Monday, October 20, 2008

Agathe's Obligation

A short story

It was just after dawn, but the morning was already hot and dry. There would not be much sweating today, Agathe thought to herself, I’ll just bake in the oven. She adjusted her police cap on her short cropped curly hair, cut up to a flat top. She looked smart in uniform; a light blue shirt, dark skirt and sensible shoes. A MINURCAT arm band identified her as part of the United Nations peace keeping operation in Chad. Of medium height with a solid build, Agathe had already lost the svelteness of her girlhood, a time she remembered with fondness in the far away green hills of southern Rwanda.

Eastern Chad was a wind swept land, covered now after the rains with wispy grass. Scraggly trees dotted the plains up to the edges of the rocky hills. Agathe smiled as she looked out upon hundreds of acres of maturing millet planted by the refugees. Coming as she did from generations of farmers, she knew how gratifying it was to see food bursting from the land. A good harvest would provide a nutritional buffer above the World Food Program rations. Additionally, some earned cash would greatly improve morale and the fairly miserable quality of rural life.

Agathe was happily greeted by dozens of children as she walked through the refugee settlement. She picked up Arabic phrases, but some kids called out in French or even in English. The refugees here were Sudanese whose families and tribes had flowed easily across the nearby border until Janjaweed raiders destroyed their herds and homes causing them to seek succor in Chad and international protection. Protection was Agathe’s job. She was one of six Rwandans assigned to the peace keeping operation in Chad. She along with fifty other police personnel from African nations were scattered among the twenty or so refugee camps strung out along the dusty frontier. They were backed up by a 3,000 man military force.

Policing the camp was not so tough. It was not the urban, packed camp, seething with political and ethnic hatred that Agathe experienced as a teenager in Zaire. There was no sense of impending doom and no swaggering, often drunk, genocidaires to avoid. Yet there were issues – politics bubbled along. The evil government of Bashir and his Janaweed thugs were thoroughly despised. Internal politics manifested themselves in the quest for extra ration cards, prominence on camp committees and thus access to international aid or NGO jobs. There were police issues, too. Domestic violence and petty theft were the most common, but individual disputes too regularly needed refereeing. Although it was not as big an issue here, in the northern camps, efforts had to be made to keep Sudanese rebel groups from recruiting youngsters for their military operations.

Agathe’s duty was to be present at the health clinic, to assure that the several hundred refugees stayed in line (they almost always did) and waited their turn. Once she had calmed emotional agitation after a (natural) death and she had otherwise ensured other orderly funeral processions. The clinic was a good place to listen and Agathe was frequently approached with various complaints.

“Madame?” a young woman queried.

“Yes,” Agathe responded, “Good morning.”

The girl introduced herself as Fatima. She was slender, fine featured, dressed head to foot in the local style in an off-yellow wrap; her head carefully covered. She nervously gathered her courage and asked if they could have a private talk. Agathe assured her that confidences would be respected.

“My uncle,” Fatima said, “wants to take me for a wife and says he will force me if I do not agree. I am only seventeen. He said today was the day. He will come for me tonight. My father is dead, my brothers too young and my mother depends on the family. She cannot help me. I detest this man. Living with him would mean slavery and rape. Can you help me? Can you hide me?” She began to weep quietly.

Agathe felt the girl’s desperation, but as yet no crime had been committed. Local culture sanctioned arranged marriages that often had some element of coercion to them, especially between older men and younger women. “Tell me more about him,” she asked.

“Moussa,” Fatima replied, “serves on the camp committee. He is a big man here, but carefully hides his ties to the rebels. He compels youth to leave their families to join the rebel forces in the bush.”

“Ah ha, so he is a recruiter?”

“Yes, but he also demands money, a tax from camp residents to support the war. And now he wants me.”

Agathe mulled this over. As a policewoman she had learned not to be hasty. Fatima’s story rang true and Agathe knew from painful personal experience the power that men held in the camps. No one – policeman or woman, soldier, peace keeper or responsible adult - had been there to help her when she was savagely raped over several days by a genocidaire gang inside the refugee camp in Zaire. Rather than defeat her, that incident convinced her to be strong and ultimately to join the police. Perhaps this was her test. She concluded this abduction won’t happen in this camp on this day.

“We need a plan,” Agathe told Fatima. She asked for the location of her mother’s compound and the whereabouts of her uncle’s. They conspired. “Okay, then,” Agathe concluded, “we’ll be ready, do your part.” Agathe hurried away.

Darkness fell like clockwork. Several hours later a feeble moon shown down through the lingering haze casting a muted light on the sleeping camp. Movement and cries arose from Fatima’s compound arousing the neighbors. Shortly Moussa dragged the protesting girl through the fence into the pathway.

“Halt,” a voice rang out and four lights blazed into startled faces. “Police. Let the child go.”

Moussa explained that it was a family matter, an arranged marriage in fact. He insisted on his status as a member of the camp committee. When interview by Agathe’s police superiors, Fatima said she was being taken, she thought, as an unwilling recruit for rebel forces. She told of Moussa’s role in seizing other youths, said she was only seventeen and wanted to stay with her mother.

“Moussa,” the policeman concluded, “we’ve long had an eye out for you. You know recruiting is not allowed. The punishment for it is expulsion from the camp. You will go with us now and tomorrow will be conveyed to Sudan, never to return to this camp under threat of prison.”

Still sputtering his importance, Moussa was led away.

Agathe exchanged a knowing nod with Fatima, then followed her leader into the dark.

1 comment:

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