Five days later and they were ready. They had better be ready, because tonight was when they had to go. Moonless and, as luck would have it, cloudless, the inky blackness would hide the dark clad men who sat quiet and tense in the back of one of the trucks. A second truck followed, empty.
Fahad and his men had worked on tuning the trucks and had achieved miracles as far as Madari was concerned. He’d heard it said that the loudest sound in a Rolls Royce was the dashboard clock, but he never thought the same could be said of a two and a half ton truck. He smiled. Of course that was an exaggeration, but the trucks were remarkably quiet.
He glanced around at the men. Some were sitting with eyes closed, some gazed into the distance. A couple were using prayer beads. Three of them were playing cards. No different from the drives to a mission that Madari had been on before, except for the fact that they were in civilian clothes and not uniform. He was finding that hard to get used to.
Putting on his uniform had always been an act that made Madari feels different. Made him stronger, as it tied him by duty and honour to all those who wore the same uniform. Obligated him to live up to what the uniform demanded. Was that an indispensable part of being a soldier? Without it they could call themselves guerrillas but was that only a prevarication? What made a guerrilla different from a bandit? His motives perhaps, but not his clothes or his actions.
It was Madari’s job now, to hold these men together with no army authority to back him up. He wished he felt stronger. He wished he had his uniform. Perhaps Ziyahd was right. Perhaps he didn’t have the stomach for this. Did he really have the strength to lead these men?
He sighed and rested his head back against the wall of the truck, closed his eyes. After a moment he felt a hand touch his, where it rested on the bench. He knew it was Jahni, who sat on his right. Jahni was talking to Darak, his conversation continued without a break, but the side of his hand pressed against the side of Madari’s. Madari hoped that Jahni could be trusted to remember his instruction not to be Madari’s bodyguard while in action. He’d deliberately placed Jahni on a different team from the one he’d be leading himself. He hoped Jahni could maintain his concentration.
It was almost three a.m. when they approached the gate to the base. Madari, who had moved into the cab with Noor. One man guarded the gate, as expected. Doubtless tired and bored and seeing a couple of army trucks approaching, he showed no suspicion or alarm as he approached the truck.
Noor opened the door hard into the man’s face and the soldier fell without a sound.
Madari took a shaky breath. “Secure the gate house, Captain.”
One truck stayed outside; backup in case this all fell apart. The gate guard was concealed in the gate house and one of Madari’s men dressed in the guard’s uniforms took up position in the gatehouse. He kept a walkie-talkie. They had enough radios for this mission, but not many more. Madari had more walkie talkies on their little shopping list.
The truck full of men drove slowly through the silent sleeping base. A truck even at this time of night wasn’t a strange sight on a supply base so they aroused no apparent suspicion from the few people they passed, mostly guards on buildings.
The base wasn’t a garrison, the number of soldiers stationed here was small, but enough to make things very inconvenient if someone raised the alarm. So the men carried rifles, but Madari hoped none of them would have to use them.
“Armoury.” Noor said as they approached. “Two guards.”
Madari nodded. Two guards and one entrance. This was both good and bad. If the alarm was raised when they were inside they’d be trapped. On the other hand, they’d be very well armed.
Madari looked back into the truck at the tense and pale faces of his men.
“Ready? On my command.”
Five minutes later they were inside. The two guards, bound and gagged and stripped of their uniforms lay on the floor and Jahni and Fahad stood outside guarding the door and the truck.
The interior of the stone building echoed to their footsteps and Madari decided rubber soled shoes instead of boots might be a good idea.
“Spread out,” he ordered, the echo making him whisper. His heart hammered, seeming to be right in his throat. “You all know what we need. Keep the noise down as much as you can. Quickly now.”
They dispersed. Madari led his small squad, Lieutenants Ruhul and Darak, as they checked the crates. One by one they started taking the crates of useful items to the doorway. Some men found trolleys to help them move faster. There was a forklift truck and a couple of the men knew how to operate it, but Madari feared the noise would be too much of a risk. Even the noise of trolley wheels over the stone flags on the floor made him wince.
