(Written before everything went digital)
Boyd heard the sound of a jeep outside, turned from his drink and peered through the window. A soldier wearing irregular camouflage green and the armband of a People’s Army NCO got out of the jeep and walked towards the hotel door. Boyd saw him enter the reception then go into the office where the girl sat at the desk. He must have been her boyfriend.
Boyd leaned back and sighed. Nothing worthwhile was in sight. The leaders of the new People’s Republic of Djaputa were not yet showing their faces to the press, and it was too close to curfew to tour the streets in search good footage. It wouldn’t be so bad if they were at the Royal with all the other newsmen, but it had been full when they arrived and they had to settle for the Kirelle, two miles away from the government buildings with a perilously limited stock of gin and not even a snooker table. Boyd felt sulky, deprived even of the company of other journalists. Towler and Cameron were okay, but a cameraman and sound engineer were not quite his class; they couldn’t provide the gossip he would have picked up at the Royal. They could have been with him now, idling away their time on the expense account, but both were in their rooms, Cameron preparing an e-mail to his wife and Towler probably reading his book about Alfred Hitchcock.
He looked around to see the soldier standing at the bar’s entrance.
“I understand you have a cameraman and a sound engineer with you. Will you please call them down, and tell them to bring their equipment.”
“Is something happening?” Boyd’s heartbeat stepped up a gear.
“Yes, something is going to happen.” A cool smile crossed the soldier’s face. “And you are going to have an exclusive.”
Boyd’s eyes lit up and the reporter’s instinct took over. Don’t ask too many questions now, just get the team together quickly. He went to the phone on the wall, dialled their room numbers and barked: “Story!”
Five minutes later they were all in the jeep as it pulled away from the hotel gates. The soldier drove east, away from the centre of the city, and told them a little of what to expect. “We are going to the polo ground. Members of the People’s Army are gathered with some of the liberated population of the city. They are ready to stage a revolutionary event.”
“What does that mean?”
“You’ll find out. It will look very good on the TV.”
“And we’re the only journalists?”
“Correct. It would have been difficult to select a handful from that hungry horde at the Royal, and too many would have got in the way, created complications.”
“Very nice of you,” said Towler.
“We know your reputation. British news is often the best way to get worldwide coverage.”
“Really?” Towler’s cockney broadened a little as his excitement grew. “‘Ere, did you ever see my footage of Anguila, when we showed up just after that massacre?”
“Shut up!” Boyd was irritated. He didn’t appreciate Towler’s unnatural taste for blood and guts, and he wasn’t going to let a cameraman become the star of the team.
The drive through the eastern suburbs was almost leisurely. Colonial villas set amid sprawling palms and well kept lawns had been untouched by the fighting, and the late afternoon sun gave it an affluent glow which melted any sense of danger. The People’s Army had rolled in from the west, forcing the old regime into its last stand by the port. Between them the two sides had levelled whole neighbourhoods in the shanty towns, and killed hundreds of the impoverished mass they both claimed to defend. The only hint of the war on this side was that virtually no-one was on the streets.
Then Boyd became aware of a noise up ahead. At first it competed with the purring of the jeep, but as they approached the polo ground it became louder, furious, more chaotic. The jeep turned left and went up the main drive towards the white wooden stand, then right and swung in a wide arc around the stand and out onto the field. They were surrounded by hundreds, maybe thousands of the liberated people of Djaputa. The crowd parted for the jeep as if they were expected, but they continued to shout, punch the air, wave rifles, show off the aggressive power of the mob. The newsmen looked around, each beginning to dig into his reserve of professional cool.
“This isn’t good.” Cameron’s soft lowland Scot’s vowels were already strained. “I get the impression they want to hurt someone, show us their power.”
“Well don’t worry. It isn’t going to be us.”
