From refugees to military, paramilitaries and ordinary city folk, the city was overflowing with humanity. It was clearly unsafe for foreigners to be abroad especially as the night was closing in. Making our way to a colleague’s house we were greeted with the cry …
‘Where, in the name of the Good God have you been?’
She was clearly excited and exclaimed in a voice that was at the same time agitated and elated.
‘You said you were leaving four days ago!
Everyone thought that you had become a victim of the militia!
What happened? Everyone’s been worried sick!
Answer! – where were you?’ she enquired intrusively.
I started to tell the story of what had happened when she suddenly declared, as if just remembering…
‘We must leave right away! We’ll go to a safe house on the outskirts – near the beach!’
We were extremely lucky as most people had already been evacuated. She locked up the house and we left immediately.
On arrival at the ‘safe house’ we received similar treatment; a fusion of annoyance and extreme relief, tinted with the trepidation of our present predicament. Everyone present, a mixture of various aid workers and some overseas government officials, was clearly in a state of apprehension.
In the days that had passed since our ‘disappearance’, no less than three foreign governments were trying to track us down or seek any news of our well being. They were obviously overjoyed to see us as they thought that the worst had happened. I for one felt as if I had journeyed into the next world. The horror stories of what was happening across the border – and especially in the once-quiet town where I had lived were now the subject of international news media coverage.
‘The dark side of the moon was not as far away as they once thought,’
I reflected to myself. The signs had all been there but it seemed as if nobody read them, believed them, or even wanted to listen when last I was here. Now the rumours had come home to roost and a real and present danger walked heavily upon everyone’s doorstep and not just upon mine.
Plane tickets out had been secured for two days hence but the wait would be a long and anxious one. Furthermore, they had to be collected in the city the next day and this could be a considerable undertaking for those who had to obtain them. I made it my business to be the one to undertake this task as, of those in the present company, I was most experienced.
The following morning one other person volunteered to go along with me and we made our way to the Travel Agent to collect our ‘passports to a new peace of mind’. Inside the office mingling with other nationals wanting to exit there were intelligence officers but this time they seemed to be relieved to see us go. In fact it looked like they were ready to protect us.
We returned to the relative security of the safe house. One of the group started to hand out the tickets. It was then, to my horror I discovered that my girlfriend, who by this time was a nervous wreck, had been omitted. It was nobody’s fault as she had been an unknown factor. Even the friend who I had picked up from his farm and his girlfriend, who would arrive a little later, were accounted for. I straightaway made a resolution to go back to the Agent and try to get a ticket of some sort. If that was not possible then I would have to stay till a flight was available.
This was not a popular decision among the government officials as, in accordance with their rules they wanted ex-pats out first. I was having none of it and they knew it from the expression on my face. With that settled in a glance, I left once again for the Agent and managed to obtain a ticket for the following day even though it would take nearly six hours since it was an island hopper, flying what we termed ‘the milk run.’
On the day of departure for my colleagues and their girlfriends, I watched the aircraft taking off into the blue skies and the safety of a further-flung island. Now would be a real test of my resolve as I had to find somewhere to sleep for the night and try to get back to the airport for seven o’clock the next morning. Hailing a taxi I returned to the city again, which by now was heaving with people and transport, some knowing where they were going while some, like me, seemed to be lost to know what to do.
Then I remembered a native friend of mine who owned a small hotel just outside of the centre and I persuaded the driver to take me there. I was lucky. My acquaintance was there and he managed to get me a small room but pleaded with me to stay hidden. It was a very scary night; I was possibly the only westerner left and shooting could be heard across the city. After a very restless night, I managed with the help of my friend to make it back to the airport about eight kilometres away. The intelligence agents watched my every move and looked as if they just wanted me out of there. I was still a thorn in their side but this time it was for a different reason. An incident at the airport was probably the last thing they wanted.
As the minutes ticked by I could see my silver bird of freedom, a twin propeller plane start up and taxi towards the boarding area.
Walking out over the tarmac was like an illusion. Was I really, finally, on my way out of all the violence and chaos? Yes, here I was leaving but still being haunted by what had come to pass and by thoughts of those poor souls left behind to become refugees in their own land. As the plane lifted off I looked back wondering,
‘Will I ever return to this island where I have spent many years of my life?’
The answer is that I did.
And not that long afterwards.
But that is a story for another day!
How many times must the cannon balls fly before they’re forever banned?
The answer my friend is still blowing in the wind.