He could still hear the commotion going on a few miles from where he was, but Police Constable Jere was not really paying attention to what was going on outside. Still in riot gear, he sat in his small, old government house, alone. A glass of cheap brandy in hand, yet he had not taken a single sip from it. The day’s events still clung to his mind like moss to stone. Trying to forget what was the worst day of his career in law enforcement seemed almost impossible at this point.
The day had started out as any other. Constable Jere had reported for duty in the morning and had been included in the squad that was on Rapid Response duty. They were about to attend to a domestic disturbance in one of Lilongwe City’s townships when the call came in. The demonstration taking place in the city’s central business district had gone out of control. People had started breaking into shops, looting. They needed every man they could get now, their colleagues downtown said.
Constable Jere and about twenty other men immediately started changing into riot gear. This basically meant a helmet, teargas and a cosh, since the police had no shields. And they were allowed to carry live ammunition in case things really got out of hand. As he strapped teargas canisters to his belt and loaded his rifle, constable Jere thought about how bad things were. The police regional headquarters as well as the city police had deployed nearly all their manpower to handling the demonstration. The demonstrations themselves were not a new occurrence, with two similar situations only a few weeks before. “More unsavoury work for us,” thought Constable Jere, gloomily.
Before he left the station, constable Jere made a telephone call, warning his wife about the situation. They lived only a few metres away from his office, within the police compound, but he could not personally go home at this point.
“In fact, I think it is a good idea to go to your sister’s right now. She stays further away from the city than us. Take the children with you. You will be safe there.”
“Are we not safe here? We live inside the police compound,” his wife responded with a chuckle. “What could possibly happen?”
“I am not saying anything will, but we are only a few minutes’ walk from the city hub where the demonstration is going on and I am not taking any chances. Just get the children and go to your sister’s.”
As he got into the police Toyota Land Cruiser for the short trip downtown, Constable Jere could hear the noise. And what now sounded like gunfire. Teargas, he thought, correctly. The cruiser sped off, with the constable now thinking about the chaos that seemed to reign all across the country. “Whatever and whoever the cause,” he thought, “it is usually the innocent who end up losing a lot. Not to mention some of us who blindly follow orders.”
Constable Jere knew exactly what the demonstration was about. The people were protesting against the current political administration again. Its lack of political tolerance and its failure to competently run the country’s economy were what the protesters cited as the main reasons for their discontent. But, what greeted the constable as soon as he got out of the police Land Cruiser told him a completely different story.
* * *
Vuto’s eyes still stung terribly, but at least it seemed the worst had passed. He had followed the example of the men around him and splashed water on his eyes. That seemed to reduce the effects of the teargas. He could see clearly now. He could still feel the rush of adrenaline that had surged when he picked up stone and hurled it at the police vehicles. He had not seen where the stone landed, but the action itself had produced an orgasmic feeling within him, making him feel that he was indeed part of the group. The two police vehicles were still blocking the road, keeping the people away from what mattered most. But that excitement was waning, and he was very afraid by now. But, he could not return empty handed. In the chaos a few minutes ago, some of his friends had managed to grab a few things from the Kwiksave. Kambonga had managed to grab an entire bale of sugar, while Foster made off with some kilos of juicy frozen beef. Only Vuto had nothing. They would definitely mock him at the end of this confusion. With fresh resolve, Vuto kept his eyes fixed on the entrance to the Kwiksave, patiently waiting for the chaos to break out again.
* * *
The streets were littered with broken glass, plastic papers were strewn everywhere. Small stones and a few large boulders blocked parts of many of the roads downtown. And that was not all. Most of the shops, especially where the police officers were, had been broken into. The locks and security bars were broken, as were the windows and doors. Some items in the shops were clearly missing. A bit further down the main street, multitudes of people stood in confrontation with the police. A few of them were carrying stones and most of them jumped up and down like men possessed, chanting freedom slogans. Two huge, blue armoured police vehicles were parked right in front of the people, blocking the road. There were four police Land Cruisers right behind the armoured vehicles, as reinforcements.
“These people have gone completely mad,” said Sergeant Nkhuni, Constable Jere’s immediate commanding officer. He had been one of the first officers on the scene. Apparently, he had asked for the reinforcements. “Each time we use teargas on them, they throw the canisters back at us. We have only managed to move them from here to down there by the bridge. We prevented them from looting more shops. But, they keep trying to come back up, the bastards!”
It was from the sergeant that Constable Jere learnt the truth about what had led to all this. The people had been marching to the city’s community centre in an orderly fashion when the police officers who were providing security had turned on them. They had received fresh orders to stop the demonstration which, ironically, the police themselves had been notified of. The City’s mayor and the district commissioner had also been notified. The demonstrators had therefore argued against the police’s new orders, insisting they had obtained permission. When the police had moved to disperse the crowd, all hell had broken loose.
