A million walking corpses migrated on foot to that arid, dusty hellhole, forced from their huts and rural hovels by persistent drought and growing famine. They were ragged, unwashed. To my newly-arrived colleagues, the stench was overwhelming. But then personal hygiene was the least of the refugees’ worries as they trekked across half a country, leaving a trail of corpses in shallow graves for the wild animals to dig up later. The first to succumb were the sick, the elderly and infants suckling on milk-less dugs.
Tents had sprung up as far as you could see, low rickety structures made from tree branches and food aid sacks. Smoke from cooking fires hung over the encampment. Loyal farm dogs that had followed their masters to this purgatory, prowled and scavenged for scraps until hunger compelled them to seek food elsewhere.
We aid workers lived in portable cabins. We were protected from grim reality by perimeter fences topped with barbed wire and by locally-hired guards wielding wooden clubs. The guards also kept the emaciated refugees in line whenever an aid truck arrived. Meanwhile, I ticked off the contents of the lorry cargoes and worked out what percentage of each shipment had been stolen.
My boss, the Director of Aid Distribution, watched proceedings through the chain link fencing. He often sat in a deckchair, G&T in hand. I thought him impassionate until we discovered him hanging in the makeshift shower room we had erected, hidden from the sight of the unwashed hordes.
I’m in an impossibly well-stocked supermarket, incapable of deciding which brand of garden peas to buy. The variety intimidates me. The voices of shoppers discussing the earth-shattering trivialities of their lives make me unaccountably angry. I want to grab their whiny kids by the collar, stare into their eyes and project what I’ve seen and experienced into their minds.
At the checkout a woman is complaining about being charged full price on a three-for-two dog food offer.
I lose it. “I hope your dog eats your face off!” I yell.
Next thing I’m outside the supermarket, hyperventilating. The skin on my upper arms bears red, hand-sized grip marks. Two security guards are checking I’m okay, that they haven’t hurt me. Their voices drip pity.
The new director had our cabins moved upwind, away from the stink of death, away from our ringside seats witnessing mass starvation’s daily progression.
A French aid worker went jogging one morning, dressed in shorts, sleeveless vest, brand name trainers, oblivious to her incongruity. She looked as if she were running beside the Seine. A pack of canines, one-time farm dogs, chased her away. These animals were the reason refugees had stopped collecting firewood.
A lorry driver, staying overnight after the daily melee of food distribution, furiously reacted to the disappearance of a chocolate bar he had stored in a fridge full of rehydration drinks.
The beneficiaries of the chocolate are a refugee family. I kicked a football about with the two boys before they got too weak and stick-legged to run about. I didn’t even know their names. It made things easier if the worst came to the worst, like farmers not naming their animals so they could remain detached when their livestock went for slaughter. The boys lived in a sackcloth lean-to with their mother and little twin sisters. The faithful dog that had guarded their maize fields in another lifetime had abandoned them, deserting to the feral pack.
I divided the chocolate bar into slabs, told them to let it melt on their tongues. Their stomachs couldn’t take solid food anymore.
I awaken suffering from night sweats. A dog’s barking. My wife has woken up, too. She looks worried about me. I smile reassuringly. I tell her I’m going downstairs to watch TV. She smiles understandingly.
The barking continues. It gives me the heebie-jeebies.
Instead of watching television, I sneak out in my nightgown and pyjamas. From the shed I select a garden spade and go searching. I silence the mutt with a single blow. I use the flat face of the blade, crushing the creature’s skull.
Relief washes over me, followed by horror, followed by regret.
The incident makes the local newspaper. Consternation reigns over a dog’s demise.
A commotion started in the displaced people’s camp after midnight. The Director called for a lockdown of the offices and accommodation block. The guards, likewise, reacted circumspectly. Night time was a great leveller, even if you were well-fed and carried a club.
Screaming was emanating from the quarter where my starving refugee family stayed. I took a flashlight and ventured out. In the distance I discerned growling and barking. In a stumbling run I made my way through the fetid byways between the tents. Frightened faces stared out, but no one emerged from the fraudulent safety of these flimsy shelters.
The two boys, hollow-eyed and pot-bellied, stood outside the wreckage of their lean-to, mouthing words that wouldn’t come. Their mother lay on the ground. A smouldering stick, grabbed from the communal cooking fire, lay in her hand where she had tried to ward off Death. Her throat had been torn out. Blood still dribbled from the gaping wound. Paw-prints and two sets of drag marks led away from the scene.
Somewhere beyond the camp an exultant howling filled the darkness.
Emily, my daughter, wants a puppy. It’s a natural request from a child. I can find no objection, except for the one I can’t share, of that dead woman’s image, imprinted on the backs of my eyelids every time I close my eyes. I’m supposed to be the big man, to protect my family, but the flashbacks, nightmares and fits of temper are corroding the ‘me’. I can’t trust myself to behave rationally around my family anymore, let alone around a puppy.
I’m not suicidal. So the alternative is the road, a cross country trek, and anonymity in which I can lose myself in a netherworld of homeless folk, or in a deep forest.
Paul Freeman works in the Middle East.