Boyd knew his job now. He was the leader, the man who would be in front of the camera, and he had to take control. The driver smiled and said, “Your welcoming committee.” He nodded towards a section of the crowd that was clearing, making way for a group of men. There were eight of them, all dressed in camouflage green with two or more green stars on their armbands, AK-47s dangling casually from their shoulders. At the front was a man Boyd had seen before, on TV screens and on the old regime’s wanted posters. He was tall, wirey, with long dark hair and a wispy beard and thin moustache on a youthful brown face. Imran Ventrani was not the most powerful figure in the new regime, but he was the most charismatic. He had led a guerrilla force in the region around the capital, and made more public appearances in the outlying villages than any of the old junta. Dissident students at the university had been the first to make him a hero, enthralled by the revolutionary chic of their own Che Guevara, and the masses were quick to follow, their taste for a romantic hero cultivated by one of Asia’s biggest movie industries. The crowd’s chanting continued, Ventrani jumped on to the bonnet of the jeep, raised his arm, and cut the noise dead. He looked down on the newsmen with a broad grin.
“Very impressive,” said Boyd. “I take it you’re in charge here.”
“I thought a little demonstration would make the point,” said Ventrani. “It’s a shame you were not already filming.”
“Well if you want to do it again………”
“Shut up Towler!”
“Don’t worry,” said Ventrani, “you will have plenty to show for your visit. We have something special prepared for you.” He jumped off the jeep and beckoned them to follow. The newsmen climbed out. Cameron looked awkward and worried as he held the microphone at arm’s length and shook the cable out of its circular fold, Towler affected a nonchalant air as he bore the camera on his shoulder, and Boyd stepped out in front, where he belonged. The crowd cleared before them and closed in behind as they followed Ventrani. He led them towards the stand but halted twenty yards short, close to a band of six soldiers, standing to something like attention. They had rifles at their sides, each one fixed with a bayonet. At the front of the stand was a white flagpole, the blue and white banner of the old order fluttering in the breeze.
“What’s this about?” asked Cameron.
Towler looked up the flag.
“Judging from the position of that little guard of honour, I should guess we’re in for the ritual denigration of the old lot’s flag. How boring.”
“Oh no.” Boyd was looking forward, not up. “I think we’re in for something more dramatic.”
A door in the front of the stand opened, a group of soldiers appeared, then three bodies were thrown out behind them. Another group of soldiers followed, dragged the bodies up, bundled them into the centre of the semi-circle and pushed them onto their knees. It was three soldiers of the old regime, all of them barely out of their teens, dressed in torn khaki uniforms with hands tied behind their backs. A murmur grew in the crowd, rising to an aggressive communal snarl, and again fists began to punch the air. The three soldiers looked frightened and confused. Boyd, Towler and Cameron stood motionless and stared at them, unsure what to make of the sight. Ventrani raised his hands, shouted at the crowd in the native language, and its noise subsided.
“Gentlemen,” he said in English. “Before you are three villains of the old regime, volunteers in the oppression of their own people. When the People’s Army entered the city they fled with the rest of the criminals and hid for two days, before we found them.”
“Prisoners of war?” It was a status that couldn’t be taken for granted in these circumstances.
“No. Criminals.” Ventrani was adamant. “They hid with a woman and her daughter, not by invitation but with the aid of their guns. And while they hid they violated the woman, several times, and her daughter, who is only ten years-old. They were both beaten and in shock when they were rescued.”
“Something tells me we’re in for a demonstration of people’s revolutionary justice.” There was a note of glee in Towler’s voice, excitement at the prospect of a spectacle worth filming.
“You mean…………” Boyd pointed gently at the men with their bayonets.
“Yes.” Ventrani nodded with a smile, clearly enjoying the drama. “You see, we are anxious to prove to the world that the new Djaputa is a just country. Prisoners of war can be rehabilitated – we have no wish for a bloodbath – but we must show our teeth. Animals like this cannot go unpunished.” He threw his hands in the air and let loose a resounding cry. “Yerhwani coulhaay!”
The crowd responded with in a burst of excited energy. “Yerhwani cooulhay! Yerhwani coulhaay!”
The chant continued, fists punched the air, guns and swords waved furiously. The six-man squad split into two. Three of them stood a yard behind the prisoners, one leg forward, rifles and bayonets pointed at their backs. The others faced them sideways on five yards away, bayonets at ninety degrees, ready for a charge.
“Good God!” Cameron, with no instinct for horror, was the last to realise what was happening. “They’ve brought us here to witness a bloody execution!”
