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Alone with somewhere to go

by John Woz Jr, 2 months ago in Adventure

In search of a better life: The journey from Africa to Europe

Alone with somewhere to go
Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

The brothers stopped at the side of the dusty track. Youseff, the older of the two sat down. Miles of walking and running, searching for food and water tired him. Hichan urged him to keep moving.

"Let's go Youseff. We must keep walking. The sea is not far," said Hichan.

Youseff shook his head, he was thirsty and hungry. His sandals rubbed his feet raw, they looked like they had walked their last kilometre. The arduous journey from Wau, to Kribi, on the Cameroon coast had taken its toll.

The decision to flee South Sudan

Hichan had drive. The 19-year-old had a dream to study history at university. His older brother only knew football. At 24, Youseff's dream of playing in Europe's top leagues faded away.

Life was difficult for Youseff and Hichan. Things had deteriorated since criminal networks took control of their native South Sudan. Youseff saw his father beaten to death for refusing to work in the illegal mining operations. Their mother became another malaria statistic. She died before having the chance to see her sons making good of their life.

It was the night before Christmas. The village pastor warned the brothers their lives were at risk from the illegal miners. The leader of their congregation was a good friend of their father. He urged the brothers to flee the country's troubles.

Mane (pronounced mah-naay) was tall. He was stern faced and bearded with a strong jaw, sparse eyebrows and piercing eyes. His arms were as thick as tree tunks. At six foot four, standing at 210 pounds-the pastor had a look of authority.

"My boys. This is not the life your father wanted for you. I have $520, take the money, and head north. The sun rises in the east, keep it to your right and keep walking until you reach the sea. I will drive you away from here, to the outskirts of Kajok. It's one hour away. I have prepared two packs. Between them is a small medical kit, some food, a spare pair of shoes, a hammock and a machete. Do not sleep at the same time, stay vigilant. Your journey is dangerous, but it is better then staying here," said Mane.

"What will you do?", said Hichan.

"Don't worry about me. It will be dark soon. Grab what you need and meet me by my truck. There is water in the back. Drink plenty, it could be your last for a while," said Mane.

Hichan stood in silence. He bowed his shaven head, stretching his long fingers. He stared at the sun baked mud and the lengthening of the shadows.

"We must go brother," said Youseff.

The brothers turned to look at thier primitive family home for one last time. Would they ever see the home again? They could hear shouting coming from the other side of the village.

"Come boys, get into the truck. We must hurry," said Mane.

Hichan climbed into the back. He began to weep as he gripped the bags with all his strength. Youseff climbed into the passenger seat clutching his father's bible. "Thank you, Lord," he said.

Mane started the vehicle. He selected drive and accelerated out of the village, and away from the imminent danger. The trio were free. Their hearts raced with a mix of anxiety and adrenaline.

The vehicle sped out of the village, heading north along the mettle track. Hichan closed his eyes in disbelief that they were fleeing their boyhood home. Youseff watched the endless trees flashing passed the window.

The whites of Mane's eyes lit up like a beacon as he checked his mirror, he tightened his grip on the steering wheel. "Boys. We are being followed," he said.

The boys spun in their seats to look through the rear window. They could see a pair of headlights a kilometre behind them. Hichan felt a shortness of breath.

Youseff spoke, "Keep driving Mane. Do you think it's the rebels?" he said.

Mane didn't say anything. Sweat ran down his face, as he accelerated as hard as he could. They could not outrun the vehicle, and the tyres threw up plumes of dust. The light faded as the sun set on another African day. Mane turned turned off his lights to evade the persuer. The pastor knew driving without lights was dangerous.

Youseff controlled his breathing. He turned his head in hope the headlights were no longer there. A twinkling of lights shone through the tree line. They were being followed. He closed his eyes and prayed for safe passage.

The truck weaved its way around a series of tight bends. Darkness made driving stressful. As the truck navigated around the bend a wave of fear hit Mane. He could see headlights in the distance. The criminals networks operated at night. They established road blocks to extort, kidnapp and steel vehicles of high value. It could be them, he thought.

Mane hit the brakes, and selected reverse, stepping on the gas. "Hold on boys. That could be a rebel checkpoint ahead. We will have to get out and evade on foot. Boys, please. When I stop, grab your bags and and prepare to run. We will head north by north west," he said.

The vehicle stopped. Mane and the brother left the vehicle with their primative belongings. Mane took the keys and tossed them deep into the forest. It was dark and they could hear the sound of the approaching vehicle. Adrenaline overtook all senses. They were running for their lives.

A sense of urgency came from Mane's voice. "Stay close together, and do not speak boys. We must move fast," he said.

