Brief Synopsis: Eritrea is a harsh place to live and an easy place to die. Eritreans know there are worse things than dying; There is the Mai Edaga Prison Camp.
(Written for the 2020 NYC Midnight Short Story. Round 1. Placed 2nd in my heat. The genera: Spy. The Prompts: An awards ceremony and a welder.)
Miriam pulled the heavy fabric of her black hijab closer in the biting desert wind. The temperatures would drop to near freezing as she trekked along the darkened path toward the Mai Edaga prison camp. She had made this journey ten times over the last year but it never got easier. The red hued dirt dusted her shoes with every step and sharp rocks made her stumble. She slowed as the trail topped the hill. Her heart raced and she forced herself to breathe deeply. The descent would be the most hazardous section. She would be exposed to the guard tower that loomed over the hundred or so shipping containers partially buried in the slope. She watched and listened for any movement in the camp. She nervously shifted the small pouch around her neck. Seeing nothing, she began the slow and tedious descent, pausing frequently to blend into the shadows. Miriam made her way along the fence to a stinking culvert. Putrid liquid trickled from its gaping maw. A tear in the pipe, made by some machine long before her time, provided the conduit between the prison and the outside world. The bag from her prior trip hung lightly and she retrieved it quickly. Glancing inside, she saw a handful of meticulously rolled bits of paper. The journalist would be pleased. She checked her cargo, medicines wrapped in a small squares of paper. A small plastic bag contained $5000 nakfa and a pouch of powdery heroin. The heavy price to have the goods reach their recipient. Miriam hung the string of the bag on the sharp metal. She rested only for a moment before making her retreat.
The prior year, Jemal’s crusade for justice brought him to the dictator’s attention. He was discovered to be the author of a long string of online editorials condemning the government for using military conscripts as forced labor. In the dark of night, Jemal became one of the millions of people in Eritrea who vanished without a trace. He was sent to the camp and tortured as a traitor. He was certain he would not leave Mai Edaga alive. Jemal peered at the floor through one eye, the other swollen closed. The taste of blood flooded his mouth and he vomited bile onto the hard packed dirt.
Adan, a harsh and dangerous guard approached him. “You are the one they caught spreading lies, yes?”
Exhausted, the prisoner simply nodded.
Adan stepped closer, his voice barely a whisper, “Would anyone pay your way out of Mai Edaga?”
Jemal fought through the pained haze and looked at the guard. “Yes.”
Adan stared at the bloody and broken man. “You have one chance to make contact. One.”
Jemal rapidly agreed. When Adan told him the price his heart sank at the huge number, but he would at least try. Days later, in the darkness, Adan pulled Jemal from his fitful sleep in the freezing container. “Traitor, come out, you have work to do tonight.”
Jemal meekly followed the guard to the latrine. This was the only secluded space in the camp. The rancid troughs of sewage and maggots also served as graves. The final resting place of those who had not escaped Eritrea’s infamous prison.
Adan handed him a square of paper and a pencil. “Write to your savior and I will have it delivered. Remember, one chance.”
Jemal wrote a long note in tiny script. Not to his family, but to the only western reporter he knew. He had only a faint hope that his words would even reach the man, much less of convincing him to fund his escape. Six weeks later, Adan repeated the nighttime intrusion of Jemal’s crowded cell.
Back in the latrine, Adan handed Jemal a stained letter. “Your contact sent a note. If he agrees to pay, I will get you out. Once I have my price, you will go.” Jemal realized the guard couldn’t read. He read the note and tears sprung to his eyes, the journalist would fund his escape and asked for as much information about the camp as Jemal could provide. For the first time in months, Jemal felt he might survive.
Jemal looked at the guard. “He will send the money but he wants me to write to him after each payment to ensure I am still alive.”
To Adan, this made sense, proof of life. “Remember, I will kill you if you betray me.” He handed Jemal a pencil to scribble out his reply. Then he gestured for Jemal to keep the pencil. “Hide it in your container, in the spaces between the wall and floor, use a bit of thread to be able to pull it back up.”
