The day had slowed to a halt and we were anticipating the events later on in the evening. I swung to and fro in my thoughts while lying on our sofa on that late Thursday afternoon. Quite satisfied with our efforts in a democratic Fiji and voicing our displeasure at the current government, I felt we had gained a small victory.
Suddenly, there was a knock at the door. The voice behind it was terse and crisp.
‘Bogi!’ (Good evening). In Fiji, it is customary to wait behind the door, especially if it is closed, save for the customary bogi before the host opens the door for any visitor.
I opened the door to find three Fijian soldiers greeting me with a somber look, though I could detect a faint smell of Fiji Beer. Two of them were quite tall and chocolate-coloured, and looked to be in their thirties while the short stocky man seemed to be in his twenties.
‘Yes, what is it? Who…who do you want to see?’ I asked. I squinted my eyes to see if I knew our visitors. No, they were all strangers before me.
There were just the red edges left of the Fijian sunset in our area in a suburban Suva community. Ahhh….there would be so much fun tonight. The whole of Suva would be here celebrating ‘Christmas Island’ style.
I was just waiting for my friends to call me for our usual pub-crawling around the Suva night scene. The Fijian, the Indian, the Chinese and all other ethnicities would congregate on the streets tonight. They would forget about politics and try and have a good time. Then there would be the occasional tourists eager to get a piece of Suva’s night-life.
‘You are needed’, the short stocky man curtly disturbed my thoughts unceremoniously. ‘There is a meeting for the Military Council at the camp tonight and we would like to get you and your team to be observers.’
This mechanical order was delivered by one of the tall men with his gaze steadfast on me. I felt like an insect under one of those University of the South Pacific laboratory microscope on a scientific lab session. His eyes were intense and loathed me for some reasons I did not know.
Why was he so angry? Did I do something wrong? I was fighting for the truth even if everyone was silent.
The whole of 2006, I had dedicated my life in voicing out our displeasure on the interim government of the day. A government led by a former naval-officer-turned-army commander cannot be long-lasting unless it’s laced with deceit and legalized to the core. Bainimarama’s rise to power had been swift and strategic. He led the Fiji government or the whole country like an army general delivering orders to his subordinates. If there were oppositions then they were dealt with swiftly.
The whole of Fiji was under the puppet master. They acted to his every whim. It was sad no one had the courage to stand up against his bulldog tactics because it seemed he got the upper hand each time if they eventually do. The brave voices that dared to stand up to the regime were silenced into belittlement.
Silencing did come in many forms. Forms that kept us awake at night or stares into space.
We were for the minorities that dared to speak out. After our lectures in the University of the South Pacific, we would congregate in one of the bures, a convenience for students. There, we would be planning our next strategy. Our last effort was the anti-regime banner we posted in Lami, featured prominently on a strategic point where all can see on their way to the Suva city.
By the end of 2006, the government had taken firm control over the media and the public were now fed the staple diet of censored news items. A tragedy indeed!
We hated it. How can these oppressors be running this country? How can people be content with it?
All those touristic images were the veneer of the real thing. Our bula smiles hid our divided hearts. Certainly the phrase that the Pope gave when he visited Fiji should be changed by now; Fiji, the way, the world should be. It was an iconic phrase having lost its relevance. We are like a broken record when the sweetness of the music goes off-tune. We are a country riddled not with bullets but with fear. Fear presented itself in a monstrous ugly snake rearing its head over the people. We were paralyzed and mesmerized by its lethal dance.
Paralyzed by the gun. And something else.
Even writers and intellectuals had lost their tune; their once melodious voice got off-tracked, their fine-tuned pens lost their silvery ink. The despot got the journalists’ throats; the bravest of them, I heard was told to run around at the soldier’s barracks and must have traumatized him so much that when he returned, he lost his pipe and dance. He was silenced into submission and now was ‘properly behaved without any latest controversy.’
I had heard about the beatings and army tirades on the civilians, yet have never experienced it.
Forget about the academics, they were well on the way of educating the next generation and forgetting their responsibilities as public intellectuals as well as a societal voice of reason. They were more interested in their area of expertise and nurturing their bread-and-butter. Who wanted to be a public intellectual? No one wanted to lose his job or get on the wrong side of the law.
The by-word now was to stay safe. Be safe, and no one will touch you.
