A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
We were living at the Mount Clinton Internally Displaced Refugee camp outside of Roseville the day his death news came in. It struck something throughout the camp of thousands, like an axe cutting through hard wood, through the thick murky evening air, as if again, it was March, the hottest time of the year. We stood around in small groups, talking about Clarence the way the living talk about the dead, in whispers, with heads bowed, sighs, shaking our heads. Even our children looked lost. This was unspeakable news because Alfred Samuels’ rebels had forbidden us to openly mourn. Unlike true refugees who are protected by an international body, we were instead, hostages of Dukortah’s powerful warlord, unprotected in our bloody civil war.
Was Clarence truly dead? I wondered, shocked, scared.
I left the food I was cooking and walked over to a group of refugees standing in a circle in front of the building where my family and I were sheltering, a one-room dormitory of sort, where one hundred of us slept and kept our few belongings the way refugees do. We’d been here three months already, three months of living in such an overcrowded place filled with germs. My family and dozens of other refugees lived in this filth, but that was not the worst. The worst were the executions, the bombings, the torture, the sporadic and wanton killings, and living with starvation every day. Who cared if someone’s baby pooped in the middle of the building while you were eating? The pungent smell of the dead in the nearby woods was worse, not only because that smell meant the deaths of countless human beings, but because such odor could have been that of your own dead body. We lived each day as if staying alive were our life goal, and we were grateful that it was not us dead.
A young man in our building had screamed that afternoon when rebels broke the news to my dormitory mates while I was outdoors. We were not allowed to scream here, so, when he screamed, everyone was afraid. We occupants quickly moved outdoors carrying this heavy news. The man who had screamed realized screaming or wailing in the camp was against rebel law. We were forbidden to exclaim in fear, in pain, or in merriment in our camp. Rebels alleged that the President’s soldiers had killed Clarence on the beach right behind the Executive Mansion, executing him along with dozens of others. “Dozens of government opposition leaders, blown up in a firing squad,” the rebels said. The news broadcast later did not give specifics.
Clarence was our hero, our one hero who had refused to become a rebel or a government ally in the midst of Dukortah’s war. He was our lone independent intellectual who had not bowed down to the guns and the missiles or to the politics of President David Sartu Nyonsuah. But in his dying, maybe, everyone was now thinking David had succumbed. Had let himself be taken by government soldiers, butchered with a knife? We held these questions in our eyes and in our hearts long after the news broke, after the tears, the feeling of letdown or the decision to continue believing in the invincibility of our political leader despite his dying. Did they slash him up with a knife, tearing his throat open as they’d done so many others? How could that have happened to him, and to us, his followers? People argued in whispers that first night. Was he thinking of Toya the day he was killed, I wondered and mourned.
“Good for him, now, let the opposition see. They’re over, their nonsense is over,” the President quickly respondedon BBC radio from his hiding place in the city. This would end the whole bloody war, end it all for such stupid people trying to overthrow their president in a country where he, our president, had set everything right for us since his overthrow of the former government, and murder of every bit of its leaders. “Who they think they are, these useless book boys, fresh out of college, anyway, talking ‘bout change, destabilizing my government? I blame these useless book people, not the rebels, not Samuels, but the book people, book people wheh ain’t know fusah, and now, we got this war,” the President said in his mixed-up English.
Some of the President’s supporters lived among us in the camp. In a civil war, one cannot tell the genuine war victims from the enemy. But the voices of others in our silent grief were loud and clear. They blamed Clarence for his and the death of countless others. “These good-for-nothing scoundrels didn’t even know that war is not fought with pencils and crayons,” the President’s spokesman said on radio the next evening, “these rascals, just tell them war is for men, not schoolboys, fresh out of books,” he boasted.
Seated in a circle around a small transistor radio that night, we listened to more boasting from the government. And rebels were walking up and down the camp, celebrating Clarence’s death news with the same boasting as the government.
Even I began to feel disillusioned a few days after the news broke. Was the President right or were we, the activists and fighters for justice? We who were caught up in the middle of two warring giants, now refugees in our own country, had just lost our leader. Had we gone abroad to graduate school, and returned with hopes of helping to heal our country just to be thrown into a civil war? How did we think we could liberate our people from a President who controlled all the guns and army tanks? Maybe the President was right, I thought.
“The problem with schoolboys like Clarence,” Nyonsuah’s spokesman asserted, “is that they don’t know that Dukortah is now in a new day when the so-called intellectuals need to sit back and watch the power of the gun at work. The military genius of our country is now properly in place.” After Clarence’s arrest a year earlier, all opposition leaders were targeted. There was no hiding place for our leaders nor for civilians. To add to our plight, the rebel war was now destroying what the President could not or had not yet destroyed.
