Clutching onto the scrub she pulls herself up the steep embankment, avoiding the thorns pressing into her skin and the excrement piled up in the dirt. There are only two bridges across the ditch, this concrete one and another made of rope near the Sha'ab quarter that swings precariously as you cross it. The bushes beneath the concrete bridge are crammed full of rubbish from the pedestrians above. In the six or so weeks Deqo has been in Hargeisa she has met many people she knows or dimly recognises from the camp along this bridge. The men stand out in sarongs of navy and maroon check, probably sold all over Ogaden by one trader from Dire Dawa. These men look uniformly old and familiar: sunken cheeked, bow-legged, hunchbacked and wild-haired. Some meet her gaze with a sharp, sidelong glance that pierces the clouds of her memory, and then she remembers them from Saba'ad: he rented out a wheelbarrow, he volunteered at the clinic, he sold goat milk.
There are only a few people crossing the bridge today, and she can run her hands along the peeling white iron railings without moving aside for anyone. Toyotas and trucks slow down beside her to navigate the gutted tarmac of the bridge. As she crosses from north to south Hargeisa she hears chanting. A flotilla of small clenched fists appears in the distance, approaching her as if pulled in by the tide. Local schoolboys and girls in pastel-coloured uniforms pump the air shouting, 'No more arrests, no more killing, no more dictatorship!' Their faces are frank and happy, the outlines of their individual bodies obscured by the flow of their movement. They block the road ahead so Deqo waits on the bridge to get a closer look at them. The bridge vibrates underneath, one hundred or two hundred feet drumming on the fragile structure. Deqo can see a few children without uniforms and some young men, too old for school, within the group. They sing a song she has never heard before: 'Hargeisa ha noolaato, long live Hargeisa.' The children closest to her look her up and down and scrunch up their noses.
Deqo wraps her arms around the iron railings behind her back and stares as the children make a spectacle of themselves. She has spent her whole life observing; hers are the eyes that always peer from behind walls or rocks, infuriating everyone with their watchfulness. But since she lost her friend Anab there is no one to lie down with at night, no one to divulge her secrets to; instead they put down roots in her mind and grow in the mulch of her confused life.
The schoolchildren are tightly packed onto the bridge, a shifting mass of blue, pink and khaki. She looks towards the north side of the bridge and sees red beret soldiers lined up across the road. Deqo finds them attractive: she likes the dark bottle-green of their uniforms, the gold on their epaulettes, the jaunty angle of their famous hats; she even likes the silver pistols that hang like jewellery from their hips.
The schoolchildren are silent, nervous, and when a whistle blows they scream and run back in the direction they came. The lean, tall soldiers pull out batons and chase the children. Deqo is caught in the melee and joins the stampede to avoid getting trampled. She feels like a sheep being herded into an enclosure. Hands grab her and push past, some almost dragging her down, but there is nowhere to escape to, the south side of the bridge blocked by another line of soldiers. The schoolchildren fall over each other trying to avoid the rigid, stinging batons. Their fists are now open in surrender, held aloft as if in promise of good behaviour.
Deqo trips over a boy and falls at the feet of a soldier; he grasps her dress in one hand and the boy's arm in the other and drags them over to a massive lorry waiting beside the road. The bed of the truck is so high the soldier has to let the boy go to throw Deqo into it with both hands; the boy follows and then other captive students. Reaching for the soldier's hand, Deqo tries to plead with him to let her go but he slaps her in the mouth. The taste of blood on her tongue, she looks around in shock at the flying skirts and limbs, as more and more children are forced into the vehicle. Black netting covers the side but that is the only difference between it and livestock trucks. An older boy with long ringlets down his neck tears a hole in the netting and clambers out the side, and other brave ones follow him. Deqo peers down at the distant ground, too afraid to try.
Copyright © 2013 by Nadifa Mohamed
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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