Filsan rises and takes her uniform from the peg on the door; she is up ten minutes before the alarm but doesn’t want to remain with her thoughts, simultaneously mulling over everything and nothing. She pulls her tunic over her head and her trousers over her legs. A quick visit to the bathroom and then she is beside the stove in the communal kitchen, the wall above her blackened with soot, the smell of meat and ghee still in the air from the previous night. Water boils in her saucepan, tea leaves, cardamom pods and cloves shivering on the surface of it. As it’s about to bubble over, she grabs the handle and pours just enough to fill her enamel cup.
She drinks the tea immediately, its heat scorching her throat in a way she finds pleasant. This is the entirety of her breakfast. Back home, her housekeeper Intisaar would have covered the dining table with a vinyl sheet decorated with small yellow flowers and laid out a flask of black tea, a jug of orange juice, a fruit salad of mangoes, papayas and bananas, a plateful of laxoox hidden under a domed fly guard and, if her father had requested it the night before, scrambled eggs and lamb kidneys.
The other women – there are about fifty altogether in the barracks – drift into the kitchen while Filsan nurses her empty cup and gazes at the view beyond the window, a bare yard criss-crossed by poles and clothes lines with the two domes of the central mosque on the horizon. Breeze blocks abandoned when the nearly completed hotel was commandeered by the military have become another kind of barracks for cooing pigeons beneath the window. She ignores her comrades as they ignore her, but what would she say to them if she could? She would tell them that she has never been good at making friends, that Intisaar’s children had seemed kind but hadn’t been allowed inside the house by her father, that the neighbourhood kids had scorned her, that she found it easier to talk to her father’s friends, that her face was closed because she didn’t know how to open it. Silence takes the place of all these words and her loneliness remains as dense and close as a shadow.
Filsan rinses her cup, locks it away and returns to her room to make the bed before departing for the offices of the Mobile Military Court. She hears laughter from the kitchen as she turns the handle to her door, and knows it is aimed at her. As she enters she finds herself overwhelmed by an urge to wail, her blood suddenly darkening with self-loathing and anger that her life should be so small and inconsequential, that this two-metre-by-two-metre cell that is her room should be the span of her world.
The offices of the Mobile Military Court are in an old colonial complex. The brick chimney jutting out from one of the rooftops is something Filsan had never seen in Mogadishu, where the weather was never less than sultry, but here the wind is so cold and fierce at times that it is not hard to imagine an Englishman dozing by a fire with a long-haired dog at his feet. In her spartan office there are just two desks, one for Captain Yasin and a small, scratched one for her, Corporal Adan Ali.
She is an office worker, neither noticed nor commended by the uniformed men above her, and it galls her that despite two years of enlistment in the Women’s Auxiliary Corps and five years working for the Victory Pioneers in Mogadishu her chief tasks are still those of a secretary. Had her father been dreaming or lying when he told her that she would make the ground shake in Hargeisa? Had he been drunk? Or just desperate to remove her from Mogadishu in case the suspicion around him became something more tangible and sinister? In the notes sent from the agents to her desk she sees how difficult it is to interpret someone’s actions, intentions, words; if she had to create a dossier on her own unknowable father where would she even begin? He had shown her both tenderness and contempt, cruelty yet honour, a glimpse of the world through the bars of his love. She sees him now pacing the flat roof of their three-storey villa in Mogadishu, a strip of the Indian Ocean visible between two slender minarets, watching over the neighbourhood with binoculars, scanning east and west for the spies he believes watch him.
Captain Yasin arrives, tall and elegant in his black beret. With just the two of them in the office she cannot help but watch him all day: his regular strolls around the room and into the corridor, the private calls he makes on the only telephone line in their department, the menthol cigarette butts slowly filling his dark glass ashtray, the tin of mints he rattles absent-mindedly when frowning over some report.
Filsan stands up and salutes him but he waves her back to her chair.
‘Now don’t get too excited, Miss Corporal, but I spoke to Major Adow a few days ago and he asked me if I could recommend a graduate to go on a mission to the border. I looked high and low and then I remembered you, crouched over your little desk. Such efficiency! Such honesty!’
