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Feeding the Borfimah - revised by Will Miller

© Will Miller

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Prologue

"Children suffered some of the most horrific crimes committed during the Liberian Civil War including LURD and MODEL insurrections. They were forced to kill friends and family members including their parents, rape and be raped, serve as sexual slaves and prostitutes, labor, take drugs, engage in cannibalism, torture and pillage communities. Many were forced to be ‘juju’ controllers, ammunition carriers, spies, armed guards, ambushers and so on. Perhaps, the most shocking crime committed against children was their cannibalization. Rebel commanders organized cooking feasts and served children’s body parts, including their intestines and hearts. The blood of children was collected and cooked into soups in which hearts were served as choice meats for cannibalistic commanders."

Final Report, Truth and Reconciliation Committee of Liberia, Vol 1, 44, 2009.



1. London

Look at dis scrub,” Westral said, tugging Nouhou Dembele’s yellow T-shirt. The Lyme Road Warriors wore black, with new white trainers and silver neck chains.

Ragged jeans covered Nouhou’s prosthetic legs.

“It the only P he has,” Waffy said, indicating the dollar sign printed on the front of the T-shirt. “If you got no cheese for us, Butcher Boy, I take it.” On Waffy’s black snapback hat were embroidered the letters “LRW”. The gang ran Farm Estate, and their youngs ran Lyme Road school.

“Muss be cold, yeh,” said Morder. “What you do when we take that shirt?”

“He keep warm walking on dem sticks,” Silva said. “Look how hench he is up top.”

“What good is half a man?” said Skama, kicking out one of Nouhou’s walking sticks. “Butcher Boy a apprentice wasteman, yeh.”

Westral kicked away the other walking stick and Nouhou staggered. He smiled after recovering his balance. To impress them after first arriving at Lyme Road School, Nouhou had told stories of fighting the National Patriotic Front of Liberia. Many students called him a liar. At seven years old, Nouhou had witnessed the murder of his parents and sisters, before he and his two brothers were dragged away as slaves. Barely a year afterwards and a LURD soldier himself, he’d laughed at his own victims’ high-voltage terror. Armed with an AK-47, if he refused to kill, LURD would have killed him.

Retrieving a book from his locker, Nouhou ignored the hostility of the other students. Turning the key, one of his two walking sticks hung from his arm from a leather lanyard. Made from dark hardwood, the sticks had travelled with him across the Sahara from Monrovia.

Now fifteen and the pariah of Lyme Road School, he lumbered into the classroom on his prosthetic legs smiling at no-one in particular. His foster mother, Lilah, told him he had a beautiful smile. “Lots of white teeth in that head, Nouhou.” In the World War III assault on Monrovia, his smile had saved his life.

Alone at a desk, Nouhou hoped he would understand something of what the English teacher said. His foster mother had said, “What will you do here in London? Be a beggar again? This school is your only hope. In Liberia only Congos get this education.” A Congo was a descendant of the freed American slaves, the children of white slave-owners, who had colonised Liberia over a century ago.

Mrs Alder, the teacher, raised a hand to quieten everyone. “Last week, I asked you to finish reading, The Famished Road. So I expect you have read at least half, and you must finish it by next week, or else.”

“Or else what?” Abimbola asked. “What you do if we don’t read de book?” The Lyme Road Warriors called him “Skama” and Nouhou had seen the tag spray-painted on the brickwork of Farm Estate.

“I’ll fail you, and we’ll do this all over again in a year’s time,” said Mrs Alder. “That’s what.”

Dressed in black and adorned with thick silver chains, the Lyme Road Warriors lounged two desks to Nouhou’s left. None had bothered to bring the novel to class. Nouhou had laboured over a few pages of his copy and found it difficult to understand. His early years had been spent fighting Government troops, often high on palm wine, marijuana and amphetamines. After he lost his legs, he’d lived in the street. Lilah had helped him learn to read, but he didn’t think he could catch up with the rest of the class. Out of everyone, he would most likely to be here next year.

Frank Allen put up his hand. “Since no-one’s read it. Could we change novels? A book about England? Lorelei, you read books, what’s a book set in England?”

“I don’t read books!” Lorelei said. “Stay with The Famished Road. It’s about black magic.”

“OH, YEH!” The class chorused.

