PRIVATE FIRST CLASS HILDA PAISLEY sat scrunched in the back of a Blackhawk helicopter, the newest member of Squad 2/3 of the second platoon, Bravo Company. Not that the designation mattered. The eleven soldiers in her squad were the only Americans on this mission, to escort a United Nations official to a new refugee camp that had sprung up in Sudan, just over the three-way border with Ethiopia and Eritrea. They had flown from the Shagarab I Refugee Camp eighty kilometers to the north west, over a stretch of the Sahel that was killing hundreds of refugees every month as the wars raged in the Horn of Africa.
Hilda had read as much as she could find about the area, and she had memorized maps of the area around the refugee camp. Yet, this all seemed so new to her. For one, the blinding sunshine came at her from all angles: the sky, the desert below, and even the air outside the window. Everything was bright, yellow, and hot. For another, she had never seen such emptiness. The green slopes of Germany’s Rhine and Saar Valleys seemed like another world, and the swamps and the so-called desert areas she had trained in during AIT (Advanced Individual Training) seemed like jungles compared to the Sahel.
Even seated, she could look over the heads of the others, so she saw the sandstorm before anyone else. Unconsciously, she fingered the sand-coloured keffiyeh she had wrapped around her neck. Her father had given it to her, and he told her to carry it anytime she would be near a desert. Already, she had found reason to use it when she had strayed into an Arab neighbourhood where the women were wearing hijab. The squad leader had noticed the cloth but had made no comment.
The storm looked like the pillar of cloud in a Hollywood movie about the Exodus. It rose like an upside-down tornado. But unlike a cloud, it seemed almost solid. It continued to rise until it was at the same altitude as the helicopter.
Then the pilot saw it. He pulled into a sharp turn to try to gain altitude and escape at the same time. Hilda saw what looked like dust on the sides of the window in the sliding door. Then they seemed to be free of the storm.
The storm moved away from them, toward the border area where they wanted to land. The pilot came on the speaker in the cabin.
“Sorry, everyone, but we can’t fly into that storm, and it won’t clear the landing zone before we run out of fuel waiting. I am taking us back to Shagarab. We can come back as soon as it’s clear and we check the helo.”
Shrugs around the cabin as the aircraft turned and flew north.
After five minutes, the engine noise became slower, and the helo began to descend. Hilda wondered if there was more sand in the air than the pilot realized.
The engines stopped completely. Hilda heard air rushing past the cabin as the pilot executed an autorotate maneuver to put the aircraft down as gently as possible using the spinning rotor blades to slow the descent. The helo spun as it dropped.
Hilda put her head between her knees and prayed. Into your hands, I commend my —
The world stopped and rolled at the same time. The noise and the jarring movement blanked all other feelings as she felt herself flung up to the ceiling and down again, then up again. Then all motion stopped. She was amazed that she was still conscious, hanging by her seat harness. Her shoulders were sore.
The cabin door had been knocked off, and the helo was upside down on its rotors. No one seemed to be moving. She called out, but no one answered.
As she unclipped her harness and stood on the ceiling, she smelled JP-4 jet fuel. Oh, shit!
She climbed out the door and fell to the sand. Running as hard as she could with her pack and her rifle, she dropped into a depression about a hundred metres away. Curling up and hugging the ground, she put the pack toward the helo.
She felt the heat and blast before she heard the fuel tanks explode. Then popping noises as the ammunition on the soldiers’ belts exploded. Then the grenades. There should be two dozen of those in the fire, so she counted as best she could. Debris flew over her. She brushed off burning pieces that fell on her arms and leg.
When it was over, she looked back.
The site was completely engulfed in flames, but they were fading fast. There had not been much fuel after all. Practically nothing was recognizable as a helicopter or the people who had been inside. Only a flat, black area surrounded by smoking pieces of debris.
From the ground, the desert did not look as barren as it had from several thousand feet up. There were variations in the hills, and scrubby plants. In the distance, she could see roads leading into Eritrea. She also knew that to the south and west were rivers, with dirt roads to the villages on the riverbanks.
While she waited for the site to cool, she set down her pack, and took out the map. The Tekeze River – that was it. As soon as the helo was reported missing, she could expect overflights, but how long would that take, and what could happen between now and then? She took out the signalling mirror, to have it handy. Then she extracted her cell phone.
