Teaser 222: After the Battle of the Trench

I was shaking when we arrived and it didn't stop until a half-hour later. We had been attacked and everyone knew it. There was no question in anyone's mind those in the truck knew who their targets were. If the rocket had hit we all would have been dead. As it was if we couldn't disable their vehicle they eventually would have killed most of us and I was certain they wouldn't quit until they knew I was dead. All manner of discussion ensued. Asked what we should do, I simply stated we had better have a conversation with the tribal leaders right now, because they fired on one of theirs, too. I stayed out of the conversation. The outsider, me, should stay out of it. The violent faction had tipped their hand and had brazenly announced what they wanted and how they intended to get it. While I apologized to all for skipping supper and any other activity unless deemed necessary for me to address, I retired to my tent early. I pulled out one of my many books. I read the Quran all day and night.

If you're a non-Muslim from the West, like me, perhaps you've never read the Quran. I confess my version is an English translation—considered a blasphemy by many Muslims if it's not written in the original Arabic—but I have stated many times, I'm not learning your language. I have learned and continue to struggle with English. It's enough language for me. I make no exception, including Arabic, but I am not so foolhardy as to believe, incorrectly, that nothing is lost in translation, and the Quran to me is no exception to the rule either. However, if you are like me, with the lone exception that you haven't read the Quran, I strongly suggest you do so. I can assure you reading it will not turn you into an evil demon, nor even a vampire. Instead, it may enlighten you, to Muslims in general, and to a philosophy of life in particular which you have not considered...

I read the Quran as though I was a Muslim, paying particular emphasis to what a devout Muslim, a believer, a strict adherent should do when one's faith, one's honest and forthright ways of the path, are under attack. I could fight back. It's recommended in many chapters, surahs, of the Quran. I would not follow this path, not because it was unwise. I would have to enlist all my cousins in this garden, this garden of Peace, to fight with me, kill with me, die with me. I could not command this, not in good conscience. This was my battle only. That's how I saw it.

After the Battle of the Trench, when the Prophet and his community, the ummah of many tribes, fought against the members of the Prophet's own tribe from Mecca marching against Medina, outnumbered ten thousand to three thousand, the Prophet sent them back to Mecca in humiliating defeat. Soon the Prophet announced he would make the hajj to Mecca. Within the city of Mecca, the tradition of pilgrims making the hajj to the Kabah was one of enforced peace. No violence from Meccans against pilgrims from any tribe was condoned and no pilgrims were allowed weapons inside the city. Skirting around the advancing army from Mecca intended to intercept the Prophet before he reached the city, the Prophet arrived at the edge of the sanctuary, awaited the developments inside, entered the city peacefully and unarmed and made his hajj.

The next morning before we all split up for work, I gathered Alfred and Hama apart from all others. I knew from casual talk, even to a limited extent from Hama himself, that Hama knew personally others scattered around to Gao who personally knew reputed members of the violent faction. “Reputed” means they were suspected of being members but no one would go on record anywhere stating such suspicion. Typically those who did state it usually wound up dead shortly after such pronouncement. Some suspected members might be rounded up but those stating their suspicions on record were almost always murdered at some point, sometimes years later. It was like the memories of elephants. They never forget!

I told the two they were to come with me and Hama would take me to one of these people whom Hama knew could take me to the next one in line, until I was within the presence of the jihadists themselves. “It's me they want. They can have me.”

Hama, being an avowed adherent to an Islam of peace, begged me to reconsider. His English failed him so he spoke in his native tongue to Alfred. Alfred gazed at me forlornly as he said, softly, “Hama is right, Gregory. They will behead you and record it so the world can see the fate of foreigners who consider entry into their part of the world. They consider this part of the world their...”

“Ummah?” I finished for Alfred. “Only if I am a threat, a legitimate threat, to their ummah, Alfred. Let them consider it. This is what I'm willing. I leave it to the will of Allah. Should I be murdered, let it be the will of Allah. Should I be spared, let it be the will of Allah. I will not run away from the will of Allah. I shall bring that will right to their doorstep, for the longer I stay here, in hiding and safety, all who are here are in jeopardy. They want me, so let them leave all of you alone. I will give my life for yours.”