“Three officers have already been injured and have been taken to the hospital. We have to end this. Soon. There is already talk of involving the military in all this. I cannot let that happen. I will not let the country think that we are incompetent,” continued the sergeant, infuriated.
Constable Jere said nothing. His eyes were focused on the blue armoured cars, which had now slowly started advancing towards the mob. As if on cue, the Land Cruisers also pushed forward. The people stood still, defiant. Some even threw stones at the advancing law enforcers. But the armoured vehicles now picked up speed, going straight at the protesters, their menacing grilles and huge tyres a few inches away from them. Constable Jere looked at his sergeant, just in time to see the superior officer nod his head.
* * *
Vuto could not believe his eyes. The vehicles were coming straight for them! There was a bespectacled man standing next to him. He looked quite rich, dressed in a shiny black, very well pressed suit, and shiny pointed shoes. He was loudly encouraging the other protesters to stand firm, vehemently stating that the law did not allow the Police to injure innocent civilians. He used some difficult words that Vuto did not understand. Anyway, although he was now terrified, Vuto was more interested in the shop. His chance would come soon. Today, he would bring food home. Everyone seemed focused on the vehicles, wondering how close they would come.
* * *
Constable Jere heard the screams even before his head swung back towards the protesters. He was just in time to see one of the Land Cruisers plough through a group of people. A few of them managed to get out of the way but most of them were not as fortunate. The cruiser went through them like it was driving through tall grass. Two people were thrown in the air and came crashing back down on the tarred road. The rest were simply swept aside; one even got caught by one of the Land Cruiser’s tyres. The armoured vehicles were shooting cans of teargas, most of which fell near the people who were already injured and could not get away. Even some of the police officers were horrified and looked away.
Constable Jere turned to Sergeant Nkhuni to protest. “Sergeant! These are civilians! We cannot just do this, they are our fellow countrymen!”
“They are enemies of the state today, Constable,” replied the police sergeant, calmly. “We have orders to stop this demonstration by any means necessary and that is what we are going to do.”
“Orders from whom?!”
“Remember who you are addressing, Constable. Now, I suggest you stop questioning your orders and do your job, like the rest of your colleagues.”
A few of the Constable’s colleagues, in fact, seemed to be enjoying themselves. The officers who were in the Land Cruisers had got out of their vehicles, leaving only the drivers. With their batons, they beat up the people who had either been hit by the vehicles or were too slow to run. The other protesters had managed to get away and were now across the bridge, running. Sergeant Nkhuni let out a low chuckle, delight spread across his face.
* * *
People screaming. Police sirens blaring. The loud discharge of ejected teargas canisters. The serpentine hiss of pressurised smoke exiting the canisters. This all made for a frenzy of noises that made Vuto feel like he was in a movie. He saw a woman lying down by the roadside nearby, her dress dyed a deep red from blood. She was trying to drag herself to safety. At that moment, he realised he could do without getting anything from the Kwiksave. All he wanted was to get as far away from the scene as possible. But he could not see which way to go.
* * *
“We have them running. I doubt they will try something else after this. Let us round them up and then take the injured to the hospital. Some of them are in very bad shape and so are some of our officers,” ordered the sergeant, with no trace of either sympathy or remorse.
Constable Jere did not hear him. He had already moved away from the backup vehicles where the sergeant was standing. He went to help carry the wounded police officers and civilians. Most of the officers had minor injuries. They had headaches and chest pains from the stones people had thrown. But with the civilians, it was worse. Some had broken legs, victims of the police’s vehicular misdemeanours. Others were bleeding through their ears and mouths; some were holding their arms and sides in pain. The lucky ones who had crossed the bridge which connected the upper and lower sides of the district now stood by and watched.
With most of the injured now taken to hospital, only a few of the police cars remained. There were now only the two armoured vehicles and two Land Cruisers on the scene. Assuming that this meant most of the police officers had left with the injured, the group which had crossed the bridge now started coming back, reorganised.
The sergeant noticed. “They just won’t give up, will they?” He did not have time to say anything else before stones started coming from the crowd, which was now growing again. The officers took cover behind the Land Cruisers and the shops which had been vandalised. The armoured vehicles, which had now backed up a few metres, were also being pelted with stones.
“Sir, I suggest we use more teargas!” Constable Jere shouted above the noise of the people’s anti-government chants.
“We have already tried that, constable! Before and after you got here! We are going to try something stronger!”
“Are we going to notify the defence force?” Constable Jere asked, hopefully.
“We most certainly are not! We are going to fire warning shots! If they still won’t stop, fire directly at them!”
