Chapter 1: A New Day Dawns
Copyright© 2018 by Lazlo Zalezac
July 5, 1991
The barest sliver of the sun had just peeked over the horizon. It was already miserably hot and was only going to get worse. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky.
Looking out the door of the ragged tent, Jomo stared at the horizon wishing that it had been a red sunrise. They needed a storm to break the heat and drop some water on the area. They weren’t even into the high heat days of summer, yet. He didn’t remember last year being this hot.
Jomo settled back in his bed thinking that he’d better conserve his energy for later that day. They were out of food, and had been for two days. There had been far too many hot days of late, and his supply of water was dangerously low. If they were lucky, the relief group would drop off some food and water today.
He didn’t know if he looked forward to the arrival of the relief truck or not. It would be nice to eat again, but its arrival would trigger a small riot while he and the other refugees fought over handfuls of rice, yams, or whatever it was that was delivered. It didn’t matter that the fight often wasted as much as was salvaged. Hungry people rushed the delivery truck and grabbed what they could. He wasn’t proud of the fact that he was one of the people pushing and shoving to get at the food. It was do that or his whole family would go hungry.
The relief group was smart. They would dump the food off of the first truck. While everyone fought over the food, they’d unload the water. It meant that the rush to get to the water would have been blunted by the fight over food.
His wife, Kiah, said, “Will the truck come today?”
Jomo answered, “I don’t know. We’ll die without water.”
“The kids need to eat,” she said.
It was a statement of fact, not a reprimand. They were weak and growing weaker with each passing day. Her words shamed him. He wasn’t doing a very good job of providing for his family and she knew it.
“I’ll try to get more food,” he said quietly.
He wasn’t physically big enough to push some of the others out of the way during the melee that formed around the truck. He often ended up with little scraps left over from the pushing and shoving. Last delivery, the only reason they ended up with food was that he and the kids had collected rice that had spilled onto the ground when several of the bags had broken. It had taken them hours to separate the grains of rice from the dirt by tossing the mixture into the air using a blanket, letting the wind blow away the dirt, and catching the grains in the blanket.
“I know you, my husband. You’ll do your best.”
“It’s too bad that my best is not good enough,” he said bitterly.
“We’re still alive,” she replied. “There have been others who haven’t lasted nearly this long.”
Seventeen months earlier, Desera had made the latest of many attempts to grab a stretch of land from Sumar that would provide it with some fertile land and a port. Each attempt had cut another notch into the northeast corner of Sumar. Desera didn’t actually expect to make it to the ocean on this attempt, but the people of Desera were tenacious, and would try over and over until they made it. Each minor victory brought more land for crops, also.
Unfortunately, the most recent land grab included the area where Jomo’s farm was located. With Sumar soldiers advancing from the west, Desera soldiers advancing from the east, and fights to the south where the two armies had already met, Jomo had moved his family north into Gemort. He wasn’t a fighter, he was a farmer, and a family man. All he wanted was to raise his children and his crops in peace.
He knew he had done the right thing. The village he had left was now an empty spot on the map. Everyone who had still been there, was dead. His family hadn’t escaped unscathed. He had lost his elderly father during the walk from the farm to the refugee camp. The lack of food and water coupled with the long grueling walk under a hot sun had proved too much for the man. He had just dropped to the ground and died.
Jomo had headed towards an area that was fertile, but the Gemort soldiers at the border had taken them out to this refugee camp. It was in the middle of a desert. There wasn’t a supply of water for drinking much less to grow a crop. The local vegetation was rough fibrous stuff that couldn’t be digested. The roots were bitter and made people who tried to eat them violently ill.
The future, which had once looked bad, now looked even worse. The relief trucks, which had initially dropped off the tents and brought food on a regular basis, had become erratic in showing up. The amount of food delivered on each truck was decreasing with each visit.
Rumors were being spread around the camp that Gemort wanted to get rid of the refugees. If necessary, they would starve them out. Jomo didn’t believe the rumor, but it was more hope that it was false than real conviction.
He knew that rumors often had a basis in fact. There had been another rumor, which was later proven true, that one of the nearby refugee camps had been overrun by a gang who stole all of the food that had been delivered. The truth of the rumor had been proven when new refugees from the other camp had shown up at this camp. The handful of survivors told stories of how the gang had murdered men and raped the women.