“Too bloody true son. Horrible, isn’t it!” Towler was already adjusting the lense on his camera.
“Hang on!” Cameron cried. “We can’t be any part of this. It’s inhuman. Boyd!”
Boyd was looking at the three prisoners kneeling, all silent and pleading only with the fear in their eyes. For a moment he was numb, not wanting to comprehend his dilemma. An instinct emerged. This was news, spectacular news, and he was a newsman. He had to, wanted to report it. Then his eyes caught those of one of the prisoners, and he felt revulsion, an instinct not to be part of the violence. He stepped back and trod on Towler’s foot.
“Oaw!” Towler momentarily fumbled the camera, but caught it before it fell. “Sod that!”
Boyd looked at Ventrani. He was smiling, arms still raised, revelling in the chants of the crowd and building the momentum for the act to go ahed. Boyd caught his breath, trying to resist.
“Not yet,! he shouted.
Ventrani’s smile dissolved. He pushed down his hands, the chanting subsided, and he stared at Boyd with a glimmer of aggression in his eyes.
“I……… We’re………. not happy. I want to talk to the others.”
Ventrani looked blank for a moment, then nodded.
“Go on then. Talk.”
“Not here. Back at the jeep.”
Boyd felt desperate for a breathing space, a little relief from the pressure of the crowd.
“Okay. Back at the jeep.”
Ventrani waved and the crowd parted. He led the newsmen back to the jeep, Towler dawdling in disappointment at the delay. When they reached the jeep Ventrani stood ten yards away, keeping the crowd clear enough to allow a quiet conversation. Cameron and Towler placed the equipment in the back of the jeep.
“We can’t have anything to do with this Boyd.” Cameron was adamant. “We’d be condoning murder.”
“I don’t know.” Boyd was unsure, not ready to commit himself. It was ghastly, bloody ghastly, looking at those pathetic creatures ready to be torn apart by the mob. It would look horrible on TV, a real execution, and maybe the programme editor wouldn’t want to know. But if he did it was great news, dramatic pictures from a country torn by civil war. It was the kind of story which made reputations and won awards. He was currently one of the company’s pack, with a good reputation among his peers but one with no name recognition among the public. This would get him known. This was big time.
“Think of it Boyd.” Cameron was becoming more agitated and emotional. “They’re putting on this show for us. It’s a gory farce.”
Towler butted in. “Gory’s the word alright. Just think of those bayonets ripping into their ribs, blood spilled on the polo field. They’ll have to save that for the late news; can’t let the kids see it.”
“You want them to do it, don’t you!” Cameron was getting more upset.
“Well, no, I mean, I’m not one to approve of killing; but seeing as how they’re gonna do it anyway, it does provide an opportunity.”
“Och! You’re a sodding lunatic! Don’t listen to him Boyd!”
“Will you stop shouting.” Boyd was still torn, but calm. “It seems we’re faced with a dilemma. I’m not sure how to approach this ethically, I don’t know if we’re encouraging them. I think the odds are they’ll kill those men whether we film it or not, but we’ve got a duty as newsmen, show the world what’s happening, even if it’s horrible and violent.”
He searched his mind frantically for a moral lead – thought of his father, his time at Cambridge, Harold Evans’ books – and found nothing to make up his mind. The pressure was terrible.
“Look at it like this,” said Towler. “They’re not your regular prisoners of war. I mean what they did was pretty disgusting. They’ve got it coming.”
“Oh come on!” Cameron wasn’t impressed. “How do we know that character’s told us the truth? This mob are out to make a point. They could be three poor sods they’ve just dragged in off the street, caught outside five minutes after curfew. Anyway, even if it is true, you can bet they’ve had nothing remotely resembling a fair trial.”
“It’s no difference.” Towler wouldn’t give up. “Their life expectancy is very, very short. We can’t save them. And anyway Boyd, have you thought what this could do for our reputations?”
“Don’t be so bloody mercenary Towler!” Boyd didn’t like anyone to think he could be so selfish. “It never entered my mind. We’ve got no right to benefit from someone else’s suffering.”
