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From the other side

I can’t escape from the nagging voice at the back of my mind telling me that I let my emotions cloud my judgment.

They said there would be no guilt. They said that we were soldiers for Allah, that ours was a justified war. They said we would have a great reward when all this was over, that we would live all eternity in the bosom of the Most Merciful. They lied. I don’t believe anything they said anymore. There is no justification, no godliness, in taking innocent life. There is no way we can fight for the Most Merciful, yet show no mercy to those he has given us to share the earth with.

I don’t seek sympathy. My sins are way beyond that now. To be frank, I do not know what I seek anymore. What I came here for was a sham, a deception of the highest order. I have put myself beyond redemption, beyond the reach of Allah’s mercy. There is no going back for me. I look around at the bare walls around me and marvel at how I found myself here, the most unlikely fate I could ever have imagined for myself. There was a day I could have turned away from this path. But I didn’t.

“Come home, Shaaban,” mum said that day, her voice trembling. “We love you. Please come home.” I had swallowed hard, but said nothing. I could imagine her, sitting in her clothing shop on Fifth Street in Eastleigh, black henna lines tracing intricate patterns on the back of her hand as she held the phone to her ear.

What does a mother think when her son tells her he is joining a terrorist organisation? Does her mind go back to the days of his infancy, when he couldn’t survive thirty minutes without her? Does she remember the days of his innocence, when he couldn’t cross the road to school and had to be led by the hand? Or does she remember his rebellious high school years and tell herself that she had known it all along, that her brat of a child had always had the terrorist streak in him? Does the thought put a hand of cold metal around her heart and yank it out? Does she ask herself why it had to be her child? After all, all her fellow mothers have rebellious children. Why not them?

I don’t know what my mother thought that day. She didn’t tell me what she felt. She just used all the arguments she could find to beseech me to go back home. But I didn’t want to go home. No. I wanted to go to Somalia, get trained in the art of killing innocent people, and come back to paint Kenyan walls red with blood.

So I didn’t say anything. When she realised I wasn’t responding, she stopped speaking and waited. And when I noticed that she was not speaking anymore, I calmly opened the back cover of the phone, removed the battery and pushed out the SIM card. In its place, I put another. That was three years ago. I was on a fishing boat that had just set sail from Lamu, on the Kenyan coast.

Now here I am, on the floor of a bathroom inside a mall in Nairobi. I am supposed to be praying. My three companions and I have been taking turns to pray because we cannot do it together. But I can’t pray now. I am kneeling mutely on the prayer mat I placed on the tiled floor. My bag of grenades and C4 explosives is leaning against the door. It is still quite full because I didn’t use it as much as the others when we were taking over the mall two days ago. My gun is on top of the bag, the barrel pointing up at the roof.

We chose this mall because it is owned by Jews, the worst of the infidels. We chose it because Americans and Brits and Germans frequently shop here. We chose it because the Kenyan government never took us seriously when we threatened we would strike at the heart of their capital city. We wanted to show them how vulnerable they are. We wanted to desecrate one of the most powerful symbols of their prosperity.

It was supposed to be exhilarating all the way to the end. It was a suicide mission after all. But now the others are gone. They said their time had not yet come, that Allah still needed them for future missions. So, after helping us carry out the first massacre, they left us to keep the mall, and made their way out, disguised, among scared shoppers. The excitement lasted only a few minutes. Then came the waiting, endless hours of it, tense but boring. It gave us too much time to think. It gave me too much time to think

Now I am convinced they meant to sacrifice us. They didn’t want to die. They used us, the four of us who have been holding the building. I now think it was all in vain. I feel betrayed. We were meant to be martyrs, and shed our blood for the jihad. But now they are gone, and the prospect of dying that now faces us isn’t as appealing as it was when we felled innocent people in the first minutes of our assault. Now I see that we have been pawns all along. We were to die for them to take credit. I know they are now bragging, threatening the next attack will be worse.