Jomo said, “Maybe we should think about leaving the camp.”
“Where would we go?”
“I don’t know. Maybe if we head far enough west, we can get back into a region of Sumar where there isn’t any fighting.”
His wife said, “That would be a journey of hundreds of miles. The kids would never make it.”
“We can too,” little Rudo said.
Jomo didn’t say a word. His wife was right, the kids would never survive the journey. He doubted that he would survive it. His wife would give her share of water to the kids and wouldn’t survive the journey, either.
Rudo said, “I hear a truck.”
“It’s too early for the relief truck,” Jomo said dismissing Rudo’s observation.
The sound of a truck approaching grew louder. Jomo frowned, and moved to look out of the tent. He could see the dust track of an approaching truck. It was coming from the wrong direction.
“It’s got to be a gang.”
“What’ll we do?”
“We’ll run for it,” he said.
He, his wife, and two kids were the first to flee the camp. They got twenty yards out of the camp, when a group of soldiers wearing tan outfits stood up in front of them. The sound of gunfire and dirt being kicked up in front of them, brought the four of them to a stop. Others, who had followed them out of the camp, stopped as well. Terrified, they stared at the soldiers. All of the stories of murder and rape leaped to mind.
“Return to camp. It is the safest place for you. There is nothing out here except for a hot hostile desert. Leaving would be sure death,” one of the tan soldiers said.
Jomo thought, ‘Staying here will be death of my son and me and the rape of my wife and daughter.’
They were forced back into the camp at gunpoint. The people who had remained in camp, had already been herded to an area just outside the camp. Visions of mass death flashed through the minds of the refugees. Women cowered, children cried, and the men stood stoically knowing they faced certain death. It was a pathetic scene.
There were many soldiers, and they were armed with rifles. The expressions on their faces were grim, not friendly. Jomo knew that only horror awaited him and his family. He pulled his wife and children behind him as if sheltering them with his body. Then he looked past the rifles and the uniforms to see the people wearing them. He was shocked, as most of them were women!
There were three trucks parked in front of where they had people gathered. One truck was parked length-wise to the crowd of refugees. In front of it, the soldiers were erecting a canopy to provide shade for a table and two chairs. The other two trucks were parked parallel to each other, and at a right angle to the refugees, with a wide gap between them.
The refugees watched the erection of the canopy, confused by what they were seeing. Who ever these people were, they were well organized. They were also some of the most serious people they had ever seen at the camp. When everything was set up to the satisfaction of the soldiers, one of the females stepped in front of the table.
“I am Hearth Maria. I am a Jade Warrior. We have contracted with Gemort to take over operation of this and other camps. That makes you our responsibility. We take our responsibilities very seriously. Work with us, and all will be well. Fight us, and you won’t like the consequences.
“I know that you are afraid. We are not here to harm you, but to help you. I know that you will not trust us. I know that you are hungry, thirsty, and dirty. You have been treated poorly in the past. That is the past. Now it is time to move forward to a better life.
“Let me go over the rules. There will be no pushing, shoving, or fighting of any kind. There will be no theft. There will be no rapes. Our punishments are very harsh. You will not like what happens if you violate the rules.
“You will get along with each other or you will be punished. You will work at your assigned tasks or you will be punished. If you have a problem you will come to one of us, and we shall work to solve it.
“We will now collect some information about each of you. It will not take long. So please be patient.”
The woman didn’t wait for anyone to acknowledge her. She moved behind the table and took a seat. She grabbed a manila folder, and a pad of paper. She talked to one of the other warriors. Those who could hear didn’t understand a word she said. The warrior then talked to three other warriors.
The first warrior walked over to Jomo. The other three walked to stand beside his family.
In a soft voice, she said, “Follow me and bring your family along with you.”
Jomo said, “What are you going to do to us?”
“Nothing. Now come along.”
“I don’t think so,” Jomo said.
He didn’t see the pistol get drawn. All he knew was that he had a gun to his head. From the sounds behind him, he knew that the other warriors had drawn guns on his family as well. The refugees around them pulled back several steps. Jomo wondered if it was out of fear of getting shot or if they were afraid they’d be hit with his blood splatter.
“Okay. We’re coming.”
“Good. I thought you would see it our way,” she said.
He was led up to the stand in front of the table facing the woman seated there.
“What is your name?”