“Rocket launchers,” Noor said with a grin when Madari met up with him at one point using a trolley to carry six long crates.
“Excellent. Don’t forget the rockets,” Madari said. He handed up a box of frag grenades to the two men inside the truck stacking and securing the rather explosive cargo. “How many rifles have we picked up?” Madari asked.
“Sixty.” One of the men in the truck confirmed.
“Try to get thirty more,” Madari ordered Noor as he set off back inside.
Their luck held for almost half an hour as they loaded rifles, pistols, grenades, rocket launchers and as much ammunition as they could find, into the truck.
Then, as Madari was going through boxes, hoping to find walkie talkies, Jahni’s voice came over the radio.
“There’s a car just gone past. It slowed right down and went on again. I think it may be time – ” His voice was cut off by the shriek of the alarm.
“Retreat!” Madari snapped over the radio. “Everybody back on the truck right now!”
He ran, Ruhul and Darak at his side. At the door he chivvied them on, sent them climbing into the truck. He counted as the men came running from various parts of the armoury.
“That’s everyone,” Madari said when the last man ran past him. “Come on,” he ordered Jahni and Fahad who were still on the ground, rifles out, ready to fight the soldiers they could see approaching, but still out of range.
The three men climbed aboard and Noor yelled “Go!” at the driver.
Now the truck roared as it sped off. Men held down the crates and boxes, looking fearful of the firepower they were sitting on.
They had almost reached the gate when three jeeps screeched around a corner and began to pursue. Men stood up in the jeeps and opened fire on the truck. Madari’s men hit the floor, when they could find it between the crates.
“Return fire!” Madari ordered Jahni and Fahad who were beside him still at the back of the truck looking over the flap.
Their rifles and Madari’s spat back at the jeeps. More fire came from over their heads as men stood up behind them. The jeeps dropped back abruptly.
“Gate is closed!” The driver yelled from the cab, Madari recognised Faraj’s voice. “Hang on!”
They hit the gate going at least forty miles per hour and Madari heard the windscreen smash. They slowed only briefly as the truck shed the remains of the gate.
“Where’s the second truck?” Madari called.
Noor had gone into the cab and shouted back.
“Just raised him on the radio. Retreated as ordered, about ten minutes ahead of us down the road.”
“Tell him to keep moving!” Madari looked back. The three jeeps were still pursuing, but keeping out of range of rifle fire. “We need to shake them off,” he said.
Jahni nodded and turned back, scrambled among the crates and a second later was levering the lid off one of the long ones Noor had brought out. He heaved out the rocket launcher, with a grim smile on his face. Darak gave him a rocket from another crate.
“You know how to operate that?” Madari hoped so.
Jahni just nodded. Fahad on Madari’s other side had followed Jahni’s example and was extracting one of the other rocket launchers.
“I don’t know how accurate we can be bouncing around in here.” Fahad said.
“Just stop them following us, Captain, Lieutenant.” Madari glanced between the two men, both wearing army uniforms, but stolen ones, about to fire on army Jeeps. On fellow soldiers. For him, because he ordered them to. Jahni was kneeling up one knee now, the rocket launcher on this shoulder. It weaved around as the truck hurtled too fast along the bumpy road. Jahni was taking his time setting up his shot, Madari thought. Aiming as best he can. He’s sweating. He’s…
Jahni turned and looked at him, eyes wide.
“Faris.” Madari read his lips rather than heard the sound. “I…”
Behind Madari Fahad fired and Madari looked around instinctively as the rocked whooshed away. It missed, but not by much, striking the ground in front of one Jeep, and blowing a small crater in the road surface. The Jeep’s nearside front wheel hit the crater blowing out the tyre. The Jeep skidded to a halt. Madari turned back to Jahni, just as Jahni fired his rocket. His missed too, but the explosion on the road in front of the Jeep was enough to make the driver swerve right off the road. The last Jeep continued on briefly then slowed and reversed back up the road.
The truck sped on. Madari sighed with relief and glanced first at Jahni and then at Fahad. Fahad was calmly stowing the rocket launcher. Jahni though still knelt up holding his, staring back at the Jeeps. Madari leaned over to him.
