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The Crossing toward Hope

1997. Day breaks under a raging downpour.

It’s raining buckets.

Raining screams.

Raining mothers’ screams that drown out the thunder of the bullets raining down on their sons.

It’s raining bullets over Mutsamudu.

The Kalashnikovs fire away and stop.  Soldiers on the other side fall, fire back, run away. A rebel screams and falls. A bullet has lodged in his right leg and the blood is spurting out. The blood of independence, say the local media. The blood of separatism, chant the Moroni media. Two discourses, two visions, two sides. The Federal State, centralizing by its very nature, and an island eager to go it alone.

Three colonels storm public radio and defy Moroni’s authority.

“We, Colonels Abeid, Sima, and Abderehman, declare the independence of the island of Anjouan.”

President Taki’s army lands soon afterward, at dawn. And the machineguns begin to rattle. The streets empty out. Not a soul, not even a chicken. A desert. And then, over there at the end, in ambush behind a capsized truck, the soldiers of the regular army fire on independentist rebels holed up in the huge room at the entrance to their barracks. Inside our mud-brick houses, the racket of the bullets makes us jump. And then suddenly, boom! It pulverizes part of a corrugated iron shack near our neighborhood.

Father, wearing a white T-shirt and a pair of jeans, leaps out of bed and grabs our hands, Mother’s and mine. We climb over the backyard fence and disappear into the forest.

We’ve been walking through total darkness for several hours now. Far off we can hear the thundering AK-47s unleashed on the flesh of our poor, wounded island.

The operation is baptized “Reestablishing the sovereignty of the State,” one nation, not so indivisible.

The noise of a jeep moving. Orders shouted to the soldiers.

“Free-fire zone! Nariwaule maâdui wawo! Kill the enemy!”

Insults are heaped on the rebels:

Zinkwendze zanyu!” “Up yours!”

Mother can't take it any more. Her feet hurt, her flip-flops have broken. She is lagging behind. She is eight months pregnant. Father grabs her before she faints. We stop under some thickly leaved trees. Father sits Mother and me down, puts her head  in my lap, and quickly climbs  a coconut tree. He rips off some green coconuts with his big hands and then slides back down along the trunk.

Far off, the clattering of the bullets intensifies. The civilians are leaving their villages with bundles on their heads. Father’s old transistor radio is glued to my ear.  Radio France Internationale  is reporting the events live. The din of the bullets resounds over the Hertzian waves.

Just over there, Father breaks the green coconut’s fiber on a rock below, makes a hole in it with a stem, and suggests that Mother take a few gulps. The sweet drink gives her back a little strength; she stands up and cracks open the shell. And using the coconut fiber as a spoon, she savors the juicy pulp before we start out again.

After two hours of walking, we can see the village of Koki in the distance. The bleating of goats and sheep competes with the gunshots a few hundred meters ahead of us. Father makes a tour of the village and confers with the village leaders. He learns there’s a vehicle leaving early in the morning to flee the area around Mutsamudu.

By the first gleam of dawn we’re up, ready to board. The village soon begins to stir, and then empties out, leaving not a single soul behind. Aboard the small truck, we drive to Bambao, where other shuttles are to take us to Domoni. Soon Mother  becomes nauseous from the jolts of the bumpy roads; she throws up everything in her on the surrounding grass. Father holds her up; five minutes later they return and the trip continues.

Domoni, 5 AM.

The faithful bend down to put on their shoes at the exit of the mosque, then disappear into the narrow little streets. From the jetty, we can see dawn beginning to break over the horizon.

Down below on the beach, gathered around their makeshift kwasa-kwasa, the smugglers have just about finished counting the take. The smell of sand mixes with the stench of gas. The big crossing is finally going to begin. Suddenly:

“Everybody take shelter!”

The lookout signals the presence of the Coast Guard, making their rounds at the Domoni jetty.

The officer comes over to get his piece of the pie.

“Day starting out OK, Chief?”

“Nothing to report, Sir,” slipping a few bills into the officer’s hand as he shakes it. Quick as a wink, nothing asked, nothing told.

The passengers come on board one by one with their belongings; the boat is turning in all directions under the waves beating down on the beach.