“Is that your family name?”
“My family name is Sy.”
“Okay, Jomo Sy. What is your wife’s name?”
“Your son’s name?”
“Your daughter’s name?”
Hearth Maria picked up the camera. She took a picture of the family. Immediately, an image slid out from the camera. She waited for the image to develop. He looked over and could see that it was a picture of him and his family. Once the picture finished developing, she wrote their names under their images. She taped the picture onto a sheet of paper and put it into the manila folder.
Looking up at him, she said, “Jomo Sy. Please tell your wife and children to go with Shield Mandy.”
Suspicious, he asked, “What are you going to do to them?”
“Nothing. I promise you, we’ll do nothing to them,” she answered.
He told his wife to follow the soldier in tan. Stomach churning, he watched his family get led off to a small area separate from everyone else. They looked so alone and vulnerable standing there huddled together. He hoped that wasn’t going to be the image of his family that he would carry for the rest of his life.
She handed him a slip of paper and said, “Go with Shield Bennu.”
“What are you going to do to me?” he asked nervously.
“I’d rather stay with my family,” he said.
“Do we need the pistol, again?”
“No,” he answered.
He followed Shield Bennu around the truck. She marched him between the two trucks. She said something to the people inside the truck. One of the soldiers handed her a large plastic box with a top that sealed it tight. She turned and handed it to Jomo. He stared down at the box.
“Inside are four bowls, plates, cups, and eating utensils. There are also three cooking pots of various sizes and a ladle. You’ll find four bottles of juice, a sealed container of hot soup, and four rolls of bread. Take it over to your family and enjoy your breakfast,” she said.
“It’s got food inside?” he asked incredulous.
“Yes. Now, take it over to your family and enjoy it.”
“Go on through, and around the truck,” she said pointing the way.
He carried his box like it was his most prized possession. He joined his family and told them to sit down. Then he stared at the box wondering how to open it. Shield Bennu showed him how to get it open. As soon as the plastic lid on the soup was opened, he was hit with the aroma of food.
He carefully handed out the four plates and bowls. Then he ladled a serving of soup in each bowl and handed out the bread. The family tore into the meal. It had to be the best soup they had eaten in years. It was a thick rich broth, with small pieces of meat, and lots of vegetables in it; and the bread was fresh.
They were too busy eating to notice everyone watching them with envy. There wasn’t any need for a gun to get the next family up to the table. They had watched everything, and had learned from his example: do what the soldiers say, and get food. That was a very simple lesson to learn. It was also the most important lesson they were to learn that day.
There was still some soup left, and he ladled it out to his family, splitting his share among the two kids. He was extremely happy to see them eat this well.
Shield Bennu leaned over and said, “I would wait to drink the juice. I remember when I got my first full meal after a long fast. I ate so much that I got sick.”
“Okay,” Jomo said thankful at the reminder not to over-eat. “What are we to do with the stuff in this box?”
“It is yours to keep. We’ve set up a washing station over there. You can clean your dishes. After that, we need to interview you for some more details about you and your family.”
“What kind of details?”
“Simple things like your ages, and what you did before the war drove you from your home,” she answered.
“Oh. I was a farmer.”
“You’ll need to tell Hearth Maria that. We’ll let you know when she’s ready for you,” Shield Bennu said.
After his family had finished eating, his wife washed the dishes. She was shocked at how much water they had provided to her, for the simple purpose of cleaning up. They seemed to have a never ending supply of water, based on how they acted.
The family retired to their tent to take a nap. The tension filled morning had eaten up their energy reserves, and the good food had made them drowsy. It was a perfect combination to drive them right to sleep.
Jomo woke when a voice outside his tent said, “Jomo Sy? Hearth Maria is ready to interview you now.”
“I’m coming,” he said and then yawned.
He looked over at his family. They were sleeping peacefully. It was the first time in ages that they looked so content. All it took was a fully belly, something that he hadn’t been able to accomplish since walking away from his home. It wasn’t his fault, and he knew it, but knowing and believing are two different things entirely. His poor family had suffered hardship, privation, and starvation over the past year and a half.
He slipped out of the tent and followed the soldier in tan. Rather than finding Hearth Maria at the table in front of the truck, she was now in a structure that had appeared sometime while he had been napping. He entered cautiously, still wondering what these people wanted from him. He looked around amazed that this building could have materialized in such a short time.
