fought back like madmen despite being surprised. They were heavily armed and outnumbered the soldiers by at least five to one. The commandos had strict orders not to call in air support because of the residential nature of the attack zone. But Hassan radioed his back-up as soon as it became clear that the operation was turning from a quick assault to a pitched battle. He lost four men in five minutes.
Finding Kamadeem was another matter. As he led the search for the terrorist chieftain, bursting from room to room, gunning down anyone who raised even a finger in a threatening manner, Hassan’s stomach rolled with a growing fear that the much-prized horse might have bolted.
In the name of the ancestors, who sold us out? he wondered. Not even the British-trained 249 was immune from the attacks of the demons of corruption and ethnicity that had kept the war going for a long time.
Fagbeni, the second-in-command for this mission, was leading another desperate search on the grounds of the massive compound. Corpses lay in awkward positions under bullet-blasted floodlights. They included Alsatians belonging to the terrorists. Fagbeni’s eyes darted towards a building behind the badly shot up garage. He had taken cover behind the body of one of Kamadeem’s men. Ajayi and Danji were with him. Danji was drenched in sweat and urine but at least he was on the move and doing all the things expected of him in this nightmare.
“See that building?” Fagbeni’s voice was intense.
Ajayi and Danji nodded.
“We are moving in. Cover left, Ajayi. Danji, right. You know what to do.”
Danji nearly screamed: I don’t, Sarge. But he jumped to his feet like the hounds of hell were after him and took off, his eyes darting furiously, gun at the ready. He had barely moved a few feet when the hounds broke free in the most unexpected manner.
The bullet wrecked garage exploded in a frenzy of battle. Guns blazed from under, around and even above blasted vehicles. How the terrorists concealed themselves there in perfect invisibility was incomprehensible. But their rifles, light machine guns and machine pistols roared. Fagbeni’s scream was cut short by a blaze of bullets to the upper part of his body. As Danji hit the ground, rolling frantically for cover, he saw Ajayi open point-blank fire before high-calibre bullets hurled him a good four feet away.
He struggled to his feet, drenched in blood but another blistering hail of iron threw and kept him down permanently. The corporal could not even think. The desperate search for cover concentrated his mind. He landed bang in a wide hole where rubbish was burnt, stifling a scream as a stiff arm entangled his neck. It belonged to one of the soldiers. Half of his head was gone.
He dived behind the corpse, struggling to ignore the awful thing happening in his head. It was a crystal-clear realisation that death was rushing at him in full force. The realization grabbed his survival instinct by the throat in a vice-like grip but it fought back murderously. The enemy had broken cover. They were making a dash for escape, guns distilling pure death. They had realised they outnumbered and probably outgunned their attackers.
Danji’s eyes and brain were furiously fast. There were about seven or eight of them heading his way. The one on the far left…it was all heated up by smoke and sounds of battle but he looked like the numero uno.
“No!” His scream echoed in his ears as something slammed into the side of his face with the brutality of a camel’s kick. Fear fled at once and Danji opened fire, breaking cover at the same time. He knew he was at death’s door but at that moment he did not give a damn. All that mattered was taking as many of the sons of harlots with him to the immortal realm.
He wanted them to pay for killing Ajayi and Fagbeni; two good men. His Uzi continued chattering at full automatic as steel pounded into his body. Any man would have fallen under the impact. But Danji was not any other man at that moment. A demented laugh escaped his lips as his killers screamed under the devastatingly accurate sweep of his gun.
Its blinding muzzle flash showed that his final guess on earth was right. When he finally landed on his knees, blood pumping out of his body like a vandalized oil pipe, none of the terrorists was alive. The Uzi slipped from his nerveless fingers and he toppled over.
Hassan and the back-up team found his body. Kamadeem was lying five feet away from him, his chest shredded by 9mm bullets, his eyes wide open in shocked death.
“By Allah, he won this war for us,” the Captain whispered as medics stretchered Danji’s body into a lorry designated for carrying fallen squad members.
Danji got a twenty-one gun salute at his funeral, a posthumous elevation to a full rank Lieutenant and the Distinguished Combat Star.