What We’ve Lost (Part 1)

It was barely 8 o’clock in the morning and there I was on the streets of Lagos, stuck in traffic at the wheel of my black Toyota Corolla. The car was a gift from my late Aunt and I called it the black wolf, it had been through a lot, almost as much as me. Lagos roads were very harsh and unforgiving, as far as I was concerned, only the battlefield was worse than this. Cars changed lanes so abruptly that the average motorist had to have reflexes as sharp as a world-class tennis player to avoid collision, pedestrians crossed the roads at any slight opportunity and were quick to give intimidating and insolent glances to any motorist that honked or came a little too close to them. The roads exemplified the phrase “A dog eat dog world”…it was a free for all, little wonder why road accidents were a rather familiar sight to the average commuter. The average man had to be very religious to traverse these roads every day, luckily for me, I wasn’t the average man.

After a couple of minutes, I survived the unforgiving commute and was finally at my destination. The office was quite neat, presumably because of the big meeting we were going to have. It was a consulting firm; one of the biggest in the country, and my work there was the equivalent of a sales executive or point man, it was my job to sell our solutions and services to prospective clients, to make them understand why they needed it and what it could do for their business. With all modesty, no one was better than me at this. As a man of innumerable experiences, my quality had been molded by my vast knowledge and escapades, I had been a soldier on the battlefield, a foreign student on two separate continents, an explorer who had seen many countries, an activist and a host of other things. The experience that had the most effect on me was my time as a soldier.

I joined the defense academy at the tender age of 16, out of a desire to serve my country and people. There was so much unrest and tension in the country, I believed the army needed a genius to solve its problems and so I volunteered myself. The four years were the toughest years of my life both physically, mentally and emotionally, I wasn’t the same after it. Naturally I emerged as one of the top cadets in the academy, I would have been the best if not for my shortcomings in the physical aspect of it, but then again, not everyone is born with the traits of an athlete. My first assignment as a Lieutenant was to a military outpost that was tasked with eliminating insurgents in the north-eastern part of the country, I was ecstatic. The highest commanding officer there was an army Major we all called Major Alagbara, “Alagbara” being the word in my native language for strength. Major Alagbara was a tough and taciturn man who stood at six feet six inches, it seemed like nothing could overcome him. He also had a knack for strategy and this military outpost was one of the more successful ones in the country. The only things he liked in a soldier were courage and ability and because of that I was one of his favorite junior officers. A couple of months in, our scouts reported sightings of a pocket of insurgents within the dense forest region in the area.

My mission was simple; eliminate the pocket of insurgents in the region. I was placed in charge of Arrow platoon, a platoon of tough as nails soldiers. They were not happy to be placed under the command of an untested twenty year old Lieutenant but the Major’s orders were final and so were mine. The three Sergeants in my platoon were battle-hardened warriors, Sergeant Festus, my Platoon Sergeant was a man of average height, he had a wiry physique but his most striking feature were his eyes, he had the eyes of a man that had seen, experienced and survived the worst impulses of mankind, the eyes of a man that had looked into the abyss and refused to blink. In his eyes one could see the delineation of war. I didn’t need a soothsayer to tell me that the other sergeants and soldiers saw him as the true leader of the platoon. Luckily for me, he was a soldier in and out and had no qualms being under my command. I led the troops into the interior of the forest where we encountered the first wave of insurgents, it was a very brief and bloody skirmish. We took cover behind trees and trenches and for the first five minutes I was so frightened I hid behind a huge tree and hoped the skirmish was some bad dream I’d soon wake up from. Sergeant Festus dashed to my side and grabbed me on the shoulder and shouted “Sir, prove yourself a leader of men”, when I didn’t respond he tapped me harder and repeated himself. I knew I had to do something or forever risk being labelled a coward, so I shouted to squad one to follow me through the flanks. My plan was simple, sneak up behind the wave of insurgents and cut them down while squad two keeps them busy, I left Sergeant Festus in charge of squad two.