“That’s right Boyd!” Cameron sensed victory. “And if we’re talking about reputations, this could just as easily break us. We might look a right bunch of bastards if we go home and show off something like this. We should have nothing to do with it.”
Boyd was still undecided, even though Cameron sounded more convincing that Towler. He looked back through the gap in the crowd where he could partially see one of the prisoners, still kneeling as one soldier held him by the ears, and another stood in front, tracing small patterns in the air just inches from the prisoner’s face. Both soldiers were talking, probably muttering obscenities as they made the most of the occasion. The front guard stepped back, and Boyd caught a distant but clear view of the prisoner’s face. It was a picture of agony, not physical pain but that which came with the knowledge that others were taking pleasure in his imminent death. It was pitiable.
“No! We’re not doing it!”
Cameron looked relieved, Towler tutted and looked up.
“Very well,” said Towler. “You’re the guvnor. But you’d better be very diplomatic explaining it to this lot.”
Boyd looked at Ventrani. He was standing with hands on hips, looking straight at them and clearly impatient for a conclusion. Boyd approached, took a deep breath and looked him in the eye.
“No,” he said. “We can’t film this.”
“Why not?” Ventrani’s expression gave nothing away.
“It’s not ……….. not what our people like to see.” He was searching for the right words, preferably vague ones. “We do things differently in our country. We’ve had no revolution for a long time, there has been no need for this sort of thing. People won’t like it, all this bayonets and blood, not in Britain.”
For a few seconds Ventrani just stared at him, allowing Boyd plenty of time to feel conscious of his anxiety. Then he shouted something in Djaputan, turned and clicked his fingers. A commotion spread through the crowd. Boyd strained his ears, trying to judge the level of anger and hoping it wasn’t turned against them. Through the gap he could see the prisoners being dragged to their feet and pushed towards the clearing where he stood. Ventrani was pointing to other soldiers and shouting orders. Boyd’s heart was racing; the next few seconds seemed full of dangerous uncertainties. The prisoners were closer, all eyes seemed to be focused on him. For a second he thought they were going to turn them over to him, place their fate in his hands. He felt awkward, not knowing what he could possibly do with three terror-stricken rapists.
The prisoners reached the clearing, soldiers’ hands clamped on their shoulders, and were forced back to their knees. They took on the demeanour of three abandoned dogs ready for the slaughterhouse. Ventrani was still shouting as the noise from the crowd increased. Two men emerged, both carrying lengths of rope. Ventrani turned, looked towards the far western end of the field and pointed. A tall tree, sprouting plenty of high, strong branches, stood alone on a small ridge, its outline sharpened against the rays of the setting sun.
“There!” said Ventrani. “We will hang them from that tree. That’s how you’ve always done it in Britain. True?”
Another roar came from the crowd. Chanting begun, fists punched the air, guns waved.
“No. I ……….. I didn’t mean ……… Not …………”
The words froze on Boyd’s tongue. He was lost, no-one seemed to be paying attention. He turned to Cameron and Towler, desperate for some guidance. Towler was staring at the tree entranced, contemplating the cinematic possibilities. Boyd looked back at the tree, pictured the sun bursting through the leaves in an affirmation of life, the bodies swinging from the branches in a stark contrast of death. For a second he was transfixed, impressed in the face of his own revulsion.
“Boyd!” Cameron bellowed in his ear, shattering the vision. “Don’t think of it! It’s wrong!”
Their eyes met, Boyd’s confused and vulnerable, Cameron’s glaring with righteous indignation. There was a moment of silence between them, then Boyd said: “You’re right. Sorry.”
Again he turned to Ventrani, still scared but now more sure of himself.
“No,” he said. “We’re not filming any executions. We can’t.”
“You can’t?” Ventrani was momentarily surprised.
“You can.” He paused, long enough to make clear it was a threat. “You will.”
He turned again, shouted at the mob, and they shouted back. More soldiers emerged, some with bayonets, all with guns. One approached Towler, lifted a machine gun and pressed the barrel into his neck. Boyd was shoved, a soldier butting him on the shoulder with a rifle and shouting at him. Two more stood on each side of Cameron, one pointing a bayonet at his chest, the other waving a rifle towards the sound equipment and murmuring what sounded like a threat. The crowd was getting wilder, louder, whipping itself into a violent frenzy. Boyd was shoved again, towards Ventrani. He was ready to give way, his eyes unable to hide the fear. Ventrani looked deadly serious.
