Five soldiers are already on the pavement, milling around in the half-light. The APC coughs and shakes and belches smoke behind them. Daniel picks up his knapsack with his notebooks and flashlight and water bottle and slings it over his shoulder while keeping an eye on the captain. He’s walking around sour-faced. The captain climbs onto the APC and it jolts into first gear, then clanks out onto the old asphalt road. Daniel and Andre follow behind it, along with the rest of the soldiers. They’re only five minutes outside of Masiaka, and by the time they’re clustered in the red-dirt plaza, the first rays of the equatorial sun are touching the low brick-and-mortar buildings. They’ve been gutted by five years of war but were once an elegant colonial pink, with stone balustrades overlooking what must have once been the town marketplace. Someone has set up a PKM on a tripod on one of the balconies. Its ugly little barrel pokes out over the square like an admonishing finger.
Fighters emerge by twos and threes, the guys who’ve been left behind to guard the town. They keep their distance from the new arrivals, so Andre walks over to them, and Daniel follows a few minutes later. He takes out his notebook and writes, *Destroyed colonial town pink facades a few kids on guard no apparent order.* The day is already getting hot, and the sun hasn’t even risen.
“These guys say there’s a big fight going on at a town called Mile 91, on the road to Makeni,” Andre says. He’s snapping photos of the kids while he talks. “I think we should go.”
“What was yesterday like?” Daniel asks, flipping his notebook open. “What was the battle like?”
The kid unleashes a fast, guttural account that is accompanied by chops and slashes with his hands. Daniel barely understands any of it. He writes what he sees: *Native fighters with loops of ammunition over their shoulders and leather pouches and feathers and beaded fetishes around their necks.*
“They came in last morning and cleared the plaza and killed three rebels,” Andre says. “There were at least two hundred rebels. They’re regrouping up-country. There’s going to be a big fight.”
Daniel scribbles, *200 rebels, three dead.* “Is it safe to go up there?”
“Da road dae no’ fine,” the kid says. “So so soljahman, so so rebel.”
“The road’s no good—too many soldiers, too many rebels,” Andre translates.
“What do you think of those guys?” Daniel says, jerking his thumb over his shoulder at the soldiers. The kid spits into the dust. Daniel offers the kid a cigarette, which he takes. He pulls one out for himself but doesn’t light it. It occurs to him that he’s smoking too much. He can quit when this thing’s over with. A few more fighters wander toward them with their guns over their shoulders. Some have sunglasses and some have no shirts and some are barefoot. Most of them have lines of parallel scars on their cheeks that were put in when they were young. Pretty soon there’s a crowd of ten or twelve of them pressed around. Daniel hands out more cigarettes. They’re so young that if it weren’t for the guns, he’d feel like some schoolyard pervert corrupting the neighborhood children. “This is a waste of time,” Daniel says to Andre. “We’re not getting anything.”
“We’re not getting a ride, that’s for sure,” Andre says. He drops his camera back onto the strap around his neck. The kids are starting to lose interest and edge off around the empty plaza. Daniel hasn’t eaten in twenty-four hours and his stomach is a sour mix of bile and cigarettes. He’s starting to think about disengaging from the group and walking back to the APC when he hears the sound of a car engine. Two pickup trucks come around a building from the other side of town, drive through the plaza, and come to a stop in the open. A dozen fighters jump out. They’re from one of the militia groups. The letters CDF are badly painted on the door of one of the trucks: the Civilian Defense Force, a frankly terrifying bunch of lunatics who would probably be attacking Freetown if they hadn’t been bribed into defending it. Daniel can see the captain watching them carefully. “Those guys,” says Andre. “Maybe those guys.”
Even at a distance, the energy coming off them is agitated and ugly; the kids in the square seem to sense it as well. Daniel reluctantly follows Andre over to the trucks. It doesn’t even feel safe to approach them, much less beg a ride to the front, but the fighters barely acknowledge their presence. There’s a dead guy in the back of one of the trucks, but Daniel doesn’t know if he’s a rebel or not. There’s a lot of excited talk. Daniel doesn’t understand much of it—he busies himself writing down what he sees. Local color: it’s better than nothing. Andre finally barges into the conversation. “Mile 91,” he says. “We’re trying to get to Mile 91.”
This prompts a lot of shouting. The CDF commander pulls back the cocking bolt on his machine gun and points the barrel into Andre’s chest. His eyes are blank with an inexplicable rage. “NO, NO,” he screams. “Whatin na’ you name?”
Andre doesn’t flinch. Daniel feels his bowels slide around hotly inside him. “Andre and Daniel,” Andre says. “We’re journalists. We’re hoping to go north.”
All the men seem to have both hands on their guns. The commander screams some more, and the other fighters look around uncomfortably. The sun is barely up and we’re in trouble, Daniel thinks.
Sebastian Junger is the author of the bestsellers War, The Perfect Storm, Fire, and A Death in Belmont. With the late Tim Hetherington, he shot and directed Restrepo, which won the 2010 Grand Jury Prize for Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival and was nominated for a 2010 Academy Award for Best Documentary. His film about the life and death of Hetherington will premiere on HBO in 2013. A contributing editor to Vanity Fair, he has won a National Magazine Award and the SAIS-Novartis Prize.
A World Made of Bloodis available for $1.99 as a Kindle Single at Amazon, a Quick Read at Apple’s iBookstore, a Nook Snap at BarnesAndNoble.com, a Short Read at Kobo, and at Google Play.