A World Made of Blood (Excerpt)

In Sebastian Junger’s new short story set in a war-ravaged West African nation, two young war journalists, Daniel and Andre, try to hitch a ride to the front lines, with no knowledge of the possible dangers that await them.

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  1. Five soldiers are already on the pavement, milling around in the half-light. The APC coughs and shakes and belches smoke behind them. Daniel picks up his knapsack with his notebooks and flashlight and water bottle and slings it over his shoulder while keeping an eye on the captain. He’s walking around sour-faced. The captain climbs onto the APC and it jolts into first gear, then clanks out onto the old asphalt road. Daniel and Andre follow behind it, along with the rest of the soldiers. They’re only five minutes outside of Masiaka, and by the time they’re clustered in the red-dirt plaza, the first rays of the equatorial sun are touching the low brick-and-mortar buildings. They’ve been gutted by five years of war but were once an elegant colonial pink, with stone balustrades overlooking what must have once been the town marketplace. Someone has set up a PKM on a tripod on one of the balconies. Its ugly little barrel pokes out over the square like an admonishing finger.

    Fighters emerge by twos and threes, the guys who’ve been left behind to guard the town. They keep their distance from the new arrivals, so Andre walks over to them, and Daniel follows a few minutes later. He takes out his notebook and writes, Destroyed colonial town pink facades a few kids on guard no apparent order. The day is already getting hot, and the sun hasn’t even risen.

    “These guys say there’s a big fight going on at a town called Mile 91, on the road to Makeni,” Andre says. He’s snapping photos of the kids while he talks. “I think we should go.”

    “What was yesterday like?” Daniel asks, flipping his notebook open. “What was the battle like?”

    The kid unleashes a fast, guttural account that is accompanied by chops and slashes with his hands. Daniel barely understands any of it. He writes what he sees: Native fighters with loops of ammunition over their shoulders and leather pouches and feathers and beaded fetishes around their necks.

    “They came in last morning and cleared the plaza and killed three rebels,” Andre says. “There were at least two hundred rebels. They’re regrouping up-country. There’s going to be a big fight.”

    Daniel scribbles, 200 rebels, three dead. “Is it safe to go up there?”

    “Da road dae no’ fine,” the kid says. “So so soljahman, so so rebel.”

    “The road’s no good—too many soldiers, too many rebels,” Andre translates.

    “What do you think of those guys?” Daniel says, jerking his thumb over his shoulder at the soldiers. The kid spits into the dust. Daniel offers the kid a cigarette, which he takes. He pulls one out for himself but doesn’t light it. It occurs to him that he’s smoking too much. He can quit when this thing’s over with. A few more fighters wander toward them with their guns over their shoulders. Some have sunglasses and some have no shirts and some are barefoot. Most of them have lines of parallel scars on their cheeks that were put in when they were young. Pretty soon there’s a crowd of ten or twelve of them pressed around. Daniel hands out more cigarettes. They’re so young that if it weren’t for the guns, he’d feel like some schoolyard pervert corrupting the neighborhood children. “This is a waste of time,” Daniel says to Andre. “We’re not getting anything.”

    “We’re not getting a ride, that’s for sure,” Andre says. He drops his camera back onto the strap around his neck. The kids are starting to lose interest and edge off around the empty plaza. Daniel hasn’t eaten in twenty-four hours and his stomach is a sour mix of bile and cigarettes. He’s starting to think about disengaging from the group and walking back to the APC when he hears the sound of a car engine. Two pickup trucks come around a building from the other side of town, drive through the plaza, and come to a stop in the open. A dozen fighters jump out. They’re from one of the militia groups. The letters CDF are badly painted on the door of one of the trucks: the Civilian Defense Force, a frankly terrifying bunch of lunatics who would probably be attacking Freetown if they hadn’t been bribed into defending it. Daniel can see the captain watching them carefully. “Those guys,” says Andre. “Maybe those guys.”

    Even at a distance, the energy coming off them is agitated and ugly; the kids in the square seem to sense it as well. Daniel reluctantly follows Andre over to the trucks. It doesn’t even feel safe to approach them, much less beg a ride to the front, but the fighters barely acknowledge their presence. There’s a dead guy in the back of one of the trucks, but Daniel doesn’t know if he’s a rebel or not. There’s a lot of excited talk. Daniel doesn’t understand much of it—he busies himself writing down what he sees. Local color: it’s better than nothing. Andre finally barges into the conversation. “Mile 91,” he says. “We’re trying to get to Mile 91.”

    This prompts a lot of shouting. The CDF commander pulls back the cocking bolt on his machine gun and points the barrel into Andre’s chest. His eyes are blank with an inexplicable rage. “NO, NO,” he screams. “Whatin na’ you name?”

    Andre doesn’t flinch. Daniel feels his bowels slide around hotly inside him. “Andre and Daniel,” Andre says. “We’re journalists. We’re hoping to go north.”

    All the men seem to have both hands on their guns. The commander screams some more, and the other fighters look around uncomfortably. The sun is barely up and we’re in trouble, Daniel thinks.


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Story Updates

  1. The Truth Behind the Fiction

    In 2000, I went to Sierra Leone for Vanity Fair to write about the illicit diamond trade, and I intentionally picked a quiet time during a cease-fire between the government and the Revolutionary United Front. But this was my first assignment in Africa, and I didn’t realize how fast things can change there. Almost overnight, the RUF launched attacks across the country and overran at least one United Nations base, taking hundreds of international troops prisoner. I was up-country with a photographer—a good friend named Teun Voeten—and we were evacuated along with other foreign nationals by British Special Air Service (SAS) troops on Chinook helicopters. Most of the evacuees continued to London, but Teun and I stayed in Freetown to cover the war.

    One day I took a taxi out to the front lines—which were constantly shifting—and found myself in an increasingly precarious situation with a bunch of young fighters known as Kamajors. They were fighting alongside regular soldiers but were barely under government control. After a while I realized that this was not going to end well, and I hitched a ride out of there with several Sierra Leonean soldiers and a couple of Western reporters. I thought I was home free, but half an hour outside of town, a dozen heavily armed fighters stepped out of the jungle and surrounded our jeep. That was when the screaming and the gun cocking began. That was when I realized that I had never known real fear.

    No one jumped out of the jeep to take photos; no one did anything but sit there mutely and wait. I don’t know what the other men were thinking, but I was pretty sure we were all going to be killed. I may have been completely wrong—West African fighters can be pretty histrionic—but they can be pretty nihilistic as well. (Two Western journalists—American Kurt Schork and Spaniard Miguel Gil Moreno de Mora—were killed on that same road just a couple of weeks later.) The guys who stopped us were from a criminal gang called the Westside Boys. They were loosely affiliated with the rebels and lived in the jungle outside Freetown. In the end, they didn’t kill us; they let us go and we returned to Freetown, shaken but alive. Later I heard that the Westside Boys had tried to fight a contingent of British SAS forces and were wiped out almost to a man.

    Many years later, I decided to write a short story that would start from my own experiences and then take them a step further. I wanted to horrify myself with the possibilities; I wanted to crank things up and see how I would react. I’m not a brave person; I think my reactions are very close to those of most people. I wrote this story hoping that others would think about what it means to be scared, and to be brave, and to have the power to take a human life. It’s the ultimate power, and yet it’s so very poorly understood.

Originally published in Byliner, December 2012