The bravest of them was forced to resign. They had their payment of houses and future of their children to think of, but lost everything after barking the truth on this coconut isle. Perhaps, it was better to be safe then face the fire or the ire of the despot.
So there was no word of wisdom, no watch-dog in this broken paradise. It was a world of silence. I could not understand why there was no literary life, as when the aftermath of the 1987 coup attracted a flurry of literature from the Indian sections of the community and other sympathetic parties from all corners. What had changed? Who wanted to take this country forward? Where were the writers and the artists? Where were the indigenous people and their songs of freedom? It seemed that the whole nation was blanketed with ominous silence. It was infuriating.
Fiji had become a box of broken dreams. Our dreams had been shattered when this illegal government took over. They took our voice on a barrel of a gun. We were that un-weeded Garden of Eden.
I had been a member of the Youth Coalition, a group that spoke out against tyranny and injustice. Clearly, we saw a lot of injustices in the current government and so we spoke out in the kinds of media that were available. We were always online so the social media was the only relevant media to show our dismay over injustices in Fiji.
I looked back at the visitors and got ready to go and meet those officials.
The Land Rover looked like it had been worn out from meandering around in Suva. It was caked with dust. Its policing flashlights looked as if it had lost its luster. We must have been close by, as the engine took a slow turn in.
‘This meeting is timely,’ I thought. We have been trying to get a voice for so long and now we are meeting the Military Council; a powerful and influential voice in the government formed to advise the current government.
We must have been getting somewhere. I sighed at the anticipation of it all. The three soldiers were silent-like corpses in the Land Rover. It was like going to a funeral procession.
As soon as I reached the camp, I noticed that all the lights were turned off at Queen Elizabeth Barracks, save for the office in which I was ushered into. The moon is taking her time to make her routine journey.
I stuck around the reception area. There was a photo of Bainimarama on the wall and some army paraphernalia on the coffee table. The whole place outside was shrouded in darkness except for this lighthouse of a reception area.
‘Stay here!’ came the curt command again from the darkness.
‘Ay, bud. I didn’t know you were coming too,’ a clearly delighted familiar voice startled me. I saw my fellow comrades trooped in to the reception room. Tony, a tall, lithe, part-European man looked with surprise in my direction. He was the quiet supporter out of us, though he loved a taste of the Suva nightlife. Jone, a fellow Fijian, was the most radical of the group. He was the life-giving force in every meeting when we grew to be lethargic. Adrian, who was part Chinese, believed in the cause, as his mother was also a Fijian. We were all final-year students at uni so we met daily to discuss whatever was on the agenda. But tonight was filled with an air of anticipation and excitement.
There were high fives in the air.
‘This is good. Yeah, man. But good thing, we are seeing them tonight. I’d rather sacrifice my pub-crawl for this. What say, man?’ Tony quipped with furrowed brows.
‘This is good, man. This is for the future of this country. At least, we are standing up when the others are quiet’, Jone piped in from the corner.
‘Yeah…true, true. This could be it,’ muttered Adrian. ‘We are striking it for the first time.’
‘Yeah…we will wait and see what they say and we can tell them our side of the story,’ I finally agreed.
‘Bud, I am scared,’ whispered Tony, after a couple minutes. ‘What if…,’ he trailed off, leaving us to fill in what he wanted to say. Everyone looked outside and squeezed that thought out.
I brushed it aside. We were not here for that. We were here for progress.
So we waited for the Military Council to show. It was made up of some senior military officials tasked with the business of advising Bainimarama. However, the only thing that was overbearing about the place was Fiji Beer and some faint smell of hot stuff liquor all around.
‘This place smells like a brewery,’ I thought.
Out of our reverie, a voice called out in Fijian.
‘Dou lako mai ituba.’ (Come outside). The voice was terse and crisp. It cut the cold night air with a thin knife.
We trooped outside, all seven of us. The air was still reminiscent of alcohol now turned intoxicated. Somewhere in the sky, the stars reluctantly showed their glitter.
Suddenly out of nowhere, soldiers still in their green uniforms jumped out of nowhere and surprise us with a left hook. Someone jabbed my stomach before I had time to react.
My comrades were also stunned out of their senses. We had to think on our feet fast. Too bad. Nothing was coming except the assaulting hooks, jabs and feet. A voice taunted us nearby.