For the next months, whenever he could, Jemal scratched out his story on the tiny scraps of paper. He described the details of their work in the mines, the beatings by the guards, and his burning desire for justice. He rolled the paper into thin scrolls and gave them to the guard whenever Adan was on duty.
The journalist sent medicines, the money and heroin via Miriam and the treacherous red road. He interviewed anyone who would talk to him in the refugee camps in Ethiopia. He documented their escapes from the corruption and the mines. He told the stories of families destroyed by the blind eye of Nevsun’s arrangement with the military dictatorship in Eritrea.
Back at the prison, the men he shared the steel shipping container with scolded him in the darkness. “Put away your scribbling! Don’t make trouble! There are government spies everywhere.” Jemal considered their words carefully before he drifted to sleep on the filthy floor. As to fulfil their prophetic words, the next day no one came to let them out to work. The sun turned the box into an oven. At night, the metal walls turned frigid. The next day, again, no one came. Jemal began to worry that Adan had been discovered. One of the men babbled in a malaria induced delirium. Soon others succumbed to the illness. Jemal longed for light, air, and the medicines his benefactor had sent. Their cellmate died from the infection. There was no relief.
The air around Jemal scorched his skin. He lay flat in the dirt and filth of the floor. Twelve other men mimicked his position, all trying to escape the scorching metal walls and ceiling. In the corner of their shipping container cell, the ragged men had pushed the dead body of their cellmate against the door in hopes that the guards would remove the corpse. The heat baked the body. The stench filled the container and brought more of the biting flies to bury their larvae into the rotting flesh. Jemal gagged repeatedly. The hot, stinking air burned his lungs. He prayed for relief, death or air, either one. He thought about how he’d ended up here and wished more fervently for death.
Jemal swooned and the stench was unbearable. He wrapped his tattered trouser leg around his bare foot and began kicking the scorching metal wall and screaming. “Let us out! Come, help us! Help us or kill us and give us peace!” The other men shrank away from Jemal. Trouble brought beatings and worse from the guards, they wanted no more than they already endured. Moments later, the screeching grind of the latch announced the arrival of the guards. Sunlight pierced the container, the men cringed away like feral rats. As the steel door swung wide, the fetid body flopped onto the red dirt.
The guards covered their noses and mouths with their damp sweat rags. Their unit commander was the first to respond, “What is this? How will you make your quota now? Already you fail to work enough to earn your food.” The older man, lanky and hard from life as a military officer, sweated in his fatigues and broad hat. He scowled at the pitiful beings housed in the rank container. His face softened slightly. “Where is the energetic one who roused us to this discovery?” None of the men looked up. Jemal did not hear Adan’s familiar voice in the group. One guard, addressed his companions, “Get them out here in the light.” The other guards grimaced to enter the stinking container. One braved the mess, shouting and shoving the ragged men out the door into the blazing light. Their commander paced up and down the line of beleaguered men. “What piss poor laborers you are! You snivel and whine like dogs under foot.” He paused and leaned into the closest man. “Who caused this ruckus? A simple act will earn you rations and rest.” The man shuffled, foot to foot, then caved to the hope of food. He pointed at Jemal. The commander nodded, “Good! You are a loyal Eritrean.” He motioned to an underling. “Take him. He has earned his reward.”
Jemal looked up as he was betrayed. He would likely have done the same. His anger overwhelmed his good sense. “You killed that man! Just like others before him! We bake in the hell of the day. We freeze in the desert night! Yes! We snivel and whine like dogs, only the dogs are better fed! We work for food and water we don’t receive. We must barter for medicine! And for what? White men’s gold? We have done nothing to deserve this torture!” A nearby guard struck Jemal with his baton and drove the weakened man to the ground with a single blow. Jemal wanted to scream and beat the guards with his fists. In his mind he fought them in his rage. In reality, his starved frame could barely hold his shovel as he marched to the mines to work each day.
