Sample Novel Based on a True Story (2)

The guards were having difficulty managing Sebhat’s horse, who was restless and jumpy, unnerved by the driving force of the wind. Sebhat’s spirits were dampened and his body tired and gaunt. He had barely eaten over the past few days, as if to punish himself for his recent defeat. Sebhat’s drawn face clearly showed that he had not gotten much sleep. Sara wondered how he was going to endure the arduous journey, let alone the fighting.

Tamru took the reins from Sebhat, who nodded absently, dismissing him. As Sebhat walked slowly toward the front door, Tamru shook his head. The burden of responsibility was pressing down on Basha Sebhat.

            This wasn’t Italy’s first attempt to colonize Ethiopia. Half a century before, in 1885, the Italians had also attempted to subjugate them to their rule, but the proud Ethiopian people had fought bravely. Italy’s modern army had been the laughing stock of Europe after being soundly defeated by “mere savages” armed with only spears, bows, and arrows. And now the great Mussolini was determined to seek revenge and restore Italy’s name as a dominant power. Were these heroic Ethiopians going to allow the Italians to conquer their beloved homeland? Once again they knew they had to fight to the death to defeat the invaders. That much was certain. All Ethiopians—from the country and city, united to oppose the fascists’ onslaught.

When they reached the training camp, Sebhat briefed his lieutenants and then sent the new recruits into formation for the long march to the front. The latest intelligence suspected the Italians were mustering outside Entoto, trying to cut off supply lines. The recruits were from the country and city alike; both farmers and villagers. The farmers brought their own bows and were proficient after years of supplying their families with wild game. Not so for the city dwellers who had volunteered. They knew how to sell produce and cattle at the market, but few could handle a gun. Some of these men might become officers. Sebhat spent entire days training new groups of recruits, mostly novice draftees who were still in their teens and had never held a gun before. He and his drill sergeant taught them basic combat skills.

            Though he knew the fascists had more guns, more bullets, and more training than his band of recruits, the fascists brought with them something heavier than their metal tanks: arrogance. Sebhat relied on this. The enemy always underestimated Ethiopia. Whereas he knew even a seasoned farmer could become the fiercest warrior.

            The next afternoon, a courier came galloping through the woods with an urgent message for Sebhat from the province of Mekalay. The note read: Please come with your troops. Need reinforcements. Fighting has begun.

            After informing his lieutenant, Sebhat gave orders for the troops to follow him to Mekalay.

“Tamru, we ride at once. Men, brothers, march on to Mekalay, where we will crush those faithless fascists again! Bring on the rain! We will rip them apart and let God wash their filth away from our land. Freedom for Ethiopia!”

The men cheered and shook their bows in the air as Sebhat’s mount stomped, reared and then galloped toward Mekalay, with Tamru galloping hard behind him.

            When they reached Mekalay, many of the soldiers were as enthusiastic as Sebhat and fought bravely for most of the day. Gradually, as the day wore on under the powerful rain that had begun to fall that morning, they became sluggish and some began coughing as they succumbed to the harsh weather. A few huddled to keep warm.

            To Sebhat’s dismay, even some of the lieutenants looked haggard. Sebhat was compelled to urge them on, boosting their morale. Spontaneously he raised his gun and shot into the air. He boomed, “Brothers and sons, we are undefeatable! No bullets can stop us from protecting our mother, Ethiopia. She will help us with the rain, stopping their tanks in the mud. This unrelenting rain is our gift from God. She washes them away, as she shields us from their bullets!”

            While waiting for the battle to begin, Sebhat recited the famous speech by Menelek: “All have to die some time. I will not be afflicted if I die fighting our enemies who have come here to ruin our country and change our religion. They have passed beyond the sea, which God gave us as our frontier…these enemies have advanced, burrowing into the country like moles, but with God’s help I will get rid of them.”

            The tired men surged up in a wave of passion, following Sebhat’s lead as he charged the front line. Precise and powerful, he wasted no bullets. Each flew straight to its target, hitting heads, chests, and vital organs. The fight went on for hours and, as Sebhat had predicted, the enemy melted away. Sergeant Tamru fought beside his proud leader.

            As they plodded on toward the encampment, the excitement of winning the battle at Mekalay wore gradually off as the relentless heavy rain and wind did not let up. Tamru was filled with admiration. He thought to himself, I am weak and limp like my wet shama. But he—he is a gift from God. No wonder we call him Basha Sebhat!

            The following day was clear and bright, as if to make up for the harsh weather of the past few days. But the day’s losses were heavier. The sun was still glimmering through the eucalyptus grove just past the gates of the compound. Soon it would slip entirely out of view. Another day, gone. This last battle was particularly brutal. Sebhat lost almost half of his soldiers, and many of the survivors were injured. He hated retreating, but it was the only thing to do. They would rally more reinforcements, and try once again to recapture the ground the fascists had taken.