When the sailor starts his Yamaha engine everybody starts muttering a prayer.

He’s the only one with an orange life-preserver around his neck. Nobody’s bothered by this. Our minds are elsewhere. To flee, like hunted animals. To flee the rain of bullets, as if you could avoid a bullet. To slalom over the angry ocean waves that make the hull of the kwasa-kwasa groan.

At the slightest bump, everybody hangs on to his neighbor with one hand and grips the edge of the boat with the other.

Here we are in the middle of nowhere. Domoni has disappeared with the fall of night. In front of us, a few gleams from the oil lamps of the fishermen who’ve come to round off their catch off the coast on their hollowed-out wooden boat—a tropical almond tree they carve with all their strength and a sharp ax. A light breeze goes through our spines.

Mother can’t take the bumping any more. Father comforts her as best he can. The sailor is beginning to lose his temper. The two of them are getting hot under the collar:

“Why didn’t you stay on the dock, if you're so sick?”

Father gives him a withering look, biting his lips, all swollen from the salt air. His piercing eyes shut the fair-weather sailor up. He stammers a few excuses and puts on a silly smile. As if to say I’m the master of this ship, so cool it.

The waves are getting meaner and meaner. The wind, too, is beginning to howl in the gray sky empty of stars and moons. Then a lady who can’t feel her limbs any more sheds a tear and proposes a prayer:

Al fâtiha.

With cupped hands people answer her requests with “Amin, amin.

Heaven does not seem convinced by our pleas. There is an incredible hubbub as all the adults begin to recite the Koran. The sailor loses his haughty air and imitates his passengers. Still no sign of appeasement from the heavens.

“I need something else,” a voice from the depths of the ocean seems to be saying, “One of you has to jump overboard!”

All the sailor wants is to get rid of the one he calls that hysterical old woman.

“We still have a long way to go, and we’re overloaded,” he calls out, before adding, amid the general astonishment. “It would be a pity if we all died.”

As if losing patience, the waves come crashing against the boat, threatening to capsize it. Father turns to me, then to the sailor, who quickly looks away. The same old lady speaks up again.

“Leave me here, I’m an old woman and the only future I have is the grave. Help me jump.”

And splash, her mass plunges limply down into the middle of nothing. Bubbles are whirling around the surface when a black triangle splits the water as fast as the blink of an eye, turning around and around our boat. And then nothing. A few seconds later, a purple pool comes up from the depths of the abyss and changes the blue of the sea. Everybody is in tears, and prayers grow louder. Nobody dares to look at the sailor strapped into his life-preserver, his hands gripping the handle of the Yamaha engine.

We start chanting “Ash’hadu allâ ilâha llâhu.

“Muhammadu rasûli llahi,” concludes the smugggler.

The sounds of motors are growing nearer and nearer. Then orders reach us through a megaphone, causing panic on board. A man jumps into the water crying “I’d sooner die than go back there.”

In the general confusion, the smuggler tries to get away and the Coast Guard gives chase. Surrounded by the maritime authorities, impossible to go any further. Our race will end right here. Of the thirty people who started out from Domoni, only a dozen remain, children for the most part.

Father envelops us in his big arms. Mother is beginning to lose blood; she’s shivering. The Coast Guards take her on board their boat and then dash off to the Mamoudzou jetty. We can hear ambulance sirens, covered now by the noise of a helicopter circling over our heads. The men who jumped into the water grab life-preservers that rain down from the flying bird. The Coast Guards handcuff the smuggler before delivering him up to the gendarmes who have come to join them.

A crowd of onlookers greets us on the dock, each one with his comment.

WaNdzuani nawalawe! Anjouanese, out!”

In these circumstances you quickly realize that racism is a universal human trait. They put us on board the blue truck of the gendarmes, handcuffed to each other. Where are they taking us? Radio silence. We all lower our heads in shame as we are jeered by the onlookers.

After a half-hour crossing from Grande Terre to Petite Terre, the barge’s horns honk loudly to signal it’s about to dock. The navy blue truck leaves the barge first, then pours out its human tide onto the Ballou dock. Ten minutes later, we’re in the yard of the detention center for illegal immigrants. The white officers are accompanied by interpreters:

“After notifying the Comorian authorities, we’re going to send you back where you came from.”