It was strange that we who were accustomed to living among the dead as well as to people dying and being killed around us should worry about the death of one man. But I kept reminding myself that Clarence was Toya’s husband, our hero, my husband’s best friend, the one we would have elected as our president after that slaughterer left office. He was the Standard Bearer of the People’s Progressive Party (PPP), the only one who had not allowed the dictator president to buy his opinions. He was killed, and all we were allowed to do was stand around and sigh? No one had any right to wail here; we’d been properly warned. But tears did not obey the rules of war, I thought, as I looked at the sighing people, the silence that characterized our circumstances. I walked into the dorm, hid in my bunkbed, and wept all night.
And then time swept that part of our lives away. A month in a refugee camp is like a year. We were so war-weary, it seemed we’d been at war all our lives even though we’d been at war less than two years. We were ready to let go of our own struggle for justice or freedom even as the war continued to be waged around us, killing tens of thousands more. Within one year in the camp, it no longer mattered how many were killed in one day. The only thing that mattered was that you held on to your children, your sister, your brother, your husband or wife, or your family member. No one person could take on the worries of the nation. I was even beginning to believe that the world no longer needed a hero, and that the world probably didn’t even want a hero. I held on to the belief that our world was too wounded for a single hero to save.
It was rumored that Clarence’s body was singled out and given to the President. For what? No one could answer that question. Each week brought us new rumors about how he died, but we soon learned to move on, or so we thought, even those of us who worshipped him. Those whose lives are all about staying alive one moment at a time could not afford the luxury of holding on to the vision of a warrior who had been executed by his enemies. Daniel also reminded me every so often that we needed to stay alive, and that staying alive meant killing our vision of a new, beautiful Republic of Dukortah.
My friend, Toya went underground as soon as Clarence was killed. The day she left to go away permanently, I was sitting in our dark one room dormitory when she came to see me, disguised as a male rebel fighter. She’d been in hiding for nearly a year now, since the day Clarence was captured. Until today, I didn’t think we’d see her again. She had on camouflage military suit, a cap, her hair cut short, grenades on her belt buckles; she wore heavy army boots. She walked as though she was the fiercest fighter there ever was. When she first approached, it terrified me to see a soldier coming so close to me in the building. Suddenly, she was standing over me. Who was this person? I stood up, trembling.
She kissed my cheek the way we’d done since ninth grade. That’s when I recognized her. Tears set in her eyes even as she forced a smiled. She was smiling for the rest of the room. Everyone knew Toya no matter how she disguised herself. Or perhaps, only those of us who had followed her husband all these years recognized her. No one knew who anyone was on a given day these refugee camp days, and yet many lived and died in their various disguises even as the war was fought around us.
There were already fifty of us, half the occupants, seated all around our building because of the time of day. Soon, curfew would be here. Six o’clock was normally a dreaded hour. But today had been kind to us. There was no bombing of our camp, no shelling, no planes passing over low trees and no bombs flying away from our campus into the other suburbs or towards Roseville. The entire camp of thousands was quiet as if we had ceased fire because our hero’s wife was leaving today. Our building was silent. Inside, I knew that the silence had nothing to do with any of us. After all, Clarence was hated on all sides. The rebels did not want him as much as the government hated him. That was the reason he had not followed his family behind rebel lines in the first place. So, where would a man like him live even after the war? No one wanted such an educated man- a man like him who knew how to bring a country together was not needed in this war. Maybe, he was too big for the narrow lives we were now forced to live.
“Mimi,” Toya brought me back to the moment.
“Sshhh,” I whispered. We could not speak. Everyone in the room was looking at us. My husband, Daniel was there too, in that heavy silence. He knew that it was Toya. He also knew that it was time for her to go. We both knew these things, but we didn’t know she would come disguised like this. She was running with two toddler boys in this horrible war. This was the real flight, perhaps, across the border to a neighboring country, who could know? If God agreed, I’d see her again. Maybe if God didn’t agree, we would meet on the other side. She left as night closed in on us. We did not know and did not ask where she was going.
Time certainly knew something we did not know because after all the shelling, the fiery skies, the burning city, and tens of thousands of people killed, one day, the radio announced that it was time for us refugees to pack up and return home. We prepared to leave as what was supposed to be the final bombings came in. Walking the miles back home was a great reality that day, the return of those of us who had survived massacres and bloodbaths for several months. There were my two boys who had outgrown their clothing and their shoes, and my husband and me, with bones for collars, but we were glad to be alive. We walked the miles homeward with hundreds of other refugees.
Back home, our family settled down in that desperation of war returnees who return from being displaced, to ghost neighborhoods of shattered buildings and destruction. The war continued to rage in other parts of the country. And not too far from us, rebels made a comeback every few weeks as the International Peace Keeping Force pushed them back into the interior counties. We settled down too to food rations and the struggle to regain the life we had lost. During all of this, I could not stop thinking about my friend, Toya. She was always the first thing on my mind each morning. I wondered where she was, how she and her boys were, whether she would ever return to us again.