Filsan looks up at him, with half contempt, half desire.
‘To Birjeeh with you, on the double!’ He points dramatically to the door and she laughs despite herself. As she leaves the room, his eyes track her with an interest she doesn’t find unwelcome.
Birjeeh Military HQ reminds Filsan of an illustration in one of the books she read as a child, something from the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen. It has the presence of an enchanted castle perched on a hill, partially hidden behind high crenulated walls with watchtowers; its wide arched entrance only needs a portcullis and moat to finish the picture. Filsan has escorted prisoners to the concrete armoury that now functions as a detention room but can imagine long-forgotten prisoners with scraggly beards hidden in secret, underground cells.
The logistics officer, Lieutenant Hashi, ushers her to the Major’s office with a scowl on his tight, fox-like face, already aggravated by something.
The room is crowded with around thirty bulky commandos from the locally garrisoned 26th Infantry Division. They stand in a crescent shape around Major Adow; between their bodies she can see snatches of the brown, khaki and gold of his jacket and a black pen held between his fingers like a wand.
‘Come closer, comrades,’ he says before standing up.
Lieutenant Hashi unrolls a map on the table and then pins its corners to the felt board behind the desk. It shows the north-western region of Somalia in minute detail: waterholes, reservoirs, dry riverbeds, dirt tracks. There are three blue circles on the map over villages near the Ethiopian border; enclosing the blue circles are red semicircles.
Major Adow points his pen at each blue circle and names it in turn.
‘Salahley, Baha Dhamal, Ina Guuhaa. We have solid intelligence that NFM rebels are fed, watered and sheltered in these villages. Ever since the secessionists moved their headquarters from London to Ethiopia they have been bolder and bolder and it is places like these that allow them to think they stand a chance in hell of defeating us.’
Filsan stands at armpit height to the soldiers. She finds herself enjoying their smell, the musk of their sweat mixed with hair and gun oil.
Lieutenant Hashi catches her gaze, his bloodshot stare intended to intimidate her, but it is nothing in comparison to her father’s.
‘You are charged with demolishing the water reservoirs of Salahley. They have been building one every year for more than ten years now and have given some over to the rebels to use. Corporal Adan Ali! Where are you, my girl?’ Major Adow shouts.
Filsan pushes forward until she is a metre away from the desk.
‘It is your duty to communicate our anger and ensure that it is understood that further punitive measures can and will be enforced. We need an educated comrade who can articulate the principles of the revolution. That’s you, isn’t it?’
‘Yes, Major,’ Filsan replies quickly.
‘They will have water trucked in monthly and they can use their traditional wells.’
‘I will tell them, sir.’
‘The exact date and time of the operation will be confirmed by Lieutenant Hashi. Baha Dhamal and Ina Guuhaa will be dealt with by the 4th and 18th sectors simultaneously. Are there any questions?’
The soldiers shift nervously but don’t reply. Filsan clears her throat and all faces turn to her.
‘Will we be taking prisoners?’ she almost whispers.
Major Adow smiles broadly, the same kind of smile he would give a dog riding a bicycle. ‘Good question, jaalle. We have yet to confirm that detail but well done for speaking up.’
Filsan sees the other soldiers smiling condescendingly, even though they were too cowardly to raise their own voices.
The call comes two days later. They are scheduled to leave Hargeisa the next day at five in the morning and to arrive in Salahley by 7 a.m. Filsan had hoped that her period would wait until after the operation but, as if to spite her, it comes early, blanching her face and nearly doubling her over with cramps. She gulps back cup after cup of black tea and avoids eating anything that might worsen her nausea but by the morning of the attack she is curled up, sobbing at how diminished she feels. Taking a deep breath she unfurls her limbs and forces herself through her morning routine. She arrives at Birjeeh before the others, the sky still dark but birds flapping and shaking one another awake in the branches. The compound looks even more imposing now, its walls blending into the darkness beyond to form a citadel of ether and stone.
