Crossfire – a short story

Ekram Kabir

Major Qamrul Huda springs up on his camp bed from his a half-a-minute sleep like a body on a pyre. He has been wide awake against his earthly strength for five days and nights. Every time he falls asleep, he wakes up in less than a minute with his nerves edgy shooting some painfully horrendous thoughts inside his head like unruly fireworks. Thoughts more like nightmares. He could see his thoughts like slices of a motion picture. Disturbing; very disturbing! It has now come to an extent of panic for him. At first it didn’t seem a problem, but at the end of one hundred twenty-two hours of struggle for sleeping, he starts thinking about the reason for his sudden insomnia. This is for the first time in his service-life, spanning twelve years, he is faced with such a disturbing moments. For the first two days and nights, his thoughts are shrouded with two men running. Separately. One is different from the other. Both are running for the same reasons but in two different ways. Is this a dream? If it is, he must have slept. Humans can’t dream without sleeping. But Huda hasn’t even slept for more than a minute! Something strange must be happening to him. Something unknown; something he never experienced before. 

“Well, it can happen to an officer in special forces. Professional fatigue,” he tries some soul-searching on the third night. 

But telling himself that doesn’t seem to help Huda’s state. The fourth goes sleepless as well. And then, the fifth. He still cannot sleep. Had it been only lack of sleep, he would be okay with it. He’s been trained how to give rest to the brain even without sleeping. His present experience is nothing like he had in the past. Whenever he closes his eyes, he sees things. Fragments of incidents that happened to other people some time in the gory history of the world. These have got nothing to do with his life or doings. Incidents happened in faraway land.

He’s been in Bangladesh all his life, except for two occasions when he went to US for doing his Rangers’ course and to Rome for a brief artillery exercise. But Huda had to come back from his three-month Rangers’ stint in three weeks. The Rangers’ is not a happy-go-round spell. It’s designed to develop and assess the military skills, physical and mental endurance and confidence a soldier must possess in order to successfully negotiate and accomplish combat missions. This inculcates an ability to sustain himself, his subordinates, and maintain his mission-essential equipment, under difficult field training conditions, during all phases of the training. Soldiers with poor physic usually suffer extreme difficulties maintaining pace with their peers. People fail, they get sick, become mentally imbalanced. He seemed to be one of them, a weaker one compared to his American and European mates at Fort Benning, the place where training began. He could complete only para-jumping. He is still very good at it – jumping from a helicopter or an aircraft with a parachute. He could also sustain himself during field craft and obstacle courses. But when the whole school proceeded towards the mountain phase of the training, it was beyond his fitness. The rugged terrain, severe weather, hunger, mental and physical fatigue, and the emotional stress that he had to encounter compelled him to opt out. Bangladeshi soldiers are usually seen doing that. They are not tough enough to complete the US Rangers’ training. He returned to Dhaka in three weeks. Oh, what an experience! Those huge-sized Americans! And those Africans! How can the dwarfs like Bengalis do what they can?

Huda tries to forget the unusual cinematic flashes that are recurring in his thoughts. They don’t go away even when his eyes are wide open. They keep hitting his mind like a hailstorm blasting the about-to-harvest crops. He is also having problems in having his meals sitting in the dining room with other colleagues. There are five other officers ranging from the rank of lieutenant and colonel with him at this camp. It would be very embarrassing if they knew Huda got scared in his sleep. They’ll make fun of him.

The camp is a two-story mansion in a south-western township. Renting it from a local trader, it suites their purpose. Quiet. Away from the town, it makes their job easier. Almost hidden from the public eye, they can interrogate the criminals as they want. The detainees’ screams don’t go far, from this marooned countryside mansion. The officers occupy six out of its seven rooms upstairs. The remaining room is for dining. Two of the four rooms downstairs are used by havilders and one room has been turned into an interrogation cell. And they put all detainees in the remaining one. Huda never felt good entering this cell, meeting detainees, violent criminals, terrorists.
  
He had many delirious thoughts during his commando course. He was almost fainting when Huda needed to eat earthworms. And those buckle of the trees. Bitter; they were bitter like anything. But they didn’t give him any sleepless night accompanied by nightmares. He comfortably slept under a tree, by the bush, without any fear.

“Am I getting psychologically impaired? Is there some sort of disorder rising in my mind? Oh sheet! In that case, I might have to see that extremely unfriendly psychiatrist at the CMH,” thought Huda, unwillingly. He would, then, jeopardize his career in the army. He cannot let that happen. Whatever it is would pass and he’d be up and running again. 

Why these nightmares? Why is he hallucinating about a Cherokee? Why something from a far off land from a far off time hitting the innermost layers of his thoughts? No he isn’t just thinking; he can see the injun clearly. The Cherokee runs for his life. He can tell from his terrified face that it could be his last run. 

Goddamnit! Why a Red Indian?

There! There he is. Begging for his life. But the gang pushes the Cherokee towards the forest….tells him he still has a chance. 