“Kahil, look at me.” Jahni did at once. What was in his eyes was fear, Madari knew. Not fear of the fighting, of getting hurt or killed, but what he had almost done there, would have to do one day.
“Kahil, you did not kill anyone.” Madari said, softly.
Jahni turned away, closing his eyes, looked embarrassed. He lowered the rocket launcher and turned back to put it in its crate. Madari sighed and turned to go through to the cab. He squeezed past and crawled over crates until he got to the front.
“Call Husam,” he said to Noor, referring to the man driving the backup truck. “Tell him to slow and let us catch up.”
“Right, sir, in one second.” Noor said, sounding harried, and Madari noticed he was pulling dressings from the first aid kit. Madari looked at Faraj to see his left sleeve was soaked with blood. His face was pale and sweating, but set and determined.
“Captain! Are you hit?”
“Glass, sir.” Faraj said. “Just a scratch.”
Madari glanced back. No more sign of pursuit. “As soon as we catch the other truck someone else will take over the driving,” he said, looking ahead through the broken windscreen, watching for their backup truck.
Then he turned back to the body of the truck, to the nervous looking but relieved men sitting around and on their stolen supplies.
“Well done, all of you,” Madari said and got smiles in return. Except from one man. Jahni sat with his back against a crate, his knees drawn up to his chest and a thousand yard stare in his eyes.
The sun was high as they neared the camp. Most of the men were now in the backup truck. Madari himself sat, dozing in the cab of the truck carrying the weapons, enjoying the breeze through the broken windscreen. Fahad was driving.
“Sir,” Fahad said, rousing Madari, as he brought the truck to a halt. Madari sat up, looked at Fahad and then ahead, where Fahad was staring.
There was a horseman on the road ahead of them. Black robed, mounted on a bay horse. He had a rifle on his back and his face was almost entirely covered by his headdress.
The Bedouin showed no sign of moving. He gazed back at the trucks. After a moment Madari opened the door and began to climb out. The horse showed some reaction to the noise and movement, the man showed none except to watch Madari closely. Madari heard a scrambling sound behind him and glanced back to see Jahni climb out. He was about to tell Jahni to stay where he was, but remembered the job he had given Jahni.
“Keep you weapon holstered,” Madari said, as he saw Jahni’s hand move to his sidearm. Jahni, reluctantly by the look in his eyes, moved his hand away. But he followed when Madari approached the Bedouin.
As a horseman himself Madari knew to keep well out of range of flying hooves. But he got close enough that he didn’t have to shout at the man.
“Peace be upon you.” He bowed his head. “We wish to pass.” No response. “My name is Madari. I command the camp to the east.”
“The prison.” The Bedouin man said.
“No longer a prison. But I think you probably know that.”
“We fight the government,” Madari said, “We fight for the king.”
The Bedouin shrugged.
“The government are your enemies too,” Jahni called. Madari glanced back at him and he shut up.
“We are interested in trading,” Madari said, turning back to the horseman. We need supplies. We can barter.” The man looked at the trucks. Does he know what we have in there? Madari wondered. “And we can pay. Cash. Or gold.”
That caused some interest. Gold was a word that got a reaction.
“That’s a fine horse,” Madari said.
It was hard to say, but the man’s eyes seemed to show a smile.
“You know where to find us,” Madari said. Never push them, Ahmed had said. Never try to pin them down or tell them what to do. The man nodded and spurred his horse. Madari smiled as the Bedouin rode off into the desert. He turned to Jahni who was frowning.
“I thought that went rather well.”
Madari stepped out into the cool evening air. He had a midnight to eight guard duty shift. Three days since their successful raid and Jahni had, without needing orders, increased the guard. Now they had more weapons was an attack more or less likely? The government may be taking them more seriously now, but on the other hand they could be more cautious of attacking.
Jahni had taken the proper precautions though and Madari approved the new rota at once. He glanced up at the guard tower he was assigned to. He was to share the watch with a young student, Amir Jehzen, who was rather in awe him apparently. Madari hoped he could put the young man at ease or it would be an awkward eight hours.