“Get your equipment ready. No arguments!”
Boyd said nothing, just moved backwards towards the jeep.
“Boyd!” Towler yelled. “Don’t sod about with ’em any more. Get on with it!”
The soldier had dropped the gun from his neck and he was bending over the jeep, pulling out his camera and anxiously checking everything was in order.
“Bugger the bloody photography,” he mumbled. “Just do what the bastards want.”
Cameron was moving slowly, his arms half-raised, then reaching for his equipment, looking at the soldiers with a mixture of fear and defiance.
“Boyd!” he shouted. “We don’t have to do it. They’re bluffing. They won’t kill three western newsmen out of hand.”
“Shut up you wanker!” Towler wasn’t pretending, he was frightened. “Just get your bloody gear out!”
Boyd wasn’t going to sort that one out; if they wanted to argue he would let them. His mind was racing, trying to escape the panic by working out what he was going to say, how in the name of decency he could commentate on something like this. What were the lines? What sounded sensible? The noise from the crowd grew louder, more threatening. Ventrani stood there, already enjoying a faint smile of triumph, revelling in his power. The three prisoners were lined up, kicked, butted, and forced back into position. The guards lined up again, in the same positions but this time gritting their teeth, eager for the kill.
Boyd looked back at the others, ready to do the job. Towler was in position, standing a few yards from the prisoners with the camera on his shoulders and an eye at the lense. Cameron had his gear and was edging towards Towler, slowly loosening the cable from the box. Suddenly he turned, swung the box and hit Towler in the stomach. Towler doubled up, dropping the camera as his hands clutched at his winded gut. Cameron dropped his gear, grabbed the camera and flicked a button to release the film cassette. In a second his fingers were inside, snapping the plastic case and prising the film out into the daylight. He pulled out several feet then, mouth panting and eyes watering, waved it wildly in the air. The guards stood around him, watching in disbelief as he destroyed the film.
“Cameron.” Boyd could only whisper. “You maniac.”
Cameron kicked his camera then strode towards the jeep, tears bursting from his eyes. The guards let him go, Ventrani said nothing, and the crowd fell into silence. Cameron reached into the jeep, grabbed the two extra cartridges, snapped the cases and tore the film loose, waving it furiously in the air.
“There you bastards!” he yelled. “No bloody film! No bloody film!”
He stood still, leaned back against the jeep, and bowed his head.
A desperate silence followed. Dozens of faces stared on in disbelief, hundreds behind them wondering what had happened, all trying to work out what the hell to do next. Boyd breathed in and looked above the crowd. He had never been a believer, but at that moment he preferred to think his fate was in the hands of God rather than Ventrani. Towler was snivelling, whispering some obscenity through gritted teeth. The three prisoners were still on their knees, their faces blank as if they had given up trying to understand. Ventrani looked pensive, a slight scowl directed at Cameron as he pondered. The silence persisted, the newsmen felt the tension squeeze their hearts, their futures condensed into a few seconds.
There was movement. Boyd’s eyes lowered and saw one of the soldiers taking the initiative, stepping towards Cameron and pointing a pistol at his head. Cameron was still looking at the ground, ready for the bullet. The soldier looked at Ventrani and waited for a sign. A second lasted for minutes, then Ventrani shook his head, just once. They were alive.
Ventrani shouted. The soldiers moved, slowly enough to convey their disappointment. They picked up the camera, the sound gear, the ruined film, and threw it into the jeep, one of them showing an exaggerated sneer to Cameron as he pushed him aside. Cameron’s expression was unchanged, Towler’s began to show relief, and Boyd was trying to recover his cool, maybe enough to talk to Ventrani. He caught his eye and stepped towards him, but was cut short.
“Very brave,” said Ventrani. “And very stupid. You’re lucky I’m in control here. Some of these men would not appreciate the disadvantages of killing western newsmen.”
“It was a bluff.”
“I wasn’t sure of that myself.”
“Can I …..”
