When Obonyo heard his name roll out of the President’s tongue, he could not believe it. He was ecstatic. He wanted to jump up and down in glee, and shout and kiss the President’s hand but he couldn’t. After all, it was part of being a soldier. He had to remain stoic in the face of bliss.
You see when he woke up that day, it was hot and just like every other day before it, and he hated it. There was nothing to love about being a private – the lowest ranking in the army.
He had graduated eight months ago with youthful dreams and a sweltering passion to defend his country. He was the ultimate patriot, and he was ready to die for it. He’d thought that immediately after graduating, he would be posted to the upper Rift, to fight the good fight with his fellow countrymen.
But eight months later, all that passion he’d harbored in his heart was slowly dimming into abject nothingness. He felt it go out, the glimmer, and latched on to it tightly because he knew if he let it go, he’d be nothing.
And so he held on to it when he turned and swirled ugali, and stirred hot soup for his fellow soldiers every evening, as sweat trickled down his forehead, when the corporals bullied him just because they could. And even when his seven month pregnant wife belabored him in hormonal rage, he held on.
In the eight months, he’d not left the barracks for anything beyond a presidential parade on public holidays.
In the president’s office, soft happy chatters erupted after he had left.
He’d read out a platoon of 32 soldiers to go up North and, in his own words “resolve the small situation silently.” Among them, was Obonyo, and he couldn’t be happier.
He was the youngest in the group, and he knew when he went back to the barracks, he’d be the pride among his peers. There was his big break. He couldn’t, however, predict his wife’s reaction to the news.
That evening as he ate dinner, he started,
“You know we were at State House today?”
“I heard. I was waiting for you to tell me.”
“I met the president, decent man.”
“He had some news for us. He chose me and a few other guys to go up North and neutralize a situation.”
“You know it’s classified.”
“Of course it is.”
“It’s really not the time for sarcasm, I thought you’d be happy for me.”
“Well, you don’t seem so.”
“I just hate the coincidence; that we’re almost due and you’re leaving for God knows how long with no guarantee you’ll return.”
“You knew this would happen when you married me.”
“I think you should see your first child, that’s all.”
“And I will.”
“Don’t say that. You can’t even promise you’ll be back, can you?”
Obonyo remained silent. He chose his battles wisely, and a fight with her was a guaranteed loss. He knew she was right, though. In his line of work, he was always living under borrowed time. He was at the mercy of guns and bullets and grenades.
In bed that night, he polished his boots, packed his uniform and gun, lied down and stared into the darkness, lost in thought.
The next morning was different, he could feel it by the butterflies in his stomach. He woke his wife up gently and whispered, “I’m leaving now, bye. Also, I promise I’ll be back to see our little boy.” And then, he kissed her on the forehead and left.
The smell of smoke and lead filled the air. In the distance, small fires consumed the local people’s little huts. A trail of bullets, blood and shrapnel were strewn everywhere across the battlefield. And a peaceful moon shone down bright against the ongoing pell-mell.
It was one and a half months after arriving up North, and they’d finally stormed the enemy’s base after long days and nights walking through the forest. They’d not bathed or changed clothes in a fortnight and although Obonyo loathed the stink emanating from his armpits and feet, it was the least of his worries.
The enemy had indulged them in a shootout for over two hours in a battle that they were evidently losing. Their ammo was almost `depleted from previous unexpected encounters in the forest with rebels.
Small yellow sparks flew across the sky, and with them was the uncertainty of life. Every once in a while, the soldiers’ tanker would shoot a missile at the enemy leaving a loud deafening sound that Obonyo had never gotten used to.
Bang. Bang. Bang. The guns went.
With every bang, they got closer and closer to the enemy’s base, jumping over dead bodies – bodies of men, children and women. The bullet didn’t discriminate.
During training, the soldiers were taught that night combat always favoured the enemy since it was hard for a commander to preserve control of his troop and even more difficult to fire accurately. They were also taught that fellow soldiers were brothers in battle and should protect each other no matter what. Leave no man behind, the commander would bellow, unless it’s fatal.
Obonyo had experienced all these at first hand that night. So far, two of his colleagues were dead and they’d left them behind. What bothered him most was that he didn’t feel guilty. Inside, he was as dead as his fallen colleagues.
As they approached the base, where their target was, more fire was brought down upon them. They were lucky to have reached that far and they knew it. They’d collected ammo from dead enemies and although they still weren’t matched up to, they had a slightly better chance of winning.
And so they charged forward. One bullet at a time. One body at a time.
It was looking good for them at the time. The enemy was retreating back, probably looking to flee. Until it happened.
A grenade came flying through the dense air on to where Obonyo and a few of his fellows were positioned.
He was the only one that saw it.
He knew it was over for him. It was either he did the heroic and patriotic deed and jump on the grenade and hug it tightly as it detonated – that would give his friends a chance to survive and win the fight, or run far from it and let them die.
He thought about the promise he made to his wife, to come back and see his son. He remembered her face when he woke her up that morning, sleep in her eyes and the faint bad breathe in her mouth. He felt the softness of her cheeks as he held her face to kiss her bye, and tasted her forehead on his lips when he kissed her.
And then he lurched forward and fell on the grenade, hugging it as tightly as he possibly could.
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