Chapter 59 - Back to Square One

The Prime Minister of Tawa – 59

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After the peace treaty was signed almost two years ago, Rhymala had taught herself to overcome all the anti- Keenda prejudices she had accumulated during the civil war. The various stereotypes of Keendas she had stored in her head - war mongers, killers of innocent men, women and children, brutal rapists, torturers, double-crossers, cowards who would fight only if they had an overwhelming majority, she had gradually got rid of them all. But as the events of February unfolded, those prejudices and stereotypes had slowly staged a comeback. The Keendas were indeed war mongers; they were indeed double-crossers and killers of innocent people; animals in uniform. How else could one explain the way the Keendas had acted? Rhymala even started thinking of the Tawan army as a Keenda army.

It had started off as a stray incident. The displaced villagers had started regular protests in Eko. They would gather in the main square, march up to the offices of the Autonomous Council and end the procession in front of the compound where the Tawan army garrison was housed.  They were peaceful protests and never involved more than a hundred people. None of the protestors were desperate. After all, the dam was yet to be finished, the waters had not started rising yet. And so, when one of the protestors was shot dead by a stray shot which came from inside the army compound, everyone in Eko was furious. There had been no provocation whatsoever for such an action. The soldiers had never been threatened. In fact, the only reason the demonstrators ended their procession in front of the army compound was because its six feet high yellow walls ringed with barbed wire was the only visible sign of Tawan authority in Seedaland.

Soon protestors had gathered in their thousands in front of the army compound, demanding that the soldier who fired the shot be handed over to be tried and punished. But the Keendas would have none of that. The defence ministry in Hepara got in touch with the Seeda police chief and demanded that they disperse the protestors. There were just a hundred soldiers inside the army compound and their lives were in jeopardy, the Keendas claimed. The standoff continued for two days.

At that stage, the five MPs elected from the Central Hill District got together and met Hanoleeyan and various other senior SFF members. They persuaded Hanoleeyan to agree that the Autonomous Seeda Council should offer to disperse the protestors if the Keendas agreed to punish the guilty soldier. No, they should not demand that the soldier be handed over. As long as the Tawan army agreed to hold a military trial and mete out Tawan military justice to the culprit, the Seeda mob should be dispersed. The Seedas did not really expect the Tawan army trial to find the soldier to be guilty. But the MPs’ suggestion offered a face-saving way out for both parties. Having made such a reasonable offer, the Seedas waited confidently for the Keendas to accept their offer.

It was at this stage that the Keendas’ perfidy was revealed. Not only did they not agree that they were in the wrong, but they also claimed that the demonstrators had carried rifles and had fired shots into the army compound. The Keenda soldiers were only reacting in self-defence when the Seeda protestor was killed. And so, there was no question of holding a trial. Instead, they expected the Seedas to punish the protestors who had fired shots into the army compound!

On hearing the response from Hepara, all five MPs resigned their parliamentary seats in protest. An agitated Seeda mob gathered in the main square once again and marched off to join the mob swarming around the garrison. Slogans were shouted calling for all Keenda soldiers to be killed.

As if in reaction to that, within an hour of such slogans being shouted, two helicopter gunships had appeared overhead. If there was anything the Seedas hated about the Tawan army, it was the helicopter gunships that had been extensively used during the insurgency. Hated and feared. The Seedas never had anti-aircraft guns or shoulder-to-air missiles which could be used to effectively counter the gunships. During the entire insurgency, the SFF had managed to down just three helicopters – more by luck than the skill of men who fired those lucky shots from their rifles. The helicopter gunships which appeared overhead that day had flown menacingly over the crowd, dropped some supplies into the army compound and gone back.  The sight of the helicopter gunships brought a larger crowd on to the streets which swarmed around the walls of the army compound. A few brave souls tried to scale the walks, but they were pulled down by the policemen who were present.

The Seeda police-chief at Hepara got another request from the Defence Ministry in Hepara to disperse the crowds. The ex-SFF police chief refused. The only way the crowd could be dispersed was by firing into the crowd. And such an action could be justified only if the crowd tried to enter the army compound. Tawan troops were running out of food and water, the Defence Ministry in Hepara claimed. The Police Chief offered to send in food and water. How can we trust the food you send in? How do we know the water you give us is not poisoned? the Keendas had asked. The Seedas had not responded to such a ridiculous question. And then the helicopter gunships had reappeared. Everyone waited for them to drop off some more supplies for the troops inside and fly away. Instead of doing that, the gunships had started to strafe the crowd. By Seeda accounts, at least two hundred innocent protestors were killed in cold blood as they stared into the sky or merely stood there in the mild February sunshine.

That night the Seedas returned to collect their dead. When the bodies were piled up in the main square, sorrow had turned into rage. There were just a hundred soldiers inside that compound, and they ought to pay for the deaths of so many innocent Seedas. A few Seedas in the crowd that night tried to reason with the mob. The Keendas did not have enough supplies to sustain them. They should not storm the army compound but should only surround it and prevent any supplies from getting through. The Keendas would be forced to surrender in a week or so. They would come out with their hands held high. The mob did not want any of it. If they surrounded the compound once again, the helicopters might return, they reasoned.

In the early hours of dawn, a Seeda mob had stormed the army compound. Ladders were used to scale the walls and snip away at the barbed wire. At that stage, the Keendas revealed the full extent of their duplicity. Powerful search lights were switched on from inside the compound illuminating the yellow perimeter walls. Murderous fire from assault rifles poured into the attackers. Dozens of Seedas were killed and the rest melted away. It was obvious that the Keendas had been prepared to face the Seeda assault. And the number of troops inside was definitely more than a hundred.

The Seedas did not want to give up so easily. Someone managed to get hold of a mortar and dropped a few rounds into the compound. It was not clear if they did any damage. The policemen did not try to stop the mortar-men from firing. However, by ten in the morning, a huge column of Keenda troops entered Eko. Beemava TV claimed that they were forced to do that in order to relieve the beleaguered garrison which was in danger of being overwhelmed by cowardly mortar fire by ex-SFF men. Rhymala could not deny the element of truth in the last statement. By evening, Eko was full of Keenda soldiers who started to arrest any Seeda of military age they came across.

Except for Rhymala, all the ministers of the Autonomous Council and the five ex-MPs went underground. Hanoleeyan was nowhere to be seen. His legendary nose for danger had warned him that something was afoot, and he had disappeared, taking his pregnant wife with him. A week after the Tawan army appeared, Rhymala went back to the offices of the Autonomous Council to collect some of her stuff. As she packed up her things, she saw the unfinished speech she had been working on when the troubles erupted, on her desk. It was supposed to have been made on the second anniversary of the peace treaty which was just a few weeks away. Rhymala crumbled it up and threw it into the bin under her desk.

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More by :  Vinod Joseph

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