The unit of thirty men and Filsan leave Birjeeh in a convoy of four large trucks of the type the locals called ‘the fates’ because of their role in dozens of fatal traffic accidents. Filsan rides in the passenger seat of the first truck, the pain in her abdomen and back lulled by the gentle reverberations of her seat. The driver had held out his arm as she struggled to clamber into the tall vehicle but apart from that there is no interaction between them.
‘Morning, Corporal.’ Lieutenant Afrah twists his neck into the cab from the bench behind.
‘Good morning, sir.’ Filsan salutes awkwardly. The Lieutenant has the strange-coloured eyes that some Somalis possess, brown around the pupil with a thick halo of blue as if he is going blind.
‘Are you nervous?’ He smiles and reveals the sweet gap between his teeth.
‘No, I just want to do a decent job.’
‘It will be easy, in and out before the engine’s even cooled. I have a rifle here for you, an FAL automatic, the recoil isn’t so bad on them, better for you than the Kalashnikov. Major Adow said you have had arms training?’
‘With the Women’s Auxiliary Corps, but that was some time ago, I don’t know . . .’
‘You won’t need it. It will just be a deterrence if there are any troublemakers in the village.’
‘Yes, Lieutenant.’ Filsan takes the weapon from him; the stock is relatively short while the barrel scrapes the roof of the lorry. She holds it across her chest with the strap over her back. She had never hit the targets well during practice in Mogadishu but it feels good to hold a rifle again; a gun makes a soldier even out of a woman.
They sail through the last urban checkpoint and leave the messy, compacted town to shrink and disappear in the rear-view mirror. A rim of light is developing all around them, as blotchy and bright as overexposed film, the horizon broken up by lopsided pyramids of granite. It is a barren landscape, hard and dull, made for nothing other than mischief, as strange to her as any foreign country.
There are no signs or obvious landmarks; the driver seems to know by intuition which forks in the road to take.
Filsan asks how nomads navigate on moonless nights in these desolate areas, and he points up to the sky. ‘Maybe God tells them or they still know the old maps of the stars and find their way like that.’
Her own ancestors were merchants on her father’s side and sorghum farmers on her mother’s; her people weren’t wanderers but sedate accumulators of land and wealth. It seems as if this wild terrain had determined the character of the people or had attracted like-minded spirits to dwell upon it. As the lorry approaches the border with Ethiopia it begins to climb slowly but steadily, the air fresh and scented by the yellow flowers of gum arabic trees. A young shepherd hides behind a thicket of acacia as the convoy passes, his small figure just visible between the scrubby crowns, his black-headed sheep grazing across a vast distance.
It is a tuulo, barely even a village: a few beehive-shaped dwellings with old cloth hanging from their entrances, a tea shop with kettles resting on open fires, one solitary stone building with a tin roof, goats, stray children, a cleared space under a tall tree for religious lessons and clan meetings. The elders have been summoned and Filsan remembers her role in this theatre. She steps forward to intercept the three men but they ignore her, and carry on with their sticks and bandy legs to a conscript behind.
She grabs the man on the right by the arm, ‘Jaalle, it is me you need to speak with.’
He is a thin, wiry man but he shakes her off with surprising force. Filsan pursues, not willing to ask for anyone’s assistance in dealing with him. She wants to drag him back by the long tufts of grey hair skirting his bald pate and make him kneel at her feet. She catches up with him and shoves the barrel of her gun in the small of his back. ‘Stop!’
He freezes and turns slowly to face her.
She withdraws the rifle but holds it tightly, still aimed in his direction.
‘My commander has delegated me to speak with you. We are here with the full authority of the revolutionary government. There is strong evidence that you have been assisting the outlawed National Freedom Movement, and to prevent further collaboration the berkeds surrounding this settlement will be destroyed.’ Filsan speaks in a rush, not stopping to breathe. ‘You are still entitled to use your traditional drop wells and will be supplied with supplementary water once a month by the local government.’
The whole village now seems to have crowded around her. The other soldiers have disappeared into the shacks.