The plan was a success, we routed the first wave of insurgents, and I personally killed at least five of them. We took one alive and I let Sergeant Festus interrogate him. Sergeant Festus knelt him down and asked him in a very serious tone “How many are you in the area?” the captive replied “We are as numerous as the leaves in the forest”. At this point, Sergeant Festus connected a swift elbow to his temple and kicked him as he fell to the floor, the captive let out a wail…I almost felt sorry for him. After a few minutes in the care of the Platoon Sergeant, we had all the information we needed. The scouts had been gravely wrong, there weren’t a pocket of insurgents in the forest, it was one of their bases. We were deep in enemy territory and we were effectively surrounded. The worst part of it all was that they were aware of our outpost and had launched a coordinated attack to destroy it just a day before we got to the forest region. I was overcome with grief, my first mission was meant to be an outstanding success but now our chances of survival were very slim and even if we escaped there was the probability that there would be nowhere to return to. I called the three Sergeants to my tent to plan what course of action we would take. Sergeant Festus came in last wiping blood off his hands. I told him to speak and he said in a very plain and straightforward tone “We have two courses of action sir, we can continue to engage the enemy in this forest or we can retreat to the outpost to join them in repelling the attack, and this is assuming the words of the dead man are true”. The other squad’s Sergeant, a very dark and lanky man with a sense of humor interjected “I don’t think we should engage the enemy sir, even if we manage to eliminate a whole base with just one platoon, it would be of no value if we lose our outpost…” before he could finish he was interrupted by Sergeant Ola, a very aggressive and passionate man who always found it hard to keep his temper in check, “What nonsense! Why are we taking the words of an insurgent seriously?!…he obviously wants to put fear in our hearts so we abandon the mission and disgrace ourselves. I say we eliminate the insurgents then we go back to our outpost”. As I was about to respond, an ear-splitting noise took us by surprise…a bomb had been set off.

The sight was truly disastrous to behold; insurgents too numerous to count had invaded our camp, I saw the men in my platoon being shot down like flies. They were putting up a valiant fight but they were wretchedly overwhelmed. I had no time to think, I dashed behind cover and shot down two insurgents, my aim was topnotch. I ordered Platoon Sergeant Festus and the lanky Sergeant Musa to rally the soldiers, regroup and make a speedy retreat to the rear, Sergeant Ola and five other soldiers were to join me in the trenches to provide cover fire and engage the enemy. The resulting firefight was disastrous, the insurgents engaged us like mad men, they took no cover and ran towards us with reckless abandon. Bullets surged from our assault rifles till we exhausted our ammo, the insurgents were still shooting wantonly and recklessly but our kill count made them see the wisdom in taking cover. It was time to retreat, I shouted to Sergeant Ola and the now four men to retreat to the rear then we dropped our guns and ran through the forest as fast as Olympic sprinters, the rabid insurgents put up an equally impressive chase, we lost another man in this desperate retreat. We were down to five men but we had managed to escape the enemy for the time being, we proceeded stealthily through the forest till we got to the rally point.

We got there just in time to witness the enemy capture our remaining force. They were too many too count, I wondered how they could be so numerous even after some had set out to attack our military outpost, if this truly was their base then there would be nowhere to run to. At this point, I broke down in tears, I had always believed my legacy was to be listed among the greats, to have my accomplishments compared to Napoleon Bonaparte of France and Julius Caesar of Rome, not to die at the hands of rabid and maniacal extremists…either way, if I were to die, I owed it to myself to die splendidly, to engulf these insurgents and this forest in the flames of my demise, in the inferno of my passing. The other soldiers tried to comfort me as best as they could in their forlorn state. Sergeant Ola was petrified, I never imagined the day would come where I would see the man so tamed. He uttered “Sir, let’s try and make a retreat, there’s still hope for us but these men are lost”. I glared at him with my teary eyes and retorted “We will try and save these men or we will die with them!” He replied in a very indignant tone “Then you are on your one, what could five men with knives possibly do?” I lunged towards him with a right hook to his temple and immediately followed with a left, before he could recover I sent him to the floor with a powerful kick to his shin. I gripped his neck with my right hand and watched him struggle to remove my grip, the other soldiers tried to approach me, possibly to restrain me, but I ordered them to stand down. I looked into Sergeant Ola’s eyes and said “I will forgive this act of insubordination but defy me again and I will make sure you experience excruciating pain before I execute you”, with this, the fear of me had developed in his heart and he quickly fell in line.