She did not expect cell service, but the GPS worked. She was only twenty-one kilometres from the Tekeze River and its villages, the easternmost being the new refugee camp. She turned off the phone and put it away. Whether she waited for rescue or walked to the river, she needed to find a safer location.
She walked over the remains of the helo, looking for anything useful before she left to hide. What was not melted flat into the sand did not seem useful. Among the debris thrown from the front of the aircraft, she found a box marked “inflight recorder”. She had heard how the famous “black box” was built to survive the worst crashes, and here was proof. She wiped it off and put it in her pack.
The crash area was surrounded by large hillocks made mostly of sand. Most of them had scruffy bushes clinging to them. Hilda chose the closest hill and climbed it.
She was only about ten metres up, but she could see dirt roads and the cut where the river must be. She also saw dust clouds coming down the road from the Eritrean border. That is NOT a rescue party. She took out her shovel tool and began digging.
By the time she was safely concealed in her hole on the hillock, a pair of Toyota Land Cruisers with machine guns stopped at the crash site. She watched as the armed men walked around the site, occasionally picking up a piece of debris to see if it was useful. It took them about a half-hour to determine that there was nothing of value, and to drive back to the east.
She decided to leave in the morning if there were no overflights by then. She kept her mirror and her LED flashlight handy. No one flew over.
After sunset, she took a few sips from her canteen and ate one meal bar. Then she curled up with her rifle and unsnapped the sheath of her knife.
The next morning, she woke before dawn. After using her hidey-hole as a latrine, she filled it in and shouldered her pack. She walked south.
Four hours later, she filled her canteen at the Tekeze River and put purification tablets in it. Walking west., she was surprised that the first two villages on the map were empty. The inhabitants seemed to have left some time ago, with all their belongings. She followed the river to the west to the village of Isagha. There were only a dozen people there: three old men, four old women, and five little children. One of the men spoke Arabic. He pointed out that there was a hospital and a gas station at Wad al Hulaywah, about thirteen kilometres to the west. She thanked them and offered to share her meal bars with them. The adults demurred but nodded to the children. Hilda gave each of them a half-bar.
She walked over the sand by the river. After an hour and a half, she reached a dirt road and a bridge across the river. From here, the walking would be easier, but she worried about what might come along. When she heard engines, she got off the road, and hid in the depressions to the side. She thought of commandeering a vehicle, but she decided it would be safer if her presence not to be known until she had made contact with backup.
That afternoon, she walked into the hospital. Five empty beds occupied the main ward, but the urgent care clinic had some walk-in patients. The staff included one doctor, a nurse, and several assistants. The doctor spoke English and French, the nurse spoke some French, and everyone spoke Arabic. With apologies to allay their terror at seeing her walk in fully armed, Hilda asked to borrow the phone.
The number she had been given as part of her briefing was supposed to ring in the Military Attaché office at the American Embassy in Khartoum, there being no US military base officially in the country. Her company was temporarily at the international airport.
The number she dialled was “out of service.” She used old-fashioned directory assistance to get the number for the Embassy. A half-hour later, a clerk at the Attaché’s office gave her the number for her unit at the airport.
“Bravo Company, Sergeant Smith. May I help you?”
“Hello, sir, this is Private Paisley, second platoon.”
“Is this some kind of joke? Who are you?”
“Private Paisley, sir. I was in the helo that went down yesterday.”
“Impossible. There were no survivors.”
“Sir, there was one survivor. I walked here to find a phone.”
“And I’m telling you, whoever you are, that I flew over that site this morning, and there could not be anything left.”
Hilda felt her anger rising. She hated being blown off.
“Well, if you don’t want me back on duty, sir, do you think someone wants the inflight recorder? It’s in my pack.” The crack of the handset slamming on the desk hurt her ear.
In the silence, she heard Sergeant Smith walk away, shouting at somebody. “I don’t need this. Losing my best friend and being taunted by some crazy broad about it, all in one day.”
Hilda felt a deep shame. She should have realized that the men and women in the company would have formed friendships before she got there.
“Hello. Who is this?”
“I’m sorry I upset Sergeant Smith. It’s Private Paisley, and I really did survive the crash. I was the only one conscious inside. I got out just before the fuel tanks exploded.