“Black magic?” Frank said.

“So no-one has read the book,” Mrs Alder said. “Should we perhaps look at a poem instead? Something by John Donne. He’s very English, Frank.”

“Poem? He spit?” said Westral, one of the Lyme Road Warriors. He rested an immaculate white trainer on an empty chair.

The LRW gangstas began making music with their mouths and banging their chests for a beat. Silva began a type of singing Nouhou had heard in the class many times:

You still got – tsch – your watch, your phone
Until you – tsch – roll in my zone - my zone
Der no need – tsch – even to preten
I be doin – tsch – seven to ten – to ten
My skeng an – tsch – my leng just wait
It like zen – tsch – so accept your fate – it fate
Der no need – tsch – even to preten
I be doin – tsch – seven to ten – to ten

“Enough!” Mrs Alder said. “That’s not John Donne by a long shot.”

“Dis John Donne a shooter too?” Westral said.

Reading a book about black magic worried Nouhou. If his classmates thought it entertainment, they were wrong. None of the stories he’d heard in the Trauma Therapy group compared to what he had experienced in the Liberian war. Who else in the classroom had such soul-destroying secrets such as his? That he’d gulped the blood of a slaughtered child from a mud-stained bucket? Nouhou remembered his fourteen-year-old commander had said, “Ee you wan Kingdom of Heaven, you eah body and drin bluh of Jesuh Chrise, buh to enter Monrovia, this whah we muss do.” On top of that, eight-year-old Nouhou had been given the task of feeding the borfimah, the source of his unit’s most powerful magic.

A knock sounded on the door and the Headmaster’s secretary entered. “Mrs Alder, may I take Nouhou Dembele?”

Hearing his name, Nouhou tensed.

“Out of the question. How am I meant to teach if you take students out of my class?”

“I’m only the messenger, no shooting,” the secretary said. “It’s a disability-needs event.”

Mrs Alder took a deep breath. “Nouhou, would you accompany Mrs Smythe?”

He remembered himself as an eight-year-old armed with a Kalashnikov, selecting people to step out from the queue. Every road had checkpoints where rival groups examined the credentials of travellers, and murder and rape had been normal. Nouhou himself had shot many of those who could not pay. Now he had been chosen, and he staggered forward between the desks, not knowing what awaited.

“Come along!” Mrs Smythe said, hurrying down the corridor. “They’re in the gym.”

Nouhou followed and, from the classroom windows on either side, students watched him being led away. At at the end of the corridor, Mrs Smyth held the door while he ambled through on prosthetic legs. Nouhou imagined Immigration were waiting there to send him to Monrovia.

“I think you’ll enjoy this,” she said, opening the doors to the gymnasium.

In the hall, a long rack with two empty wheelchairs strapped to it had been assembled on the parquet floor. The PE teacher, Mr Howse, stood beside another man dressed in a padded black jacket which had an acidic odour of perspiration. Nouhou noticed several metal rods in a long black bag.

“As you can’t play the other sports, I thought you might like to try wheelchair fencing,” said Mr Howse. “This is Professor Egan. He fenced in the Olympics. He’ll show you how it works.”

In the professor’s hand was a mesh mask. “I’m doing a tour of London schools. Up for a try?”

Nouhou glanced at the exit.

“There are three different swords,” Professor Egan said. “With these two you only use the point. And this one you can use the point and the blade. Which would you like to try?”

“The blade,” said Nouhou. Some of the things he had done with a machete didn’t bear thinking about, but these metal sticks wouldn’t hurt anyone.

“Ah, the sabre! All the kids like it because of the pirate movies. If you sit in this chair, I’ll strap you in. You need to put on this jacket to protect you. And here’s a mask.”

Nouhou didn’t think protection would be needed, not from these weapons, but there was no point arguing. Kitted out, Professor Egan handed Nouhou a sabre and sat in the opposing wheelchair, although the fencing master didn’t appear disabled.

“Only the upper body is a valid target. Not the legs. On guard. Ready. Play!”

Nouhou chopped him over the head so fast the professor had no chance of defending himself. He would have also chopped off one of the instructor’s arms, or at least pretended to, but the professor shouted, “Halt!”

Had he done something wrong?

“One point to you, Nouhou. We stop after every hit, announce the score and begin again. As though it were a new duel. OK? On guard. Ready? Play!”

