(A short story)
They said there would be no guilt, no regrets and no remorse. They lied, for what I feel now cannot be described by any word with a meaning different from those three. They said that we were soldiers for Allah, that ours was a justified war. That too was a lie, for nothing is justified in taking someone else’s life, without giving them a chance to fight for it… and we have taken the lives of many. 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. I don’t believe that any more. There is no way we can fight for the Most Merciful, yet show no mercy to those he has put with us on the earth. He cannot show us mercy for showing none in our time.
I don’t seek sympathy. My sins are now way beyond that. And I chose to commit them. There was a day when I had a chance to turn from this path. I could have turned away from this path. But I didn’t, and that day, the story of my iniquities began.
“Come home, Shaaban,” mum said that day. “We love you, we do. Please come home.” I swallowed hard, but said nothing in reply. Then, when she didn’t say anything more – I think she was waiting for me to reply – I slowly brought the phone from my ear. She started to speak again. I listened to her electronic voice beseeching me from miles away. After a few more seconds, 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 day I started on this road. Now here I am, staring down the end of it. It has been two days now, and the end is close. I remember the moment the others came in, the shooting that ushered them into the mall. We were waiting for them. Our moment had come. We opened fire on the people from the inside, squeezed them between our two flanks, so that they had nowhere to run.
This, what we are now doing, has been in the plans for some time now. One day, the commission said they wanted to deal a major blow to the kaffir who had dared invade their land. They wanted to perform a large-scale attack in the heart of their capital city. That day, in a cave whose location I cannot remember, around the unsteady glow of a kerosene lamp, I brought up this idea. Before I joined them, I was living in Nairobi with my parents. I knew all parts of the green city in the sun, and I knew how vulnerable the malls in it were, and how ideal they would be for an attack.
Now we are inside the mall they chose; Westgate. I told the commission that it was owned by the Jews, the worst of the infidels. I told them that western people shopped there, including the Americans and Brits. They chose it at once, before even hearing what I had to say about the other malls. They started planning that day, and the culmination of their plans was two days ago, when we took the mall, guns blazing and grenades exploding, and desecrated one of the most powerful symbols of Kenyan 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 wanted to use them for other attacks still. So they left us to keep the mall, and made their way out through the tunnel we showed them in the building plans. 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.
Now I am convinced they meant to sacrifice us. They didn’t want to die, but they wanted this act carried out. They used us, the five of us who have been holding the building. I now feel 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 planned this thing, and when we felled innocent people in the first minutes of our assault. Now I see that we have been pawns all along, useful but dispensable.
I wonder what my parents would think if they knew I was here, and not as one of the hostages or soldiers. They must now be in the sitting room, huddled together on the sofa, watching on television as the Kenyan forces try to get us out of the mall. I can see the footage on the screen I have here with me. 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. She was alone. Her belly was large. She was expecting a child. Before I left home two years ago, she had been planning her wedding to Omar. I saw her walking into Nakumatt, handbag limply hanging 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. The others were due to arrive in the next ten minutes. I looked back at my companions in the bookshop the commission 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 in the parking lot. I calmed my breath, walked back to the bookshop, shed the hooded sweater, and took my battle gear; a chain of bullets, a bag of grenades plus some other 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. In fact, I don’t intend for her to know.
My four companions, with whom I was left to hold the mall, are on the other side of the door, watching over the hostages. They are still convinced that they are fighting for Allah, are still enthusiastic about facing the Kenyan army, and dying as martyrs. I hold nothing against them. They have been in this longer than I have, their consciences have been totally muted by it since childhood, unlike me who has been in for only two years. 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 doom, while they took credit for the wound we have inflicted on the Kenyan nation.
I am supposed to be praying. We have been taking turns to do it, so it hasn’t been as regular as the namaz are supposed to be. But now I can’t pray now. My bag of grenades and explosives, which is still quite full – I didn’t use it as much as the others – is leaning against the door. My gun is on top of it, the barrel pointing towards the roof. I am kneeling on the rug I placed on the floor when I got in.
The past two years have been the folly of my life. It all started with a girl. Her name was Joanne, and I loved her with my life. We were planning to get married. I was only twenty two. Then I took her to meet my parents. And my dad, all six feet of him, rose from the chair and thundered. “My son will not marry a Christian!” My mom tried to calm him down, but the Air Force Captain could have none of it. He came close to hitting me that day. By that time, Joanne had scampered out of the house in tears. My dad threatened he would banish me from his family if I followed her. Still, I followed her, not hesitating to ponder the implications of what I was doing. And so I got banished from home.
I followed Joanne to her home, where she went into the house and locked herself in, and me out. I stood there for a long time, waiting for her to come out. When she finally managed to show her face, she called me, grabbed me and kissed me hard at the door. Then she tossed my few belongings – which had somehow made their way into her home over the short past we’d had – onto the porch where I was standing. While I tried to comprehend the meaning of it all, she said, “We just can’t be. You have to go now.” I opened my mouth to protest, to tell her that I loved her. But she slammed the door in my face. I heard her footsteps running away, 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, never to step on the soil of Nairobi again until one week ago.
