My coffee had just arrived when I heard it. Takka-takka-takka.
I was sitting at a café in Pala with one other patron and the owner. We all froze staring out the large front windows. Then again. Takka-takka-takka. Closer.
A man raced by carrying an AK-47. That was enough for the owner who retreated to the back room of his shop. The other patron got up, poked his head out the front door and then ran.
I was alone and the gunfire was getting bigger. I could hear a deeper POM-POM-POM echoing nearby. Heavy artillery. Something was going down. APR? UFLL? I needed to find out.
I ran into the street and spotted two soldiers cutting through the street and down an alley. I chased after them at a distance keeping my head low. The gunfire was much louder on the street and seemed to be centred north of the café.
The soldiers disappeared at a corner and I followed after them…big mistake. I came around the corner and practically ploughed straight into them. They were hunched low reloading their weapons. Both Africans, local soldiers, they levelled their weapons at me. One of them shouted, “Which side you? Which side you?!”
I threw my arms up, “Journalist, journalist!” That calmed them down and they both returned to reloading their weapons. They couldn’t care less about a journalist. I asked who they were fighting and got the most curious answers. One man said, “APR” but the second replied, “No no, UFLL. UFLL.”
I asked, “Who are you fighting for?” But before I got a reply, a truck rumbled down the alley beside us. The men onboard spotted us and opened fire. The tiny lane exploded into bits of concrete and dust as I sprinted away with the two soldiers. I could feel chunks of the walls smack against me. God knows how I wasn’t hit!
We turned a corner and kept sprinting. The three of us running like a pack. I should have broken away from them. I was being mistaken for a soldier. But my mind was too scared to break off alone. There was strange comfort in the group.
We spun down another alleyway and collapsed into a small courtyard. No sound but our panting breaths. Far off we heard more pop-pop of gunfire. But we weren’t being chased anymore.
I caught the eye of one of the soldiers. We both grinned, an adrenalin rush from the near-death chase. Then we heard, “Aww, fuck”.
The second soldier was lying flat out examining a wound near his gut. He’d been shot and it looked bad. Very bad. The first soldier knelt by his friend then asked me for medicine. I just stared at him and shrugged. Obviously a bad response, but I was honestly at a loss what to do. Why he thought I’d have medicine, I don’t know.
He aimed his rifle at me deadly serious, “Medicine”. I scanned the courtyard and could just make out a shop on the next street. I told him I’d go and see what I could find. He nodded and I rushed out the courtyard.
Back on the street, the crack of gunfire was louder. I saw a band of men crouched behind a large dumpster. Five foreign mercenaries. They looked American and English. They were exchanging fire with someone close by. The bullets made a ‘zing’ sound every time they struck the dumpster. I backed away and turned toward the shop. I didn’t need a bullet ricocheting my way. Or worse, they might spot me and start firing.
I entered the shop. The owners, a young man and woman, peered over the counter from the back of the room. I shouted for medicine. The man pointed to a shelf. I grabbed all the bandages, gauze and pain tablets - everything that I could. How the bloody hell would this stop a gut shot? I asked how much but the man just waved me away.
I stood outside and realized I’d lost my bearings. Where was the courtyard? For a moment, I considered whether I should return at all. What if the soldier was already dead? Would I be blamed? Would the other soldier turn on me?
But I had to go back. Together we might just be able to save him. I ran towards what I guessed was the courtyard. Every 50 meters, I had to stop and tuck into a doorway or dumpster. Mercs seemed to be everywhere with bullets popping from every direction. And yet still I couldn’t guess who was fighting whom.
And who knew there were so many goddamned courtyards in this little town? All of them empty. I ran into one courtyard thinking it must be the one. But it was empty. I turned to leave when I spotted a thick trail of blood. And there, where the soldier had been lying, was a puddle of blood that trailed across the courtyard and into a dark passage.
I followed the trail cautiously. I couldn’t hear a sound. Were they hiding? Was someone else with them? I didn’t dare call out. I stepped through the entryway pleading with my eyes to adjust to the dark.
I saw a foot. Then a leg. A body was lying in the dark. It was the soldier but he was alone. I came closer and his face came into focus. Dead. Eyes wide, frozen in terror. His hands were gathered around his wound.
The other soldier was gone. He must have fled after he dragged him to this corner. I stared out to the courtyard. Empty save for the trail of blood leading to me. That’s when a new panic hit me.
And as if reading my fears, a merc stepped into the courtyard. He spotted the blood and his eyes followed it. He seemed to look right at me hidden in the dark as he raised his rife, an Uzi. He was American wearing heavy body armour and khaki pants, and he was stepping closer. I had to say something soon if I didn’t want to be riddled in bullets.
As delicately and clearly as I could, I said “I’m unarmed. A journalist”.
He stopped. Ordered me out with arms raised. Once in the open, he looked me over presumably trying to see where the blood came from. “Who else is there?” I told him the man was dead.
Staring into the dark passage, he asked, “You positive he’s dead?” I said yes. No sooner did the words leave my lips than he launched a barrage of bullets inside.
He stopped and my ears were ringing from the noise. The Uzi’s nozzle leaked a trail of smoke. All else was quiet.
“Yeah, he’s dead.” Then he turned and disappeared into the street.
After an hour of sneaking and hiding, I found my way back to the motel room I’d rented for the night. The next morning I tried to determine what had happened the day before. But still no one could give a clear answer. It might have been the APR or the UFLL or both. It might have been rogue mercs letting off steam. The UFLL immediately issued a statement blaming the APR for the chaos. Two hours later, the APR released a near identical statement blaming the UFLL.
And for this, that soldier died terrified and alone in that dark doorway.