‘This is government land,’ Filsan raises her voice and gestures to the expanse beyond them, ‘and you do not even deny that you use the berkeds to support the terrorists.’
The third elder, younger than the other two and still possessing a full head of black hair, joins the conversation. ‘Jaalle,’ he says mockingly, ‘we use those berkeds to water our camels, our goats and sheep, to perform ablutions before prayers, for a cup of tea in the mornings. We have nothing to spare for anything else. We are in the middle of a long drought; do you think we would give water to rebels?’
And then a huge plume of water, mud and stone flies into the sky to the west of the village, the bellow of the dynamite echoing against the limestone hills. The villagers run towards the explosions, the elders in the lead, children yelping in excitement and fear behind them.
Filsan catches up with the crowd just as Lieutenant Afrah orders the final detonation. The rectangular cement walls of the nearest berked have been blown into fragments and fresh water glides over the parched, eroded earth and slips quietly into deep cracks on the surface.
The destruction silences the elders but she can sense their anger in the same way she had learned to read her father’s; the set of their jaws, the tension in their shoulders, their bodies angled away from the subject of their hate.
The commandos begin to filter into view, smiling and relaxed, unconcerned by the reaction of the villagers. These kinds of raids are welcome to them, bringing minimal risk and potential loot. Filsan pants after her chase and presses her palm against the stitch in her ribs. The villagers are rooted to the soil, their heads turning from crater to crater, false rain dripping from the acacias. She marches towards the elders, intending to explain the necessity of the action, the benefits they could enjoy if they only shunned the rebels, the projects that they might partake in to diversify the local economy.
The red-haired elder swivels at her approach and swings his cane at her face. She doesn’t notice her finger squeeze the trigger of her rifle as her whole body recoils from the blow. The knock of the rifle against her chest surprises her as does the sudden pop of bullets. When the elder falls back onto his behind she assumes that he has lost his balance trying to strike her, until points of blood spring up over his shirt, turning the white cloth a red that darkens before her eyes. Then the two other elders decide to drop to the ground too, their open eyes still watching her; movements at the periphery of her vision are blurred so she does not recognize the grey shadows as her comrades advancing on the prostrate men.
‘Hold fire!’ shouts Lieutenant Afrah.
Filsan looks down at her feet and sees bronzed beetles scuttling over them. She presses one boot on the other, and the beetles are stilled, transformed into empty bullet shells.
The elders are slumped over each other like drunks; a howl sweeps over the plain as first one woman and then another and then another rushes to the dead and dying bodies.
Filsan tries to step forward but her boots feel cemented down.
Lieutenant Afrah aims his Kalashnikov at the young men in the crowd. ‘Get back! Back! Back!’
A group of soldiers corner the youths and force them back to the cleared space at the centre of the threadbare settlement. Filsan notices for the first time how thin their calves are, just shafts of bone below their frayed sarongs. They are hustled away, hands on the back of their afros, to squat in the sun until the soldiers depart.
An old woman pulls the wives off the corpses and shrouds the men’s faces under a shawl. She says nothing but turns to Filsan and points a finger; whether it is to lay blame, mark her out for retribution or curse her, Filsan cannot decipher.
‘Get in the truck, jaalle, we will secure the area,’ Lieutenant Afrah orders.
Filsan peers down at her distant boots. ‘But I can’t move.’
Afrah clicks his fingers and a conscript no older than fifteen comes to his side. ‘Escort her back to the truck.’
The conscript takes her elbow gently, like he would with his grandmother, and leads her forward as she stumbles over the broken ground.
‘You did well, jaalle,’ he keeps repeating in her ear, as they trek the half-mile back to the vehicles.
‘But what happened? Who killed them?’ she whispers.