The professor lashed out at Nouhou’s arm with a speed that suggested he was keen for revenge, but Nouhou moved his arm and slashed the instructor across the mask.

“Blimey, you do hit hard, Nouhou. Two points to you. Ready? Play!”

Before the instructor could start his attack, Nouhou cut deep into his hand. Or would have cut, if he’d been fighting with a real weapon.

“Halt! I don’t seem to be able to get a touch on you. Three nil. Shall we continue?”

Hidden under the fencing mask, Nouhou knew that if a bullet could not find him, there was no chance this slow old man could cut him with one of these pretend swords.

“Nouhou have you fenced before?”

“No, no fencin.”

“I think I may have found our next national champion. I’ve never seen such talent in a beginner. You didn’t live in a village where they used sticks as swords by any chance?”

From behind the mask, Nouhou stared him down.

A half hour later, Nouhou stepped away from the wheelchair, balanced on his prosthetic limbs. The defeated Professor Egan dripped with perspiration.

“I think I may have been mistaken when I said ‘national champion’. You could be a future wheelchair fencing world champion. I’m not exaggerating. I don’t think I even hit you once. You must come to my fencing club. I could collect you.”

Nouhou glanced at the PE teacher, wondering if wasn’t allowed to refuse.

“Man, what a talent you have, I absolutely can’t allow you to waste it.”

Nouhou knew what he had. He wanted to get rid of it.


2. Rachel’s Mum’s Letter

Rachel watched the Lyme Road Warriors swagger into class. They wore black armbands for the gang-members killed during the recent London riot. Some girls fell for them, attracted to their spirit of rebellion, and were happy for a day, or a week, at most. Not Rachel, though, not after the prophecy.

Ainslie’s fortune-telling rabbit had instructed her to wait until she was twenty-four then date online. It surprised her that fortune-tellers could predict the results of internet dating, but Rachel figured it must be where everyone found love now. Ten years seemed a long time to wait, but it was better than Aisha’s marriage prediction that she’d be burnt alive in India next year.

With her Thai mother’s Asian features, attracting a bate guy worried her. Aisha told her she might land a wasteman if she agreed to push his shopping trolley. More, if she was stronger.

Nouhou, the refugee from Liberia, walked in on prosthetic limbs. He’d been taken out of class for something earlier and his expression looked even more troubled than usual. If there was anyone in the school to avoid more than the LRW, it was Nouhou.

Mr Urquhart, the History teacher, waited for everyone to sit, then droned on about colonialism in Asia, and Rachel drifted into a romantic daydream until she heard him say “Thailand”.

“One of the few countries in Asia never formally colonised. Of course, they gave massive areas of territory to the French who were in neighbouring Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, and allowed all manner of trading concessions to Western governments and businesses. Nonetheless, it is tribute to the diplomatic skills of the Siamese kings that they were not overthrown. In many ways, old Siam was the forerunner of the client states seen today, apparently independent but not really at all.”

With that, Mr Urquhart lost Rachel, and she hoped it wouldn’t be a question in the exam. Seven years ago, her mother had returned to Thailand, leaving Rachel with her English grandparents on Farm Estate. Grandpa watched football on TV while her grandma, whom Rachel loved, read romances sitting in a wooden chair she claimed was good for her back.

Once her Grandpa had said, if she’d left with her mother, she’d now be up to her knees in a rice paddy. Her mother had sent only one letter and, even after so many years, Rachel had no idea what it said. Thai writing is unlike anything else, except maybe Hindi according to Aisha. Rachel had hidden the letter in her jumper drawer.

The teacher, Mr Urquhart’s, spectacles made his eyes appear larger than they were. Plus, whenever he spoke, he opened his eyes quite wide. Bazyli Boulos had similar glasses and could do Mr Urquhart’s voice, and that had made him a school celebrity.

“You say Siamese kings?” asked Anthony, one of the Lyme Road gangstas. “Like Siamese twins? Joined at the hip?”

“Make it difficult to dead your bruv and take de throne,” said Mustafa, sitting beside Anthony.

“Difficult even to sit on de throne, yeh.” Anthony’s gang tag was “Morder.”