When we were high school seniors, the teachers used to say that Toya and I were twins from different parents. I knew inside my body that Toya would not leave our country permanently to go wherever she had to go without seeing me again. Even if that departure meant dying, I believed she’d find me somehow. Daniel also believed me. “You’ll see her in your dream if she is ever killed. She will come visit you,” he said one day as we were having our meager war-time dinner. The spoon fell from my hand, just hearing my husband say that. I wept through the rest of the meal.
One day, Toya returned, like my heart had told me, Toya Jlah, my best friend had remembered to come back to us. Our older son was the first to see her coming down the hill that overlooked our home. He remembered Auntie Toya like he was a big boy when we went to war. “Auntie Toya, com–ing, Auntie Toya, com–ing,” the child screamed, and our entire house ran out together, as though we were made of one cord. There she was, that beautiful hero of a woman, my light brown-skinned best friend since 9th grade, Toya, coming with a child in her arms, a year after our arrival home.
She had grown thin, like all of us, but from down the hill even as I ran towards her, I knew that she was smiling. There was no home for her, except with me now. All her sisters-in law had been killed. Her husband’s parents had gone missing also. Their home had been bombed even before we fled home. Someone was following to explain the baby. I broke off at that point and began to run behind my two boys who were running up the hill to welcome her. My husband, the always calm and unassuming Daniel, just stood there in our front yard, arms in the air, as if jubilating. Daniel had a way of showing emotion in an unusual way.
Toya and I fell in the middle of the road, wailing as the man followed my boys to the house. I took the baby from her. He was a little boy. In that moment, I realized that Toya did not have her two sons with her. Where were they, my mind raced even as we sat on the hard road, wailing. The two boys, small Clarence, three, and Daniel, the one-year old when she left us, the child they named after my husband. I wondered. But where were they? I could not say the words, only my eyes wandered from her to her little boy not more than five months old, in my arms, and Toya knew my mind.
“They took them, Mimi, they took them.” She broke down again, wailing, falling on me.
This sort of deep grief did not need comfortable pavements or sofas. We war victims were used to this sort of breaking down, this sort of emptying of the heart even in the middle of a war-weary-driveway. It seemed even nature now understood us. “They came one night, and took my babies away. Someone told them the boys were Clarence Jlah’s children, the rebels that picked them up told me as they pulled my sons from my arms that night, my sister. I have looked for them for two years, Mimi. I have traveled the country in all forms to find my boys, but nothing.” She said, looking in the distance of our now over-grown brush of a neighborhood. “They’ve killed me many times, Mimi,” she sobbed hard, falling in my arms in the road.
We took Toya and her new husband in that day. Clarence was dead and gone, and now we had Joseph who had fallen in love with Toya and married her. Theirs was one of those war-time marriages that were still happening around us. Now she had little Clarence. Joseph, who used to be Clarence’s student prior to the war, wanted to keep Clarence alive. So, he named his first son after our dead hero.
We continued to live as we were expected to, knowing how much more important life was. Some days, we simply took pleasure in just breathing and sighing and laughing. We did not have to pay for air or a sigh or a laugh. When we needed to, we wept, Toya and I or together with other women when during a visit, something came up that drew out its own tears. We’d cry a little and then laugh at our tears because we knew how better off we were than those who had died in our war.
Several months after Toya and Joseph moved in with us, the war seemed to be subsiding. Thousands of displaced residents of Roseville who were stranded in other parts of the country were now home, and our ghost city seemed to be returning to normal. The various warring factions were working out some sort of peace, and for the first time in years, peace seemed eminent. Many government leaders from the early days of the war had been killed. It seemed those who started the war had all died out, and willed their anger to the younger generation. The new enemies had multiplied and were no longer the same people. Even the President had been killed and forgotten. We sometimes would entertain ourselves about the shock he must have had on his face the day he entered the land of the dead and saw the thousands of people he had put to death. “Oh, so we all come to the same place?” He must have said. We laughed over and over about the whole idea of such a man even finding a place among his dead enemies.
And then, on a bright afternoon, more than a year after Toya moved in with us, I looked out the front window of the living room, and saw a strangely familiar man walking towards the house. I no longer trusted my own brain to make things clear to me these days, so I was careful not to assume I knew this man. War can do so much to a person’s brain. Now, some of us had enough excuses to blame our original insanity on, we used to say. I ran to the back of the house to get my husband who was doing some yard work with the yard worker. “Daniel, come here, oh, honey, and see someone coming down the hill. Is that person real?”