‘You are a bunch of lazy, no-good, low-life scum.’
‘Why you want to protest for…huh?’
I fell down and immediately was met with a heavy metallic kick. I could only hear screams from my comrades and shouts for mercy. There was always a smell of Fiji Bitter Beer hovering from the background.
‘Please stop!’ I begged for mercy.
No, the punches and the kicks followed, unrelenting.
‘Why did you make that statement, huh?’
A torrent of profanity followed from those words slurred with Fiji Bitter beer. I lost count of all the vulgar words thrown at us that night.
‘O God, oh please. I need to make out of this place alive,’ I silently pleaded to God.
‘O God, please…spare me. Spare me, please.’
Meanwhile the punches and the kicks continued. I was defenseless, as I could clearly see I was outnumbered.
We were outnumbered.
The night’s cold was kicking in.
All I could feel were those painful jabs on my tummy. Everywhere.
‘Au na vamatei iko nikua, sa rogoca!’ (I will kill you today, you hear me)
‘Vacu mai…a…vacu mai…dodoka mai na ligamu.’ (Come on punch me…give me your best shot…..all you got, where are your fists?)
Those menacing voices filled with hatred and alcohol were taunting us.
‘O dear Lord, please spare my life. I don’t wanna die just yet. Please! Lord!’
They could break my body, but not my spirit. Not my soul. This body can be damaged in a million pieces. Let them not take what kept this battle going. Let them not take my voice. I might be a bird, whose wings had been clipped, yet I must fight.
And so I fought back, but it was to no avail. Punches thrown into the wind were useless. I was clearly losing the fight.
I saw one of my friends faint and lapse into unconsciousness from the attacks. His face was kissing the cold dewy grass. These were professional men trained for warfare versus pimpled-faced college boys.
Amidst all the stomping and kicks, I lost track of the time. My mind flitted back to my house, my mother and sisters. I am sure they would be filled with trepidation as they waited for me to come back to them. My mother knew this moment was coming.
O God, my mother would be made motherless. I thought of the time the week before that she sat me down.
‘Sonny, you will need to stop saying things against the government, in the social media or the campaigns, wherever. You must stop.’
‘Oh, Ma, you know how far we have come. We cannot stop now.’
‘Yes, I know. I am your ma and I fear for your life. These men are running this government now and they will not flinch from taking illegal measures.’
‘No, Ma…everything will be just fine…we are taking extra precautions with the group.’
She shot me a look. She wasn’t convinced at all.
She had warned me of the steel brutality of these very soldiers, who did not mind taking a life tonight but blindly following orders in a drunken manner. I cannot listen. I will not. I believed in the cause and I cannot let them take this away from me. It was the only thing that mattered.
By this time, the moon decided to shine her face on my attackers. They certainly didn’t look like college boys. These were Fijian men in their forties against us boys in our twenties. We were seriously outnumbered. My attacker looked to be a man, brown-skinned and muscled, broadly built with white teeth gleaming in the moonlight. I thought he was smiling while executing my punishment.
While my world was spinning from this, a voice emerged from a distance away. It was The Megalomaniac himself, surrounded by his military council. Their faces remained partially visible under the moonlight.
I made a quick calculation. There were fifteen men altogether involved in this attack. I was knocked out of consciousness when The Megalomaniac kicked and punched me in the gut. By this time, I was vomiting blood. Yet I kept my spirit alive. I have to otherwise they will kill me.
‘Take them to the cricket pitch, the bastards! Give them a good taste of their own medicine!’ came the voice that belonged to the Megalomaniac. His demands were fully obeyed.
‘Write some more, talk to the media some more and you will come back to get it from here. Today, you end this, you hear me.’
I was grunting like a wounded dog lost in a fight. But the fight was not over.
‘Line up. Lie face down,’ the soldiers tasked with taking us to the cricket pitch bellowed in the night.
We scrambled to do what he was ordering us to do.
We heard another voice from afar barking orders to the puppet, who was accompanying us for further torture.
‘Run over them. I don’t care which point, just run them over!’
We braced ourselves from the onslaught of soldier’s boots. He was a big hefty man and we could feel every inch of his weight on our backs on that bright Christmas Eve. His face was filled with some mechanical hatred keen on taking his orders to task. Keen on making someone happy. Keen on ensuring his bank account would be constantly furnished fortnightly.