“Siam is the old name for Thailand,” Mr Urquhart said. “An ancient kingdom. There are many wonderful ruins there. You must all go and see them yourselves one day.”

“I can just look down de street and see ruins,” said Yoko, a Nigerian girl with hair plaited in cornrows.

“Or look in de mirror,” said Aisha. “I meant de mirror is a ruin, yeh? Not you, Yoko. You a daisy.”

Yoko turned in her seat.

Rachel didn’t learn very much about Thailand, with Mr Urquhart trying to stop everyone from speaking, and repeatedly warning Yoko not to bash Aisha. He did say that Bangkok was once like the Venice of South East Asia: people travelled everywhere by boat and all the houses were built on stilts above the water. He said water taxis still operated in quite a lot of Bangkok even though most of the old waterways had been paved over with four-lane highways.

Even with the highways, it sounded wonderful. Rachel wanted to travel to Thailand and find her mum. They would ride the water taxis in Bangkok and walk through the ruins. She decided to get her mother’s letter translated because it might contain her return address. The back of the envelope was blank.

After school, Rachel said her farewells and hurried back to Farm Estate, where she found her grandma reading in the kitchen. Rachel marvelled how age had made all her skin sag, recalling the photos of her grandma as a young woman. One day it would happen to her too, Rachel knew, and of course there was death, which her grandma would face soon, as though an execution.

“Do you know anyone who speaks Thai?”Rachel asked.

“I don’t think so. Are you interested in speaking Thai?” Her grandma’s well-worn novel looked as though it had passed through the hands of most of her friends.

“Did I hear you say ‘cup of tea’, love?” her grandpa called from the sitting room, where a TV commentator enthused over a penalty kick.

“Would you, dear? I’m right in the middle of an exciting part.”

Rachel put on the kettle and retrieved three mugs. “What about Dad? Doe he know someone.”

“Why all this interest in learning Thai, dear? I’d have thought schoolwork would be enough for the moment.”

“I want to know what my mother’s letter says.”

“Oh. I have his number somewhere. Just let me finish this chapter.”

Rachel thought she would have forgotten what her father looked like if not for the photo of his younger self on her grandma’s dressing table. She doubted he looked young anymore. It took a while to work up the courage to call her father on his landline and, when she did, a woman answered. Rachel felt like an operator in a warehouse bluffing through a cold call.

“You want David? And who might you be.”

“I’m his daughter, Rachel.”

“Listen, if you want money, he’s broke.”

“I want to ask him something about my mum.”

“And who’s that then?”

“She’s in Thailand.”

“So you’re just another bit of mess he didn’t pick up after himself. Get a pen, I’m only reading out this number once.”

Rachel’s skank-alert wailed at air raid intensity as she wrote.

Trying the number, Rachel went to voicemail. She asked about meeting up and, after an hour, her father texted back to meet him at a martial arts club. Getting off the tube at Angel and following her phone, streetlights illuminated the grey buildings and endless colours of traffic. Rachel avoided pedestrians. It wasn’t Farm Estate, but outsiders were targets of choice anywhere.

Between a shoe shop and a greengrocer, the glass frontage sported a huge magna-style illustration of Thai boxing. Pushing through the front door and passing an empty reception desk, Rachel asked a giant pressing weights where she might find David Holbeck. He pointed to a coach advising a fighter in a boxing ring. Waiting in the opposite corner, an opponent in padded headgear bounced on the balls of his feet.

“An inch further away and his punches can’t connect,” Rachel heard her father say. “He has to kick. But you have to be in control of the distance, not him. Get the right distance for the right hit, but use your instincts. Don’t be thinking about it. It’ll slow you down.”

The blond fighter nodded and faced his opponent. Admiring their shining muscles, Rachel watched as they exchanged blows. They fought like sparring roosters, blocking kicks that would have floored her in an instant.

“Hello, what do we have…” her father said. “It’s my little girl!” He brushed Rachel’s cheek with the back of his fingers and kissed her head. “You looking to learn Thai boxing like your old dad?”

“My teeth are barely OK now,” Rachel said. He was big, although pot-bellied, and had a leer that suggested that he was capable of anything.

“I was wondering when I’d see you again. It’s been what, six, seven years? How’s Ma and Da?” He spoke as though cheering.

Rachel shrugged.

“Does she do that wheedling thing with you? Nagging and nitpicking?”

