March 22nd, 2018
HART Prize for Human Rights 2018| Pajok
With the most number of entries we’ve ever received, the competition was even harder with such exceptional submissions that demonstrated inspiring passion for Human Rights advocacy.
Ruksar Hussain, 18, won 1st place in our HART Prize for Human Rights Junior Creative Category 2018 with her short story titled:
Ever since the white man had come and talked about – what did he call it? – sanitation, Abel had always been one to wash his hands. There was something about the water that could wash away his pain for the day, but he also just liked the well for what it was: a metal machine that could bring him fresh water. Juxtaposed against the memory of sending his little daughter to the Atebi with a plastic container, it was a blessing indeed.
He wished he could wash his hands now and scrub away the dried blood and ripped skin from under his nails. He wondered what the white man would say about handling corpses, probably “unsanitary”. Ironically, the malevolent force of filth the white man had warned him about was the very thing that saved his life. Abel and a few of his fellow villagers had escaped death to dig graves for those that hadn’t.
The Atebi river ran right through the centre of Pajok. Every day, children came with plastic jugs yellowed from age, women washed their wooden bowls after meals, and babies frolicked in the shallow parts. They probably hadn’t been present at the white man’s lecture, Abel thought, but what did it matter now? Today, even the river became a host of death as a teenage girl and her mother floated unmoving in its dark waters. Abel and his fellows had been instructed to remove the bodies – people needed to use the river. Watching the thin red streams pooling in the murky water, he marvelled at the parallelism of life and death. Water sustains life but today water carries death. Man gives life to man, but today man has brought death.
The last death he remembered was his wife’s. She had died painfully but quietly from malaria at the hands of God. This morning, death had come at the hands of men, greeting the victims not with divine light and voices of angels, but with flashes of metal and stuttering gunfire. The bodies hanging in the doorways reminded Abel of the stories of Passover, but this time God could not save them.
The morning had been mild. Abel remembered raising the shutters of his market stall to deflect the April drizzle. He didn’t mind the rain, but his mother used to complain it made her joints ache, so he raised them out of habit. The distant gunfire could have been just another skirmish between the SPLA and the militia except the sounds were different. There wasn’t the usual back-and-forth rhythm (fire, cover, wait, fire, cover, wait); today, the gunfire was incessant and growing, a staccato drone that seemed to reverberate in his skull. When the screams started to accompany it, unease evolved into full-blown panic that permeated the village.
The first two bodies he buried were not heavy. Small and frail, they were children. Their bodies were mangled and crushed by the Land Cruisers that ran them over. Though they felt no pain, not anymore, he whispered hoarse apologies as he set their broken bones so that they could rest in their three-feet graves. Clouds in his eyes, the old man lamented that they would never grow up, never get out here, never see the world as anything but a tragedy.
Some of the others were still alive. Fingers bent into impossible shapes as they clawed him, he wiped their mouths as they salivated blood and waited with a heavy soul. There were some whose names he could not remember but he knew they were his people and he mourned them with the melancholy of a mother. Their blood became his, staining his pale, yellow shirt a sickly brown. For the first time, he felt thankful that his trousers were a size too big; it meant he couldn’t feel the cold, damp blood seeping onto his legs as well.
The hardest ones were those whose eyes were still open. Their ties to this world had been severed so quickly, they hadn’t even had time to say goodbye. Paul, whose wife had been present when Abel’s wife gave birth to their daughter, had always been the first person to help Abel through a rough patch. “Give without remembering, take without forgetting” had been his motto. Looking down at the friend who had helped him and who he had not been able to help, a tightness gripped Abel’s heart. Paul’s unseeing eyes watched him. His mouth was contorted in a grimace, as if he was asking Abel if their friendship hadn’t been enough. Don’t you remember when I gave your daughter my best mangos for her father’s sweet tooth?
I remember, thought Abel. He gently closed Paul’s eyelids, nauseated by his own guilt. For what it was worth, Abel made sure not to throw dirt onto his friend’s face and buried him with a mournful tenderness.
After burying his twelfth body, his tears had dried, leaving salt on his cracked lips. His eyes felt like rubber and his body, exhausted from fear and panic, moved mechanically. The thirteenth body was Michael, a fit young man, no older than 24 or 25, who had once been in a relationship with his daughter. He shook his head sadly. Mayen had been attracted to his quick smile and muscled arms, but those strong arms were defenceless against the onslaught of bullets. Michael’s once-handsome face was blood-soaked; the thin slit across his throat caused his head to lag backwards, almost dismembered from the athletic body. As he placed his hands under Michael’s body and dragged him to the shallow grave that awaited, Abel’s heart ached for the boy that could have been his son-in-law.
He thought about Mayen. The last time he saw her she was running from the chaos surrounding their home. Houses were being looted, people were being beaten in their doorways, arrested and shot point-blank for telling the truth (“I don’t know!”) God save his daughter – he’d heard terrible stories about what soldiers do to young women.
He had no idea what time it was; the clock had stopped at 8am. But by the time every tragic victim had been buried, the sun had crawled far across the sky. A soldier barked at him to move, prodding him with his gun. Abel found himself facing the wall of someone’s home. On either side of him, the other ‘survivors’, the gravediggers, stood with their hands shaking on the back of their heads. He heard the click of guns being readied behind him and stared at the clay wall, suddenly realising he had dug his own grave too.
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