Africa’s mid-day heat was forgotten by the teacher and children when they heard the gunfire. It was the deep, thudding sound of Kalashnikov AK-47’s, and they were close.
All the eyes in the room opened wider; the dimples faded, and some of the young mouths hung open like those of stunned fish. The woman at the chalkboard rallied the youngsters.
“Go children!” Miss Henry shouted and pointed to the back door. “Run. Run to the caves!” Her heart pounded, but she retained her composure for the sake of the children. She noted how the innocent youngsters remained silent as they formed an orderly file. Some of them glanced back nervously at their teacher before stepping out into the heat.
Miss Charity Henry watched through the back window as her charges dispersed and disappeared into the greenery.
Jojo, a handsome lad of 14 years, started to follow his classmates, but then hesitated inside the doorway. They’d performed the drill just as they had practised, but on this occasion their teacher had remained by her desk. Charity saw the oldest boy stop and turn.
“Miss Henry,” Jojo pleaded, “you must come too.”
“Not this time Jojo,” she said and walked towards the boy. “You go now and take care of the children for me; please.”
She held his face in both hands and saw his eyes glistening. “Go, now Jojo.”
Jojo blinked several times, then turned and ran.
Although Charity’s eyes were moist, she would not cry. She had first witnessed the terror of village attacks when only nine years old. Her father had been murdered that day. The mental scars never faded as the little girl became a teenager. When Charity got the opportunity to go to the big city, she promised her mother that she would return to teach. She also paid a visit to her father’s grave but made a promise of a different kind.
Charity Henry had been born in Terengi village, situated 50 miles from the nearest town. As a 15-year-old, she had left home to study in Nairobi. She excelled in her chosen path, returning to visit her family only twice a year until she graduated as a teacher. Charity’s permanent return home had caused mixed feelings.
The village people were delighted to see one of their daughters returning to educate the children, but not everybody felt the same. Gravestones represented Charity’s father and two brothers, so her mother begged her to find her way in the world.
‘Go and live somewhere safe in a distant town.’ Her mother had pleaded. ‘You are only 23 years old and have your life ahead of you.’
Charity had explained that she wanted to come back home to teach the generations that had been born after her. She wanted to give them a better start in life than they might otherwise have.
Uppermost in Charity’s mind whilst studying was always the urge to teach, but lurking under the surface was the burning desire to make a stand and to avenge the deaths of relatives and friends. While she had been a student, Charity had made contact with people who could help her in her private cause.
Another burst of machine-gun fire invaded the normally tranquil location. The sound was louder than before. They must be in the village, Charity thought as she glanced at her watch.
Perspiration started to form on Charity’s flawless ebony skin. She looked through the gaps that served as windows on the northern side of the tiny mud and straw schoolroom. Less than 20 metres away the brush grew dense as it reached out into the wilderness. There wasn’t a child to be seen. Charity’s lips merely twitched when she attempted a smile.
It had been at university that the idea of an emergency evacuation had occurred to her. Now looking around the empty classroom reminded her of the effectiveness of a disciplined exit during fire drills.
Volleys of gunfire overlapped each other as the invaders finally arrived in the centre of the village. Shouts turned to screams. Women ran onto the dusty track to gather up terrified, traumatised toddlers. Six women raised their arms to beg for mercy, but three of them were gunned down where they stood. There were no men to run to their aid or defence because any men capable of doing so had been murdered in previous raids.
In the school hut, Charity swallowed hard and turned to open the book cupboard. She pulled away a secret wooden panel she’d installed, and lifted out a canvas satchel. She checked the contents before slinging it over her left shoulder. As she reached into the cupboard again, she lifted out the hidden AK-47 assault rifle and three magazines.
Even as she set the large Russian-made firearm down on the desk it caused a cold shiver to run through Charity’s body. She lifted each magazine in turn and just as she had been taught, pressed down on the top bullets to ensure that the device was fully loaded. Each magazine held 30 rounds of ammunition.
Pressing down bullets in this way was a simple technique that also checked that the spring mechanism was working. Charity clipped the first magazine onto the rifle and placed the other two into her satchel.
The enormity of what she was about to attempt struck her full force as she lifted the heavy gun. For a moment, her legs wouldn’t move, and she became conscious of her breathing and heartbeat increasing. Her lips and mouth were dry. She was confident when it came to shooting at a harmless wooden target on a firing range. Charity now wondered about her ability to shoot a living, breathing human being in the same way.