“How tall are you?”
“One hundred ninety-eight centimetres, sir. Who is this?”
“Blue. Who is this?”
“Black. Who is this, please?”
“Captain Richardson. Where are you, Paisley?”
“A village called Wad Al Hulayway on the Tekeze River, about sixty kilometres from the Eritrean and Ethiopian borders.”
“You have the inflight recorder, private?”
“Give me a phone number. We have to make arrangements to get you back.”
“Thank you, sir.” Hilda read him the number. “This is not a small town. Shall I try to find a car rental or some other option while you check from that end?”
“Do that, but call before you leave if we don’t call first.”
As she hung up the phone, a Toyota Land Cruiser drove up. She retreated to an inner room and watched with her rifle ready.
Two militiamen unloaded six wounded men, dropping them on the ground.
“We’ll be back for any survivors later!” the driver shouted in accented Arabic as they jumped into the truck and drove off. Hilda put her rifle on safety and slung it across her back.
Before the staff could react, she walked outside and began carrying the wounded soldiers inside. None seemed to be older than fifteen, and no one weighed as much as Sanchez, her battle buddy in boot camp. She took the medical kit from her pack and went to a table to begin dressing wounds. With her helping, there were just enough people in the hospital to care for all the men at once.
“Who are these men?” she asked the nurse in French.
“Eritrean conscripts. They are drafted for life, so the only way to escape is to run or be wounded. They are dumped here with the understanding that we will report no survivors if anyone comes asking.”
“And they will become refugees, too?”
“Yes. The situation in Eritrea is such that most of the refugees crossing the desert are young boys about to turn eighteen. Sometimes they bring their younger brothers; sometimes they come alone.”
“These look younger than that.”
“Believe me, these six are between nineteen and twenty-one.”
“Where will they go now?”
“They will walk to Shagarab.”
“That’s a long way.”
“They have walked farther before, and there’s a road. We will give them water and a little food this evening to get them started after dark.”
While Hilda was using the phone book to find a car rental service, a young boy ran in shouting that his mother was having a baby. One of the assistants was the midwife. Hilda watched her wheel an old bicycle out from the back, strap her kit to the rack and ride off.
After an hour of phone calls, she determined that there was no car rental, but the lodge had vacancies.
As the setting sun reached across the Sahel, the six Eritreans set off for Shagarab. With luck, it would take them two days. The phone rang. It was for Hilda.
“Sergeant Smith here, Private Paisley.”
“Thank you for calling, sir. I’m sorry about being short with you today.”
“Forget that. It was a shock, but now I’m glad someone got out.”
“There’s room at the lodge, but no car rental.”
“It’s eleven hours to where you are, so take a room. We’ll pick you up tomorrow morning.”
“Be safe, Paisley.”
“Yes, sir. Thank you.”
Hilda had missed the lodge coming along the road earlier, but now she could see that it was only a half-mile away, sheltered on the western slope of a hill between the hospital and the river. After thanking the hospital staff, she walked to the lodge. At a cold store halfway there, she picked up supper and breakfast supplies and some bottles of water.
A lone man sat behind the counter of the reception area. Mid-fifties, greying hair, white shirt and grey slacks. He stood and backed up against the wall when Hilda walked in.
“Peace to you, sir,” she said in Arabic. “I only wish to rent a room for the night. Please do not be afraid.”
“Certainly, sir.” Hilda let the mistake slide. Her father had warned her that it was always better when they did not know she was a woman alone.
There were only two other guests, so the man in the reception area let her inspect the other rooms. She picked one on the upper story on the end, where she could see out on three sides. To her surprise, the room included a bathroom with a shower.
“I will pay in advance, because I do not know when I will leave tomorrow.”
“As you wish, sir.”
“I do not wish to attract trouble, so please do not tell anyone that I am here.”
“Of course, sir. I don’t want trouble either.”
She took the key. “Allah be with you.” Then she walked upstairs and locked herself in.
Clean and changed into fresh underwear, she washed out what she had been wearing, then dressed again. She ate some cold rice pilaf from a can and drank one of the bottles of water. She readied her pack and stowed it out of sight in the closet. Then she lay on the bed next to her rifle and slept.