Another guard stomped past the cringing men and grabbed Jemal by his wrist. He dragged him forward in a cloud of rust hued dust and flopped him at the commander’s feet. The older man looked down at Jemal. “This one’s still got some fight in him. Put him in the cell in my office.” The man looked at the remaining prisoners, he pointed at two of them. “You two, throw that…” he gestured to the corpse, “in the pits on your way to the mine.” The guard watched as the conscripts gingerly lifted the rotting body that hours before had been one of their own. The commander sighed, he would have to requisition more men from Segun Company. The underlings roughly escorted Jemal to the center building in the compound.
He meekly complied as the guards chained his hands to the overhead bars. His legs wobbled but held. The dirt floor he stood on was stained with blood and piss. Far in the distance, a single gunshot echoed. A few minutes later, the commander entered and dismissed his staff. He slammed the baton into Jemal’s side and spat at him. “What was all that about? Have you gone mad from the heat? How dare you accuse me! You are a traitor to Eritrea! And what is this you said about bartering for medicine? Tell me! I can get my answers from any of you dogs.”
Jemal hesitated, trying to catch his breath. He’d not meant to speak. His body began trembling and urine leaked down his leg. What did the commander already know? He bowed his head to hide the lies in his eyes. “Commander, I will tell you all I can. I only ask that I be allowed to go home. Please, sir. I am reformed. Please let me go home.” Jemal felt his pulse slamming in his chest.
The commander stared at Jemal, assessing him. Finally, he tossed the baton on the desk and plopped into his chair. “Agreed. If what you say is valuable, I will allow you to leave. What do you know?”
Jemal straightened, took a steadying breath and recounted his interaction with the guard. “It is Juto who trades with us. The prisoners smuggle flakes of gold from the mine. Juto trades them for food or medicine.” Jemal paused and looked at the commander to see if he bought the lies.
The commander leaned forward in his chair. “Not so bad as I had imagined. Anything else? Who else knows of this arrangement?”
Jemal looked to the commander, “No one, I’ve talked to no one else! I am still going home, right? Please, just send me home.”
A knock at the door silenced Jemal. Adan entered followed closely by pudgy foreigner in a crumpled white shirt and dark tie. Adan stared through the shaking prisoner as though he were glass. The other man approached the commander’s desk and blustered quietly, “What is going on? I came as soon as I could. Have you found the leak?” The commander stood and escorted the man out of earshot of Jemal and Adan. Jemal started to whisper to Adan who lifted a finger to his lips to silence the man. His hard glare made Jemal hold back his questions. He felt the bile in his gut rise. His throat went as dry as it had been at midday. He glanced cautiously at Adan and pleaded with his eyes. Adan ignored him.
When the commander and the pudgy man returned their mood had changed. The commander tossed the foreigner a small pouch and shook his hand, “This should amend your troubles.”
The man pocketed the pouch and looked back at Jemal. Then he addressed Adan, “You’ll take care of everything from here then? I need to get back to the mine.” Adan simply nodded.
The commander escorted his visitor to the door. “Everything will be taken care of, please assure our benefactors that it is well in hand.”
As night descended, the commander glanced at Adan. The intensity had drained from his face. “Adan, my trusted servant, this man has done a good service for Eritrea. He has earned his reward. Please see to it immediately.” Adan promptly unchained Jemal and calmly escorted him out the door.
The night had cooled the air and the stars were just winking onto the blanket of the darkening sky. Jemal teetered between joy and fear. He was ready to go home! He glanced at Adan. The man’s expression was as unreadable as ever. They trod the familiar red dirt road toward the pit.
Adan stopped him at the latrine. “It’s a long trip, take your time.”
Jemal ignored the stench of the trench. He closed his eyes to the sight of two new bodies in the pit. Instead, he thought of home. The faces of his family. The feel of damp earth in his hands. The cattle in the pen. The honey brown grasses covering his hut. He could almost hear the crackle of the cooking fire.
Adan stepped behind the frail prisoner and fired a single shot through Jemal’s skull.