“Forgive me God,” she whispered. “Please guide my hand for what I must do. Keep the children safe.” She pulled back on the small cocking handle, and the rifle was ready. As she walked away from the cupboard, she lifted her bright coloured headscarf and stuffed it into the satchel.
Charity glanced through the front windows and saw two pick-up trucks disgorging armed men. As she assessed their numbers, it was easy to recognise the red, green and white of their bandanas. The men were members of the Marawi terror group whose colours stood for blood, earth, and the purity of their deadly purpose. Genocide was the international name for it.
When the time looked right, Charity stepped halfway into the main doorway, raised the assault rifle into the aim and fired two short bursts of deliberate fire at the windscreens of both trucks. She then riddled the front tyres with two more bursts.
In the few seconds of disbelief that followed for the men, Charity sprinted across the dusty street and followed a rehearsed route between the village huts. She carried the rifle across her athletic body as she ran, ready to stop and fire at any point. Charity could hear men shouting but was relieved that there was no more gunfire. She knew the surviving men must be giving chase.
Charity reached the perimeter of the village and took cover behind a large tree while she assessed her next move. She could hear muffled shouts. The terrorists were moving from one hut to the next searching for the lone woman who had dared to stand against them.
In a small area of woodland about 100 metres from the village, a movement caught Charity’s eye. She stared for a moment and realised it was her grandfather and an old friend of his. They had both been seriously wounded in a previous attack, but despite their efforts to defend the village several women had died. The two old men had imposed on themselves a life on the fringe of the village perimeter because they felt their honour had been lost.
Charity had visited her grandfather and his friend on her return from Nairobi. At that time, she had told them what would be required if this day ever came. Both men were in their 70’s, but still felt the need to make a stand. The pair had considered the pretty young daughter of the village an avenging angel. They had looked at her with sympathy as she had explained her plan until she handed them loaded automatic pistols.
‘If they come to harm us my elders,’ she had said. ‘We will fight them together.’
She gave them instruction in the use of the modern handguns and knew that a sense of honour, belonging and guardianship had returned to the two men.
It took Charity 15 minutes to arrive in her temporary sanctuary of heavy scrub, trees and the occasional rocky outcrop. She regained control of her breathing, glanced up at the gradient ahead and then started to climb. Charity carried her rifle in her right hand and used her left to grip and pull as she ascended via her chosen route. She climbed, pausing occasionally to listen for her pursuers. Charity couldn’t help thinking about the beginning of her dream, to be a teacher in her village.
Like many such villages across the vast continent there existed a need within the local community to believe that they had a wonderful tomorrow. For some, it was a belief stronger than religion that kept them strong. It was this same faith that had driven Charity.
When she was 10 years old, an international mission had set up the village school and a pale-skinned English woman in her mid 20’s had been the first teacher. The pretty white woman was a font of knowledge, teaching the children everything from English and history to simple arithmetic and geography. By the time Charity was 11, she wanted to be a teacher, and through sheer effort and desire, had achieved her goal.
At one point, when she paused in her climb, Charity looked down through the crevice between two large rocks. Except for the men she’d managed to injure in the dusty street, all of the others were chasing her. Charity nodded with satisfaction and pulled out her second magazine. It was full, which meant she had in excess of 50 rounds remaining.
A wry smile played over her lips as she thought back to university. When some of the other students went off on day trips or attended social events, Charity attended a shooting range. At first there was no chance of her joining the club, then she befriended Kenny Osagi, the 25-year-old son of the Chief of Police. When Kenny and the other members saw Charity’s prowess with a weapon, she became the darling of the shooting club, and its first black female member.
A series of pings sounded as bullets bounced off rocks up ahead. One of the armed thugs thought he could scare her out of hiding. The gunman’s spray of rapid fire merely served to waste ammunition. The bullets ricocheted from the sun-baked surfaces of the rocky outcrop and flew off harmlessly into the scrub below.
Charity glanced upwards and noted the silent scavengers in the sky. Overhead a vigil was being undertaken by vultures as they glided effortlessly on the thermals. The birds’ eyes peered from bald, pink heads which were themselves protruding from white feather collars and black bodies. Like much of Africa’s wildlife, vultures seemed to sense when a meal might be forthcoming.