I wonder what my parents would think if they knew I am involved in all this. They must have spent the last two days in in the living room, huddled together on the sofa, watching on television as the Kenyan forces try to smoke us out of the mall. My mother’s hands must be covering her mouth, while her head rests on my dad’s large chest. And to think that Naima missed this by just a few minutes.

Naima, my only sister. I could not let her die. She was here just before we launched the attack. She was alone. Her belly was bulging. Before I left home three years ago, the plans for her wedding to Omar were being finalised. I saw her walking into Nakumatt, handbag limply dangling from her elbow. I tried to deny it, the pang of longing that hit me the moment I saw her. But I just couldn’t let her die. I looked at my watch. Ten minutes. I looked back at my companions in the ground-floor bookshop we rented a few months ago. They were busy going over the plans at a table, pretending to be discussing the contents of a book. I slipped out and pulled my hood over my head.

She was lucky indeed. The moment I saw the back of her car disappearing around the corner, the others texted that they had arrived, and were on the rooftop parking lot. I calmed my breath, walked back to the bookshop. In the back room, with the others, I shed the hooded sweater, and took up my battle gear; a chain of bullets, the bag of grenades and explosives and, of course, the AK 47 which was to claim several lives in a few minutes of ecstatic murder. She must now be wondering who it was that warned her, and why his voice must have sounded familiar. She might never know. I hope she never knows.

I left my companions on the other side of the door. They are watching over the hostages. It was the hostages that really made me start thinking. Every time one of them made eye contact with me, my mind flashed to the assortment of people who must be worried about them. The teenage girl’s parents. The middle-aged woman’s husband. The university-age young man’s girlfriend. The possibility that we had probably killed those same parents, husbands and girlfriends made it even worse. I found it harder and harder to explain the madness that could have made us rip their lives apart so fast.

But my companions are still convinced that they are fighting for Allah. They are still enthusiastic about facing the Kenyan army to make their last stand. They still want to die as martyrs. I hold nothing against them. They have been in this longer than I have. Their consciences have been totally dulled by it. They haven’t seen it yet, can’t see it, how the others used us, how they lied to us and left us to our inglorious deaths, while they took credit for the bleeding wound we have inflicted on this country.

The past three years have been the folly of my life. I still find it hard to believe that it all started with a girl. A girl. Her name was Joanne. I had met her in campus and we had been in love for as long as I had known her. I wanted to marry her. So I took her to meet my parents. And my dad, all six feet of him, rose from the chair and thundered. “A Christian? You bring me a Christian for a daughter-in-law?”

My mother tried to calm him down, but the former Air Force Captain could have none of it. I had never seen that side of him. After all, he had worked with Christians in the military for the longest part of his life. He bellowed in rage, spittle flying from his mouth. He came close to hitting me that day. Joanne scampered out of the house in tears. My dad threatened he would banish me from the family if I followed her.

I followed Joanne to her home, where she went into the house and locked herself in. I stood there for a long time, waiting for her to come out. When she finally managed to show her face, all I got was a kiss and a goodbye.

“We can’t be, Shaaban,” she said, tears streaming down her face. “We just can’t. You have to go now. I don’t want to get you in trouble.”

I opened my mouth to protest, to tell her that I loved her, that I wouldn’t mind all the trouble in the world if I had her. But she slammed the door in my face. I heard her footsteps receding into the house. I don’t know how many times I paced outside the house that day. All I know is that at some point, when the moon had risen over the sleeping city, when the cold had started blanketing the air, and when my voice had become hoarse from begging and beseeching, I finally skulked away like a beaten dog.

The past three years have been a blur. A few months after I arrived in Somalia, the Kenyan Defense Forces (KDF) rolled in with their tanks and weapons. They wanted to destroy Al Shabab, which I had joined. Our leadership didn’t like it. They immediately planned small retaliatory attacks while we prepared for this, the crowning piece of our defiance.