Filsan smoothes her palms over her wooden desk, enjoying its solidity; she closes her eyes and sees the elders looking back at her. Captain Yasin makes an aeroplane from a card and throws it at her desk; it glides just short and lands beside her feet. It is her request for leave stamped with ‘approved’. Filsan will soon be back in her yellow room with the cherry-print curtains. She craves Intisaar’s cooking, her crispy lamb sambuusi, the grilled fish served with spiced and sweetened vermicelli, and hot oily bajiye dipped in green chilli sauce. Intisaar the maid, paid a thousand shillings a week, has been everything a mother should be to her; while her own children were raised by their grandmother she laboured in the malign atmosphere of their silent house. Filsan writes down a list of things to buy Intisaar from Hargeisa, items that show she knows her and has been thinking about her – a silver necklace or even a gold one if she can afford it, imported Taarab records, support bandages for her swollen knees. The last item might be the most appreciated now that Intisaar has crossed the border from middle age into old age; at fifty-seven the marrow starts to dry up, she said in her musical Bajuni accent, from then on you are just waiting for your bones to turn to dust.
Filsan opens a window to clear the room of the Captain’s cigarette smoke and stands idly for a moment watching the wind shake desiccated leaves into the yard. ‘You want to come to Saba’ad with me?’ Captain Yasin’s voice startles her. ‘I’m going to check on the militia there for the paramilitary report.’
The report I will end up writing, thinks Filsan as she sinks into her chair.
‘Come on, it will be good for you to see them.’
‘What about these files?’
‘They’re not going to walk away, are they?’ He pulls her up from her chair. ‘Come on. It is an order.’
Filsan scribbles a note on her desk with her whereabouts and follows him to the jeep.
Saba’ad is twenty miles north-east of Hargeisa. The largest of five refugee camps in the north-western region, it has grown and established itself as a kind of satellite town and stretches as far as the eye can see. Twenty thousand Ethiopian Somali refugees scratch out a living here, having first fled the fighting between ’77 and ’78 and then the subsequent famines in eastern Ethiopia.
The camp’s residents live in a mishmash of dwellings scrabbled together from donated tarpaulin, acacia twigs, old cloth and scavenged metal. Dust blows up in large gusts from the denuded landscape. Filsan covers her nose and eyes against the sand and keeps close behind Captain Yasin. At different points of the camp, various charities maintain schools, clinics, community centres; German, Irish and American aid workers mark out their own fiefdoms with flags and acronym-heavy placards. Looking down on the camp brings home just how great Somalia’s humiliation was in the war; these people have land, homes and farms just a few miles away but subsist here on gruel.
Captain Yasin had told the militia leader to meet him by the burial ground to the west of the camp and the men are waiting, around fifty or so, squatting between the rocks placed to mark graves. The fighters are ragged teenagers in sarongs and vests; they are armed with long sticks and wear sandals made of tyre rubber. They rise as Captain Yasin and Filsan climb towards them.
‘Is this all of you?’ Captain Yasin asks.
The militia leader is tall and skeletal; a green cap obscures his eyes. ‘No, we have more but they are tending what animals they still have.’ His voice is grainy, dry.
‘This is Corporal Adan Ali, she will be working with you too.’
They squint in Filsan’s direction.
‘We need to know how many of you there are before we can arrange proper arms.’
‘When we have our weapons then we will come out into the open. Not before.’
The leader scrapes pictures into the grit as he speaks; straight lines, suns, hills, curved horns. ‘We are waiting for the signal.’
The teenagers watch her with benign interest, their arms draped over each other’s shoulders; they have the lean limbs of marathon runners but are penned into this prison of sand and rock.
‘It won’t be long now. You must gather as many men as possible. Organize them. Discipline them,’ Captain Yasin exhorts.
‘It will happen.’ The leader hawks and spits into his drawing. ‘What will you give us for the time being?’
The teenagers lean forward to hear the response.
‘We will set aside more rations for you but there is little we can do until we are able to take control of the city.’
Filsan looks up quizzically.
The leader nods, defeated. ‘We will just wait, then.’
‘Don’t despair. Soon your fortunes will change for the better. Within the month you will have rifles, RPGs, transport. This girl will make sure of that.’ He gestures to Filsan.