He nodded at other men on guard as he walked to the tower and then began to climb the ladder. When he reached the hatch he pushed it open and climbed inside. A dark figure was outlined against the sky.
“Jehzen?” Madari said, wondering if his partner had reported yet.
“No, sir,” the voice was soft. “It’s me.”
“Kahil?” Madari said, surprised. Not a question really, he could never mistake that voice. Kahil.
“I swapped with Amir.” Jahni said.
“I see.” Madari moved away from the hatch and sat against the wall beside Jahni. He was pleased. The two of them had not had many chances to talk over the weeks since they took the camp. It would feel good to talk undisturbed. He was afraid too, of being here in the darkness with this man, but he trusted his own self control.
“I hope we have coffee up here,” Madari said. “If I’m to stay awake all night I’ll need it.”
“You can sleep if you want.” Jahni said.
“Sleeping on guard duty, Lieutenant? I’m shocked. How would it look to the men if I had to put myself on punishment detail?” There was no response.
“That was a joke, Kahil,” Madari said, patiently.
“Oh. Very funny, sir.”
Madari frowned in the dark. Jahni sounded low. And Madari had been aware that he had been quiet since the raid. Something was troubling him, clearly. Was that why he had swapped his guard shifts, to get the chance to talk to Madari about it? If so then perhaps Madari needed to raise the subject first, to get it done with, or they’d waste the night in stilted conversation.
Madari picked up the night vision field glasses and scanned the surrounding desert. Nothing moved that he could see.
“Even the scorpions are asleep.” Madari observed. He put the glasses down. “How are you feeling, Lieutenant? About the raid, about our first, well almost a month, here?”
“I feel good, sir, the work is going well and –”
“Kahil.” There was a warning tone in Madari’s voice. He would not stand for any forced cheerfulness. “The truth, Kahil. I think we can tell each other the truth.”
“The truth.” Jahni’s voice was a whisper. He paused a long time. “I miss my family and every day I want to run home to them. Now I can do that it feels worse then when I couldn’t. But I know I need to be here, to serve you.” The words got faster as he spoke, they tumbled out. “But now I don’t know if I am any use to you!”
“No use?” Madari didn’t understand. “Your work has been excellent, the security details and, Kahil, you know you are important to me, personally. Your…” He swallowed a couple of time. “When we talk. Your friendship helps me so much, you know that.” He reached out in the darkness, a little afraid of what he would touch, but found Jahni’s arm, laid a hand on it. “I have missed our talks.”
Jahni was quiet for a long time, he made some gulping sounds and Madari kept hold of his arm. Talk to me, Kahil. Madari thought. Tell me your fears as I’ve told you mine. Let me give you the strength you’ve given me.
“I couldn’t… I was afraid to fire. I froze.” He was talking about the mission, about the rocket launcher.
“You hesitated for a moment. But you did fire.”
“I should not have hesitated!” Jahni’s voice was angry now, angry at himself. Abruptly he moved away from Madari, stood up. Madari stood too. Jahni paced in the small space, a dark figure and a scuff of boot soles. “And I didn’t try to hit the Jeep! I missed deliberately.”
“You stopped them following,” Madari said. “That was what you were meant to do.”
“I was afraid!”
“You were afraid to kill them. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
“I’m a soldier. I was trained to kill men.”
“But you’ve never done so before. The first time is… especially difficult.” He shook his head, shaking away memories of a border skirmish and an ambushed patrol in the dark and the terror and the stutter of machine gun fire. And the dead man he would never stop seeing. He looked up again. Jahni had stopped pacing, stood at the lookout. There was enough light to pick out only the edges of his features.
“To take a life is never easy, Lieutenant. Not for a good man. If you have the choice not to kill, then always take it.”
“What if…” Jahni whispered. “What if I can never do it? I will never be able to fight, and I will never be able to protect you.” His head went down. “You can’t rely on me. I let you down.”
