The following is the twenty-sixth of a series of excerpts from The Rowan Tree: A Novel by Robert W. Fuller. The complete novel is available in paperback, in various ebook formats including Kindle, and as an audiobook at Amazon, iTunes, and audible.com. If you enjoy The Rowan Tree, please write a review on Amazon, Goodreads, or your own blog! The author also welcomes your comments.
On the evening of their departure, François drove Adam and Élodie to Orly Airport where, after they checked on the medical shipment, they boarded Air France’s overnight flight to Nairobi.
Deplaning the next morning, Adam was pleasantly surprised by the cool summer weather. Although Nairobi is practically on the equator, at seven thousand feet it’s spared the oppressive heat and humidity of equatorial Africa. But on this trip he wouldn’t really get to see Nairobi, let alone Kenya.
From the commercial jet they were taken in transit to a remote part of the airport. Adam, dressed in a suit and tie, and striding across the oily tarmac as imposingly as he could, accompanied Élodie into the hangar where the life-saving cargo of antibiotics, rehydration kits, and protein biscuits awaited the scrutiny of customs officials.
An imperious little man blared, “Who is responsible for this shipment?”
“I am,” Adam announced in a distinctly louder, deeper voice.
The man took a short step back and asked for their papers. Élodie had rehearsed Adam on the plane, so he handed over the documents, then made a show of examining the dollies holding their supplies.
“I trust it’s all here,” Adam barked. “I have a letter for Mr. Ojimbawi and I insist on presenting it to him in person. These supplies require priority handling, do you understand?” With that Adam presented the little man with a letter that François had prepared on MSF stationery.
It worked. “Yes, sir, of course,” he said in a more obliging tone. “We need not bother Mr. Ojimbawi with this. It’s my honor to serve you. Where is this shipment bound?”
“Mogadishu on the twelve-seater departing at eleven this morning.”
The man shouted orders in Swahili to a crew of four wiry men clad in torn, oil-stained shorts.
“We’re coming with you,” Adam declared. He and Élodie followed the men as they pushed the dollies across the tarmac, and stood sentinel as the cartons were loaded into the bay of the chartered plane. When it was done, Adam handed the foreman a ten-dollar bill.
The two-hour flight to Mogadishu took them over the reddish sands of the Eastern Sahel known as the Ogaden Desert. From the air, Adam could make out patches of thorn scrub on the dunes below, but he couldn’t imagine anything edible growing down there. Abruptly, the desert gave way to the sea, and the plane began a steep descent. A glimpse of waves breaking on the beach, and they were on the ground, taxiing along the runway.
The 12-seater pulled up alongside a C-130 cargo plane bearing the United Nations insignia and the inscription World Food Program. As Adam and Élodie climbed down the steps to the tarmac, a jeep mounted with an anti-aircraft machine gun drove up, and two European-looking men stepped out.
“Élodie!” one of them called. “Welcome to Mogadishu. Have you got the supplies?” There it was again, he noted—the same business-first approach he’d seen in Élodie.
“We saw them safely onto this plane,” was her reply, and even before she shook hands with the welcoming party, she made for the cargo bay that lay open before the prying eyes of a group of Somalis.
Men from the jeep, armed with AK-47s, gathered around the cargo, and an official from MSF thanked Élodie for “a job well done.”
“From this point on, we’re under their protection,” she whispered to Adam.
“Looks like a private army,” he said. Surrounded by men carrying assault rifles, he felt like a bit player in an action movie.
“That’s exactly what it is,” the MSF official interjected. “They’re called ‘technicals.’ Without these guards the supplies would be commandeered by a local gang before they left the airport.”
Adam wondered if his dad would have encouraged him to go if he’d known things were this dicey.
They left the airport in a convoy, with the technical in command—who kept his finger on the trigger of his weapon—atop the lead vehicle. It was followed by an open truck carrying the shipment, then a van, and covering their rear, four heavily-armed technicals riding shotgun in a jeep.
The convoy moved so swiftly that Adam only caught glimpses of Mogadishu, scarlet splotches of bougainvillea clinging to pock-marked buildings; people scurrying everywhere, the women with baskets, the men carrying guns; children begging at intersections. The grim anarchy reminded him of Mad Max.
