Take Offs and Falls by Michal Josephy
“All right, let’s go,” Alfredo made the sign of the cross as we were smoothly descending towards Beira. “Some unimportant little clerk,” that was my guess when we were boarding some two hours ago. We were both sitting on a domestic flight; with the difference that one of us was with his thoughts in a rickety cage of a helicopter, and through the noise of the rotors, he was listening to his commander‘s orders.
Alfredo, a middle aged man dressed in a sweat-soaked white shirt he’d been wearing all day, might seem uninteresting at first sight, but he turned out to be a Renamo veteran. He undressed like a dragonfly nymph. And the flight over Sofala, the scene of his uneasy memories, couldn’t pass without emotion.
“It happened somewhere around here,” he said quietly after his eyes scanned masochistically over the meadows that rippled in the wind. “We had to land, although we sensed that hell was ready for us down there.” We were approaching the place where the helicopter was to descend into a “nest” padded with soft grass. Alfredo’s body reacted like a divining rod.
“I actually never really knew who we were fighting,” he couldn’t mask his sudden anxiety. “I remember that as soon as the crew took a look around, the blast of shooting resounded from the grass. Shell bursts, splinters hitting my shoulder. Then, the commander’s voice shouting at me: Run, run! But I didn’t know where to in that havoc of grass.”
I sighed and my eyes were gazing at the faded headrest in front of me. They say blue calms your nerves. Maybe. But at that moment I would have preferred to catapult myself somewhere far, to hide myself under the seat and at least plug my ears so that I didn’t have to hear the explosions of emotions. But I didn’t do that. I listened patiently, because I knew Alfredo couldn’t drown out the war in his heart.
He actually kept talking about that war all the way from Nampula. Bands of emotions burstand he broke free of them after many years: „When they kidnapped us from RENAMO, my brother and I were eight and eleven. From the beginning they wanted to turn us into killers.Matsangas. “They punished anyone who showed any emotion or cared about others. Right next to our ears they were firing bursts from Kalashnikovs to make us used to it. They taught us how to kill. First cows and then…”
“You too?” I asked carefully. “You also killed people?”
“No,” was his brief answer, “I was something like a messenger, the commander’s dogsbody.” “But a few friends had to shoot a member of their own family so that they couldn’t return home. Renamo cut off their umbilical cord. They gave us soruma to smoke– weed mixed with gun powder to make us stupefied and stronger. The older ones got booze and women. And your first murder was celebrated like a rite of passage.”
Alfredo fell silent for a while and it was obvious he had to fight back tears:
“I saw all of this with my own eyes. For years I wasn’t able to talk about it with anyone. I walked around like a body without soul. I brawled and drank. I had no money, no wife, no family. It haunted my days and turned my dreams into nightmares. I didn’t know how to get out of it (…)”
“Welcome…CCRRRrr… Welcome to Beira. Thank you for flying with L.A.M.,” we heard from the speakers as our plane touched the runway like an egg falling into a basket with cotton. I helped Alfredo stand up and we went out of the plane. It was calm outside. No shooting. For a long time we stared into that empty and quiet colonial wasteland, into which a man would like to fly, free as a bird unless he first flew into thousand pieces after stepping on an old land mine.
When it was time, we walked silently through the airport lounge. Alfredo went to a taxi where a woman was waiting for him. He kissed her and hugged her warmly with his right arm. “This is my wife, Quina, and this is my daughter Madunga,” she toddled forward from under her mother’s skirt, her father’s hand helping her forward.
I said hello and shook Alfredo’s hand briefly. “Goodbye,” I took a few steps back. I didn’t want to disturb these moments of happiness with my presence. They got into the car. The car set slowly in motion. As I watched, I felt that Alfredo would prefer to wave away all he went through as a child soldier with his other hand. It wasn’t easy, as together with all his memories of war, he had to leave it here. In Beira.
(Alfredo, who I met on board of LAM flight, wasn’t the only “afetado”. Colonial and civil war affected emotions (affects) of many people I met on my way. It wasn’t only first distrustin front of the “sighting device of the camera”, but also towards „a white stranger“. Their emotions – just like on the plane – became heavier and sank towards “the cradle and the grave” – or they soared somewhere towards ecstasy, their souls got wings and it made you want to fly).
(pictures only for illustrative purposes)
By Michal Josephy