“No.”

“Really? I could have thrown her off the balcony sometimes. Anyway, you’re looking move in with me?” His grin was wide and charming and Rachel understood what the skank saw in him. “And I’ve been meaning to come and see you,” he said, glancing at the boxers trading blows in the ring. “Things just seemed to get in the way.”

“Do you know anyone who speaks Thai?” Rachel tried to shift the conversation away from the emotional stuff.

“This is a muay thai club, Thai boxing. A few guys here speak Thai.”

Rachel showed her father the letter.

“I never saw this.” Her father examined the script. “Hey, Ananda!” he shouted at a guy slamming his shin high up into a boxing bag. “Come here a sec.”

Sweat drenched the fighter’s tee-shirt and a headband secured a shock of black hair. Rachel saw his skin was lightly golden like hers, and wondered whether these guys used internet dating. Like, were they even signed-up?

“Could you read this?” he asked the fighter.

Ananda opened the folded page and scanned it. “From Chailai Holbeck. It’s your mother, right?”

Rachel nodded. She heard blows hitting bodies and punching bags, accompanied with grunts of effort. She wondered what it must feel like to fight in a ring. It probably hurt a lot.

“We should speak in private,” Ananda said.

Rachel tried to read his expression.

“In my office.” Her father led them into what looked to be a sports equipment storeroom with a desk.

“It’s about why she left you,” Ananda said, looking up from the page.

Rachel nodded.

“The police went to her father’s home and found your mother’s London address. Then your mother’s owners told her unless she honoured her father’s debt, her whole family was in danger. That’s why she went back to Thailand. She’s says she loves you, and she’s sorry, but you must never go to Thailand. She’s trapped in a massage parlour and they will do the same to you. The debt can never be repaid.”

“What does she mean, ‘a massage parlour?’” Rachel asked.

“A brothel,” her father said.

Rachel fought back tears. “Is there an address?”

Ananda handed back the letter. “No address.”

“Did you know about this?” Rachel asked her father.

“She said her father needed help with the harvest. I only vaguely knew where she came from.”

“Why didn’t you try to find her? Holy fuck, Dad!”

“I fuckin did. I flew to Bangkok. No-one knew anything. Didn’t my bloody mother tell you? That’s why I had to go away when you were little.”

“Well then why didn’t you come back?”

“Those fucking parents of mine wouldn’t let me. They said you’d been abandoned twice and you were with them now. I had nothing when I got back. I was living on the streets. You could have been taken into care.”

“How did you meet Mum?” Rachel wondered if her father had met her in a brothel.

“She was a dancer in a bar. We used to trade insults every time I went for a beer. One day I realised I was in love with her. I bought her a ticket to London and she came.”

“Then we’re helping her escape again.”

“She’s dead, Rachel.” Her father said.

“What? Dead?”

“A few years back. The police found her body at a rubbish dump. My friend wrote to me.”

“And nobody told me? What the fuck? I will fuckin kill someone for this.” Rachel breathed hard, as though she had been running.

“You can’t. The brothels are run by the Army. The police are all involved,” her father said.

Rachel waved toward the gymnasium on the other side of the door. “What in fuck is all this, yeh? What use is it, if you couldn’t protect Mum?”

“There, there, pet!” Her father stood and held Rachel’s shoulders. He hugged her. “There’s nothing we can do. She’s gone. I’m sorry.”

“Nothing?” Rachel stared at her father and Ananda in turn. “Nothing? No, no, no. Someone’s going to pay!”


3. Nouhou in Therapy

The Lyme Road Warriors surrounded Nouhou in the school corridor. He gave them his biggest smile. With gang members in almost every class, they ran Lyme Road school, and the older members controlled Farm Estate where Nouhou lived with Lilah. Nouhou had seen them extort money from Andrew Patel and others. He thought now must be his turn. He was smiling because he didn’t have any money.

“Hey, Butcher Boy, we see dis retro movie call Doctor Strangelove.” Silva said. “He cripple like you. In a wheelchair, like you yesterday, yeh. He do dis cool salute, yeh? You salute when you a solja?”

“Cool salute, innit,” Westral said, demonstrating it. “Wid the right arm. You try it, Butch. Yeh. Dat it. Everyone tink you cool you do that. An we call you ‘Doctor Strangelove’, yeh?”