My friend Samir led me here. That evening, after Joanne had discarded me in that most unceremonious way, I left feeling bitter at the betrayals I had had to go through. On the one hand, my father telling me whom I could love and whom I couldn’t and, on the other, Joanne proving him right. I wasn’t about to go home and tell my dad that he had been right, that now I knew the true colour of Christians. I hated him for starting the whole thing off. And I didn’t know if he could even allow me to set foot in the house again. For him, I must have ceased to exist.

That’s when Samir appeared on the scene. As I staggered and stumbled away from Joanne’s place, car headlights turned the corner of the street. I shielded my eyes and squinted at them. The car rolled to a stop in front of me and the door locks clicked open. A familiar voice came from the inside.

“Nasty night, huh?”

Samir had always mocked me about my relationship with Joanne. He couldn’t understand how I could be comfortable dating a Christian. He kept telling me that one day she would betray me. “As they all do eventually,” he proclaimed. That night, after I told him what had happened as we drove around on the silent streets of Nairobi, he gave me his “I told you so” face and promised me I would have my revenge. This was his idea of revenge. Tens of innocents dead, scores of innocents injured, walls spattered with blood.

Samir died on the day we took the mall. I can’t forget the way he went down. He took a shot in his left arm, and dropped his gun. He extracted his pistol as he fell, and I emerged from behind the pillar where I was hiding, and put out my hand to pull him away from danger. He looked up and said one word. “Go!” Then he looked in the direction of his shooters and raised his pistol. I looked too. I still believe I saw the bullet that finished him off coming, flying through the air in slow-motion, headed for the left side of his forehead. I sprayed the Kenyan policemen who had shot him with my own bullets as I fled. In return, they turned Samir’s body into a mashed piece of raw meat.

Two days on, it still stupefies me how I got involved in all this. I might say Samir convinced me. But I can’t escape from the nagging voice at the back of my mind telling me that I let my emotions cloud my judgment. And when I could see more objectively, when I could have ended this, I lied to my conscience. I told myself that sympathy for the enemy was a greater enemy in itself. I refused to define who the real enemy was. I lied to myself.

Now it has landed me here, and I am contemplating something I never thought I would ever contemplate, something I always thought was the choice of cowards. It doesn’t seem so cowardly anymore. My companions were supposed to leave the jewellery shop on the other side with the hostages shortly after I started praying. We have been shuttling between shops in the mall to make it harder for the Kenyans to find us. The silence outside tells me they have already left. It my cue.

I roll up the prayer mat, silently latch the main door of the bathroom, and haul my bag and gun to the corner stall. The stall has rose pink walls and a small toilet bowl. It must have been for children, I figure. Not that it matters much, I conclude with a smirk. All I need is a stall.

As I start unpacking the bag and rigging the door and walls of the stall with blobs of C4 and hand grenades, my mind flies back to Joanne, as it has countless times over the past two days. It’s true that she hurt me. But why didn’t I see it then, that she was just human, that my dad had scared her? Yes, I was right in judging that her love for me should have withstood that test. I know it would have, if I had given her time, if I had been insistent.

I should never have walked away from her house. I should have stayed there one minute longer, an hour… a day even, as long as would have been necessary. She would have come around, in the end. But what did I do instead? After one unsuccessful stab at regaining her, I lost hope. I sold my soul to the devil, and ended up with the blood of innocents on my hands, all the time allowing myself to be cheated that I was doing the work of Allah. I wonder how she would react if she knew that I am among these fanatics, that it all started on the night she slammed the door on my face.

I know these thoughts are going nowhere. The time is gone now for all regrets. What I deserve now is death. Death only I can give myself. That is why I am turning this stall into a cubicle-sized bomb. People will count it as one of the explosions that have ripped through the mall since we took it. They will not guess its significance. This is how I intend to leave this world, a world I have rewarded with wickedness for the all goodness it gave me. I cannot die as a glorious martyr, for I can no longer be one.