Another spray of bullets thudded and bounced from the rocks into the air. Charity shook her head at the lack of discipline as she used a small space between the rocks to observe her pursuers. “You might live to regret such a careless act,” she whispered as she caught sight of a gunman fitting a fresh magazine. Charity paused to lift her headscarf from the satchel.
The avenging angel controlled her breathing, lifted the rifle, took aim and fired a single shot. There was a scream of pain, which was good because there had been no question of killing the man. Apart from her shooting practise, Charity had learned that it was better to seriously wound the enemy. It would take another man to care for each of the wounded, meaning that each bullet worked twice as hard.
The man Charity had shot had a bullet in his upper thigh and was screaming. The sound echoed across the land and Charity hoped it would reach the ears of the villagers. Even as the thought came to her, she heard four single, evenly spaced, low-velocity shots from the direction of the village huts far below the escarpment. Pistol shots!
Following the shots down below, the men on the hillside started to shake their heads and wave their arms at each other. One man stood up like an alert meerkat; head turning this way and that, counting his team. They had left four injured comrades down in the village; which was full of women and children.
Another mystified man stood briefly to try a head count, but a single shot from Charity’s rifle high above forced them to reconsider their priorities. The man who had been the second one to stand up was rolling around in the dense brush screaming in agony.
Three of the terrorists opened fire at once, spraying gunfire across the rocky hillside above them. It was a futile gesture, serving only to relieve their frustration and chip sections of the rocky outcrop.
Charity waited until after the final ricochet and then fired a long burst, moving her aim steadily from left to right. As she reached the end of her burst of fire, she got the result she’d wanted. Charity had removed three more men from the fight; permanently. She knew she’d already injured two men in the front of each of the two trucks, and two on the gradient.
Since achieving her vantage point she’d been able to count the men following, however apart from those easily seen, there was a man in deep cover on the hillside. The elusive man gave himself away by popping his head up when Charity had used the steady burst. Unlike his comrades this individual understood tactics. He was at least 50 metres to the group’s left flank. Charity could see that his intention was to edge further out of her line of fire to try to sneak up to the side of her position.
Within the rocky fortress, stage by stage, Charity climbed higher. She had performed rehearsals many times, in both daylight and darkness, so she was as comfortable here as she was in the tiny classroom.
There was a position above that she knew to be ideal, giving almost 360 degrees of visibility, but with sufficient cover to protect her. She checked for the terrorist who was on his own, but although she spotted him once again, he remained in cover whenever possible.
Charity paused during her ascent and looked back. One man had left reasonable cover. Charity knelt behind a rock, took aim and shot the man in the shoulder. He dropped his weapon, spun around and rolled down the hillside, howling in pain. There was a muffled command, and two men ran through the scrub. One went downhill and stopped to tend to the wounded man, but the other man continued uphill and out to the right flank. It was as he unhitched the large weapon from across his back that his intention became clear.
The terrorist who had been dispatched to deal with Charity was carrying a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG). Charity knew it was a superb weapon in certain circumstances, and this was one such occasion. The RPG, originally designed as an anti-tank weapon had over more recent years been adopted by terror groups as a general purpose mini rocket-launcher.
It took less than a minute for the handler to remove the two-metre long wide barrelled launcher from across his back. At the rear end, it had a wooden butt and trigger mechanism similar to most rifles, but at the business end the grenade protruded. What could be seen was similar to an egg, except with a pointed rather than rounded end.
At the base of the grenade was a cylindrical section. This section was held within the end of the launcher tube. When the handler squeezed the trigger, the grenade would launch. It would be at that point that a set of fins would be un-sheathed from the tail-end cylinder. Even if the grenade missed the target by a few metres, the resulting explosion would create a rocky grave for anyone hiding amongst the ancient rugged forms.
Charity knew from watching newsreels that the grenade travelled slow enough to be watched by the naked eye. It would be an unsettling spectacle for anyone. As the conical nose of the grenade was lifted clear of the large rock it pointed in an uphill direction.
Weapons like the RPG are only as good as the handler, which means the man with his finger on the trigger should have a clear target.
Charity held her rifle in the aim. She closed her left eye and focused on her target through her sights using her right eye. A deep breath, an exhalation and then Charity’s body adopted a frozen posture. During the next few seconds, it was imperative that the only part of her body that moved was her trigger finger.