Madari went up to him, though didn’t touch him. “You did not let me down. You are a brave man.” Jahni made a soft click and shook his head at that, looking away. “Kahil,” Madari said, with a smile. “Only a very brave man would have attacked Sergeant Ghaith.”
Jahni’s head came up, and he smiled too, and then actually laughed. “Now him I would have killed.”
“Perhaps one day we’ll run into him again,” Madari said, putting his hand on Jahni’s shoulder. “Now, please, Kahil, don’t worry about it. I know when the moment comes that you will do what you have to do.”
Jahni stopped smiling and heaved a heavy sigh. “I hope I can, sir.”
The moment had passed and they moved away from each other. Madari found the switch to put on the dim light.
“Now, where is that coffee?”
“Here, sir,” Jahni pointed at the low table with a small stove and coffee-making supplies on it.
“Right. You keep watch, I’ll make us coffee.” Madari ordered.
A few moments later he handed Jahni a cup, stood beside him as they both drank. After a while Jahni spoke again.
“One thing about the raid, it was interesting to be back in uniform.” He laughed. “It wasn’t my uniform. But still, it was interesting. To feel like a soldier again.”
“Yes,” Madari said, slowly. “A uniform is important, isn’t it?”
“Of course, sir. I know we can’t wear them now of course, but it would be good to have something like that, something to bind us all together.”
“Yes.” Madari frowned. “Yes. I will have to think about that.”
He was still thinking about it two days later. Madari walked into one of the store rooms, to find Noor there, armed with clipboard and pen. Regular inventories were essential, Madari had decided.
“Ah, Captain, I was looking for you.”
“Just stocktaking, sir.”
Madari looked around. This store tended to get forgotten about, not food, medical equipment or weapons, it held everything else. Spare kitchen equipment, stationery, furniture, blankets. Madari wandered around while Noor muttered to himself, counting.
Some of the furniture was broken and could be sacrificed to the furnace when the time came. He looked at packets of paper and hoped there was enough for the reports he was writing.
Some of the others found that amusing, he could tell. Guerrilla leaders didn’t write reports. But Madari did. Perhaps he was clinging too hard to his training. But it was important to him. It was important to record the progress the civilians were making in their training, to single out for praise any man who did especially well.
Because all too soon any of those men might be dead and it was only right that they were not forgotten. Madari may not be able to give them promotions or commendations, but he could see that their actions did not go unrecorded. They were his men and it was important to him to give them that respect.
He shook himself from thinking about paper and reports and turned to a long table against the wall. It held stacked blankets, and sheets. But something else poked out from behind them. Madari went and checked it out. A bolt of blue cloth. He frowned at it for a moment, and then recognised the colour. He’d seen it in various places around the camp, as tablecloths, as curtains, as patches on the beaten up armchairs in the rec rooms.
He pulled the bolt out. It was heavy and he had to let it stand on end as he pulled it off the table. Stood on end it was taller than him. He unrolled a little of the cloth. Rather coarse, cheap fabric. The dye was faded at the exposed edges even under the dim light in here. But something about it called to Madari. The blue was beautiful to him, darker than sky blue, but not navy.
“Captain,” he called. “Can you find me a strong pair of scissors?”
Noor looked over at him and frowned then turned away. A few minutes later he came up to Madari and handed him a pair of kitchen scissors.
“Thank you.” Madari laid the bolt of cloth on the floor, knelt down and unrolled it a few feet. Noor stood watching him, a puzzled frown on his face. He thinks I’ve gone mad Madari thought. Perhaps he is right.
First Madari cut off the faded cloth that had been the outside of the roll and tossed that aside. Now, about six inches wide, he thought, and cut again, letting the scissors tear along the grain to keep him in a straight line. Another six inches and he cut again, then put down the scissors and stood up, holding in each hand a strip of cloth six inches wide and over six feet long. He held one out to Noor, who took it with a polite nod, but still bafflement and a tiny bit of worry on his face.
Madari smiled. He took the piece of cloth he held and tied it around his waist, knotting it twice. The ends of the strip hung down almost to his knees.