The past two 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, ready to boot out the organization I had joined, the Al Shabab. Definitely, none of us liked it, and our leaders immediately devised small retaliatory strategies, while we planned 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 who I could love and who 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 all along, that now I knew the true colour of Christians. I hated him for starting the whole thing off. But I didn’t know where to go. I had been banished from home when I had walked out after Joanne. For him, I must have ceased to exist. And that’s when Samir appeared into 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 it. It rolled to a stop in front of me and the door locks clicked open. A familiar voice came from inside. “Nasty night, huh?”
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 his gun dropped. 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. And the bullet that finished him off came with a loud crack. I sprayed the shooters, Kenyan policemen, with my own bullets as I fled, and they shredded Samir’s body in return.
I rise to my feet and check that the door is still locked. Then I begin doing what I have been intending to do since the others left and I started thinking about what I was doing.
I cannot believe that I could have descended this low, ever came to commune with these people. I cannot see how I ever became involved with this organization. I might say that my friend Samir convinced me. But I can’t escape from the nagging voice at the back of my mind 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. Now it doesn’t seem so cowardly. I start unpacking my bag.
Joanne. These past two days have given me time to think several times about her, about what happened between us. How she hurt me. Why didn’t I see it, 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. It would have, had I but given her time, had I 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 fruitful. She would have come around, in the end, to facing up to the challenge we had been saddled with by my father’s rashness. 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 wonder what she did with my clothes, which I left on her porch that day. Why on earth didn’t I just stay on outside her door that night?
But the time is gone now for all regrets. I deserve punishment, and of that the Kenyan soldiers will not hand to me as much as I deserve and as fast. And that is why I am setting up explosives on all over the walls and floor of the corner stall. 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. That is how I intend to leave this world, a world I have rewarded with wickedness for the all goodness it gave me… not as a glorious martyr, for I can no longer be one.
It is now silent on the other side of the main door. It is the stillness that comes before the storm, for just when I realize that the silence has come, I hear orders being barked, guns being fired. My companions were supposed to leave the room a few minutes after I started praying. They must have left already, for the voices outside don’t belong to them. These are Kenyan soldiers on the other side. But what are they shooting at? I stay still for a moment, and hear one say, harshly, “Where are the others?” A painful grunt follows, and then a few sputtering coughs. I now realize that one of my companions stayed behind to guard the room while I was praying. What zeal. I wonder who it is. Is it Alas, the young kid of eighteen, who was bubbling with joy when he was told he would be bringing the jihad to Kenya? Or is it Sadam, the one who took charge when the others left? Perhaps it is Ishmail, the one who pulled me up the stairs when the Kenyan soldiers killed Samir. I cannot discern who it is. The cry of pain is universal among us men. Whoever it is, he was ready to sacrifice his life for one who deserves not such sacrifice. The gunshot that ends the sputtering sends me back to action, putting the final touches to my plans.
“Check the toilets,” I hear one of the soldiers say, in Swahili. I am not afraid. I am done now. They won’t get anything here when they manage to break the door. My hand lingers above the detonator. Then the same voice comes up again. “And you, put those pieces of jewelry in that bag.” I hear the sound of canvas falling onto the floor. The bag has been tossed. I try to understand this. Are they taking things out of the store in which we were hiding? Why? I don’t think they intend to find the owner, and hand over the things to him. Momentarily I choke with contempt and disgust. These soldiers are supposed to be fighting us, kicking us out of the building and saving the property of the Kenyans, yet here they are taking property that doesn’t belong to them. Now I understand why we’ve been able to keep the mall so long. They want to take out what they want first, before they declare the building secured. But then, my contempt and disgust pales in the shadow of my own transgressions.
There is a loud thump against the door. A kick, that was. They are here now. My time has come. Long gone are the chances I had of turning away from this. Long gone are the times I could have walked away from this fate. The juggernaut I built for myself is now hurtling, getting closer to the precipice. I deserve no more time on this planet which, impetuously, I have defiled so much with my existence. Now even if I wanted to stop, I wouldn’t be able to. The Kenyan soldiers have just proved that they are just as vile as we have been. They don’t deserve to punish me. So I will punish myself. There are now more kicks on the door. They have now suspected that something is hidden here, perhaps someone heard them. They cannot bear that happening. But now I am beyond emotion. Let them come. The door gives a sharp crack, then another.
I am now ready, ready for the punishment Allah will mete out upon me. These, my writings, will burn with me. This is the last phrase I will write.
(This story is dedicated to all who perished in, or were affected by, the attack on Westgate Mall in September, 2013)
by Mathew Odhiambo