She doesn’t understand what he is referring to. Why would they give RPGs to these refugees when Somalia already has one of the largest armies in Africa? She wonders if he has drawn her into weapon smuggling. She imagines what her father would say if she were court-martialled over something so squalid. Turning on her heels she abandons the gathering and traces the route back to the jeep. Captain Yasin is soon beside her but she speeds on, ignoring him.
‘What’s wrong?’ He pulls her arm back.
‘Let me go!’ She wrenches it free, not caring that he is her superior.
‘Wait, Filsan! What’s the problem?’
‘I will report you, Captain, you can commit as many crimes as you want, but you won’t drag me down with you.’
‘Don’t think I’m stupid. I may be a woman but I can’t be fooled so easily.’
‘What are you talking about?’
Filsan stops abruptly and lowers her voice. ‘You are selling arms.’
He bends back with laughter. ‘You’re crazy! Selling arms? To them? And what would they pay me in?’
‘So why tell them they will receive rocket-propelled grenades?’
He pulls her close. ‘Because that is what the government wants. We can’t talk about this here.’ He takes her arm again and marches her to the car.
‘Get in the jeep,’ he orders. ‘I can’t tell you everything but I will tell you what I know.’
They drive away from Saba’ad in silence and only when they have reached the long, empty road to Hargeisa does Captain Yasin feel comfortable talking. ‘The government has decided that the situation as it stands is untenable. If the NFM continue to attack a village here, a battalion there, other clan militias will become emboldened and soon we will be fighting on twenty fronts.’
Filsan has never seen him so serious before. She watches his sharp profile and feels that old desire for him creeping up on her.
‘They, all of the leadership in Mogadishu and Hargeisa too, have decided that there has to be a change.’
‘What kind of change?’
‘An end to it all. The whole population must be resettled to prevent the terrorists taking over.’
‘All the towns, Hargeisa, Burao, Berbera, anywhere the rebels might gather.’ He wipes sweat from his upper lip with his wrist.
‘When will this happen?’
It seems sensible, final, an improvement on this constant, draining game.
‘How do you know about it?’
Captain Yasin smiles. ‘Ahh, don’t you know that I am in the inner circle?’
‘When will the rest of us be told?’
‘When it is absolutely necessary and, Filsan, please, you cannot tell anyone about this, or we will both end up in jail.’ He holds her gaze in the rear-view mirror.
‘Don’t insult me. I am not some market gossip. I take my work more seriously than anyone else.’
‘I know that.’ He nods. ‘That’s why I told you.’
The next day, Captain Yasin leaves for lunch alone but as evening approaches, when her fingers sting from the impact of the typewriter keys, he mooches over to her desk and asks what she plans to do with her evening.
‘Poor girl, is that the extent of your existence?’
Filsan sits rigidly. ‘I am not here for fun. I want to make something of myself.’
‘Life is to be enjoyed.’
‘For layabouts and street boys, maybe.’
‘No, for you and for me too. Let me take you out to dinner.’
Filsan’s eyes sweep down to her hands. ‘I don’t know.’
‘I don’t know? Are your books really more interesting than me?’
‘I have work to do.’
‘As do I. Let’s discuss it over a meal.’
Captain Yasin waits under an electricity pole a hundred yards from the barracks. He appears thin and angular in a white shirt that glows fluorescent in the dim light. She has changed into a pair of flared jeans and a loose red tunic with a shawl over her shoulders. They meet awkwardly and shake hands under the light of a nearby tea stall, her hand tiny in his.
‘Roble, pleased to meet you.’ He hides his grin.
Walking beside him, Filsan feels a static charge as if the cables above are lightly electrifying them; it surprises her how good it feels to stand beside a man and know that he has picked her from all of the other women he could have.
Roble leads the way with his hands in his pockets and makes small talk about the restaurants he likes, the hotels that serve alcohol, the best places to meet senior officials.
He draws her away from the road as a truck passes perilously close; the curfew is imminent and civilian vehicles rush to their destinations despite the derelict condition of the road.
They turn right at a checkpoint, he raising a hand in greeting to the group of soldiers behind the barrier, and enter the Safari, an open-air restaurant with tame wildlife roaming the grounds.