And now Noor smiled too. He copied Madari’s action. Bulkier around the waist than Madari, the end of the strip didn’t reach his knees, but it worked, Madari thought. It looked good. And in that second, standing in that dim corner, the strips of cheap cloth became something else, not just sashes, but something priceless. Symbols.
Noor adjusted his sash and smiled some more.
“Good, sir, very very good. Useful too, can be a bandage, or a sling, or a head scarf, or to wrap something in…” He went on listing all kinds of uses for it. Madari had not thought of any of them. He smiled and was grateful to have a practical thinker like Noor at his side.
“Right,” Noor said. “Those scissors won’t last, let me see if I can find dressmaking shears, or if not a whet stone to keep those sharp.” He hurried off and Madari knelt down and started to cut again and again.
Madari gathered the men in the yard, after sunset prayers. He and Noor carried armfuls of the sashes. They had worked in shifts, as their hands cramped. Madari’s right hand ached and he never wanted to see a pair of scissors again. He had certainly decided that should the need arise for a career change he would not be going into the tailoring business.
But it was done and he and Noor began to distribute the sashes to the initially puzzled men. But seeing how Madari and Noor wore them, they started to put them around their waists. A few individualists made Madari smile by wearing theirs over the shoulder like bandoliers. He didn’t mind, he had no rules, they could wear them around their necks as scarves or make them into turbans if they wanted to. It didn’t matter. What they symbolised was what mattered. When the sashes were all distributed he climbed into the back of a jeep so he could address them all.
“You are soldiers, all of you. Whatever we are called in the future, Guerrillas. Saboteurs.” He took a breath. “Terrorists.” He saw some of them look uneasy. They need not be. Madari vowed he would not take them there, would now make them into those kinds of men. “Soldiers wear uniforms and we have none of course. Let these sashes be a substitute, a symbolic uniform. I am proud of all of you, proud to lead you.” He took a breath and swallowed a few times, determined not to let his voice crack or shake, however much it hurt to project it across the yard like this. “Please, wear these symbols with pride.”
The men cheered and Madari sighed with relief. He’d started to fear they would consider the sashes foolish. But they seemed to have taken to them. Symbols were powerful, he thought. I have to use that, I have to create unity. Literally make us into a unit.
“Dismiss.” Madari said, and started to come down from the jeep. Jahni appeared to give him a hand down.
“Thank you, Kahil.” He wanted to ask Jahni what he thought of the sash, but Jahni’s walkie talkie sounded suddenly. The north-west tower calling. Jahni had clipped the radio to his new sash.
“Go ahead.” Jahni ordered, after he unclipped the radio.
“Two horsemen approaching from the north, Bedouin they look like.”
Jahni looked at Madari wide eyed.
“Keep them covered, but do not open fire unless fired on. Over,” Madari ordered. “Come on,” he said to Jahni, excitement filling him suddenly. This could be it. The contact they had waited for.
They picked up Faraj and Noor on the way and other men watched, but hung back as the senior officers went to the gate. Jahni stuck close to Madari, in bodyguard mode, Madari knew.
“Open the gate,” Madari ordered. Two men opened the gate and the officers waited in the open gateway until the horsemen rode up. They stopped short of the gateway. One dismounted, spoke a few words to the other, too quiet for Madari to hear, then he walked up to the officers. He carried a rifle on his back, and Madari could see that was making Jahni tense, but the man appeared to be no threat.
He scanned the group of men quickly then stood in front of Madari. He uncovered his face, revealing a young man, bearded, with a deep tan. Madari tried to decide if he was the same man they had met on the road, but could not be sure. He seemed to know me, he thought.
“Peace be upon you. I am Ghulam. I come to speak for Halais, my chief and my father. He invites you to negotiate.”
And Madari smiled, both in greeting and in relief. Dealing with the Bedouin was a delicate matter, but he would manage it, he was sure. He had to, they needed friends. No, not friends, they needed allies. He touched the sash at his waist and just knowing it was there gave his strength, made him remember who he was.
“Peace be upon you, Ghulam. I am Major Madari. I command here.”