Fiction: Inferno Yekin

January 29, 2016 Fiction , POETRY / FICTION

By

Benjamin Okochi

 

 

The fire raged. The flames were wild and chewed the fresh Savannah vegetation as though they were hay. The night sky was lit by the massive conflagration. For the second day the sun would not set!

Everybody thought that the fire would keep to its usual territory of the forest beyond the hills. But they were wrong. It had come close to the plains surrounding the villages. The fields of guinea corn already flowering were the casualties. Barely 12 hours later the inferno was roasting domestic animals alive. It didn’t take long before the jungle of shacks famous for being the largest market in the city was leveled. Human costs were already being added by the time fire trucks wailed in the distance. The city of Maiduguri was on its knees by the third day of the fire disaster.

A hunter had done it again. Or could it be a careless smoker? 15th-17th October, 2010 was the darkest period in the history of the ancient city.

By noon, October 18, Fire-Aid had arrived town and set up a quick office and began to distribute meager relief packages. In the three days that followed they had responded to the invitation of the state and federal governments to receive a shipment of relief support for distribution to victims. Clothes, shoes, corn, beans, rice, toys, made up the bulk of the materials. Fire-Aid received TV sets and transistor radios for their office. The antennae were long and the signals were clear. Volunteers turned up to help with the distribution and other needed tasks. As the week was folding up, 17 houses were being restored and three new ones were being constructed. The federal government had set up a committee to advise on the modalities for the construction of a new market built with bricks.

The Rahama insurgents displayed rare magnanimity. They held back their attacks for the three days the fire lasted, and that was all their itchy hands could afford. The raging wild fires and insurrectionary bombings would have been a double catastrophe that could annex Maiduguri to the encroaching Sahara desert in a matter of weeks. But in the entire week following the fire, there was not a single day in which a police station was not attacked, a police checkpoint was not uprooted, a church was not blown up, a telecoms installation was not bombed, a suicide attack was not executed, a bank was not robbed, or a prison not invaded and inmates set free. Some days saw plural terrors. Could they be taking their pound of flesh for the fire disaster as if the government started it?

At Crime Investigation Command in the far west of Maiduguri, men sat peering into wide HD computer monitors, making endless movements with their mice—eight men and two women in all. Dead silence reigned in the secluded, unlabeled room until the phone of one of the men vibrated in his jean pocket.

“Hello Sir,” Juma said and listened for a while. “Chief, Sir, I will meet you in your office right away Sir.” He added, stood up, slid his phone down the thigh pocket of his blue jean, exited the office and descended one floor.

“Detective Juma, what is this story about five lives lost in the fire?”

“Chief, Sir, it is the media sir. “

“They started the fire or they killed the persons? Yes the pen has become more effective at starting a fire than a gallon of petrol, but I made it clear to you that no human soul need be mourned. It will take a ton of papers to justify this spin-off, you know this?” Chief Superintendant Mass looked into the eyes of Juma as the small, sparsely furnished office was swallowed in a brief silence.

“Chief, Sir, I believe the headquarters in Abuja will discount it as acceptable risk, especially looking at the number of lives this terrorist group has taken in the past month, just thinking aloud sir. In any case, Sir, we followed closely the elaborate strategy that our consultant, Professor Yekins drew up. If he led the operation himself, he probably would not have escaped this natural but minor side effect.”

“Detective Juma, you should know better than bringing our revered Professor into disrepute. You of all persons can tell the gains we recorded since he came on board. The figures are there to speak for him. Have you forgotten that we recovered this complex from the insurgents courtesy of his intelligent tactic? In any case, not thinking but doing is what you are paid for.”

The idea of Prof. was simple. Torch the crops and save the poor farmers further toil and breaking their back. Then give them relief materials, far more they could have ever harvested from their farm, introducing the bugs in the process. Clean operation, no suspicion.

“Chief, Sir, I regret my utterances sir.”

“Not just regret, but mind your choice of it. The president told the world it is a religious sect that we have under our collar for discomfort, a violent one I feel free to add. He rejected the labeling of them as a terrorist group, so do not make them that with your mouth.”

“But not until lately, Sir, when he proscribed not only this group but also the other one in the far north of Maiduguri.”

“Well, the spirit of the president and the body language of the presidency and the executive emphasise the former position rather than the latter, and as long as you remain in their payroll, you must be possessed of this spirit.”

“I am in more darkness Sir.”