“Please have a seat, Jomo Sy.”
“Thank you,” he answered thinking it would be best to be polite to someone with such power as she appeared to have.
“Tell me a little about yourself.”
“There’s not much to say,” he replied somewhat confused.
“Well, what did you do before the war forced you from your home?” she asked.
“I was a farmer.”
His folder was open with the picture of him and his family. She wrote something on a sheet of paper.
“What did you grow?”
“Yams are an important crop in northern Sumar. Were you successful at it?”
“I think so. I sold my excess at the market which gave us some money. I traded with some hunters to get fresh meat. I had two goats that provided milk for cheese. We had some chickens that gave us eggs. I had a little garden that provided fresh vegetables,” he said while smiling at his memories of home. “We had a nice home, we ate well, and we were happy.”
“That’s all you want, isn’t it?” she asked while adding some more notes on her paper.
“Does your wife sew?”
“She sews very well. She made our clothes,” he answered. He looked down at his thread worn clothes and said, “It may not look like it, but the clothes are durable and strong. She hasn’t had a chance to make us new clothes in nearly two years. These clothes are still good enough to wear despite the fact that they are old.”
“Your clothes look fine,” she said making some more notations on her page. “I bet she’s a good cook.”
“She’s as good of a cook as my mother was. She’s a good wife.”
“Do you know how to read or write?”
“I can write my name,” he said. “I can read good enough to know what is inside of the packages at the store.”
“That’s good,” she said making more notations on her form. “Do you read books?”
“No,” he said uncomfortable at the admission.
“That’s fine,” she said.
“You think I’m stupid.”
“No. I think you’re resourceful. In many ways that’s more important than being smart,” she said.
He didn’t look convinced.
She smiled at seeing his discomfort and said, “You are a man of action.”
“Are you talking about me?”
“When we arrived this morning, you were the first to assess us as a threat. You gathered your family and fled taking a reasonable route out of the camp. If we had been a common kind of threat, you and your family would have probably been the safest among everyone in the camp. You’d have had a chance to find a place to hide while the bad people would have been busy rounding up the others who were slower than you.”
“That makes me a coward.”
“No. There are some who would say that it wasn’t the brave choice, but I say that you made the sane choice. You had the choice of staying to fight without a weapon, and dying a meaningless death, or protecting your family by running. You chose to protect your family. That is a very sane choice.
“I am a Jade Warrior. There are many who would argue that we make brave or foolish choices, but the fact is, that we always make the sane choice. We respect others who make the sane choice over those who make the brave choice.”
“You make me sound like I’m more than what I am,” he said.
“Once you had been captured, you stood there, frightened of the people with guns. There’s no shame in being frightened of heavily armed people who you think are out to hurt you. Still, you thought first of your family. You gathered them behind you as if you could protect them from us. You resisted getting split up, and it took a gun to your head to get you to move.
“I would say that you demonstrate a very nice character.”
“Thank you,” Jomo said feeling a little better.
“We need to construct a runway so that we can bring in some heavy equipment to build better facilities here. Would you be willing to help?”
“Yes,” he said thinking that anything was better than sitting in that small tent all day.
“We will be building a school. Until the building is completed, we’ll have a temporary structure for the kids. We’d like Runo and Zahra to attend. They’ll learn to read and write. They’ll learn their numbers. Would that be all right with you?”
“Yes,” he said surprised.
“After we get a better supply of water, we’re looking at growing some crops here. It is too hot and dry here for yams. We were thinking sweet potatoes, beans, squash, melons, and a few leafy vegetables. We were thinking of bringing in some goats for milk and cheese. Goats are about the only animals that can eat the local vegetation. Of course, we’d include some chickens. If the farm is successful, you and the other farmers would be able to sell some of the excess produce. Would you like that?”
“Yes, I would. I would like that a lot.”
“Before we start having you do work, we’re going to have everyone examined by a doctor. You’ve had a hard time and your health has suffered. It might mean taking some pills for a while or even getting an injection of medicine. You might have to go through an exercise program to build your strength back up.”
“I know about doctors. There was a doctor who used to come by our village every year. He’d treat us for wounds, injuries, and worms. I have no problem with doctors.”
“Good. I think you’ll start enjoying life again,” she said.
Edited By TeNderLoin