A hubbub in the crowd, but no voice is raised in protest. The cold has condemned us to silence. One by one, they have us identify ourselves while an officer enters us into a computer. In the vast yard of the military camp, a huge table has been set up the whole length of the yard. Amid the general cacophony, we are treated to a hot meal.

A huge net prolongs the yard, no doubt to prevent us from running away. A guard walks around whistling the “Marseillaise,” a German shepherd at his side.

“We sure are under good guard here, while bullets are tearing apart the tender skin of our wounded Ndzuani,” Father says, with a tear in his eye.

It’s the first time I’ve seen him cry. So, he loves his country so much he’s shedding tears for it. Has he given in to fatigue? Because of all the tragedies we encountered during the crossing? Mother was taken to the emergency room: is it her condition that is making him so sad? Or all these things at once?

 

They herd us into the big hall where we’re probably going to spend the night. A TV set on the wall finally tells us something about what’s happening on this island we have dreamed about for so long.

8 PM, announces the clock. The eight o’clock ritual of the Mayotte TV news hour has just sounded.

Images are coming in from Domoni. A sign whipping around in the wind. Blue, white, and red. And then these slogans, awakening the old demons:

“We want to be French ‘again,’” they read.  

Another story on the arrest of the sailor, who was immediately tried in Mamoudzou. The man is leaving the court smiling broadly, between two gendarmes. He’s been sentenced to six years in prison with a twenty-thousand-franc fine.

After that, the journalist thinks he has to ask people on the streets of the capital for their opinions.

A poker-faced gentleman is saying loudly:

“Didn’t we tell them over and over! We don’t want their lousy independence.”

A little giggle, and he adds:

Karivendze! WaNdzuani nawalawe . . .

 A hubbub in the hall; these unfriendly words make insults fly.

Another grabs the mike and takes on his interlocutor:

“Don’t you dare swear by the French, by the ‘country of the Rights of Man,’ you Français la madzi. fucking Frenchman. The day will come when the eternal Comoros Islands will be reunified!”

In the highly charged atmosphere of the hall, this is greeted with delight.

The policeman jumps on the remote control and ends this surge of exaltation.

“Long live the free Comoros!” we are shouting.

“Silence!” says a fat man, covered with military braid.

A deathly silence reigns in the hall. It’s hard to go to sleep because of our anxiety about the next day.

The policeman turns on the TV again. Spotlight on the maternity ward of Mamoudzou. The reporter has gone to Mother’s bedside. A sweet little baby is sleeping next to her. Father is in seventh heaven; he squeezes me so hard he almost smothers me.

Chants outside tear us from our sleep. 

“Free the hostages!” chant the demonstrators. Human rights activists are demanding to meet with us. A categorical refusal from the camp authorities.

Everything is ready for our expulsion from the national territory, as the officials like to say to us.

“What territory are they talking about, for God’s sake?” mutters Father to a friend. “They violate our sovereignty and threaten to expel us from our land, my God, it’s the world upside down.”

Father was a fervent activist in the revolutionary youth movement in his high school years. That was under the regime of Ali Soilihi. A first-rate nationalist who ardently believes in the reunification of the islands of the moon.

Father’s timid protests have done nothing to stop our transport to the Tratringa, the boat connecting Anjouan to Mayotte, docked at the Ballou quay.

We can’t hear ourselves talk, what with the barge’s horn announcing its docking, the noise of taxi engines, the taxi barkers—it’s enough to make you go deaf.

The local police inspects the crew and pretends to believe they’re genuine sailors. And then we climb on board.

Mother won’t be with us on the trip. I’m overcome by sadness, but Father reassures me:

“It’s a half-victory, comrade, don’t worry. The baby’s been born on the territory, he’ll be able to get the right documents, and that will allow us to return,” he says, with a broad smile.

Chiconi, Marseille, Bordeaux, Clermont-Ferrand, 1999–2004

 

© Nasuf Djailani. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2012 by David Ball and Nicole Ball. All rights reserved.