“What treatment do you give to a terrorist? Meeting their attacks with superior force and prosecuting captives forthwith, or smashing their camps and men but weakening the hands of the military with the contradiction of an amnesty committee extending the privilege of a dialogue. Dialogue what? Then why am I wasting my time on this seat?” Chief Superintendant Mass banged the table in anger.

“Sir, that means you have not seen recent comments by the leadership of the group on the amnesty committee’s report. They denied meeting the committee and debunked their purported ceasefire truce.”

“I saw the timewaster, but rather concerned myself with other virtues. This country is a bundle of contradictions, you know. I can’t imagine an Obama reaching out with hands of friendship to an Al-Qaeda.  No wonder the American president did not wait long for our president to put the lose sticker on the Islamic fundamentalists before placing a whopping $5m dollars on the head of the group’s leader. Guess the contradiction that my heart has not been able to reconcile: He has remained elusive to this day on the one hand, and the amnesty committee continues to feed us with ceasefire gibberish from the group’s leadership. That is why I don’t want you to call a spade what the government says is a spoon. In any case, our job is to provide intelligence, and provide it we will.”

“Chief, Sir, noted Sir.”

“So, have you seen any leading movements so far? It has been three days of fires, one week of carnage and sitting at the listening posts, and another week of miraculous calm and sitting at the listening posts is already half spent.”

“Chief, Sir, a lot of movements Sir, but none leading us to a burner Sir. We have quite some trails on our terminals that we are monitoring…” A vibration on Juma’s phone startled him and sent his hand digging into his pocket.

“Chief, Sir, it is from terminal nine Sir. I hope we have something Sir.”

“See to it now.”

Juma exited like a jet, and in a flash of time, he was in his office, almost crashing into the back of Binta who had been saving audiovisual files and taking screen shots.

“I’m on chip B94 and C19. They are on the average 90cm apart, and they have maintained this proximity for the past 15 minutes. C19 is fixed. Their location is approximately N67?E;12.13KM on Geographic Locationing Software (GLS) system. I have their conversation recorded. It sounds like a soup of Arabic, Kanuri and Tyubi. We should arrange transcribers at once.” Binta was still glued to the screen when chips T12 and B11 joined the earlier two on the same location on GLS. Their speech was muffled but once they were in close contact with the former, they became almost motionless. Juma pointed to the screen and Binta nodded.

“Baga, the B series crisscross the screens every second, but not so with the other ones, why this outcome?” Detective Juma called on the e-detective on terminal six.

Baga explained that that was to be expected. He reminded Juma that the B series were the set of audiovisual microchips in button architecture sewn on the garments that were sent into the disaster area. Once dressed, people are upwardly mobile. The ones he expected to stay fixed were the series of T chips that were planted into large teddy bears. Except for a few that remained fairly immobile, which could have ended up with grown up girls, the movement of most of them across the screen revealed that children were playing catch with them. The same was true of the D chips. Dolls were not to be items that sat on the stand where children lived. The most effective chips were the B chips and the C chips. Suddenly the screen went into a spell of flicker.

“That happens to me all the time, you know. Sometimes I completely lose signal. Baga, why does my screen misbehave like this,” Binta asked.

“I said it in training that the antennae on the radio and TV sets at Fire-Aid office also serve the surveillance bugs. Each time they are turned away from service range, you experience disruptions. Patience is the word to watch,” Baga explained. “And in case you want to know why we can’t see faces—because I know Binta’s mind is a factory for fabricating questions—remember that the video capability of the chips is very primitive. All it can do is to transmit crude streaks to the machines. Advanced research is needed to receive advanced video signatures from the bugs. As for its hearing abilities, I don’t think any of us has any problems with it,” he added.

He returned to his explanation of the behaviour of the chips in their repository, stressing that B chips and C chips were the most effective chips. With good clearing above the ground, it could be inferred that the buttons were on shirts worn by adults, and the movements were purposeful and decipherable. The C chips were planted into rubber crocs with sticky legs meant for smooth surfaces. Except a few that made dashes across the monitors, 80 percent of them stayed glued, and signals from them were perfect. All surveillance chips were to expire in six months time, by which time they would have gradually degraded into undifferentiated grits. So time was of the essence. Baga’s stay in Taiwan for collection of and training on surveillance technology was yielding expected dividends, in record time, at least for training needs.

Detective Juma dialed away on his phone, repeating “Room 19” again and again. He made his exit.

A few minutes he was in Room 19, a kind of mini lecture theatre.