The four vehicles careened into a gated compound and screeched to a stop. The men in the trailing vehicle quickly closed the gates with a clang and locked them behind the last vehicle in the convoy. Adam and Élodie suddenly found themselves in a serene inner sanctum overhung with shade trees and bedecked with fuchsia spilling out of huge clay pots. A large stucco house with a verandah lay to the rear of the courtyard where the caravan had parked. Off to one side was a low whitewashed building that Élodie identified for Adam as the hospital.
Once they’d been shown their rooms, she gave him a tour of the hospital. Confronted with lifeless stares from emaciated children, he could only try to act normal. She whispered that these were the lucky ones. The real horror would be revealed the next day in a refugee camp 150 kilometers northwest of Mogadishu, in Baidoa, a country town that was the final destination of their precious cargo.
When Adam met the doctors at dinner, he was surprised that none of them looked the part. Their dress was informal—blue jeans or khakis; their topics of conversation, grisly—amputations, infections, dehydration, and starvation. But the staff’s matter-of-fact attitude toward injury, illness, and death helped ease his squeamishness.
It was only when the talk turned to politics that the conversation became heated. They were furious at the United Nations officials in Nairobi for their callous indifference to the tragedy.
“They sit around in linen suits while thousands starve,” one young Kenyan doctor said. He had just returned from the UN mission in Nairobi and reported that the top official had again postponed a long-scheduled visit to Somalia. “Until the media puts enough starving babies on TV they’ll just go on lounging in their villas sipping gin and tonics. They learned nothing from Ethiopia.”
Adam hung on every word, but said nothing. When the group broke up—some to make medical rounds, some to sleep—he said goodnight to Élodie and went to his room where, to his relief, he found a real bed. A washbasin stood nearby, and after he’d sponged the dust off his face and limbs, he lay across the bed diagonally. A buzzing mosquito reminded him that Élodie’s said he must sleep under his net, so he stood on the bed, suspended it from a hook in the ceiling, draped it around the bed, and crawled under its protective canopy. It kept the mosquitoes at bay, but gunfire repeatedly interrupted his sleep.
Breakfast consisted of cold fish, papayas, mangos, and bread. As they ate, the convoy for Baidoa was forming in the courtyard. Every vehicle had either the MSF logo stenciled on it or displayed a flag signaling its humanitarian mission. By nine, they were hurtling out of town in a SUV on dirt roads that ran like capillaries into the open desert.
Every twenty kilometers they had to stop at roadblocks to show their papers and fork over bribes. But what actually ensured their passage was the display of the technicals’ firepower. Between roadblocks, they moved at high speed, passing slower vehicles at full throttle, and bullying oncoming pedestrians and vehicles into the roadside ditches. Once, Adam turned to see a man with a camel shaking a stick at the convoy as it sped away. Remembering a car he’d seen in Michigan after it had collided with a deer, he wondered if their driver had any idea what would happen to their vehicle and its occupants if it struck a camel at a hundred kilometers per hour.
Only after they reached the outskirts of Baidoa did Élodie explain that their private army was high on “qat,” an addictive shrub cultivated for its stimulative effects. Adam had seen the Somalis stuffing leaves in their mouths and chewing them continuously; their gums and teeth were stained blood red from the juice. He’d assumed it was some kind of chewing tobacco, but Élodie told him it provided a mild amphetamine high, like speed, and was among the few stimulants sanctioned by Islam. Although driving under its influence surely increased the risk of an accident, the larger risk, she explained, was for your technicals to be suffering from withdrawal. Before they left Mogadishu, the convoy had picked up a supply of qat to keep the gunmen happy.