            The next day, Sebhat and his troops restlessly waited to attack and capture the column of Italian invaders who had infiltrated the area. He hid his troops among the thicket of oak and eucalyptus trees, where he thought the invaders would be unable to see them. After hours of reconnaissance, seeing his troops weak from hunger and wilting in the scorching heat, he decided to let them return to their encampment to rest and recuperate after a mostly uneventful day.

            By late evening, Sebhat was informed of an imminent enemy attack at Nazireat. New recruits were hastily brought in and with the total two-hundred-fifty enlisted men, Sebhat dashed off to Nazireat. Though it turned out to be a false alarm and their trip was for nothing, they remained in Nazireat for the following day to make sure the town was safe. The town chief gratefully saw to it that Sebhat and his troops were fed.

            At nightfall, halfway through their journey back to Addis Ababa, it got very dark and cold. Some of the men were more experienced and better equipped than the others at making their way through unknown terrain in the dark. A group of about fifteen men fell behind and became separated from the others. Disoriented and confused, unsure how to navigate, they barely moved. The next day a lieutenant discovered that the men were unaccounted for and informed Sebhat. But there was little he could do. Although disappointed that there had been no battle that day, Sebhat was relieved to be able to take off and return to his family.

 

            The faint giggles and squeals that sounded from the garden and trickled in his direction like water from a fountain soothed Sebhat’s weary soul. Waves of laughter rose and fell as he reached the edge of the garden where he hesitated, reluctant to disturb their play. Now that the war had begun, Sebhat seldom got to see the children. The two little girls skipped and ran, chasing each other, oblivious to everything but their own delight. Sebhat smiled, longing to scoop them up in his arms. He cherished that moment, aware that there were no guarantees that tomorrow would bring such joy. By now he had been witness to whole villages being blown to bits by enemy artillery. How could anyone defend his precious girls from such horrors? His teeth clenched in rage. He would die to protect them!

            As he watched, Sebhat became oddly aware of the strange contrast at the border of his little garden: the fragile sweetness of his children and the stench of war upon himself. He could not defile their sanctuary of innocence by setting one foot inside, so he stood there, reverently adoring them from a distance.

            As soon as they saw him at the entrance of the garden, his two little girls screamed with glee and raced into his open arms. “Ababa, Ababa!” He kissed them and held them tightly, but they squirmed out of his embrace and pulled him into the garden.

            That night after dinner with Sara and the children, Sebhat went straight to bed. Exhausted from the activities of the past few months, his sleep was disturbed by the reoccurring dream of Mussolini in his military uniform approaching him. Mussolini was by himself, marching as if he were in a parade. As he got closer to Sebhat his face changed, and became the countenance of a grinning hyena. Startled, Sebhat gasped and turned away, but the hyena paced threateningly in front of him, saying, “I am going to make a feast of you!” He then gave Sebhat his notorious salute and disappeared.

            The nightmare left Sebhat drenched in sweat, and as he awakened he was relieved to realize it was only a dream and attempted to go back to sleep. After tossing and turning most of the night, he finally slept. But once again, frightening dreams intruded. This time a group of fascists in black shirts called him by name and clapped their hands cheerfully, as though they were glad to see him. Angrily, Sebhat chased them, but they kept dodging him, still applauding with the same enthusiasm. Angered by his inability to stop them, Sebhat fired upon them. But the men, instead of backing off, kept milling about at a faster and faster pace, eluding many of his bullets. Even those who had been injured continued their bloodthirsty cheering and kept getting closer to him. With blood dripping from their arms and legs they chanted, “Long live Mussolini! Long live Il Duce!”

            The next morning, Sebhat awoke at the crack of dawn with a splitting headache, and disoriented by the nightmares. Still, almost overwhelmed with fatigue, he put on his uniform and perused the list of things he needed to attend to. Sara was already awake and busy preparing food that would not spoil for his journey: dabbo kolo, dried lamb, roasted barley, and sunflower seeds.

            Sebhat lingered just long enough to hastily drink his coffee. He did not tell Sara about his nightmares because he knew they would distress her. However, as usual, Sebhat dispensed advice, “I want you to take care of the children and yourself. If anything happens, go to the military office and tell them who you are. They will take care of you.” Obeying a sudden impulse, Sebhat took Sara’s hand, “Use your gun if you have to. You are one of the best shots I know.”

            Sara wished Sebhat wouldn’t dwell on those dark thoughts of his not returning – a casualty of the war. It frightened and dismayed her, like a prediction of terrible events. “Why don’t you stay home today? Can’t the men manage without you?”