“Jason, Pogu and Umma, we think there is an impending attack we can foil and then have the culprits in our net. The only reason we will fail is if you fail to unravel this coded conversation. We are racing against time. Be reminded that you can make your work faster by elimination non-indicative expressions from the streams of conversation. Focus on the dialogues that contain the red flag and zero in on t-words[1] used to critical levels first.” He dialed his phone. “Writing materials in front of you; on your earphone, lady and gentlemen.” Then he spoke into the phone: “Binta, Room 19 ready; play said file.”

The three persons worked in silence, the only sound in the noise-proof room being the crinkling A4 sheets protesting against the frantic fingers.

After 92 minutes the experts who had been working independently on three audio clips finished the first task and began the second, comparing notes, this time involving Juma who had been writing a report on a computer terminal. Interestingly, the three forensic transcribers implicated the same audio file, and that fired Juma’s hunch. It took another 34 minutes to condense the final draft and to translate a summary of it into English. It was already past five in the evening.

Three bits of information sent the heart of Juma racing: “Lead to second heathen saloon”; “dawn blow”; “finish the CR-V”. This plunged the decipherers into another session of spotting likely locations. They took out the expressions one after the other. There are four huge, rowdy hotel/brothel/night clubs along Road 13 in the north of the city. There are little ones in other parts of town. Which might be the target?

Juma was much help with the first one. “Hitting little inns will not bring terrorists much pride and satisfaction. We keep our eyes on all four, especially second and third, which are actually second from either end.”

There were consensuses regarding the other expressions, namely, that the attack would be at dawn. But the dawn of when remained a puzzle. The guess was the very next one, as earlier interrogations had revealed the group had the practice of executing an attack anytime from moments after it was hatched.

‘Finishing with the CR-V’ sounded like a suicide attack, as the attacker was somehow expected to be spent up on the mission. So the strike would most likely be a sudden one, leaving out any room for suspicion and thwarting and reacting.

Once these details were clear, Juma could not tame his legs. Clutching an A4 laden with scribbles in his left hand, he raced to Chief Superintendant’s office, but the man had just left. He scanned the entire building and its environ in his view and found Chief inserting a key into the keyhole of his metallic Honda CR-V. What, his boss? He hurried to meet him.

He was panting. “Sir, men must be posted now. See!” He pointed to the jungle of strokes on his paper as he spoke.

The two men raced back to the building, with Chief dialing numbers and sending radio messages. Some radio messages returned with indistinct questions, which the chief responded to by barking commands and instructions. Cables of veins were standing out on his neck as he shouted. He toweled his black face endlessly. His beret was in the hands of Juma. By the end of the chaos, a combined team of Mobile Police and Army troops had been ordered to the suspected terror attack locations, even as Chief Superintendant Mass had dispatched his under-cover agents to keep their eyes on ‘movements’.

The location of the meeting in which the armed group planned the attack was not left out. GLS revealed N67?E;12.13KM to be Majja Hotel. A combination of Army and Mobile Police were waiting to pounce on the gathering as soon as they received a go from Detective Juma. There was need to dig into the profile of the proprietor of Majja Hotel. It didn’t take long for his life history to be faxed to Chief Superintendant. He was a serving member of the state legislature, popular as Hon. Majmalla Dalla. Immediately, Terror Police were on their way to visit him with a search order and invitation for questioning.

A hunch prevented the Chief Superintendant from going home, so Juma felt compelled to stay back in the office. Together they received updates of the operations. Superintendant put a call through to Professor Yekins. “Congrats Prof. we are on the neck of a major attack, thanks to your strategy. The technology has been magical.” At the request of the Prof., Superintendant Mass filled him in on the summary of the lead they were chasing. Just then his phone rang. “Hello,” he said.

“Hello. Yekins speaking. I know you have had men posted. Did you have snipers planted so that the bombers can be cut short? The bomb will explode nonetheless, but at a safe distance away from the target.”

“Umm, well, I did not think of snipers, and now I don’t know whether that is practical at this material time. The Mopol chief has been hearing too much from me, and I could pick some resentment in his voice, something that sounds like: ‘Who made you my boss anyway?’

