[Extract] Heart of Fire by Senait Mehari


Extract as it appears in Making the World Legible

I was too small to be a soldier – too young, too weak and too scared. And the guns were far too heavy for me. Almost all our guns were Kalashnikovs – gigantic, unwieldy sub-machine guns. Pistols would have been more suitable for children like me, but there were not enough of them, thank God, or I would have been forced to shoot with them and kill someone. The jerky recoil from the Kalashnikov was so strong that I could barely fire it. None of the other smaller children could handle their Kalashnikovs either.
   One day, I was busy sawing away at firewood with a knife when two boys only a year or two older than me walked past on their way to the shooting range, carrying their guns over their shoulders. The guns were so
big that their butts practically reached the ground. Like all the younger children, they had to lift their guns when they climbed rocks, in order not to bang against them. There was nothing unusual in small children going off to practise shooting alone, so I did not take much notice of them.

   Soon afterwards, I heard shots from the shooting range, and then one of the two children came running towards me, crying and shouting unintelligibly. His eyes were wide with horror. I dropped my knife and went up to him. His hand was wounded and bloody, and there was blood on his legs as well.
   ‘He’s dead!’ he screamed. ‘Dead!’
   A few other people had arrived on the scene by then. They grabbed their guns and asked the boy who was dead, and where. He pointed towards the shooting range, where the rocky overhang behind the camp began.
Thinking that the enemy had hidden among the rocks and killed one of our number, everyone released the safety catches on their guns in preparation for battle. Sometimes enemy soldiers had come close enough to the camp to be seen with the naked eye; there had been talk in the last few days of moving camp again soon. The problem we faced, however, was that the EPLF [Eritrean People’s Liberation Front] had already hemmed us in from two directions.
   I took cover and watched what happened. The boy continued crying hysterically while the others stormed off to the shooting range with their guns at the ready. But no enemy awaited them when they got there. Puzzled, they called to each other and gradually let their guns fall.

   We did not seem to be under attack after all, so I emerged from my hiding place and walked over to the shooting range as well, where I practically stumbled over the boy who lay dead next to a bush. His head had been blown apart, and his body was covered in blood. I screamed, and the others ran over to me, guns at the ready. But their help had come too late – the boy had been shot dead by his best friend, as we found out later. The heavy Kalashnikov had slipped out of his grasp as he was releasing the safety catch and he had mistakenly fired the gun at his friend.
   The others shrugged when they saw the body and walked back to the camp. Two of them carried the small body to a grave we had dug the day before for two soldiers killed on the front. They lifted up the stones that
were lying over the grave to keep the jackals away, and threw the body in with the others. It fell with a thump like a heavy sack – there was still blood running from the boy’s wounds. I stood at the edge of the grave staring into it.
   ‘Cover him up,’ one of the soldiers said to me, pressing a spade into my hands. Mechanically I shovelled sand and gravel over the body, crying all the while.
   When I had finished, I turned to go back to the camp, and saw that the boy who had killed his friend had been sitting behind me all this time, perfectly still.
   ‘He’s dead,’ he said, when I looked at him. ‘I killed him.’ He buried his face in his hands and wept.
   I took him in my arms and he leaned against my shoulder as he cried.
I felt like his mother, and was filled with deep sorrow, but no anger. This boy had not wanted to do what he had done. None of us was responsible for all that happened as a result of the war.
   The boy rested his head in my lap. My eyes were dry at first. I felt a sense of calm at the comfort the boy was drawing from me. I had never held someone close before or had someone lean against me. I had only nestled against my grandmother, but she had not turned to me for comfort. The thought made my eyes fill with tears, which flowed unchecked.

From  Heart of Fire by Senait Mehari

Born in Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, in 1974, Senait Mehari grew up during the thirty-year-war between her homeland and Ethiopia. She now lives in Berlin where she is a well-known singer-songwriter.

Christine Lo lives in London. She has also translated Eagles and Angels and Dark Matter by Juli Zeh. She is a judge of the Schlegel-Tieck Prize for German translation.

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