Nouhou imitated Westral, and held his arm out straight with his hand flat. He felt happy talking to his classmates, even if they were the LRW.

“Maybe you get a wheelchair an do it, yeh?” said Morder. “Dat even more like Doctor Strangelove. Where dat wheelchair you had in the gym?”

“Fam, you do it lots, everyone like you,” Waffy said. “Real.”

“I be inna group?” Nouhou asked, his smile blazing, still holding the salute. Maybe they liked him, Nouhou considered.

“You do it enough,” Skama said, nodding. “We review your case tomorrow, yeh?”

Nouhou lowered his arm and headed towards Trauma Therapy using his sticks for balance. Tomorrow he might be a member of the LRW. All along the corridor he gave everyone the straight-arm salute. Many of the students told him to “fuck off”. He tried smiling as he saluted, but it didn’t seem to help. He wondered whether the walking stick hanging from his wrist had made them think he was threatening them.

Then Nouhou sniffed his armpit. No, that was OK.

He saw Andrew Patel moving towards him and saluted. Six months ago, Andrew had been appointed his “school buddy” to help Nouhou integrate. He felt no more integrated than on his first day.

“What in fuck are you doing?” Andrew Patel pressed Nouhou’s Nazi salute down. “Never ever do that. Never.”

“They call me ‘Docca Strangelove’. Say I muss saluhe.”

“That’s what they were saying?” Andrew was Indian yet spoke like a Londoner.

“They say if I do ee, I be in grouh tomorrow, na.”

“What? They’ll never let you in their group. Do you even know what it is, that salute? It’s a Hitler salute. He murdered millions of people. Sixty million people died in World War II and they’re saying you’re just like Hitler.”

Nouhou fought a mixture anger and disappointment. He hadn’t heard of Hitler, but World War II sounded worse than World War III in Monrovia.

“Now everyone’ll probs call you ‘Hitler Youth’ instead of ‘Butcher’.”

Nouhou shook his head, but the name ‘Butcher’ was apt. He’d killed hundreds of people. Most had been government soldiers, but Nouhou could not forget how he’d cut down women, children, and old people with a machete. He forced himself to swim back up out of a well of sadness.

“Listen,” Andrew said, staring at him. “Something else. I just heard about blood diamonds. If you can get some, we could make real money.”

In the war, rough diamonds had been traded for weapons. Big people had the trade tied up. Little people did the work, knee deep in mud, panning gravel while there was light. Big people then bought them weapons to fight their wars.

“You havva girlfrien?” Nouhou asked, trying to smile. “Neeh a diamon for a ring?”

“No, no. We can make money, Nouhou. With diamonds. You understand?”

Nouhou thought Andrew didn’t understand.

When they had travelled across the Sahara on top of a truck, Lilah, his foster mother, had explained how a Sierra Leone rebel group, the RUF, sold blackmarket diamonds via Liberia. President Charles Taylor had used the trade to keep his government afloat after a landslide election because international aid was refused and the UN Security Council imposed economic sanctions.

The UK then formed LURD to stop the illegal diamond trade from Sierra Leone. Nouhou’s first and last memory of his family was the day LURD came to visit.

“Can you get diamonds or not?” Andrew asked. “I can sell them through my uncle. Big money, you understand?”

“The war ee over, na. Diamon alla finish. ” Nouhou flashed a smile at his official school buddy. “No diamon leff.”

“For fuck’s sake. From Liberia and can’t get any diamonds.” Andrew gestured toward the door of the school psychologist further along the hall. “And no more saluting, Hitler Youth.”

Before the war, Nouhou had theCongo name “Saturday McIntosh”, the surname of a US slave-owner ancestor, whose mixed-race child had been freed and sent to live in Liberia. “Congo”, because the non-white side of the family had likely come from the Congo, where the colonialist West had seized tens of millions of slaves.

Nouhou felt like a massive crab sidling into Mrs Brown’s office on walking sticks and prosthetic legs. In a circle on plastic chairs, the other Trauma Therapy students acted as though he did not exist.

Clattering into a seat beside Lorelei, his sticks fell to the floor. He knew her from his class, although they had never spoken. Further along sat a Pakistani girl named Patasa and her brother, Jahangir.