On the run in the name of survival

By Chris Bolin on Unsplash

The trio of escapees ran for what seemed like an eternity. They had been on foot for a few minutes. Mane, out of breath, stopped by a small clump of trees. He whispered to the brothers. "Let's stay here for two minutes. Check your footwear and belongings. Strain your ears, and listen for the patrols," he said.

The sound buzzing of insects dominated the sound of the African plain. Shouting alerted them in the distance to their left. Mane tapped each boy on the shoulder, signalling them to follow him. He did not know if the criminals had experienced trekkers in their ranks.

Mane's time in the Kenyan Army tought him how to survive in the wilderness. Training with the British Army taught him new skills. He picked up a handful of stones, placing them in his right pocket. After judging a distance of 500 meters, he took out a stone and put it in his left pocket.

Youseff did not like the outback. He was happy at home or on the football pitch. The older of the brothers strained his eyes, looking for signs of hungry animals.

The cold of the night ate at their bones. Silence. Mane stopped, kneeling in front of the brothers. He tugged at their shirts, gesturing them to kneel. "Brothers, we must keep moving, or we will feel the chill. Take a small sip of water, but screw the cap tight, after you have finished. Water is precious. We must keep off the skyline, we do not want to give our position away," said Mane.

The walked for hours, navigating the rocks, ravines, thorny bushes, and open country. Mane counted 14 stones in his left pocket. Youseff was fit, but his younger sibling did not have the stamina to walk for long periods. It was almost midnight. They had walked for almost 7Km.

Hichan did not want to walk anymore. Mane's leadership taught him never to leave a man behind. He told Youseff to sit, turning to meet the younger brother. "Ok boys, we can rest for 30 minutes. Lay down next to each other. Share your body heat," said Mane.

Thousands of stars danced in the darkness of the sky, like angels of life. Youseff looked up to the heavens. He searched for signs of the Plough, tracing the end, towards the North Star. Hichan closed his eyes, and prayed for safe passage.

The Dream of the four legged beast

Hichan drifted into a deep sleep. A lion stood on two legs, wielding a knife and the head of his prey. Lunge after lunge, the knife threatened Hichan with slashes and thrusts. He could smell the beast, but he could not move. Fear rooted him to the spot.

Shaking, Hichan thrashed out with his leg, before letting out a loud cry for help. Mane shook the boy. "Hichan, Hichan, wake up," he urged. Startled, he awoke, feeling petrified. Mane reassured him. "It's ok, you were dreaming. Youseff, wake up. We must go. Your brother may have alarmed someone close by," he said.

The boys had slept for 20 minutes. Exhaustion and cold led to increased levels of confusion and anxiety. "Wherelse would you rather be in the world?" said Mane, grining through his wide mouth. Keeping a sense of humour under stress was a key lesson learned from his days in the Army.

Fear is ephemeral: new thoughts entered Hichan's mind. Anger and confusion clouded his judgement. Why had the men killed their father? Why douldn't they leave him alone? Why did Mane want to help them so much? he wondered.

Talented boys like Hichan and Youseff deserved a chance in life. Greed and corruption stood in their way of making a life they wanted. Would they ever find a way out of their procarious situation? The Dream of Ghosts urged Hichan on. He thought of his father, and many of his lessons. "Use your fear as positive energy," their father would lecture.

They walked on through the night, avoiding main tracks. After several kilometres, Mane decided it was safe to move towards firmer ground. The track curved down, weaving between Umbrella Thorn trees. The going was squelshy. Their shoes sank below the water line, slowing their pace. Hichan felt like his heart was going to explode.

"Damn swamp." shouted Youseff.

"Please, Youseff. Keep moving. We must not give our position away," said Mane.

Hichan stumbled, breaking the fall with his right hand. His knuckles dissapeared under the swampy earth. Youseff pulled him to his feet. Wet, and cold Hichan was furious. As the time went on, Mane noticed the boys became irritable. It was understandable under the conditions, he thought.

A cold breeze blew from the south, cooling the sweat on their backs. Youseff checked the time on his primitive watch, it read 01:30. It would be another six hours before dawn. A wave of emotions flooded his mind. Where would the sleep, what would happen when they arrived at the next town? Where they the men following them?

Endless miles of dirt tracks crossed the African plain. Mane convinced himself the trio were not out of danger. Youseff found it difficult to keep pace with the pastor. The terrain played havoc on his knees.

Hichan's nightmare shook his confidence. He kept looking over his shoulder, looking for the knife-wielding beast. Tears rolled down his cheeks. He wanted to sleep. His feet ached because of the difficult terrain, and endless kilometres of walking.

The Hotel Wadi

As they ventured north, the terrain began to rise like huge anthills. Mane spotted a wadi. It was 05:45 hours, and Mane's thoughts turned to food and sleep. The veteran of the plain led the boys through the wadi.