The scene changes like a lightning, giving him a headache during high fever. It’s a gladiator! Outskirts of ancient Rome. He is being set free to run and save himself. 

My God, what’s happening? They are going to kill him!

There! The Cherokee again! He runs. As fast as he can. Many rifles growl almost at a time. Bullets hit him like racing bees in the back. He falls. Dead. Can’t even feel what happened. 

The gladiator doesn’t seem scared. Gladiators are never scared. A jail keeper howls, “Run gladiator! See that line, slave? 

Two other men are standing in front of a cage with two tigers in it. Their readiness tells all.

Huda starts panting; he knows the gladiator would die at the hands of two hungry-looking tigers. Still sitting on the bed, he opens his eyes, more ajar than usual. Looks around and lits up a cigarette. “Damn, they should allow us alcohol in these camps,” he purrs. 

What did the Cherokee do? Was he murderer? Did he kill any of them? Why did they kill him? He struggles with questions he never thought about in his entire life. It’s strange to have nightmares about a Cherokee and a gladiator. He read about them, how the English, Portuguese and the French tried invading the indigenous Americans. They had to kill almost a whole race in the process of their invasion. Killing an entire race tantamount to genocide. He’s seen movies on gladiators. The tyrant rulers of ancient Rome who used to torture people to death. Killing was fun for them. But Huda never wanted to do something about these. 

Then, why am I having these nightmares?” he thinks, almost pleading mercy from an unseen force.

It’s been two months the major joined the Special Forces deployed for saving the country from deepening law and order situation.

Having nightmares about a dying Cherokee and a running gladiator is driving Huda mad. Damn, there are so many things in this whole wide world. Why does it have to be Cherokees and gladiators? These happened so long ago! It’s been long past.

Past? Yes, past. His sleeplessness began in the past. Five days and five nights ago. What happened five then? Suddenly, he starts looking at what happened five days ago. He understands one aspect of his nightmares: killing a man from the back!

They were planning for a shootout in the morning. It would happen in the dead of the night. The colonel, the commanding officer, of Battalion 5, at breakfast table, greeting them, pulled up a chair and joined them.
“Are you taking anyone down tonight?” asked Colonel Daleem. His eyes flickered as if he wanted something very serious. “I thought I’d go with you one day; I’ve never taken down anyone in ‘crossfire’.

“Be our guest tonight, sir,” Major Samir replied.

“Tonight?” The colonel thought for a while. “Sure.”  

“What do you want to use, sir? We usually shoot them with shotguns. They die quickly. That’s the least what we can do for them,” said Major Mahbub, working with the Battalion for two years.

“No, I want to shoot with pistols. I’m more comfortable with pistols. Somehow I can aim better with them. Okay guys; don’t forget to take me with you,” orders Colonel Daleem with a tinge gleefulness in an adventurous voice.

Things started to happen at eleven o clock at night. All six of them, along with Colonel Daleem, went downstairs at the cell. There they were – Koshai Mannan and Dubai Dulal. 

Huda read intelligence report on these two before being posted here in Kamarpara. Koshai Mannan’s real name is Abdul Mannan. He was an assistant of a koshai, butcher, before being arrested after a robbery. Life with the koshai was too much to bear. It was pretty difficult to buy medicine for his ailing mother. One day, he agreed to take part in a robbery at a jewellery shop. He was rescued by a man who worked for the mayor. He came out of jail working for the mayor as a contact between the mayor and a bunch of hired killers. One night, he was asked to shoot one of the hired men. He did. He killed the most notorious man in the underworld. Mannan pulled his first trigger at 16. Then on, he is called Koshai Mannan. His fingers ruthless like a butcher.

Dulal graduated to a criminal differently. He was taken to Dubai through Delhi. His mother was also with him. He lost his mother somewhere in Delhi and ended up as a camel jockey in Dubai. He worked as a jockey in Dubai for four years. A think weird-looking man named Taimur Khan brought him back to Calcutta and got him a job with an arms smuggler. Then on, Dulal became a transporter of arms. 

Huda and Samir were asked to bring them out at eleven. By the time Huda went to down to the cell where Mannan and Dulal were kept, he found them praying. They just came from a shower. Criminals who are to die usually asked to take a shower and pray. Their last prayer. He found Mannan crying with his hand up in the air. As if he is asking for mercy. Dulal’s eyes were closed and he wasn’t moving.

“Hell-lo bosses!” Captain Samir called them with marked tinge of sarcasm in his voice. “Time to make your journey; yes, the final one. I hope the havildar has told you what to do!”

Huda lets Samir make all the moves. This is for the first time he is witnessing a ‘crossfire’ incident. A strange whiteness engulfs both the persons, unwillingly ready to die. Huda has never seen such fear-stricken faces, pleading for forgiveness, in his entire life. He read about it, but never seen faces just before their death. 

“Sir, take me to court; give me a life-term; sir, sir, please I’ll be a good man in jail; I beg you sir,” Mannan pleaded, crying like a four-year-old child. 