Yenor, a girl from Sierra Leone, was next along. Then came three students from Iraq: Farrah and her brother Jamail, and Shatha. Nouhou saw Shatha’s scarred face through the gap of her niqab.

On Nouhou’s other side sat Ulan, a girl from Sudan, who had once been a slave in London.

Mrs Brown raised a hand. “Just to remind everyone. If we share our stories, it lessens the heavy load we carry. It’s the best path to healing. Remember, anything we speak of must never be repeated outside this room. Now, please welcome Jahangir, who has recovered from the gunshot to his chest. Jahangir would you care to say something?”

“The damage was all mental, yeh,” said Patasa, his sister.

“In riot, I went to mosque.” Jahangir wore white Islamic clothing. His hair hung long and dark, and his eyes shone bright blue. At first glance, Nouhou had wondered whether he might be a girl, but his mannerisms appeared male. “When my brother is shown to me, he has bombs tied around him. I see pistol on floor and I shoot imam. And one other man. For what is done to my brother. They kidnap him to be shaheed bomb. I escape with my brother, but police shoot us. In the chest. Here.” Jahangir pointed.

Jahangir’s clothes had none of the decoration that Nouhou remembered of the Vai and Mandinka Muslims in Liberia. Lilah said LURD had began with Muslims. Money had been transferred to them through a mosque.

“Our brother murdered by de Feds, yeh,” Patasa said.

“How do you feel about everything now you are out of hospital?” Mrs Brown asked.

“I angry police kill my brother,” Jahangir said.

“I read in the paper you pointed a gun at the police first,” Farrah said.

Jahangir shook his head. “No gun. They say mistake.”

“They seem to make a lot of mistakes,” Mrs Brown said.

“They said the Iraq War was a mistake,” Jamail said. “One million of us died.”

“Dey dead our brother Janan next to him,” said Patasa. “Den de sniper bullet miss de Jangsta’s heart by this much, and ‘oh eet just a mistake’, yeh.” Patasa closed a thumb and forefinger to a small gap. “A mistake dey miss, innit? Janan shot through de heart.”

“A mistake, but never an apology. Never compensation,” Jamail said.

“Jahangir, is there any chance it was a mistake?” Mrs Brown said.

Jahangir snorted and would say nothing more.

“Does anyone else have something to share?” Mrs Brown asked.

Nouhou wondered whether he should speak. Maybe it could stop the sadness that sometimes overwhelmed him. Mrs Brown had said sharing was the path to healing. People said Lorelei had been cured, not that she spoke much.

“I say somethin,” Nouhou said.

“Wonderful, Nouhou. I heard you’re learning fencing.”

“What is fencing?” Farrah asked.

“You know, sword fighting,” Patasa said, demonstrating with an imaginary sword.

“But he doesn’t have legs,” said Shatha.

“I believe it’s wheelchair fencing,” Mrs Brown said. “Is that what you wanted to tell us about, Nouhou?”

“I noh go fencing,” he said.

“Oh? Mr Howse told me you were going. He’s arranging for a school chaperone so the fencing professor can collect you.”

Nouhou smiled. “He don know where I live.”

“Farm Estate, init. A no go zone,” Patasa said, pretending to fire a pistol.

“I see. Was there something else you wanted to tell the group, Nouhou?”

“I tella truh, na.” Nouhou pointed at his prosthetic limbs. “Abouh my lehs. They cuh off by Presiden Taylor’s Anti-Terroriss Unih.”

“Dis one need subtitles,” Patasa said.

“Your legs were cut off with a machete?”Mrs Brown said. “You told us it had been a landmine.”

Lilah had instructed him to say a landmine so that Immigration would not know he’d been a LURD soldier. “When I try say abouh ee, I fee sih.” That was true.

“You feel sick speaking about it? That’s a normal reaction, Nouhou. But you can now say something about what happened.”

Nouhou closed his eyes. To speak about losing his legs felt like being on a tightrope, where at any moment he might fall. To speak of the fear was to summon a monster back into the present.

“Ee the attack on Monrovia, we call World War III. We go firs so Governmen use up bullehs. Wearin costume, so they know no-one can killa us. I am in fronh shootin, then no ammo. When I looh around, my unih all die. Alla them. Many governmen soldier shootin jus ah me. I wear yellow raincoah, yellow t-shirh and big ha, and they chase me, na. I throw ee all away an hide, buh no gooh.”