“Sir, I do not think…” Constable Jere began. But Sergeant Nkhuni did not listen.
“Everyone fire in the air! Now!”
And everyone obliged. Even the constable. Shots were fired in the air, but most of the civilians kept coming, with a few stopping. They kept on coming, chanting, throwing stones.
“I have had enough of this! Everyone, start firing at them!” Sergeant Nkhuni bellowed. This time, most of the police officers hesitated.
“Sergeant, this is not necessary,” interjected constable Jere. “Let us call in the military and let them…”
“Enough!” barked the sergeant. “We are not calling the military! There is no need to call them! Do you see those people? Do you think they are going to stop and wait for your beloved military to get here? They come within a few feet of us and we are dead. Do you really think they will let us go after what we have done to their friends today? If you want to see your family again, fire on them! Now! That is an order!”
Constable Jere took another look at the advancing crowd and fear gripped him. The sergeant was right. These people were not going to let them go. Not after what his fellow officers had done. Fear then led to the need for self-preservation. Therefore, all the while trying to convince himself that this was strictly under Sergeant Nkhuni’s orders, constable Jere fired.
* * *
Nobody would know how much he had wanted to get away. How much he had decided that the chaos in the streets was not exciting anymore. That there was no longer any excitement in feeling the weight of a stone and hurling it at the police, who, he had been told, were the enemy, the ‘arm of government machinery,’ the law-man had said.
In the following day, he would be reduced to a mere statistic that the protest organisers would use to criticise the police for their hard-handed tactics; a mere figure among the casualties that the government would employ to criticise the protest organisers for using ignorant children to serve their purposes.
* * *
Constable Jere did not immediately see what he had done. All he saw was that the mob had now turned back, running. But a few of them were not running. They couldn’t. They lay sprawled on the tarmac road, injured or dead. The boy constable Jere had shot, however, stood in front of him. He looked like he was still in his teens. There was a large hole in the middle of his chest and blood was pouring from it. His right hand was outstretched, index finger pointing directly at the constable. He took a step forward, his shirt a bloodied mess, and fell flat on his face.
Constable Jere stood transfixed, as he slowly took in what he had done. He did not move, still in the same stance that he had taken when firing, rifle still raised. Sergeant Nkhuni walked over to him. “You can lower your gun now, constable. I do not think they will be coming back.” But Constable Jere did not hear his commanding officer. All he could see was the boy, pointing, with a gaping hole in his chest. What finally brought the constable back to reality was when he felt hard, calloused hands close on his own. It was the sergeant, lowering the rifle and then taking it from Constable Jere.
“I think you should go home, constable. It has been a hard day for all of us. But, most of the work here is done anyway. Get some rest.”
Constable Jere said nothing. He looked at his sergeant sadly, and walked away, getting into a police Land Cruiser. Sergeant Nkhuni stared after him, then at the dead bodies before him and shook his head. This had been messy. Questions would be asked and heads would roll, his at the top of the list. But, what had happened here was necessary, he told himself. Sergeant Nkhuni turned again to stare at Constable Jere; the Land Cruiser his subordinate was in now leaving the scene. Then he got back to what he did best; issuing orders.
There was no one home when the constable finally got there. He remembered sending his wife and children to his sister-in-law’s. His children. The eldest was thirteen. The Constable poured himself a brandy and sat down. The boy he had shot was probably a few years older than his first born. He still had his whole life ahead of him. Constable Jere wondered if his children would ever forgive him if they found out. He wondered if the world would look at him and his fellow officers the same way again. And he also wondered what the public would think of their current leaders, who were so oppressive that they now allowed their own people to be butchered just to prevent them from speaking out.
It was then that Constable Jere decided that he did not want to find out. He went to his bedroom, took out his personal revolver. He came back to the living room, brandy still untouched. He thought about all the things he and his fellow officers had done that day, while he loaded the revolver. He thought about all the families that would be mourning their loved ones that week, while he cocked the gun. Putting the barrel of the revolver to his temple, he thought about the public outrage, about his wife, his children.
The city sky was tinted with grey smoke, the air fouled by fumes from burning tyres. To Constable Jere, a reminder of the day’s unfortunate events. When the police officers came for him, the gun was on the table, with Constable Jere just staring at it. Out of respect for a fellow officer, they did not handcuff him when he was taken to the waiting police car. And, as they sped off, Constable Jere thought about why he had not pulled the trigger on himself. He was a coward. A coward who had shot an unarmed boy but could not pull the trigger on himself. And he was a coward for wanting to take his own life in the first place. But not anymore. He would face trial and a probable jail sentence. He would stand with Sergeant Nkhuni and the rest of his fellow officers who had been arrested. He would take responsibility for his actions.
Image: Ramakrishna Reddy Y via Flickr