“Brenda, Brenda. Wake up. Wake up!”
I sleepily moan and curl up even tighter, wrapping the cover sheet closer to my body.
“Brenda, wake up. We late! Get up.” I hear the urgency in my mother’s voice and open my eyes.
“Please go use the bathroom and come help me get the children ready to leave. I woke up late and we have to leave here before daylight.”
With that, she turns to leave the room and for a moment, I am tempted to curl back into bed and as if reading my mind, I hear her say “ if you hurry up and finish with the bathroom and changing your clothes in ten minutes, I will let u play in the creek later today”.
My eyes widen in the darkness and all sleep quickly vanishes from my eyes. My mother doesn’t like me playing in the small creek where we hide out and for her to make this promise was reason enough for me to bounce out of bed quickly.
So I hurry to the bathroom and brush my teeth and wash my face. The cold water effectively removes any remaining traces of sleep from my eyes.
I leave the bathroom and hurry to the kitchen where I hear her giving out instructions to the other folks that live with us about food to pack and she hears me entering the kitchen and says “ Brenda, help me get your sister and brother ready. We have to hurry, I woke up late and it’s almost daylight. You know we have to leave here before daylight.”
I hurry to the room and wake my younger siblings. I always sort of envy them because even if they aren’t fully awake each morning, we all take turns carrying them on our backs.
You see, each day for several weeks now, my family and about five other families have been leaving our homes before daylight and hiding out the entire day in a forest close to a town called Suacoco, located in Bong County, central Liberia. We have been hiding in the forest to escape the routine indiscriminate bombings carried out by the jet bombers, or “doodoo birds” as people came to name them. I supposed people called them birds since they all soared in the sky.
My family leaves our home and get on a narrow dirt path and start our walk. We leave BCADP where we live and head for Suacoco. This walk is about 30 minutes and on a very narrow path that is overgrown with trees and grass, etc. very scary for a 13 year old and usually, I don’t say a word, only focusing on where I step. Shortly after getting on the path, we hear the heavy footsteps of the other families up ahead and soon we catch up to them. “good mornings” are thrown around and before long, we all settle back into silence.
Just before dawn, we cross the main street that leads to the town and head up to the large bush behind the Koweh’s farm where we hide out each day. By then, I am almost bursting with joy because I can’t wait to tell all the other kids that my mother has agreed to allow me to play in the creek today.
Each family is approximately 5-6 so this is about close to 30 people in one space and before long, the mothers are preparing breakfast, the older siblings like myself are expected to help bathe the younger ones and change their clothes.
The men have dug two big holes in the ground. They call them trenches. Till today, I cannot confidently say how big the holes were, but it must have been quite big to hold all the people when needed.
The grown-ups have come up with a plan of sort. The men play cards and checkers most of the day, sometimes sipping palm wine, and the women cook and chatter among themselves and play Ludo. The kids, well, we help out, but mostly basically just play. The only standing rule was “no noise”.
About midday, just before we had lunch, I hear a sound. It sounds like a car whose exhaust pipes are damaged. Loud, yet faint. Rumbling and rolling. Fading in and out. This is a sound everyone in the bush clearing knows well. We all individually stop for a few seconds, ears turned towards the sky keenly trying to listen to the sound. We all hear it again at the same time. And with a should, my uncle yells “ Everybody Inside!”
With a rush, panicked as usual, we all ran to our assigned trenches. The last grown up covers the hole with pre-cut tree branches. The hole becomes dark. Imagine. Fifteen persons crammed into one hole in the ground.
No one is allowed to make a sound. Only sound one hears is the heavy breathing from the run and excitement.
We hear the plane flies overhead and goes further down, towards central Gbarnga City. Within a few minutes, we hear the predictable loud BOOM BOOM BOOM.
Silence. And again, BOOM BOOM BOOM.
I hear my mother not far from me whispering Psalm 23. I always wondered why she would do that. Say the 23 psalm whenever the planes came. “ the Lord is my Shepard, I shall not want…”.
You see, we hid out in the bushes daily because whoever the pilots of the planes were, they didn’t discriminate when it came to bombing raids. Apparently they were told that anyone seen in that territory was considered a “freedom fighter” as we were told to call the rebels. And so the pilots would target crowded places, or anywhere they saw a gathering of people and just let lose their “eggs” as we came to call the bombs.
My family and the other families that hid out in the bushes avoided crowded places and left our homes before dawn daily and only returned after dark. Luckily for us, the area where we would hide was never bombed but where we lived was bombed many times over the next few weeks. Luckily also, the jet bombers didn’t fly at night, so we were given a few hours of reprieve.
They didn’t come daily so there were days when we were allowed to go father out from our hideouts and allowed to make a bit more noise. But always, with an ear cocked listrenign for that rumbling sound.
Suffice it to say that on that day, my mother wasn’t going to allow me anywhere near no creek to play. I was pissed. Not only would we kids now not be allowed to play our other games we could play away from the grownups, but now playing in the creek was out of the discussion. I knew better than to ask mama.
For a 13 year old, sometimes, all this seemed like one big adventure and opportunity to play with my cousins daily and escape housework. But I always dreaded the times we had to get into the trench.
Such a nice sounding word for such a difficult place to describe. A small space, a hole dug in the ground. Dark. I can still remember the smell. The smell of earth mixed with sweat and fear. Trench. Our safe place during bomb raids.
Many stories were told of the plane pilots and how they would fly over market places and suspend the planes in the air and open fire. Some say they saw them laughing. Some say they saw white people flying the planes, others said the planes came in from towards the Guinean border. Fly in, bomb, terrify and fly out. Leaving behind many dead and wounded.
The Phebe hospital folks will tell you that most of the wounded that came in were civilians. Women and children. I often wonder if any was true. And if the pilots later had regrets. I also wondered if these are people who would even be made to answer to murder. Or perhaps, all is fair in love and war, and it was war.
About 15 years after the bomb raids, I told my husband, I have to go back to see revisit some of my war years places. Bury some of my past. And although I drove to Gbarnga and visited many of the other places like Cuttington campus, BCADP, Phebe hospital, Suacoco, I couldn’t draw myself to go and see the spot where we used to hide. To see if after all this time traces of the trenches still remain. I am not sure. Call it cowardice. But I just couldn’t.
There are days I still have flashbacks and for people who never experienced those raids, you might think “oh, its just airplanes”. As anyone who lived “behind the lines” as Charles Taylor’s territory was called about their experience and nine out of ten first response would be “huhm!” and knock their thigh or chest.
It took me a very long time to hear the sound of a plane and not instinctively duck and take cover or feel that deep fear and that “dropping of my heart”. Now I can even fly on a plane!
We are told to forgive and move on. Talk and let go. Yet, in as much as I am grateful I didn’t lose any love one during those raids, I know people who did. Have they forgiven and move on? Should people be responsible be held accountable for their crimes?
Or as we Liberians do, forgive and forget. Forget the doodoo birds.