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The Cost of Freedom

Kevin Headley


We were lying perfectly still in the woods, facedown. Our eyes were the only thing that moved. I saw Baron gesturing to Boni: they were coming from the left, the pack of hunters, sent to retrieve the enslaved runaways. They were clearly visible in the moonlight. They were looking for Boni, Baron and Joli Coeur’s headquarters: Fort Buku. There were twenty, maybe even thirty men, and there were traitors among them, the Black Hunters – the Redi Musu. Boni said we couldn’t blame them; they had been promised freedom after finding Fort Buku. They wanted to be freed, just like us, but bykilling their own. That was the price they had to pay. The hunters had been looking for our settlement for days. We had hoped they would end their search without completing it, and return to the city. But they kept coming closer.


If they caught us, we would once again be at the mercy of the torturous plantation owners. Or be whipped until we bled, with our hands tied to our legslike bushpigs. Or lose a hand or a foot. If they caught my wife Mini, she would be tortured and raped. My Mini. Men had fought over you, but you pickedme. Mi lobi. My daughter Anna, with her round brown eyes, would be sold away and lead a life full of pain, sadness and humiliation. I couldn’t bear the thought of it.


Baron beckoned us to slowly come forward. We got up very carefullyand walked backwards without our heels touching the ground, to cut off the soldiers in a curve. The group was split into two. Baron took us with him to attack them from the front; Boni stayed behind with the rest to launchan attack from behind. Joli Coeur had stayed at the Fort to keep the peace there.


I felt my heart beating faster and faster against my chest. Drops of sweat ran down my face. I kept brushing them away slowly with my tremblingleft hand. In my right, I held my weapon against my chest like a newborn child. We would carry out the attack soon. I didn’t know whether I would survive. I didn’t want to die. And if I did die, hopefully it would be in an instant. I swallowed the lump in my throat. I wanted to get up and run back to Fort Buku and hide there. I wanted to get away from here – but I stayed. If everyone were to run from the fight, we’d all be lost. It’s as Boni says all the time: you have to fight for freedom. To the death.


Light-skinned Boni, who looked like he’d been carved out of the wood of a kapok tree, was the only one who had been born free. Skinny Baron had learned how to read and write and had even been to the Netherlands, but looked up to Boni nonetheless. To his fighting spirit and his determination to free all of his people. It was said that Boni had fought in a hundred wars. Survived all of them. They said it was because of the cuff, the bracelet he wore on his right wrist. But above all, Boni was a good strategist: he always planned five steps ahead and recoiled from nothing and no one. Nothing was done without his knowledge and approval.


Baron beckoned to me with his index finger, I had to step forward a bit more. I grabbed my weapon and pressed it against my chest. It felt heavy and cold. Stolen from the soldiers’ camp, less than three days ago.


Plantation life was unyielding. Working in the hot, skin-scorching sun every day until your legs could no longer carry you; puking up hot liquid if you hadn’t been given anything to eat for hours. Resting was forbidden and if you dared to do it anyway, you’d be whipped, and sometimes the whip cut to the bone. My best friend Carel learned that the hard way. He was beaten underneath the very tree where he had been napping, and hung in that tree with the same piece of rope. ‘If it’s shade you want, shade you’ll get,’ they said while they hoisted him up, laughing all the while. After that, I was sure: I had to run away. One day they weren’t paying attention, and a few of us made a run for it. Straight into the woods. I just kept running, through the trees and the water. I barely had any strength left in my legs, but I kept running. After that, we wandered through the woods for days, needing to survive with what we found there. After six days, nearly starved to death, we were discovered by a resistance scout. He took us to Fort Buku. From the outside, the fort was well protected: it had high, wooden walls and was heavily camouflaged with leaves and branches. On the inside, it was an entire village. Men, women and even children came out to see who these new fugitives were. Joli Coeur asked us many times whether we had escaped or had been sent by the slave masters. I explained that I wanted to be free, just like they were. I didn’t want to go back. To the pain and the hardship.


There: Baron was nodding – the signal to get in formation. By now we had surrounded the soldiers. Shaking, I picked up my gun, aimed and looked through the scope at the white soldier with the red hair and beard, who was standing barely ten paces away from me. He came to a halt and looked around. He could feel that he was being watched, but he couldn’t tellfrom which direction. I held my breath, tried not to move. Mi ben frede. Please, let this hellish situation be over soon, I wished. Baron whistled and I pulled the trigger almost simultaneously. BAM! The soldier collapsed. I had killed someone. There was no time to think about it – another soldier, one I couldn’t see so clearly in the dark, turned to face me. After firing the last of my ammunition, I dropped my gun and took my knife. I held onto it with all my might. It was him or me, and mi no ben wani dede. Out of pure desperation and fear, I leaped towards him. He obviously wasn’t aware of what was happening. Mi mus kir en, I kept thinking. I stuck the blade into him as deep as I could. Into his stomach, five times. In and out. He tried to shoveme off of him. ‘Dede no!’ I cried out, unbidden. With each thrust I felt a part of my jeje, my soul, evaporate. He used his hands to punch me in the chest. He refused to die. It felt like an eternity. His blood spatteredevery which way. Some of it hit the ground, but it splashed onto me, too. Hot and sticky. Slowly, his trembling body stopped moving. He let go of me and fell to the ground. Within a few minutes, I had taken a second life.


Slowly, I heard the screams, the cries, the people begging for mercy, the swearing and the shooting around me growing louder. All of it had gone past me – I had been in a trance. I fell onto my knees, eyes closed. I tried to catch my breath and looked up at the sky. Mi mama, mi mama, I said with trembling lips. I was still holding on to the knife, which was covered in blood. Tears ran down my cheeks and wet the earth. I stared ahead, saw men plummeting and being hacked to pieces. Saw others being shot and falling to the ground while running away. The night turned a deeper and deeper red. I glanced at the second soldier, whose life I had taken just a few seconds ago. The man I’d stabbed was a Redi Musu, a brother. I ran my hand over his face and closed his eyes. ‘You’re free now, brada, you’re free,’ I whispered. An icy silence blew in. We looked at the group of soldiers, fallen dead at our feet. I took in big gulps of air, quickly swallowed what little saliva I had left in my mouth. I wiped my tears away, got up slowly and looked at Baron. He was focused on Boni, covered in blood as well, who slowly made a fist with his right hand and thrust it in the air. We copied his gesture.


We didn’t want to fight. We didn’t want to kill. We didn’t want to kill our brothers. We didn’t want this – truly. Un ben wan libi, but we wanted to live free, and we would do anything in order to be, and stay, free. Anything.

 

Kevin Headley (1983) is a documentary producer, journalist and writer from Suriname. A few years ago he started writing short stories, which have been published in the Surinamese newspaper de Ware Tijd and magazines such as Parbode, Papieren Helden, Wobby, De Optimist and Tirade.


Illustration: Desmond Kerk


Read this Mammoth in the original Dutch here.

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