The conical shape of the RPG moved a little as the launcher barrel was rested on the rock. Charity watched the man move his head slightly to the right to use the rubberised telescopic sight. She saw his lips twist into a smile as looked back at her high above.
In the instant before she fired, Charity saw the man’s right forefinger start to curl slowly around the trigger. Charity held her nerve and squeezed her trigger finger back slowly. A small projectile travelling at 700 metres per second was sent downhill, through the telescopic sight, the right eye, and the right side of the terrorist’s brain. Charity had fired first.
As Charity expected might happen, the man on the other flank took his chance and began a long and hopeful run up through the bushes away from the main assault. He got to within 100 metres of Charity’s location. He paused, got down behind a bush on one knee and raised his head to gulp in air.
Charity saw the barrel of the man’s rifle lift through the branches of the bush. The weapon was being raised into the aim, but the gunman would have to lift his head to ensure he was looking at his target within the rocks.
Charity smiled as she realised how obvious a target her bright coloured headscarf would be. The gunman never had time to register the flash as the bullet with his name on it left Charity’s rifle. The bright-coloured headscarf continued to flutter in the breeze, still attached to a rock a metre to Charity’s right.
Three men of exceptional courage, or possibly exceptional stupidity, decided to run uphill in a zigzag fashion. A single long burst emptied Charity’s first magazine and ended the impulsive assault. The bodies of all three men convulsed like electrocuted marionettes as the heavy calibre bullets thudded into them. Charity replaced her magazine with a fully loaded one, watched and waited.
Charity’s resolve was bolstered as she thought of the children. She was prepared to give her life to maintain their safety. Jojo knew what he had to do if his teacher didn’t make it to the secret cave by nightfall. Charity’s eyes misted as she considered that possible outcome. It was a heavy responsibility for the boy to shepherd the younger children across the country to safety.
Unless she had missed somebody in her body count, there was one very careful opponent still concealed in the bushes downhill to her front, and two men attending to the wounded. As she concentrated and scoured the brush for the hidden man, it occurred to her that he might be the ringleader; happy to send others to their deaths.
A movement caught Charity’s eye, and she looked towards the village. From her canvas satchel, she pulled a pair of binoculars and focused on the scrub between the village and the hillside. Two old men were ascending the gradient.
Their honour would be regained. Charity watched as her grandfather and his equally old and frail friend hobbled uphill. For the first time in the entire battle, a tear rolled down Charity’s cheek.
Much closer to her position, there was a rustling sound and a man stood up in full view from behind a bush, a little to Charity’s right side. This move meant that she would have to turn her entire body to aim and fire. Charity saw the man’s gloating smile as he raised and aimed his rifle, but Charity rolled onto her back. They fired at the same time.
Charity squealed in pain as a bullet tore the flesh from the outer part of her left shoulder. She watched and sighed with relief as the terrorist leader fell backwards silently to roll down the hill. The man’s eyes had still open though unseeing.
As Charity regained her firing position, she heard a series of five or perhaps six shots and lifted her binoculars to take a better look.
Towards the bottom of the hill, the two attackers she’d injured were dead, and so too was one of the men sent to give them aid. Nearby, one of the village’s old heroes was lying in a patch of blood-soaked sand. The other old man stood defiant, unarmed and bleeding heavily from a shoulder injury. He was standing a few metres away from the terrorist, who was advancing, wielding a machete.
Charity dropped her binoculars and ignoring the pain in her shoulder, took aim. Three seconds later, the man with the machete dropped the weapon and fell face forward. The old man collapsed, but Charity hoped he would live to tell his tale over a campfire.
By the end of the day, Terengi looked a little strange because Charity had summoned and briefed the villagers. There were no bodies in the dusty street. The terrorist’s bodies had been dragged on litters far out into the bush to feed the hungry, but it would be the wild hungry.
The bodies of the dead villagers had been taken to the local burial site. It was a consecrated area a few hundred metres away.
At about 50 metres from the west end of the village, the burnt out shell of a terrorist pick-up was located. Tied at the back of the cab were two damaged assault rifles in the form of a cross. A similar sight greeted anybody arriving from the east. There would be no misunderstanding of the symbolism. The wooden stocks of the crossed-rifles on bothtrucks bore a crudely engraved message: ‘With faith, hope and Charity.’