It is packed with men in uniform, seated on white plastic chairs around tables set unevenly into the gravel beneath. Red light bulbs hang in a chain from one corner to the next and the drone of a generator masks the music from two large speakers.
The men glance up from their card games and meals to judge the woman in their midst.
‘Is this OK?’ Roble asks, pointing to a dark table under a bougainvillea bush.
Filsan knows what the stares mean. That she is a whore to be seen in public with a man she isn’t married to. Their eyes are still on her as she slips into the chair. A waiter in a black bow tie and shoes with the soles slapping free appears quickly beside Roble.
He orders two colas and a lamb platter.
Slowly attention drifts away from Filsan back to the red nucleus of the restaurant.
‘Bedus.’ Roble smiles. ‘You would think they have never seen a woman before.’
‘Uneducated, that is all.’
‘Or jealous.’ Roble strokes her little finger with his knuckle.
‘Don’t do that.’ Filsan snatches her hands from his reach.
He raises his palms in acquiescence.
‘Why are you not married already?’
‘No one has wanted me.’
‘Do you know the reason why?’
‘No, why?’ Filsan smiles with surprise. She decides to be candid tonight, to not hold back for once.
‘Because you act like you don’t need anybody.’
‘I don’t need anyone but that doesn’t mean that I don’t want certain things.’
‘And those certain things are?’
‘Someone by my side, on my side, who I can share my thoughts with.’
Roble lights a cigarette, adding another pinprick of light to the dark. ‘Thoughts about the organizational budget of our office, or other thoughts?’
‘All kinds. You wouldn’t guess how far and deep my thoughts reach.’
‘Ahh, so you are philosophizing up there in your little room.’
The waiter returns with a tray piled high with rice and a lamb shoulder and two cola bottles rough with reuse.
‘Sometimes, and other times I am just wishing something good would happen in my life.’
‘Something like me?’
Filsan raises an eyebrow. ‘That is very arrogant.’
‘Accepted, but is it wrong?’
‘I don’t know yet. Why have you suddenly become so attentive?’
‘Time. We have much less time than we realize, especially as soldiers, and I don’t want to wait for anything.’
Filsan lifts the bottle to her mouth to hide her smile. ‘That is very dramatic. But our office is pretty safe, isn’t it?’
‘For now. But don’t worry, you have me to protect you.’
‘I think I would be better at protecting you.’
‘You would type them into submission, I’m sure.’
Roble walks Filsan back to the barracks. The curfew has shut up the civilians inside their homes, with only the faint smells of charcoal and spice and paraffin lights hinting at their existence. The street is dark and deserted, apart from the squeak and rustle of stray cats chasing mice and the soldiers at the checkpoint talking softly over the hiss of a radio. Filsan looks up; the sky stretched over them like a dome is alive with stars; thin black clouds with haloes of white and silver pass over the half-moon. It is a city up there, teeming with life.
‘You know that on clear nights you can spot satellites?’
‘I’ve heard that. In Mogadishu there are too many lights to see anything like this.’ Filsan carries on staring at the heavens and stumbles over a stone.
Roble catches her by the waist and rights her; for a moment her hands rest on his and then she pushes them away.
They stroll slowly to the barracks, unafraid. Filsan remembers reading once that the night was made for lovers, each pair invisible to the rest. It had been in a romance novel she had found under her bed, left behind by her American cousin Rahma.
‘You should stop here in case anyone sees you,’ Filsan says, turning to him and holding out her hand. ‘See you tomorrow.’
Roble chuckles at her formality but shakes her hand.
He waits for her to pass the sentry gate and enter the compound. Out of sight in the stairwell, Filsan watches him turn and walk away. She feels a pang in her chest as he strides, head bowed, into the dark. He seems so vulnerable, prey to whatever ghosts or beasts might assail him. Filsan begins to blow a kiss at his back but feels ridiculous and just follows his white shirt as it disappears into the night like a ship’s sail surrounded by high waves and low clouds.
Photograph © Nadav Kander