"My boys, we must rest here. I will look for as much cover as we can find. Stay alert, and look and listen for snakes," said Mane. The pastor handed the boys a long stick he had found lying nearby. He took a small torch out of his pocket. A small beam of light illuminated a modest cave shaped hole in the northern edge of the wadi.

"Here we go boys. Youseff, set the alarm on your watch for 10am. Take a sip of water, and take a bit from the cheese. We must rest. Before we move off, we must check our feet for sores. Welcome to the Hotel Wadi. We will rest here," said Mane. He grinned at his own joke, as he often did.

The men bedded down on the cool dirt, taking it in turns to take watch on 30 minute stints. Mane took a bite of food from his supply, when he had finished eating his attention turned to his feet. It had been years since he had walked so far. This time he didn't have a rifle to protect him.

Youseff rested his head. He felt sorrow, and that made him think of his mother and father, and how he would never see them again. He and his brother were on the run. They where alone, with somewhere to go. Europe was the key to a better life.

Mane woke from his breif sleep. He felt stiff, and groggy. A sixth sense urged him to stand up and check on their surroundings, but his muscles had ceased. He found a short route to the top of the wadi. The morning air warmed his skin. As has he reached the summit, such a prmonition of shock and horror struck him. He stopped, paralysed by what he saw. Kneeling, he clutched at the grass in dismay.

He had led the boys into a trap? To his front, 800 metres away were two green trucks, and a Land Rover. Standing on the bonnet of the Land Rover was a man holding an automatic weapon, an Ak47. Mane couldn't process the information. Who are they? he thought. His heart raced. He scrambled down the slops of the wadi to alert the boys.

"Wake up, boys, please wake up." he said. Youseff bolted upright and rubbing the dirt from his high cheek bones. "Father. What is wrong?" said Youseff.

Mane composed himself. "I am not sure. There are three trucks to the front about 800 meteres away. There is a man with a gun. We must have stumbled onto their position in the night. The men could be park ranges, poaches, or worse, the thugs who came to our village. We must sit tight for now. Check your feet. Have a few small sips of water, and eat one banana each. It might be the last meal, it might not. This is a roll of the dice. In 15 minutes, I am going to see if I can get a better vantage point," he said.

Hichan laughed with shock. "Should we not run? It could be our only chance to get away," he said.

Youseff repramended his younger brother. "No. We must do what the father says. He has experience in this environment. We are not," he said.

A tall figure stood at the top of the wadi, pointing a rifle at the pastor. "Mane Owusu. Is that you?" said the man. Mane looked up, shielding his eyes from the sun. "Yes, Sir," he said. The boys froze, daring not to move. Hichan wanted to cry, but he kept calm.

The man appeared at the bottom of the wadi. He slung the rifle over his should, opening his arms in a welcoming gestue. "Sgt Owusu. It's me. Lance Corporal Okocho. We served together 10 years ago. I was in your company. Your wide frame and beard is unmistakable. What are you doing here?" he said.

Relief engulfed the pastor like a wing of an angel protecting its child. "My boy," said Mane, "Lloyd, what are you doing here? It is good to see a friendly face."

The two men echanged pleasantries. Lloyd explained to the pastor and the brothers that he was part of a private army, funded by a rich New York investor. Their mission was anti poaching, and they had the powers to detain, or shoot members of criminal gangs.

Lloyd explained their outpost was temporary. Funds were not available to build a small patrol base for 50 men and their vehicles. Youseff examined the man's athletic figure. "Mr Lloyd. Thank you for saving us. Do you play football?" he said.

Lloyd scratched his nose. "I did. I played for the Army. I was the goalkeeper for three seasons. I am not sure that I am here to save the day. Come to the truck. We can have tea and eggs," he said. The fomer army goalkeeper led the trio to the cluster of vehicles.

They walked the short distance to the trucks. Lloyd introduced the pastor and the boys two of his men. The other four were sleeping, and Mane asked to see a map. He had led the boys by vehicle and on foot for almost 40 km, to the outskits of Wun Tit, situated north, north west of Wau.

With a wrenching effort, the boys told their story. The soldiers slistened. An emotional Hichan sipped his tea. Tears rolled down Youseff's cheeks as spoke of the beating his father took from the criminals. The men listened and then there was silence. The pastor announced he would lead the small congrigation in prayer.

"O Lord, we call upon You in our time of sorrow, that You give us the strength and will to bear our heavy burdens, until we can again feel the warmth and love of Your divine compassion. Be mindful of us and have mercy on us while we struggle to comprehend life's hardships. Amen."

Lloyd told one of his men to set up three camp beds. He explained to the pastor and the boys that they could stay with them until the patrol moved north. The pastor agreed it was the best option for them.

Day turned into night. The boys settled down with their new companions. Youseff did not feel safe out in the open. Hichan did not want to fall asleep for fear of dreaming about the four legged beast.