Both tried to argue and dissuade me, but I would not be dissuaded. I placed my wallet with all my cards, my passport, my cell phone, my multi-tool, and my glasses under the pillow of my cot and told Alfred to give them to Kitana when he returned. I took a sackcloth with me and placed inside it two books, and the three of us drove toward Gao without telling anyone where we were going.

During the drive Hama seemed very nervous and explained through Alfred that the men we would meet would be very nervous, too, especially if another man was in the car with Hama and me. Deliberately I looked only to Alfred and asked him if he trusted Hama enough to be left somewhere in Gao with the promise Hama would pick him up after he delivered me. When Alfred responded with no hesitation that he did, we discussed where to leave Alfred and decided the safest place for him was at the medical clinic. Once we reached Gao Hama drove to the medical clinic first and we all stepped out of the SUV. Alfred rushed to me and hugged me firmly, pleading again for me to change my mind. “This is what I must do, Alfred. You have a job to do, too, and you will do it. Please be strong for Kitana, because you will discover she does have a breaking point. When she does break, Alfred, she will need someone to lift her up. You will lift her up. Do this for me.”

Hama and I took our seats in the SUV as we waved to Alfred, and Hama soon drove into a neighborhood which seemed very middle-class for Africa. I paid no real attention to streets or our direction, other than the road we traveled was paved, which is hardly the case in almost any city in this part of the world. He pulled up before a modest house in a residential block and said to me, “This is the house, Gregory. Stay here and I will see who is home and talk with them. Do not look at the house. Keep looking forward.” I did as I was told and heard the door open and I thought I heard him go inside. I thought so because I heard nothing outside for a long time, perhaps thirty minutes. It was difficult not to look at the house, but I refused to look anywhere but forward, completely expecting should I look to either side, it would surely be my death sign. Finally I heard the door open again, footsteps to the car, and Hama opened the driver's door and sat down.

“We are to drive to another part of town where they will meet us, Gregory,” Hama advised with a grim expression. “They will surely put a sack over your head and tie your hands. Do not resist, Gregory.” When he saw my faint nod, he looked forward and started the SUV.

We drove near the outskirts of Gao and parked on a dirt road which was empty of any buildings. Small huts sat towards the town and a small number of little children were out in front of two of them but quite a distance away. They paid us no attention, except to look at us briefly. Other than the children there was no other sign of life in the area. Hama turned off the SUV and we waited for thirty minutes or more silently. Eventually all the children separated and went inside various huts. We were now alone.

Suddenly a small white van pulled up on the passenger side quickly. I heard the door on the opposite side slide open and two men wearing hoods over their heads, each carrying a Kalashnikov rifle, ran to my door, and swung it open, yelling something. Hama said, “You must get out now.” I grabbed my sackcloth, stepped out and one yanked me away from the SUV. A third man wearing a hood as did the driver appeared with a hood and pulled it down over my head, squeezed my left arm tightly and pulled me to the opposite side of the van. Before I could step inside he pushed me down toward the floor of the van. I braced myself with my arms but he grabbed both and pulled them behind my back as I relaxed, understanding they would tie my hands. Immediately I felt a tie or rope against my wrists and in seconds my hands were bound. I was pushed inside the van by all three men, feeling two of them pushing me further inside until I could feel the edge of the van, feet climbing inside, and the van door was shut. The van immediately lurched forward and I rolled slightly backward until hands held me. A deep voice speaking in a slow, halting English, said, “Give us trouble, we kill you.” I made every effort to remain motionless.

During the many intervening years since I was held captive, I always responded to the infinite number of questions by stating, “Other than the first week or so, I was well-treated.” I have never explained what happened during “the first week or so” to anyone, except to add, “I prefer not to dwell on it and speaking about it in any way will force me to dwell on it. Respect my preference. Thank you.”

- Just Desserts, Segment Twenty-SevenLost on the Dark Continent” by Gregory R. Schussele, © 2021

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