Nouhou’s fighting name had been “Tsetse Fly”. He remembered his comrade-in-arms more clearly than his family. LURD had kidnapped his brothers too, but they had died or he would have heard something about them.

“Anti-Terroriss Unih pull me ouh. I wahe up hung up by the arms.” Nouhou lifted his arms to demonstrate. “Many prisoner. Captain, corporal, soldier, all tied uh lihe me.”

“Dis another war story, innit?” Patasa rolled her eyes. “I’d be sick, yeh, cept I can’t understand a word. So I safe.”

“Respect, Patasa,” said Mrs Brown. “Go on, Nouhou.”

Nouhou made a hand action of chopping. “They cuh arm or leh off, and ask question. An again. When man die, he push ouh window. I am las one. They tie rohe roun my leh and choh off fooh. Choh, choh. They thow ee in buckeh.” Nouhou closed his eyes as he recalled the pain. “The fear, ee tahe over. I tella everythin.” Nouhou recalled the shame of losing control.

“That’s enough, Nouhou, for now,” said Mrs Brown, glancing at the horror-stricken faces in her group. “Of course, if you wish to discuss your experience privately, I am always here for you.”

“Than you, Mrs Brown.”

Hanging from the hut rafters in Monrovia, the Bush Spirit had told him to laugh. It had seemed impossible, but eventually Nouhou began a wheezing laughter and the ATU soldiers laughed too. The borfimah had given him strength. Later that night the ATU retreated and, in the morning, West African peacekeepers cut Nouhou down. He’d been the only prisoner to live.

“Tell me. Which side you on again?” Yenor asked, the girl from Sierra Leone. “LURD or MODEL? Or the NPFL?”

The other members of the group pulled faces in confusion.

“LURH,” Nouhou said.

“RUF cut my parents’ hands off so they could not vote,” Yenor said, “so I thank you.”

“Whoa!” Patasa said. “Dis a wartime alphabet soup.”

“What is alphabet soup” Farrah asked.

“What does RUF stand for, Yenor?” Mrs Brown asked.

“The Revolutionary United Front,” Yenor said. “They killed fifty thousand of us, and mutilated even more. Search on RUF photos and you’ll see.”

Travelling across the vast orange interior of Mali, Lilah had said LURD had been every bit as murderous as the RUF. Everything Nouhou could remember of the war confirmed it. At night, they’d shivered under the truck canvass because the desert temperature went almost to freezing. The sky blazed with stars and Lilah knew some of the names She said that a Western company wanted to transport billions of tons of iron ore from Guinea across Liberia, but President Taylor had asked for proper compensation. So Guinea had helped British intelligence arm LURD: Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy.

“Anyone else?” Mrs Brown asked the circle. “What’s happening with you, Lorelei?”

“She in love,” Patasa said. “So, needs more psychiatric help.”

“Oh, is that a… good thing?” Mrs Brown asked Lorelei. “Someone from school?”

Nouhou decided that talking about Monrovia hadn’t helped him at all. Maybe only the borfimah could cure him, make him strong in his mind like when he’d laughed in the hut.

Patasa again answered on Lorelei’s behalf: “She an a gang leader are in love, yeh? He has an entourage, yeh? White tattoo power.”

Mrs Brown’s expression assumed a professional serenity. “Lorelei, how old is your boyfriend?”

“Twenty-two,” Lorelei looked like the angels Nouhou remembered from missionary books in a church his unit had raided.

“That’s quite an age difference,” said Mrs Brown.

“We’re like brother and sister,” said Lorelei. She pushed a hank of angel hair behind a pale ear and Nouhou forced himself to look away.

“What do you mean?” Mrs Brown asked.

“Our mums were best friends.”

“Lorelei, you’re too young for such a thing. It’s not healthy for you. At least find someone nearer your own age.”

Lorelei leant back in her plastic chair.

Recalling how he’d lost his virginity in the war, Nouhou had to stop himself from weeping.

Mrs Brown’s phone bleeped and she stared at it. “Nouhou, I’m told you’ve been making Nazi salutes in the school corridor. The headmaster wants to see you immediately.”

“What?” chorused the therapy circle.

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