“No! I’m a bad loser at gambling. Just get away from here.” He shouted at the soldiers again, the prisoners were pulled to their feet and pointed towards the stand. The crowd cleared again, a few of them spitting at the prisoners as they were bundled past.
“What’s going to happen to them?” asked Boyd.
“Don’t push your luck. Just leave.”
“Come on Boyd. Do what he says.” Towler pulled at his arm and turned him towards the jeep.
The driver was back at the wheel, smiling at Cameron.
“Mad dogs and Englishmen!” The driver’s smile grew broader.
“I’m Scottish, so shut up!”
As the jeep swung around the stand the newsmen looked back towards the crowd. The prisoners were lost to sight, but there was another commotion with shouting and hands punching the air, creating the impression of harm being done. No-one said anything, but they all shared one thought – that mad display had done the prisoners no good; they would be dead within minutes.
They stayed silent through the drive back to the hotel. The air was cooler as the sky darkened, but the suburbs were still calm, untouched by violence. The promise of the hotel, with its boredom and depleted stock of gin, was welcome after the madness they had just witnessed. A faint whiff of smoke tickled their noses, suggesting a bonfire close by. It grew thicker, and a smell crept into the air which told them they were not returning to the calm they expected. As they got closer to the hotel they were sure the smell was cordite, and knew there was
more violence. The jeep turned into the street leading to the hotel, and in front of them were three fires, two vehicles wrecked in the middle of the street, shattered windows and blasted walls in the row of shops and offices. Bodies, between twenty and thirty, some with gaping holes and severed limbs. Soldiers were inspecting the carnage, prodding at the bodies and dragging some aside. The driver halted the jeep, ordered “You stay there!” and jumped out. He ran towards one of the soldiers and began to talk.
“Looks like we’ve missed some action here,” said Towler. “Right on our own doorstep.”
“I think it’s a good job,” said Cameron. “Look at the hotel.”
At the far end of the road they could see the Kirelle, target of at least three missiles and several hundred bullets. The bar had taken a direct hit and windows were shattered all over the building. Cameron focused on what he judged was his room, and guessed there wasn’t much of it left. Boyd was looking for a sight to launch the story, give it the impact which would hook the viewers. He was already preparing his narrative, describing scenes of destruction, commenting on the chaos and precarious nature of the new order. The driver came back, and answered the questions without being asked.
“There were troops from the old army, still armed, hiding in one of the buildings. They must have seen themselves becoming surrounded and decided to break out, just as a patrol came by. More patrols came when the shooting began. All this happened.”
He wasn’t shocked, apparently taking the scene for granted.
“Will anyone give us trouble if we do a report?” asked Boyd.
“If I stay with you, no problems.”
“Good!” Boyd leapt out of the jeep, marking the target of a jeep crashed against a wall with three bodies slumped over its sides. “Towler, camera! Cameron, get your gear quick. We may not have long for this.”
Neither of them moved. Towler spoke Boyd’s name but he took no notice; he had spotted a soldier who was giving orders, and reckoned the driver could interpret while he interviewed.
“Boyd!” This time Towler was heard.
“What?” He was impatient. Now he had a legitimate story he didn’t want to blow it.
“No film. Our friend here destroyed what was in the camera. The rest of it was in my room, and I can see that’s under a pile of rubble.”
“What!” That was it, the effect lost already. “Sod it!” He quickly resigned himself to making the best of a bad job. “Alright Cameron, get your gear and we can still make an audio tape.”
“Err, Boyd.” Cameron looked embarrassed. “You know when I knocked Towler over, I dropped the gear. Well it was damaged, pretty badly.”
“You don’t mean……”
“Yes, that’s buggered as well.” Cameron turned his head to avoid Boyd’s look.
“What have you pair of pratts done to me? Two of the best bloody stories to come out of this Mickey Mouse place, and we make a balls up of both of them!”
“It’s this bloody hero’s fault.”
Towler jerked a thumb towards Cameron. Cameron kept looking the other way. Boyd didn’t say anything. He turned his back on the others and looked up the street, gazing at the marvellous scene of turmoil and destruction, a newsman’s dream … and began to sulk.