“You have to let him understand the doctrine of complementarity. That when people cooperate together, they achieve more than they could if they worked on their own. That is the miracle of synergy for you. That said, I have been working on a technology. It is a device that disables an electrical circuit if it comes within an active field, that is if my device is operated within a certain distance of the target device. So all we need is to use our listening station to know where an attack is planned. Then we place my disabler there, and if the explosive device is timed with an electronic watch as is often the case, or something that has an electronic circuit, vam! It is disabled, and then we can handle both the culprit and his destroyer. But sorry, the technology is still in its rudimentary stage, and for now, let us maximize the use of what we have.”

“Meanwhile, the ICC people are now interested in the activities of the group, citing them for human rights abuse. I think that is a long stride because it will go a long way to curb their activities in some way, and to conscientise the population so they can tell on any suspected insurgent.”

“Well, that seems an acceptable development, but like a die, it has many sides. Am I not better off in a prison in a western country than an insurgent in a vast Savannah; I will die anyway, whether in battle or in a palatial prison, but I will choose the better way.”

“Are you saying that is what will be going on in the mind if the fundamentalists?”

“I am not ruling out any possibility, just looking at the bigger screen. A lot too late I am sure. But it is interesting that ICC has finally broken its slumber on our country. This is what I have been screaming for six years now. This country signed up to the charter of the International Criminal Court since September 2001. These criminals attacked the UN Headquarters in Abuja in 2011 yet the ICC did not bat an eyelid. Only today they are whining that the government is either unable or unwilling to prosecute the perpetrators. Now they are telling the government that they want to come in and investigate after watching over 3,000 souls slaughtered in cold blood in just five endless years. They should in fact go back to sleep.”

At 20:44 terminal nine became a jungle of commotion. Audio and video were perfect. B94 and T12 made short dashes and stopped. Pops of gunshots followed. B11 maintained a speedy and steady pace until it was lost. B94 made another dash followed by a bang, then a huge glow. 10 seconds later B94 and T12 lay motionless.

It didn’t take too long for the news of the operation to filter to Chief Superintendant at Crime Command. The attack was as ferocious as the resistance, but in the end one member of the sect escaped, while two were killed—one male and one female. An Improvised Explosive Device, a fighter attempted to throw, exploded on him. One troop was wounded.

Jubilation held sway till 4.00am the following morning.

Juma who had dozed off at Chief’s table woke up to find him looking worried. “Chief, Sir, I regret sir.”

“Feel free,” the sleep starved man replied.

“Chief, Sir, I have an idea. What if all CR-Vs heading for Road 13 were stopped and searched?”

“Good idea. He picked up his handset and spoke briefly to two top-ranking police officers.” Now there was sufficient impetus for other government agencies to jump on the band wagon. Everyone was hungry for glory.

At 4:39 a light-skinned man in his 50s approached a check point of a combined team of security men on Road 9, which was the only untarred road that connected Road 13, and from that point the last check point on Road 13 was a clear 300 metres behind. The jeep was flagged to a stop and the driver was asked to alight for some check. He tried to engage the armed men in a long exchange of pleasantry while brandishing a crisp N1000 note. His right hand clutched the steering wheel. He knew what a typical policeman would do for N950 less, but he needed to be passed without hesitation, at any cost.

“Get down,” the Officer-in-Charge barked as he clicked his rifle and stepped back.

As the driver was withdrawing his hand, his car was shooting backwards, his glass was going up, bullets were spraying holes on the pretty jeep, and he was negotiating into a narrow road. Everything was happening in one miraculous second!

The men were still in shooting positions when they heard the massive explosion that ended it all. The metallic Honda CR-V had rammed into a nearby telecommunication mast.

 

 

[1] Terror-words

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Benjamin Okochi

Benjamin is a writer like an aerosol can, letting out a continuous mist of poems, prose, play, short stories, flash fiction, children’s fiction and all else inspired by the things seen, unseen, the yet to be seen and the gaps amongst them.

A Nigerian, he lives in Lagos with his family. Two of his published works are a collection of poems entitled Teach Me Wisdom and a novella called My Stubbornness Ends Today, both targeted at junior secondary school readers.

A few of his projects include:

  1. Dumped

This is a 36,800-word, 100%-complete prose. It has as theme: The demons of identity conflict and vendetta against an incidental matrimony.

  1. Goodbye Libido

It is an 80,000- word, 100%-complete prose, themed: Women freedom versus cultural continuity.

  1. Of Slaves and their Masters

This is a work of 80,000 words and 90% at completion. Its theme is neo-modern slavery in mercantile African societies. It is a prose.

1 Comment

  1. Itoro November 09, at 20:36

    Wow! Really enjoyed reading your story, Sir!

    Reply

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