“This is why we’re here,” Élodie said, as their vehicle pulled to a stop. She gestured toward a vast field where thousands were camped, some in shelters made of sticks and cloth, many in the open air. They got out of the SUV and followed a dirt path. He could see families huddled together, sitting and lying on the ground. Élodie explained that the mummy-like objects lying everywhere were corpses, shrouded in white cotton cloth for proper Muslim burial. Adam knew he was there to take photographs, but he couldn’t bring himself to look through the viewfinder and snap a shot; as it was, just being a well-dressed, well-fed object of envy among people in such distress embarrassed him, and he wished he could just make himself invisible. A couple of times, confronted by scenes of filth and degradation, he viscerally recoiled.
Whatever their condition, the Somalis sat immobile, staring at the visitors. To spare himself some of the anguish he felt, Adam quickly learned to look past people who tried to catch his eye. Élodie must have sensed his discomfort when she took him by the hand and led him toward a narrow, two-story, mud-speckled building that doubled as a hostel and a field hospital.
Inside, they were offered tea and biscuits by the administrator in charge, a middle-aged Englishwoman whose good humor was in sharp contrast to the grimness outside. For the first time in his life, Adam declined refreshments. He feared he wouldn’t be able to keep them down.
“The medicines you’ve brought will be gone in a few days,” the administrator said flatly. Tell headquarters that we can use everything they can get us. We’re receiving a thousand new refugees daily.”
“How many are you losing now?” Élodie asked.
“Five hundred a day, and that’s doubling monthly.”
“How can we help? My colleague Adam has a camera.”
“Triage. If they’re going to die, send them over there.” From a window she pointed to a ravine about a hundred meters off. “That’s ‘the valley of death.’ By the time they reach us, most of the adults are beyond help. If a child has a chance, we put them in the hospital for hydration and protein biscuits. Above all, we don’t give the antibiotics to anyone who’s likely to die anyway.”
Then, turning to Adam, she said, “There’s nothing more important than letting the world know what’s happening here. A picture really can be worth a thousand words. If you can, take some good ones, and get them published. In the long run, that will save more lives than the supplies you’ve brought today. Don’t get me wrong. We’re grateful for every little bit, but at this point only massive outside help can prevent a catastrophe.”
“I’ll do my best,” Adam said, wondering how he could stick his camera in the face of such misery. Later that afternoon, when he did force himself to venture out among the refugees, he lasted barely ten minutes. The smell was almost unbearable. Reeling, he returned to the hut and found some of the MSF staff preparing dinner. He marveled at how the doctors and nurses handled the squalor, misery, and death surrounding them, and were generally cheerful, and had good appetites. As one of them told him, “If we don’t take care of ourselves properly we won’t last a week.”
That night they dined by candlelight, and the conversation was disconcertingly upbeat. There was wine to go with hearty servings of rice and vegetables and a huge fish that had made the trip from Mogadishu on the floor of the SUV. It was all Adam could do to eat a little rice, but he did think to stuff his pockets with hunks of bread. It was awful to contemplate, but a crust of bread might give him a way to ask someone who was starving if he could take their picture.
The staff chatted over coffee, and by nine o’clock they had scattered. Élodie showed him to the storeroom where there were cots for guests. They’d accommodate her petite body comfortably, but Adam, clearly too tall for a cot, presented a challenge. She took a half dozen blankets from the shelves, folded them double, and stacked them on the floor to create an extra-long mattress for him. When they were almost asleep, she reached down and squeezed his hand.
“I had a hard time my first few days. It gets easier. I hope you’re not sorry you’ve come.”
“No, I’m not sorry, but it’s an eye-opener all right. I can’t say I’ll be sorry to leave.”
“Have you got what we came for?”
“Photos!” Élodie said emphatically. “Images of famine.”
“A few, maybe.”
“Look, Adam, you heard the Englishwoman. Publicizing what’s happening here is more important than the supplies. You’ve got to put yourself out there. This work is not sport. It’s foul and disgusting, but we cannot fail these people. There’ll be more time tomorrow morning. Please try again before we leave.”
Adam was silent. What he’d seen that day reminded him of photographs he’d seen of prisoners in concentration camps. The ravenous famine outside felt like a plague stalking the world. He lay awake as Élodie’s breathing grew less audible, masked by the wails and moans of people who lay starving meters away in the barren field that surrounded the makeshift hospital.