Engine noise woke her. It was still dark. She rolled off the bed and donned her boots on the floor. It was 04:45, too soon for the pickup from Khartoum. She crawled to the east and south windows but could see nothing. The window facing the walkway gave her a view of the parking area and the office. A small truck, probably another Land Cruiser, drove up to the office.
Two militiamen or soldiers got out of the back of the cab. By the lights on the building, Hilda could see that there were only two men in the front of the cab, and none in the bed.
With the lights in her room off, she crawled out the door and moved to the stairs at the end of the row of rooms, keeping out of sight of the truck. She heard the soldiers shouting at the manager, then a door slam. She needed to draw them away from the lodge, but not get taken herself.
At the bottom of the stairs, she ran around the back of the lodge and approached the front behind the truck.
The two men outside the truck were arguing with the two in the front seat. Two of them thought they should crash in and kill the infidel; the other two thought their orders were to take a prisoner back to camp. Since they were arguing in Arabic, Hilda gathered that these were Sudanese irregulars. There were no markings on the truck. Real professionals, she thought, they don’t even know what the mission is.
She moved quickly into the dark away from the lodge and took a position behind a bushy tree.
“Looking for me?” she shouted in Arabic. Then she shot the soldier on the right side of the truck. The door opened, and she shot the passenger before he could get out. By then the driver and the other soldier were coming around the front and back of the truck in a crouch. She shot the driver; the other man threw down his rifle and raised his hands.
“On the ground!” He dropped and put his hands behind his head.
As she walked carefully toward the man, she saw the door crack.
“Stay inside!” The door closed quickly.
She murmured silent thanks that she had not given in to the desire to throw away the zip-tie handcuffs that her sergeant insisted they always carry. She tied the man’s wrists and legs, then checked the other three. Dead. The urge to vomit rose in her gorge, but she forced it down. Focus, Paisley!
With the situation stable, she went to the office door. It was unlocked, she threw it open, backed away and carefully checked to see if it was clear. The manager was kneeling on the floor, supplication written on his face.
“I told no one, I swear.”
“What about the other two guests?”
“A young French couple. Journalists, I think.”
“Stand there while I use the phone.”
She backed him up to the wall opposite the door. Standing so she could cover him and the door, she dialled the company number. A sleepy soldier answered on the tenth ring.
“Mulroney, it’s Paisley.”
“Hey, where are you?”
“Did my ride leave yet?”
“Last night before suppertime. ETA 06:30.”
“No way to talk to them, is there?”
“Not really. They could call in if they have something to report, but I don’t know if they have the satellite phone turned on.”
“Tell Sarge that four hostiles showed up at the lodge looking for me. I don’t want the civilians here in danger, so I am going to hide until my ride gets here. If you can get through to them, tell them I will meet them at the gas station – there’s only the one. I’ll look for them on the road between there and the lodge, so they won’t miss me.”
“What about the hostiles?”
“Not on the phone.”
“OK, Paisley. Be safe.”
Hilda hung up and turned to the manager. “Why am I having trouble believing that you didn’t tell anyone?” She bit the inside of her mouth to keep from reacting to the wet stain growing down his leg from his crotch. She had never seen a man piss in fear before.
“Do you know who these men are? They speak Arabic.”
“No. But there is a jihadi militia south of here. They come into town sometimes to recruit and to take supplies. That is why all the smaller villages have been abandoned.”
“Or Hamas. Or al-Shabaab. Who knows anymore?”
“I have an idea. Come help me load those men into the truck, and I will take it away. The police can deal with it when they find it.”
“Yes, sir.” When Hilda waved her rifle at the door, he moved quickly to open it and step outside.
When they had the four militiamen loaded into the truck bed, Hilda walked the man at gunpoint back to her room to retrieve her pack. He carried it for her and put it in the truck. Then she had him start the truck and turn it around. She waved him out of the truck.
“Go inside and close the door.” She got it in. “Allah be with you.”
“And you. Thank you, sir.” She heard the door lock click.
Hilda left the truck in an alley near the edge of town, and walked to a point behind the gas station, where she could see any traffic approaching on the main road from the north. As the pink fingers of dawn stretched over the skies from Eritrea, she saw a Sudanese Army truck drive into the gas station and pull up to the pump. She recognized the American soldier who got out.
No one was stirring yet when they drove away.
© 2021, JT Hine