The soldiers arrived in a pickup. There were five of them; they jumped from the back and entered the grounds of the presidential palace, leaving the driver to wait. The building stood opposite a sickly looking tree, which gave cover to the men who sat on the sidewalk chewing betel and spitting. The men watched what was happening with interest. The smell of burnt garbage and fruit rotting in the sun wafted through the air: it was scorching hot, the start of the dry season.
The presidential palace looked like a Baroque castle, like a Versailles in miniature, with a park and fountains with swans in them. We could see it as we approached, descending from the hill. The machine gun nests and six-foot-high concrete wall were the only reminders that you were in N’Djamena.
The detainees were led into the courtyard. Three men and a woman, all black. Their hands weren’t bound; they obediently followed one of the soldiers, who wore a red beret. He must have been the unit commander, because he was issuing orders.
The street had been blocked off by a military truck, and we wouldn’t be able go around it without attracting their attention. Mustafa spat on the ground and turned off the engine, then leaned against the handlebars. “We’ll wait,” he said. “The restaurant isn’t going anywhere.” He was my fixer, a Muslim. He had arranged my stay in the city.
We’d wanted to spend my last day in Chad quietly. He had decided to treat me to some local cuisine. The restaurants were on the city’s main street. We traveled on his motorcycle, as usual. Because of the truck, however, we would have to wait. From where I sat behind Mustafa, I watched the scene as it unfolded.
Without a word the three men stood by the wall; only their skin had become a bit paler and sweat beaded through their shirts. The woman began to shout. The man in the red cap kicked her legs out from under her. As she fell her shirt burst open, her breasts spilling out like two black water pouches. The other soldiers got a kick out of this and let loose with boisterous laughter. A smile broke out on the commander’s lips, flashing snow-white teeth.
“What language are they speaking?” I asked Mustafa.
“Zaghawa, I think.”
The conscripts slapped their knees as they laughed, pointing at the woman lying in the dirt. The woman began kissing the commander’s black boots. The man enjoyed this for a bit, but when the woman wouldn’t quit, he bent down and picked her up in his arms. The woman stood without protest. Her face was gleaming with tears. The commander said something to her.
“What’s he saying?”
“I don’t know.”
The man extended his arm and pointed toward a car. With her head hung, the woman began toward it. She took a few uncertain steps, then stopped and looked back. The commander held his pose and mumbled something. The woman picked up her pace to the gate, pushed it open, and fled. The conscripts laughed loudly, and clicked their tongues to make their pleasure known. The man grinned widely. The other three prisoners stood silently by the wall.
The commander said a few words to the conscripts leaning against the truck. They took their rifles from their shoulders. These were Chinese-made Kalashnikov knock-offs, their wooden stocks oily from regular use. They cocked their weapons; we could well hear the click of the piston. They were taking their time. When they carried out these maneuvers they casually held their rifles under their arms. The commander fished his cigarettes from the pocket of his fatigues. He took one from the Fine Rouge pack, and then passed out cigarettes to the eager soldiers. The man lit up, then turned toward the prisoners. He said something and offered them cigarettes as well.
He stepped over to the detainees, smiled, and gave each one a smoke. They smiled and began to relax. The commander wiped his brow. As he walked back toward the conscripts he unsnapped the leather holster of his gun.
He held his pistol in front of him and examined it, perhaps to make sure it was loaded. Halfway toward the conscripts, he turned, extended his arm, and fired.
The sound of the shot echoed off the wall of the palace, and the birds burst from the trees. The commander had outstanding aim. The first prisoner was hit from ten yards, shot in the head, the bullet finding the forehead, passing through the skull, then caught by the wall behind. He died with a lit cigarette in his mouth. The other two men stared in shock. Then their instincts kicked in and they began to run.
They didn’t reach the paved road alive. The commander sent a bullet into each of them. They were brought down by a shot in the back. On the ground their legs still kicked.
The commander reholstered his weapon, went to the truck, and got in. He noticed us and smiled, then signaled to the soldier next to him to drive. The motor kicked to life and in under a minute all we saw was the vehicle’s disappearing outlines.
The remaining soldiers opened the gate and dragged the corpses away by their hands, heads bumping against the red dirt. In minutes the street was empty. The onlookers returned to chewing their betel, only that now the air was a bit sweet with the smell of fresh blood.
Mustafa kickstarted the motorcycle and we took off. We left the presidential palace behind, riding past tin huts and shops. It was already the dry season; the sky was an otherworldly blue. The wind caught our shirts as we rode, and I felt a little faint.
“We’ll have fish, that’s what I feel like eating,” Mustafa said and turned from the main road toward Lake Chad. The air smelled of mud.
We came to a stop in front of a white adobe house, got off the bike, and went into the courtyard. White plastic seats and tables were set out on the beaten ground. There were no other customers. A Muslim woman in a flower-print scarf came to take our order. Mustafa chose for us fish with rice and a spicy tomato-pepper stew. He took out a cigarette, lit up, and offered me one. We smoked one each in silence.
“Are you still thinking about them?” asked Mustafa. “You look pale.”
“Yeah. Who were they?”
“I don’t know. They had the forehead scars of the Sara tribe.”
“And that’s why they killed them?”
“Why did they let the woman go?”
“I don’t know.”
“They must have had a reason to kill them.”
“We’ll never know. It’s useless to think about. Look at it this way: though they’re dead, we are about to eat very well.”
“Especially because you are off to the frontier soon.”
We went quiet. The woman came out and set plastic plates of food in front of us. Mustafa rolled up his sleeves, tore off a piece of bread, and used it to pinch up a piece of fish, which he dipped in the spicy stew.
“Aren’t you eating?”
“I lost my appetite.”
“Because of the execution?”
“You’ll get used to this. And you will forget this. Now eat.”
I ate. Then I left for Darfur, and from there went back to Europe, then to the Gaza Strip, Yemen, Libya, Nigeria, and beyond. It took six years. He was right, I got used to it, though I never forgot that execution. You never forget your first.
Excerpted from ‘The Devil is a Black Dog’ written by Sándor Jászberényi published by Speaking Tiger.
War-torn Africa, a Middle East in crisis and post-Soviet Eastern Europe form the backdrop to the stories told in The Devil Is a Black Dog—stories based on the extraordinary experiences of acclaimed photojournalist Sándor Jászberényi. From Cairo to the Gaza Strip, from Benghazi to Budapest, his characters contemplate the meaning of home, love, family and friendship in the face of brutality.
Immersed in the societies he reports on and heedless in the face of war and revolution, Jászberényi observes mothers, martyrs, soldiers, and lovers who must confront the extremes of contemporary experience. In spare, evocative prose, he combines fact and fiction to create a profoundly true portrait of the humanity behind the headlines.
About the Author:
Sándor Jászberényi (pronounced shahn-door yahs-beh-ray-nyee) is a writer and has worked as a foreign correspondent in the Middle East and Africa for leading Hungarian newspapers. He has contributed reporting to The New York Times and the Egypt Independent. He has covered the revolutions in Egypt and Libya, the Gaza War, the Darfur crisis, and the conflict with Islamic State—interviewing armed Islamic groups in the process—and has also reported on the war in Ukraine.