Early the next morning, with an hour to go before they were scheduled to leave, Adam set out again for the valley of death. He couldn’t face Élodie empty-handed, or his dad. He used the bread to get closer to people than before, and improvised simple hand gestures to get permission to take their photographs. Astonishingly, no one rushed him for the bread, or offered resistance. Either they were too weak to respond or they sensed that images of their suffering were all they had left to give.
Adam had never been so close to human beings who were no longer living but not yet dead. A young girl covered by a rag sat vigil over her dead father; unmoving eyes peered up at him from a skeletal figure curled up in a wheelbarrow; an emaciated boy on stick-thin legs stared vacantly into space. Everywhere he saw children with the distended bellies that are emblematic of famine. Saddest of all were the eyes of parents helplessly watching the life drain out of their children.
As he worked his way deeper into the ravine he saw an emaciated teenage girl seated erect next to the dead body of a child, perhaps a younger sister. The way she held herself reminded him of something that he couldn’t place; then it struck him. The line of her body was reminiscent of the way Marisol held herself. This girl had the poise and erect posture of a ballet dancer. Her noble carriage, in the midst of horror, was her attempt to uphold her family’s dignity. When he indicated that he wanted to photograph her, the girl nodded unsmilingly, then elevated her chin ever so slightly. In that instant he pressed the shutter—and knew that this was why he was here. He vowed to get that image home, and make sure that as many people as possible would see it. To leave her with something, he draped his windbreaker around her shoulders before hurrying off. In a last look back, he saw that she had placed it over her sister’s naked body.
The return to Mogadishu was even wilder than the outbound journey. Their bodyguards had exhausted their cache of qat and were desperate to reach their suppliers before withdrawal set in. Where the driver had slowed for bumps and potholes on the way out, he now drove as if he were trying to fly over them. The effect on his passengers’ heads and kidneys was punishing.
They reached the outskirts of Mogadishu shaken and dirty, but intact. When the van stopped a few blocks from MSF headquarters to refuel before entering the compound, one of the doctors got out to buy cigarettes. Adam tagged along to get a look at the town from ground level, and two of their guards followed at a discreet distance.
Before he knew it, Adam and the doctor were surrounded by a gang of teenage hooligans, wildly yelling and gesturing. Adam turned around, frantically looking for a way to escape, but the doctor grabbed his arm to stop him. The mob’s ringleader stepped forward and demanded the doctor’s sunglasses and Adam’s camera. A boy discharged a half-dozen rounds from his AK-47 into the ground, inches from their feet. Through the cloud of dust the shots made, Adam saw the glint of a knife cutting through the leather strap of his camera. Seconds later, the mob was gone. Adam was shaking uncontrollably.
When he looked at their bodyguards, they shrugged as if to say, “What could we do? If we’d opened fire, we’d have hit you.”
The doctor and Adam ran the few hundred meters to the compound, and while they were telling the staff what had happened, the phone rang. It was an offer to return the camera and glasses for three hundred dollars. When a Somali gentleman on the staff said that yielding to the demands of the extortionists would only encourage such rackets, Adam listened quietly; then he asked where the goods could be ransomed. The camera was at a bike shop, he learned, near the corner where they’d been robbed. Leaving them arguing over the wisdom of yielding to extortion, he transferred exactly three hundred dollars from the money pouch around his neck to his breast pocket, then walked as fast as he could, past the scene of the crime, to the bike shop.
Inside, he slapped the wad of cash down on the counter and demanded the camera and glasses. An old man took the money and disappeared into the back, leaving Adam to wonder if he’d handed over the money for nothing. But within a minute, he returned with the goods. Ransoming stolen property was a business here, and future profits depended on customer satisfaction.
Adam opened the case and found the camera untouched. With a wordless glance at the old man, he turned and strode out, walking as tall and fast as he could. As soon as he dared, he broke into a run, determined to stop for no one. When he was safely inside the compound he immediately removed the exposed roll of film from the camera and secured it in his backpack.
Adam spent the remaining days accompanying Élodie on her rounds, photographing the doctors and their patients at the hospital. The physician-in-chief made him promise to show the photos to the MSF public relations people in Paris.