            Sebhat listened patiently, understanding. Taking her face in his hands, he said softly, “Don’t be sad. I’m being cautious.”

            Sara pleaded, “I’m only asking you to do it this one time.”

            “I have to go. Not going would be like a bear sending her cubs to hunt for food by themselves in the wilderness.”

            Their conversation was suddenly disturbed by a commotion outside. Tamru shouted, “Please, Basha Sebhat, I don’t know what’s wrong with Wudu!”

            Sebhat darted out, knowing Tamru wouldn’t bother him unless it was something important. Sebhat saw Wudu wildly jerking his head up and down, neighing and digging the ground with his hooves, unable to be controlled by Tamru. When Sebhat came close to his beloved horse, Wudu locked eyes with Sebhat and neighed loudly.

            “Sir, I don’t know what’s wrong with him. He even refuses to graze. If I didn’t know better I’d say he was untamed. He even kicked me when I tried to brush him. You know, ordinarily he loves to be brushed and cleaned.”

            Sebhat stroked Wudu’s neck, calming him. “What is it you are trying to tell me, Gwadanya?” he asked, as he offered the horse some grass. Wudu ate it obediently.

            Tamru shook his head in amazement. “He was impossible with me. I tried everything. I guess he wants to be fed by his master. Is that it, Wudu?”

            Sebhat turned to Tamru. “Son, make sure you eat well too, and don’t worry about Wudu. He’s just cranky.” Then Sebhat went back for another cup of coffee. With everything packed, he was ready to go.

            Once again, Wudu became restless and uncooperative. He was neighing so loudly it woke the children, who came running out to see what was going on. Sebhat put down his cup of coffee and went out. He grabbed the reins from Tamru and gradually succeeded in stopping Wudu’s wild kicking. He whispered into the horse’s ears and quieted him enough to mount him.

            Zenite and Sosina had been watching their father struggle with Wudu. Rushing to her father, Zenite, the more daring of the two children, stretched out her hand to grab her father’s hand. Looking into her innocent, dark eyes, Sebhat’s throat constricted with emotion, but he managed a smile.

“Ababa, when you are not here, what do you eat?” Zenite asked.

            Wishing to make her laugh he joked, “So you want to know what your ababa eats? Let’s see. For breakfast I eat a tiger or two, and for supper a big lion.” He then pushed out his belly like a balloon and patted it with his hand.

            Zenite’s laugh sounded like bells. “No. You don’t eat lions and tigers!”

            “And why not?” her father asked.

            “Because they will eat you first.”

            “You are too smart.” Picking her up, Sebhat gave her a kiss and then set her back down.

            Sosina tugged at her father’s tunic. “There you are, my big girl!” He smiled as he lifted her and kissed her too.

            Sara held Sebhat’s canteen up to him, holding back tears. He bent and kissed her on both cheeks and whispered, “Everything will be all right. I’m confident that better days are ahead for all of us. Take good care of yourself.” With that he spurred Wudu on gently and galloped away.

            A rumor had spread that it was a matter of days before the Italian army would take over Addis Ababa. People were anxious. Everyone, young and old, stood ready to fight for their country. Sebhat had already been informed that the Italian commander, Badoglio, and his troops were anticipating the triumph of their march into the capitol. Badoglio was confident nothing would stand in his way and didn’t anticipate any major challenge to his success. He felt so confident that the only thing on his mind was having a grand parade in the city and showing the natives who their future masters were.

            Meanwhile, Haile Selassie was at the Lalibela Church, his power lost to the enemy. He had remained for three days, fasting and praying in seclusion. Like other, earlier monarchs of Ethiopia, he relied on his faith in God for protection and strength. The Ethiopians were ready to fight; to give their bodies and souls to their beloved country. So, at night, about three thousand men began to march. It was a well-planned journey in terms of where the Ethiopians would hide in order to see the enemy coming. Unfortunately, the enemy had plans of their own: they were already there, waiting to wipe out the Ethiopians like wiping out bad memories, never to remember them again.

As soon as the Ethiopians were in sight, the enemy began shelling them. Then, when the Ethiopians tried to retreat, they used mustard gas on them, which had been outlawed by international law. The blinded men tried frantically to escape the torture of the harrowing effects of the gas on their bodies.

As a commander of troops, Sebhat, as well other commanders, found themselves in a predicament beyond their control. They had anticipated fighting the Italians with all their might, and of course they were aware that they would lose many soldiers, with even more of them wounded. But none of them had expected the enemy to stoop so low as to resort to outlawed chemical warfare. Even for Mussolini, the attack was brutal and indicated a new stage in the warfare: it seemed the Italians were determined to wipe the Ethiopians out completely at all costs, like exterminating pests in order to reap a healthy harvest.