I still get nightmares.
Although the soldiers had been there for days, all was still calm in our little village. No one sensed what was coming. No one was prepared.
Remember the Night of Fire? I woke up gasping for air, choking on the thick smoke that filled my family’s hut. My eyes stinging, I crawled for the door, bumping into something small and soft along the way. It was my baby brother, Fisha. I scooped him into my arms, and together, we fled our burning home.
The night sky was ablaze. Everywhere I looked, the homes of our neighbors were in flames. The rattle of gunfire split the air and mingled with screams. People ran through the streets in panic.
I spotted Teacher Hosanna racing in my direction. “Run, Tadelech!” The terror in her voice made my knees weak. “The soldiers are attacking. You must flee!” I didn’t think. I held Fisha tight and ran away from our home, away from the burning village. We took cover in the darkness of the bush, not fearing the attack of some wild animal, but of bad men with weapons and fire.
When morning came, we dared to approach the now silent village. A few huts still stood, but most had been burned to the ground. Some were still burning quietly, as though no one remained to extinguish the fires. Fisha and I stared at the blackened rubble where our hut had once stood. Where our parents had been sleeping. Tendrils of dark smoke still rose from the ashes. Something sour rose in my throat.
“Tadelech!” someone said. I spun around. There stood Emebet, the mother of two of our schoolmates. She glowered down at me. “You,” she said. A wild light blazed in her eyes, like flames. “This is all your doing!”
Alarmed, I took a step back. Emebet shook her finger in my face. “You brought this misery upon our village. Ghost! Devil girl!” She swung her arms, shooing me like a dog. Again, I fled, taking Fisha with me. I didn’t know where to go. I didn’t know what to do. And then I saw you near the river.
I cannot tell you what it was like to see that you were still alive. I half-laughed, half-sobbed, clutching onto you as though I were drowning and you were a floating branch.
“How did you survive?” I asked.
“Teacher Hosanna led me here in the night,” you said. “She waited until morning, but she had to go look for her family. She said we must go up the river to the camp.”
“And your parents?” I asked. But I already knew by the dull look in your eyes, and the flatness of your voice. We were stones, you and I. But deep inside the stone, a wet, dark grief was hiding, waiting to be exposed. Hand-in-hand, the three of us trudged up the river, not talking about the night of terror, the soldiers, the things we had seen. At last, we arrived at the refugee camp, which was crowded with people who had survived the atrocities of the soldiers. Very few were from our village. My parents were not among them. Neither were yours.
We were alone, all alone in the world, except for one another. You squeezed my hand. And the rock split open.
That is all I can write for now, dear friend. My tears are already smudging the words I have written.