This story is by Charles Reith and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
They were coming my way, slashing through vegetation with their machetes. There were three or four; they laughed, spat, and spoke the native Hausa so I’d no idea what they were saying. What I knew for sure is they sought me with deadly intent. I buried myself in yellow-brown mud made sour by the excrement of cattle that wallowed in the water hole. My mud-smeared face looked toward the center, so I couldn’t tell how close they were behind me. They sounded steps away but I told myself fear made them seem nearer than they were. A rivulet of blood oozed from my shredded arm into the water. They’ll see it, I thought, but hoped again that fear was exaggerating the risk. Still, these might be the waning minutes of my life.
It had been two hours since shots burst below my classroom at the University of Sahel. We were just west of Boko Haram’s self-proclaimed caliphate and our mission wholly defied their namesake intent to “Ban Western Education.” Every year, we matriculated African men and women to careers in medicine, law, engineering and science. Every graduating woman was a stick in their eye. Boko hated us, but we felt protected by high walls, a huge security force, and assurances that our intelligence network would signal a coming attack in time to evacuate or summon military force.
The assurances proved hollow when guns strafed the walls outside our window. A bullet shattered the glass and punctured the ceiling. My students and I dropped to the floor. Next came wheels squealing and skidding; men shouting in Hausa jumped noisily from trucks. Shortly after, a loudspeaker blared “This is not a drill. The campus has been breached. Do what we practiced. Students follow facult…” A gun-burst silenced the speaker. My students looked at me in terror. We knew too well how Boko treated prisoners, killing males and enslaving females: forced marriage, scarce food, and servitude to bearded devils who’d twisted their faith. I signaled my students to stay down, crept to the window, and peeked over the sill. Ten gunmen had piled from two pickups and approached the building across central campus. None headed for ours, not yet.
I fought panic if only to be remembered by the survivors for coolness in desperation. As rehearsed, I ushered my students to the top floor, maintaining order, demanding silence, and seizing cell phones from those who wouldn’t wait. “Later,” I hissed, “Once we’re upstairs.” We ascended quietly to a top-floor classroom where we joined another class. Together, we were twenty students and two profs: Agatha Mugali and myself. A youthful Kenyan, Agatha was helpless with fear; she’d gotten her students to their refuge but now was senseless in tears. I whispered the instructions we’d practiced in drills. “Pile the chairs and tables against the door and lean low against them, out of sight of windows. A shooter won’t be able to force the door before the military arrives. Do what we practiced and we’ll make it. OK?” They nodded yes…tearful in terror but waveringly steeled with summoned resolve.
Now to take care of myself. I’d gotten the kids upstairs like I was told, but that plan wasn’t for me. I’m outdoorsy, nature-smart, and not about to die cowering before the muzzle of a madman. “OK, Prof Agatha will take charge.” Her terror amped by ten at the thought of me leaving but I grabbed her forearm in assurance. “I’m trained in emergency response; I’ll help Security until the military gets here.” The first half was true; earlier in life, I’d led emergency response for an oil company. The second wasn’t. Everything at the U was run by a shrill little president who blew off her experts. She’d spout aimlessly and reactively, with no sense of crisis management. Why risk staying just to be ignored?
I ran crouched toward the fire stairs. Glancing out the window I saw four gunmen headed toward our building from the north. They’ll come up the main staircase in the center just as I’m descending to the utility exit on the south. The stairwell was pitch black but I felt my way down, clinging to a rail. I eased open the push bar and saw eight men terrorizing the dorms two hundred meters south. I’d have to run about the same distance east to reach my university’s nature area; as a biology prof, I knew it well. Hiding and skulking from campus was my best chance. My sprint at age sixty was achingly slow. They saw me when I was halfway; four jumped in a truck and drove squealing to intercept. I scarcely had the edge, diving into dense brush as they piled out. I sloshed quickly, sloppily, and noisily along a ditch full of greasy water from the dorms and cafeteria. Ten-foot-tall cattails and reed grasses sliced me; I relished the hurt knowing it would deter my pursuers. They’d relent and seek easier prey trapped in the buildings. I slowed when I sensed they’d given up, crawling half-submerged in the stinking slurry away from central campus. The U’s perimeter wall was topped with coiled barbwire; I’d never get over. My only way out was to slide beneath, where the stream flows under. But Security had woven barbwire right down to the stream bed. I tore up my hands trying to bend an opening for myself. The gap was too small but I had to skinny through, which I did but slicing long cuts in my arms, legs, and back. The filthy water turned pink with my blood.
I continued down the creek until I heard Boko’s truck skid around a corner of the wall. They were coming after me. They piled from their truck fifty yards away. I wasn’t sure they saw me. I hurried to the cattle wallow and buried myself in the muddy bank. The steely sound of their machetes brought the bile of fear to my throat. Kill me with bullets not blades. They sounded but steps away when they stopped, smoked, and bantered a creeping half hour before leaving. When I was sure they’d left, I eased my mobile from my pocket. Could I call for help? Would there be news, emergency emails or texts? It was soaked and useless. I tried the three I seized, regretting I’d forgotten to return them, but not if one saves my life. All were wet and dead.
Night came and I walked two hours to a Hausa village where my classes did community service. Poking my head though a curtain of beads into the Chief’s doorless hut, I awakened a 30-year-old woman who was perhaps a lesser wife; she rose and screamed at the sight of a white man covered in mud and blood. I nodded apology and collapsed in exhaustion. “Please call Chief,” I asked in my simplest English. Soon a dozen villagers entered and sat around me. An elder used a candle to scan my face, shredded clothes, and oozing blood. He studied my face a second time and smiled softly in recognition: “Prof?”
“They came,” I cried, leaning forward for a hug of comfort. Confused, he leaned hard away. Hugs between near-strangers were unheard of. Besides, I was Dr. Chris Reed, the august professor who brought students in convoys of SUVs. As peer to the Chief, I sat enthroned beside his Excellency in audience over the villagers and my students, who sat deferentially before us on mats. I was too important, too royal, to touch, much less hug.
No hugs then but I needed the warmth of one who seeks not to kill me. I grabbed his hands, held them to my face, and sobbed away my fear. “The Chief?” The wrinkled elder nodded “coming.” I wanted to lie down but decided it best to sit quietly and compose myself. A few minutes later, He towered majestically at the door. My Chief had risen from sleep and donned his royal baban rigan gown and embroidered fula cap. He was scarcely literate, fortyish, and quietly radiant with the wisdom of a dozen generations. We cared deeply for each other but our friendship was reserved and formal; our hugs of greeting were genuine but ritual. Not this time; I stood and stumbled into his arms, smearing his vestments with mud, blood and tears. “They came,” I repeated. He held me and whispered “They did Prof; they killed many, but not you by Allah’s grace. Here you are safe; we would suffer bullets before we’d give you up. Tomorrow we hide you in our grain hut, where my nurse-wife will tend your wounds. When night comes, I will take you far to safety.” He paused with a wry smile. “Remember what you always say when I ask you to ride stallions with me into the mountains?” My terror waned in favor of amused anticipation. “Too busy,” I answered. The Chief wrapped a great arm around my shoulders. “Prof, you’re not too busy now.”