“You son-of-a-bitch, you should be asking for forgiveness to the people you butchered; we have made arrangements so that you can seek their forgiveness,” Samir heaved a ton of black bile in his breath.

Dulal didn’t say anything. His quietness hurt Huda confidence. He didn’t expect a criminal to die without pleading for mercy. All members of the teams were a bit unnerved. But they didn’t want to spend any time on that. Get on with the job at hand. 

Six of them escorted Mannan and Dulal to the van. They both were handcuffed. Mannan wore a lungi and Dulal, a pair of jeans and a t-shirt. The van was an eight-sitter Toyota. Everyone had enough room in there. They drove thought Kamarpara town down to a snaky road meeting the river. Homebound people crossing river have all reached their homes and there were no one in sight. Parking the black-coloured van near a jungle, they brought Dulal and Mannan out on the field. Still handcuffed, they were shivering like a bamboo leaves. Both of them were behaving like the sacrificial animals just before being slaughtered on qurbani eid. Their resistance Huda and Samir were pushing them towards the bushes, but their legs were like weighty stones. It was impossible to move them by even applying full strength of two military men. God knows where they were getting that strength from! Major Mahbub, the toughest in the team, joined hands, shouting in full throat. 

They could finally succeed to push them towards. When Mannan and Dulal could be pushed five feet away from the team, Mahbub started briefing them:

“Listen brothers; we are going shoot you down,” his voice firm. He’s done this many times in the last two years.

“But, we’ll give you a chance to live; we’ll let you run; run as fast as you can; if you can escape our bullets, you’re free to go. But if you fail, you die. You guys have to forgive us for doing this; we are helpless; just following the government orders. I hope you’ve said you prayers properly and also included us in that.” Major Mahbub spent ten seconds for this.

Then he said, “Now, run fucking bustards; you ruthless killers.”

They didn’t, their feet trembling, both hands sandwiched together, seeking mercy. No one moved.

Mahbub fired at least five shots from his shotgun around their feet in the ground. As the gunshots echoed in the soundless countryside midnight, Mannan and Dulal started jumping like dancers and started their sprint for life. Colonel Daleem wanted to take them down. They could have gone ten yards, he fired at Dulal. From his pistol. One, two. Emptied the whole magazine on him. His hand was raised in parallel to the ground. He wasn’t looking at the target. Looking back, as if he doesn’t want to witness this death. He continued pulling the trigger even after emptying the shells. Samir spoke out:
“Sir, stop, stop; he’s down; stop; he’s been dead in first two shots.”

The speeding Mannan suddenly stopped at looked at Dulal’s falling body. Severely panicked, he started shoving through the trees. Mahbub ran after him; aimed at him and open fired. Three shot and he fell exhaling a shrieking sound.

Both of them taken down. It’s time to inform the local police station about their gunfight with terrorists.
There was silence. No one spoke. Everybody knew what to do. Even the nightly insects stopped screeching. Only sound that was active was the buzz coming out from the van engine.

The next morning, a news anchor on Dhaka Bangla TV said: “Two top violent criminals Koshai Mannan and Dubai Dulal died in a shootout with members of the Black Battalion. Earlier yesterday in the afternoon Battalion arrested these two terrorists. After interrogation, the forces accompanied the terrorists for recovering illegal arms. The forces were attacked by the underworld mates of Koshai Mannan and Dubai Dulal who ambushed from their hideouts. There were gunfire exchanges between the law enforcers and criminals. Mannan and Dulal fell in the middle and died in crossfire. The Battalion forces also recovered two AK-47s, two shotguns, one hand-made pistol and twenty rounds of ammunition.”

That was five nights ago.

They killed Mannan and Dulal from the back. They weren’t given any chance. So, this is what the Black Forces do. 

Huda lits another cigarette. Thought about his own family; his wife; his child; his parents. Why did he forget think about them during these five days? Suddenly clouds started to clear up from his. Huda isn’t ready to do this; he can’t even force himself shooting criminals from the back. This is not why he joined the army; he is a soldier; not a killer. 

He knows what to do. He feels better now. A huge stone is lifted from his chest. Putting down his legs on the floor, he pushes his feet into the sandals on the floor. Slowly moves towards his small reading table. Searches for a piece of paper and a pen. He finds them. He thinks for two minutes. Starts writing: “I major Qamrul Huda, posted as a member of Black Forces on special duty in Kamarpara, requests to be taken away from my special duty.”

It takes him seven minutes to finish the letter to army headquarter. He also mentions the consequences that he might have to face for this letter.

He puts the letter in a brown envelop. Get up from the chair. Turns back to his bed. Walks back to it. A strange weakness cloaks him like a sickly man covers himself with a blanket. He lies down on his bed.

Falls fast asleep.

*The reason I put it on my blog is bacuse I want critical feedback from all. Please comment my short story. Thanks. Ekram Kabir

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