I counted four grenades, we needed explosives for the plan to come to fruition. The first step was to set fire to two sections of the forest, I tasked two of the soldiers to handle that, they needed to create the fire as a diversion, luckily it was the dry season so it wouldn’t be too hard. The fire would lure the insurgents to the location and hopefully engulf the area, they had no sense of strategy so they would storm the place to find the arsonists only to find themselves putting out flames of diversion. Meanwhile, they would regroup with the three of us and then we would launch an attack on the area where our men were being held captive, I hoped they hadn’t been executed yet. The first fire started just as my group got to the rally point, the second followed in a couple of minutes, it was bigger than I had hoped and for the first time in a while I couldn’t help but smile. The two soldiers got to us not too long after, they reported hearing many insurgents charging frantically toward the flames, and we proceeded on the most dangerous part of the plan. We held our combat knives in hand and a grenade each with the exception of one soldier, we counted eleven men guarding the area. I took a deep breath and threw the first grenade, the explosion sent the insurgents into a frenzy, we had only five minutes to execute eleven men and rescue our brothers. Sergeant Ola tossed a grenade with such a tremendous aim that it delivered at least 4 of the insurgents into the afterlife, the other soldiers didn’t do badly either. We freed ten men, they had lost a large number during their earlier retreat but I was genuinely happy to see Sergeant Festus alive, he was a blessing to any commander. As were picking up assault rifles from the downed insurgents, an injured one with a missing limb lunged at me with a machete…I recoiled back but it was too late, the machete struck me on the right side of my cheek and left an annoying gash, Sergeant Festus quickly retired the hostile with a swift discharge from his rifle. With my right hand on my cheek, I looked at the men and gave them only one order, “Run!”

Although we lost two men including Sergeant Musa, we were able to escape amidst a storm of bullets. The flames enveloped a large portion of the forest and it was far more intense than I anticipated…I had never imagined I would be happy to witness such a wild forest fire. We got to the outpost to find no one, the scene was chaotic; bullet rounds littered all over the floor, damaged vehicles, charred corpses…it was a truly sorrowful sight. We eventually came to the conclusion that the only possible course of action was to head to another military outpost, the closest one was about thirty miles eastward. After searching the outpost for what few supplies we could salvage, we set out. Ten miles into our journey, we saw a convoy of military vehicles approaching, finally…it was over, or so I thought. The vehicles came to a halt when they saw us then I approached the convoy, identified my rank and briefly informed the soldiers of what had transpired. A well decorated Captain then alighted from one of the trucks and motioned to a few of the enlisted men to join him, my eyes went wide with shock as he gave them the following order ‘These are the deserters we’ve been tracking down soldiers, Apprehend them!” before I could respond, one of the soldiers forcefully hit me on the forehead with the butt of his rifle…the sky immediately began to turn pitch black as I realized I had lost control of my body.

“Wake up!” shouted Major Alagbara as I awoke to find myself in a dimly lit solitary cell. He had a grim look on his face and his right hand was in a plaster cast. I immediately stood up, saluted and approached him as best as I could behind the iron bars, then in a desperate and despondent tone, I asked “Sir, what is all of this? Why are we being called deserters? Don’t they know who we are? Our Mission?” He stared at me without answering any of the questions so I decided to ask more “Please where are my men, Sir? Are they alive?” After another minute of staring, he sighed then spoke “Lieutenant Oluwole, as young as you are, you are a man…a true man and this is why I respect you enough to tell you as it is. You are taking the fall for the head of the reconnaissance team sent to scout the area. The loss of the Wada outpost is a huge loss in this war and the people at the top need someone to be responsible for it. Normally, it should be the head of the recon team but he is the son of the Chief of Defence Staff. I even offered myself up but the military brass weren’t having any of it.” Words had never hurt me so much, I fell to my knees in despair as I grabbed one of the bars to support myself. Desertion in the army was a crime punishable by death, the only scenario I could imagine was me being executed and my name being tarnished. Hot tears welled up in my eyes as I muttered slowly “What of my platoon?” The Major responded in a sympathetic tone “They too have been labelled deserters, but you are going to be the centerpiece of this whole incident” I could barely say a word as I wept grievously, but after a few minutes of inconsolable sobbing, I was finally able to speak…“Sir”, I started, “So I’m going to be executed for a penalty I didn’t commit to cover up for the incompetence of some spoilt…untalented…miserable military brat?”…the Major then reached through the bars and held me on the shoulder as he said “I made sure it won’t get to that, you and the surviving men in Alpha platoon will be dishonorably discharged but you’ll have to brace yourself for what would follow…the media would run the story…you and your men, with you as the lead will be labelled deserters and traitors for the whole nation…for the whole world to see.”. “Me?! A traitor!!” I shouted back at the Major. Fury had overcome me, my anger was beyond my control, “I’m not going to sit still and let these corrupt bastards destroy me! I will make this whole country my enemy if need be!!” I thundered. Major Alagbara held my shoulder firmly and looked me square in the eye as he said “Son, there are only two ways this can end, with you being a disgraced dead traitor or with you being a disgraced living traitor. Choose life boy, who knows, there might be some way for you to redeem yourself. In life, there is hope.” The words had no effect on me, I was too angry to see the sense in them, but before I could speak further, Major Alagbara rubbed my shoulders, saluted me and as he was about to exit the cell, he turned to me and added “Son, if you ever need me…for anything at all, I’ll be there for you.”