‘Keep your head down…’
‘This is what you will get when you are wannabes…’
A soldier came to me and pulled me by the hair, and started snapping his razor sharp scissors on patches of my hair.
‘I will cut you up and throw your pieces in the sea, you hear me. Nobody would know what happened to you. No one cares about you. Does Fiji care about you…no, nobody cares anymore…’
The slurs were filled with a disgusting smell of intoxicated breath. I could not say anything. My life was in his hands. He could have pinned that scissors in my poor heart.
Somewhere under the trees not far from where this brutal entertainment was going on, were Fijian men singing Christmas carols with a drunken tune.
Uhhhh…there goes the Jingle Bell again with a broken tune.
Suddenly, I wanted to laugh despite the pain.
The puppets from under the trees shouted out, ‘Punch them nicely. Give it to them. Serves them right.’
Shouts and cheers were coming from that corner. It was sickening that this was done by my own race. I could be someone’s son and yet they don’t care an inch.
Did I regret falling into this? Absolutely not. But I did felt partially to be blamed for my comrades’ fate.
I was slightly disoriented when I landed on the curb. It was fortunate that I didn’t bang my head on that pavement. A soldier in a passing truck gave me some water.
‘Please forgive us. Not all of us are the same. Those guys were just following orders, you know how we are…you need to understand our position. We are also helpless as they are.’
He had compassionate eyes and was full of sympathy. I pretended to believe what he had just said as I was filled with rage, anger and humiliation. I did not understand how soldiers could be caught in this precarious condition, knowing it was wrong, yet condoning everything about it. No human being deserved to be treated like this. Ever. Especially Fiji, the land of smiling people.
And so back to the camp, we went. More torture of breaking points, I presumed. I was amazed that I did not pass out at that point.
Ages later, someone intervened and told-off the people in the cell that I was held in that fated night. I suppose these soldiers were subordinate to him. He was one of the top men in the military council that I recognized from giving televised press conference. The man had a heart. Yet, I could feel that my captors reluctantly let go off me. They were just getting started and looked to be having the time of their lives. Those loathsome eyes gave them away. Ahhhh…they lived for torture.
A hand guided me to a car and it made its way out of the soldier’s camp, I wanted to say the enemy’s camp. It drove towards the city of Suva.
It was early morning. By now, the sun has decided to shine her glow on my path. The car slowed to a stop and a voice growled.
I must have looked like a man who had survived a war. My face was covered with blood and bruises. It was all puffed up and I felt numbness there. My body was worse. I needed to get out of this place.
I heard the happy melodious vibes of Fijian music from one of the houses in Nabua, a distance away from the army barracks. I could hear laughter from another corner and there were bustling sounds of a feast outside. It was Christmas day, 2006, and families were gathering food to be either cooked or baked in the Fijian way.
Yet I looked down on the pavement and suddenly I felt self-pity and wondered why I had put up with all this.
And, why hadn’t they just killed me?
Two young boys, going to church in their smart Christmas clothes, saw how I staggered and ran over to me. They helped me to a Matua Taxi Base in Mead Road, where I got onto a taxi. The taxi driver looked sympathetically at me but preferred to turn his eyes on the road instead.
I closed my eyes.
My mother took one look at me and bellowed a shrill cry stirring the family dog from our verandah.
‘My son…my son…O dear Lord!’
My sisters and cousins crowded around me and cried with mom. They all collapsed on a heap. A grieving household huddled together on a Christmas day of celebration.
‘Leave Suva tonight. You will catch the ferry to go to Auntie Jane in Levuka,’ Mum said. Her voice had a sense of urgency.
‘Ma, I am sorry for all these and all the sorrows it has caused you. But I will not stop fighting for the truth Ma. Truth is sacrifice even if I have to die for it. I am ready,’ I managed to look at her face with the last resolute look I could muster.
She just let out a deep sigh with tears on her face, and hugged me harder.
I left on Boxing Day for Levuka, where my family informed me that someone had sent soldiers to my house in Suva, to take me in for another meeting.
Maybe to die a second death, I thought to myself. I was later informed via the media that I was put on a travel ban effectively eliminating any future overseas travels.
Cezanne Enikoro is the pen name of a Fijian writer who is using a nom de plume due to the sensitivity of this story.