“Oh, God, have mercy, have mercy, my God, have mercy,” my husband screamed, running to the front. The neighbors came from every direction to see what was going on. Toya and her husband also came out. Joseph was carrying the baby in his arms as he stood in our doorway. My entire body was spinning. Toya stood speechless, her arms upon her head as Grebo women do at the death news of a mother. All her body was shivering.
Clarence was smiling, coming towards us, our hero, coming home to us, but we were no longer prepared to receive him. He had been replaced by time, by the one that slashes the life out of us all. He was no longer there to fill the space we’d held for him or the space was gone.
Someone had to meet him. It’s an abomination not to go running to meet your hero who had refused to be killed, who had refused to be chopped up by the hands of the one who had slashed up all of his enemies like a cassava root. He had been kept alive maybe, by some other life, some other power, or by friends, by our hearts, but certainly, our Clarence was alive. My husband ran towards the man, laughing, jumping up and down, finally in control of himself.
Memories of all those times when Clarence and Daniel were friends ten years before our marriages, ten years of schooling, of high school and college football games and the girls screaming songs for them came right back to me at that moment. Now, there was our Clarence Jlah, soft spoken, but stubborn, the one we were going to make our President until he was “killed” by the President.
He came in as Clarence would, quiet, smiling, and you would think that he would not remember to kiss his wife or hug her or allow her to cry on his shoulder. After all that separation, he sat on the largest couch in our house as Daniel stared at him. I ran into the kitchen to get away, under the pretext I was going for some cool drinks. Joseph just stood there, helpless. “Come here, Honey, where are the children?” Clarence said in that soft voice which never betrayed his strength, and Toya went and did what she was supposed to do, and sat on Clarence’s lap. He hugged her and kissed her all over and they both wept, and everyone wept, and Joseph walked to the back, also emotional.
“I thought you were dead. Everyone said you were dead. You were dead, Clarence,” Toya said, “so I waited forever, and then they stole the boys while I was in hiding. I was so heartbroken,” She was weeping, and I went and sat on the carpet in front of them as my husband seated himself uncomfortably next to Clarence.
“Why did they do that to us? Why? Why?” Clarence shouted, tears rolling down his strong cheeks, “My boys, oh, man!”
Clarence mourned for days-for the boys, for their lives together as a family, for their marriage that had been put on hold and snatched away, moping around, hanging on to Toya’s hand. They strolled through the overgrown brush around us, went to the river and returned several times a day, talked into the night, under the moonlight and the threat of more war. They wept and argued and embraced and argued and we were there. We asked them to forgive the country, to forgive the war, the warriors on all sides, to forgive us all.
Joseph moved out the day after Clarence arrived. We held a big meeting, all of us adults in the house, and some of his surviving extended family, and as our customs and tradition required, we asked Joseph to decide what he wanted to do. He mourned too, and asked Clarence to explain why he kept us believing that he’d died. Why did he do that to him, Joseph kept asking, but we understood how difficult it was to have your wife suddenly taken from you. The scars war leaves on the living, I reasoned, are as deep as wounds from a sharp instrument.
Toya held on to the baby one late afternoon as we waited for the plane that would take them from Roseville to Guinea and then to France. They were traveling to a country that would allow them to heal. After weeks of our pleading with him, Joseph gave them permission to raise little Clarence. He would continue to be the boy’s father, but they would raise the child. Toya seemed to be in a dream as we stood at the James Spriggs Payne Airfield, waiting for their plane. Every now and then, she would hug me, and I’d hug her back, and we’d each wipe away our tears. The two men stood in a corner from us, talking, but we girls had somehow lost our words for this moment of parting. The war had taken away everything that was precious to us. Just trying to put the broken pieces together was too difficult, and now, this, parting again. “If someone brings back my boys,” she stammered between crying hiccups, “take them in, and call me right away. I’ll be waiting for them to come back to us the way Clarence did.”
“Okay, Toya, but please, go on, and live. If the boys are dead, just remember they’re in a better place than in this country.”
“I’ll never give up my sons.”
“I know, Toya, I know.”
Outside, the sun was bright. All around us, half-bombed buildings humped, ready to fall. The ruins of the war would take decades to rebuild, perhaps, forever to rebuild, I imagined. But right in the middle, here we were, trying to convince ourselves that we were not made of bricks and stones like these falling structures, and that we could certainly rebuild our lives.
The wind was blowing hard now as the plane groaned, its engine, taking away our words.
Patricia Jabbeh Wesley is Professor of English and Creative Writing at Penn State University. She is a Liberian Civil War survivor who immigrated to the United States with her family in 1991, and the author of six books of poetry, including Praise Song for my Children: New and Selected Poems (Autumn House, 2020).
Copyright 2021 Patricia Jabbeh Wesley