War is not nice

It has become quiet in the room. Seven women have pulled their chairs into a close circle, attentive to what is about to unfold. The door is closed and the sounds from beyond it (the voice of a child, the shrill ring of a cell phone, the clatter of coffee mugs in the kitchen) are fading from consciousness. In our hands we each hold a piece of paper with a single word, written in thick indelible ink. Words we have chosen to imbue with the power to speak- father, mother, village, grandmother, school, politics, home. We are here in the now, still and present for each other. Eyes are turned inward and then slowly return their focus on to the other. Whose word is ready to speak?

Mimi leans forward, offers her word in outstretched hands like an offering. Today she wears faded jeans with an old yellow T-shirt, her feet in oversized flip-flops that have seen better days. The skin on her bare arms is dry and grey from the lack of Vaseline and her attempt to hide her unkempt hair underneath a headscarf of indiscriminate colour has only been partly successful, as tired strands frame an even more weary face. Yet her eyes and voice betray the sheepish anticipation of a child which makes us re-shuffle our feet, open our hands, and lean towards her like sunflowers towards the sun. My word, she says, is politics. And her broken English breaks open the word and sends its fragments like shrapnel into our hearts:

What I can say about politics is that it is not nice. Politics is war. They have born us into war and war it still is now.

I am here in this country because of the war in my province. All my life there has been war in my province. War is not nice. We are born into war and the war does not stop. Now my second son says he needs to be a soldier. He says he is supposed to go back and fight. Because you see, his father disappeared because of the war. I am not lucky. There is no end.

Mimi takes a deep breath, her lined face smoothing out into that of young girl, ten perhaps, or twelve as she later tells us:

We are playing at night and we don’t see the soldiers, until they call us “rushka, rushka.” Some girls go with them. They never come back. We don’t know where they have taken them. And you can’t be left in the house, because the soldiers can come and take you out. They go with you into the bush and then you have to cook for them, and become wives for them, living in the bush. So politics is not nice for me. It is war, war, war. In the morning we see people running away. We follow them, running. I don’t know where my mother is. I run. Even the small children they are running, two or three years old, no mother. And you can’t help them because you too are running.

She becomes breathless now, her face flushed and stricken, the words fast and agitated:

You run to the trenches on the side of the road, you go there. The water smells bad, but you jump inside because the big bombs are coming-brrrrrr, brrrrr, brrrrrr. And you sleep there. You can see people, their legs gone, their hands gone. And the others who burn inside their houses.

There is a long, silent pause. Nobody in the circle moves. We are listening to the sound of exploding grenades and stepping over dis-membered bodies that only a few seconds ago held the breath, hopes and dreams of a mother, a father, a child. Mimi’s voice fades into a distant whisper:

Oh, war is not nice.

And then she picks herself up, pulls at her fingers as though counting her luck on both hands:

But I can say we were lucky. I was not running far. I ran to the trench. Sometimes we can run all of us together, as a family we can run. But most of the time we just run from where we are, and we come back to meet at our house, even if the house is broken. My brother never came home. Even my cousin went missing. Many people went missing. But I was lucky. I knew the place. If it starts, I will run, fall down, jump into the ditch, sleep there. It is better there. The insects bite me, but I have life. And when it is finished I go home again. Our home was broken time and again. Nothing was left, everything was broken. Then we make a tent house until the government helps us build the house again. Maybe after two months, three months it all starts again. We go to sleep wearing takkies and jeans, we sleep like that. We never sleep in night clothes. Because if it starts in the night, we have to run. And in the morning our mother tells us to eat, before we do anything. You eat, you take your bag and you start to work in the house. If it starts, we can run.

The sound of many takkie-clad feet running down a dusty village road stirs the group, its echo waking abandoned memories and throwing dark shadows into our circle, the ghosts of babies left behind in burning homesteads. With desperate courage Mimi grabs a tiny ghost with both hands, gives him a name, and another chance at life:

Myself, I did that too. Joao was just born. He is my first-born. He is sleeping on the bed with the blanket. And when the time is to run, I take the blanket and I run. I run, I run, I run. I feel that the blanket is not heavy. But I run. And then I feel again that the blanket is not heavy, and I open it up, and I see it is only a blanket. No baby. I have a problem now. People are running. They say, leave it. They say, I will die if I
run back. But I run back, I don’t care. I run because he is my baby. I run to the house and I find him there sleeping.

We all laugh with relief. The baby is safe and motherhood has been redeemed. And then an uneasy hush falls back on us like a once soft baby blanket, now limp, stained and frayed:

War is bad. So we grow up like this. We thought it was all going to be fine. We still think it is all going to be fine. And if I go home now, it will be the same. My children will be running away, and they will be thinking that it will be fine, one day. Year after year, they will be thinking that. War is not nice.

Mimi leans back.

That is my story.

And the circle of seven women on black plastic chairs holds her sorrow.

Johanna Kistner: 12 May 2014