The pastor spent his time lecturing the boys on how to move across open land, by day and night. Mane produced a Browing 9mm pistol, given to him by his former colleague. He ran Youseff and Hichan through the various weapon drills. The load, the unload and how to make the weapon ready to fire. He explained the pistol was only affective at very close range.

Mane and Lloyd discussed options for the boys, and the best way for them to get to Tripoli. Lloyd suggested meeting his cousin on the frontier with the Central African Republic. From there, they could head through Chad and Cameroon. The soldiers were in agreement. It was too dangerous to head north through the Sahara desert. If the boys could get to coast of Cameroon they had a chance of stowing away on a ship.

The end game

The stars shone way above the camp. Hichan's fidgeting broke the silence of the early hours of the morning.

Voices woke Hichan. At first he thought he was dreaming, but he was not. "Get up, and put your hands on your head. You check all the vehicles," said the man. "I am Chief Musa, you are now my prisoners. Where are the boys from Wau, and where is the pastor? I am going to slice his throat," he said.

There was panic among Lloyd and his men. Hichan shouted for forgiveness, but his brother urged him to say nothing. Mane kept his cool, feeling for the 9mm Browning, tucked away in his wasteband.

A truck approached from the south. Its powerful headlights flooded the camp, casting shadows everywhere. Musa called one of Lloyd's men foward, a man known as Ken. The chief spoke with an arrogant tone. "Ken. Well done my friend. I will reward you, and release your family, until the next time," he said with an evil laugh. Ken had betrayed them all, and now there was little hope of escape.

Chief Musa grabbed Hichan by the hair and pulled him to the front of the group. Despite Hichan's attempts to flee, he could not match for the brute strength of Musa. "Did you think you could evade me? Did you think I would not find you? I own everyone in this land," he said.

The chief drew his blade in a slow and deliberate movement, designed to inflcict fear into the others. Mane drew the pistol, firing two shots at the chief's head, before firing two into the nearest man to him. Pink mist sprayed the area as both men sagged to the ground, motionless. Lloyd rushed the nearest criminal to him, pushing his fingers in the man's eyes. Youseff picked up a wrench, striking Ken in the side of the face.

Ken screamed in pain as his teeth splintered under the force of the attack. Mane prayed to god as he fired two more rounds at the man to his left. Two of Lloyds men sprayed the truck with bullets, killing the driver and passenger.

Three of the chiefs men fired wildy. A bullet struck Mane in the femoral arterty, spryaing blood onto his trousers and shirt. Mane fired one round at each man. Lloyd finished the third off by rushing him to the floor, and choking his air supply.

The midwinter sun began to rise in the east. There was shouting and screaming in the camp. Quick actions by Mane and Lloyd turned the tide in their favour, but the pastor had lost a lot of blood. Mane looked to his former army colleague, pleading for help. "Lloyd. Help. Take my belt and a apply pressure to my upper leg. Use it as a tourniquet," he said.

Lloyd applied the belt to stem the flow of blood. He gave orders to secure two of the chief's men, who had laid down their weapons and surrendered. Youseff hugged his younger brother. The last few weeks had been a terrible period on their young lives. They found themselves in the middle of a small battle. It was an unnecessary chain of events which threatened the life of the only person they trusted.

The pastor spoke, his voice sounded frail. "Lloyd, please get the boys out of here. I don't have long left to live. I have lost too much blood," he said "You must do god's work, and be strong." Those were the pastor's last words.

Hichan wept - he had already lost his mother and father to the gorillas. Now he saw the loss of his father's friend. Youseff was numb, he held his brother tight.

Lloyd's men burried the dead. They dug one large hole for the chief and his bandits, digging another for Pastor Mane. Youseff led his brother, Lloyd and his men in prayer.

It would not be long before someone realised Chief Musa and his men were missing. The order came to move out. Lloyd agreed to take the brothers to the northwest frontier. Heading for the Central African Republic was their only hope of survival. The sun shone, beating down with all its might on the cross of Mane Owusu's grave.

Sorrow weighed down on the survivors of the attack like a giant foot standing on an insect. It took the three vehicle convoy four days to reach the border. Waiting for them was a well dressed ranger, with his wife. His name was Eugene Ekeke, a well connected man, and the cousin of LLoyd Okocho.

A beaming smile lit up Lloyd's face. He turned to the brorthers and spoke with enthusiasm. "Boys, meet my cousin, Eugene. He is going to take good care of you. He served with me and your father's friend. Eugene, please meet Youseff and Hichan. Their destination is Cameroon."

Adventure

John Woz Jr,

John is a sports nut. He's a freelance journalist and long suffering soccer fan. He is a freelance writer, author, and mental health advocate. twitter @jwozniak16

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