On the eve of his departure, word circulated that one of the relief agencies in town was throwing a party. The buzz built throughout the day, and Élodie seemed to lighten up. Moments before they left, she emerged wearing what looked like the same lavender silk ao dai he’d admired in Paris, and he hurried upstairs to change into his last clean shirt.
The host had gone to a lot of trouble to obliterate any trace of the party-goers’ day jobs. A room that usually served as a dispensary had been transformed into a makeshift ballroom, strewn with flowers and decorated with paper lanterns. An artist had created two images, one on either side of the entrance, presumably to set the tone for the evening. With a start, Adam recognized them as an erect penis and engorged labia. When he and Élodie arrived, couples were already dancing to the Stones’ Let’s Spend the Night Together. With the exception of the explicit images, it could have been a post-game party at Princeton.
Usually it took three or four beers for Adam to overcome his inhibitions. Dozens of green Heineken bottles floated in huge galvanized tubs of melting ice. Élodie brought him his first one, and before it was half gone she dragged him onto the dance floor. When the music stopped, they finished their beers and went for seconds. Until the party, all of Élodie’s considerable energy had been focused on the job. Now she was directing that same energy toward Adam. Something about the horror and danger of this place had him dancing with more abandon than ever before.
Around midnight the partygoers began drifting away in pairs. While Élodie chatted with a Japanese woman, an Englishman sidled up to Adam and whispered, “They say war’s a great knicker-dropper. I’ve never been to war, but evidently humanitarian disasters have much the same effect.”
When Élodie rejoined him, Adam said, “Everyone seems to be leaving.”
“Actually, they’re crashing upstairs,” she explained. “This place used to be a hotel. How old are you?”
“Twenty,” Adam said. His actual nineteen sounded so much younger, and he was, he reasoned, at least in his twentieth year. “And you?”
“Old enough to know better but young enough not to care. Come on.” She took his arm and led him up the stairs. Moments later she paused at an open door to look at the large bed inside.
“Do you think that will hold you?” she asked.
“With room for me?” she asked, standing on her toes and reaching up to take his face in her hands. She didn’t need to stretch, because Adam had bent down to meet her halfway.
When they woke the next morning she said, “I have a boyfriend in Paris.”
“No expectations,” he replied.
“He doesn’t ask questions. There’s a freedom out here that doesn’t exist at home. It’s one of the fringe benefits of this kind of work. You work hard, you party hard.”
“I understand,” he said. “Paris is reality. I’m not so sure I want to go back.”
“Don’t you have a girlfriend in the States?”
“What does that mean?”
“We’re close, but it’s no longer romantic.”
“It’s complicated. I’ll explain some other time. You know, I’ve felt more real out here than I ever do at home. What you’re doing really matters, and I want to be part of it. Not just take classes, play sports, and party.”
“Is that all college is?”
“Well, no, some of my friends really care about things that matter. But most of them just want to get rich.”
As they got dressed, Adam pointed out that she hadn’t told him her age.
“Twenty-four last month,” she said. “An old lady to you.”
“Hardly,” he said, checking her out. “How did you get your MD so young?”
“I was the baby in the family and the only one to follow my dad into medicine. He pushed me along.” She smiled and changed the subject. “Come on, you’ve got a plane to catch.”
They joined a sleepy-looking group in the foyer, and Élodie’s demeanor gave no indication of how they’d spent the night. But she did accompany Adam to the airport, and when she saw him off, she kissed her fingertips and reached them up to touch his lips.
“Once this crisis is over, I could be sent anywhere,” she said. “You can always find me through MSF.”
“I’ll remember that.” Adam put his arms around her waist and lifted her off the ground until her face was opposite his. She offered no resistance and seemed to float upward. For a long moment, she dangled there. He kissed her and then loosened his grip so she slid slowly down against his body until her toes reached the tarmac. The copilot was hollering at Adam to board, so with a quick goodbye he mounted the stairs and entered the cabin.
Winging high above the arid land, he thought about the horror below. Then his mind settled on Élodie—so earnest, so lovely, so gone.