I get pulled out of my suicidal musings by noises outside the bathroom. I hear orders being barked, guns being fired. It’s not the gunshots that shake me, though. I am used to the sound gunshots now. And I know that the shooters are Kenyan soldiers because the orders have been given in KiSwahili. It is the question of who they are shooting at that piques me. My companions already left the room, so who would they be shooting at?

I stay still for a moment, and hear one soldier say, harshly, “Where are the others?” The thumping sound of a boot kicking flesh follows, accompanied by a painful grunt and a few sputtering coughs. That’s when I realize one of my companions stayed. Why? To guard the room while I prayed? My companions’ zeal still amazes me. It used to make me feel inadequate before we attacked the mall. Now it makes me feel sorry for them. Sorry that I didn’t tell them their zeal was misplaced. That their devotion was a despicable mockery of true religion.

I wonder who it is. Is it Alas, the young kid of eighteen, who was bubbling with joy when he was informed he would be part of the attack? Or is it Saddam, the grave one who took charge when the others left? Perhaps it is Ismail, the one who pulled me up the stairs when the Kenyan soldiers killed Samir. I cannot discern who it is.  Who knows? Muslim or Christian, the cry of pain is universal among men. Whoever it is though, I feel guilty that he was ready to sacrifice his life for me. Me, who least deserves such sacrifice. The gunshot that ends the sputtering sends me back to action. The walls of my stall are now a gallery of deadly explosives.

“Check the toilets,” I hear one of the soldiers say.

I am not afraid. I am ready now. They won’t get anything here when they manage to break the door. The one who comes through first will probably share my shuttle to hell. And the one who follows him will certainly lose a few limbs. I am sitting on the tiny toilet bowl, holding the detonator in my right hand. My thumb is mere centimetres above the button. With my left hand, I attempt a clumsy re-enactment of the sign of the cross I saw Joanne make so many times. I don’t know why I’m doing it.

The same voice comes up again on the other side. “And you, put those pieces of jewellery in that bag.” I hear the soft sound of canvas falling onto the floor and, shortly after, the jingling of jewels as they are piled into the bag. For a moment, I think they are trying to save the property. Then something seems to click inside my head and I realise I am too naïve to expect them to do that. They are not saving the jewels. They are stealing them.

For a moment, the thought of their depravity makes me choke with contempt and disgust. These soldiers are supposed to fight us and retaking the building. For the past two days, I have been wondering why we have managed to hold the mall for so long. After all, we are only four. They should have finished us off in mere hours. I knew there was something amiss about Alas’ conviction that we had held the soldiers off for so long because we were too strong for them. Now I understand why. They have stretched out the operation so they could loot under cover. I am so sickened by the notion, I feel like storming out and shooting them all dead. But then I remember my own crimes and my disgust fades away. I can no longer think of myself as an authority on what is good and what is not.

There is a loud thump against the door. It’s a kick. They are coming. But, somehow, my heart does not skip a beat. My calmness unnerves me. Maybe it’s because I know my time has come, that there is nothing I can do now to change anything. Long gone are the chances I had of turning away, the times I could have walked away from this path. Now even if I wanted to stop, I wouldn’t be able to. The juggernaut I built for myself is now hurtling, getting closer to the precipice. I deserve no more time on this planet, a planet I have so impetuously defiled with my existence.

There are now more kicks on the door. The soldiers must suspect that someone is hiding here who has heard everything they said and did. They cannot allow that to happen. I know I wouldn’t if I were them. But now I am beyond emotion. Let them come. The door gives a sharp crack, then another. I do another clumsy sign of the cross. I am now ready, ready for the penalty Allah will mete out upon me.

The door falls to the ground with a loud clang. I hear footsteps rushing in.

My thumb comes down on the detonator.

Allahu Akbar.

Feature image: Business Insider.

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20 replies on “From the other side”

Hey Beatrice. Thanks for reading. I don’t know what happened next… that’s a story for you to tell 😉

I’m not used to reading Long pieces but this one, huh I’ve had to.
Haha, unfortunately the story cannot continue because you died.

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