Travels of an Innocent Man
Author: Rask Balavoine

Chapter 4
Mugged in Mozambique

We relaxed when the train jolted into life and headed back into the darkness, away from the noise and the fires of the rebel camp. For almost three hours we had lain stock still and silent on a huge, bunched-up tarpaulin, pressing ourselves ever deeper into its stinking folds while teenage boys with guns patrolled the length of the track where we had been stopped. Some of them came so close we could smell their cigarettes above the smells of the train and the cold, fresh night, and mixed in with it all was the stench of alcohol and urine killing off the much sweeter smells of the forest we’d been shunting through for the past while. They seemed to stay around us a long time, laughing, drinking, smoking, peeing on the tracks, but they never thought to take a look over the drop-down sides of the open-top wagon we were riding.

The passenger carriages got a lot more attention. The train had come to a stop on a wide curve of track so we could see the three passenger cars up ahead through the cracks between the wagon sides. The passengers were all made to jump down onto the ground at gunpoint from one end of the cars and there was no platform so it was quite a drop. One at a time the terrified travelers were made to haul their luggage across the open space lit with fires and surrounded by armed men drinking and laughing, on into a half demolished building. We could only guess at what happened when they got in there, but after a while they were allowed out again one by one and made to board the train at gunpoint at the other end of the cars. Shots rang out from time to time from somewhere deep in the bush but no-one seemed to care other than whichever passenger was crossing the open ground at the time. We cared too.

It was sometime in the early seventies and the rebels sensed victory. They’d been fighting a long time and now felt confident enough to exercise a bit more muscle in public. Stopping and searching some of the trains on the line up to Malawi was one way of saying that they had control, that the country, the economy, the railways needed their permission to keep rolling. The road had been land-mined for months, another message of control, and only a few drivers ever risked the ride. Some did, and they lay a long time in craters blown out in the road under them before anyone ever came close enough to push the scattered earth over on top of them in makeshift burial. Everyone else coming south from Malawi put their car on the train and took it off in Dondo, just short of Beira, and drove to wherever they wanted after that. It was the same deal in reverse for travelling north, and the rebels had to be played along with if people wanted to move.

We wanted to get to Blantyre, right up in Malawi and then on to Salima on the Lake. We didn’t have a car so we were planning on taking the train anyway, but not like this. We’d camped up in the mountains over the border in Rhodesia for a week and got washed away, never saw rain as heavy, as constant. We were looping round from Lusaka, staying with friends or people we decided to get friendly with along the way and the only real kind of friend we could think of on the way north to Dar es Salaam was Enzo’s cousin who boasted in letters home about how he worked in some high-up way with the Malawian navy. He never told anyone that the navy only had two boats. We saw them both and they were tiny. Anyway we were both getting over malaria and were still sick with a bit of fever at night but it was nothing that would stop us wanting to get right on out of Rhodesia. Buses into Mozambique from Umtali had stopped running with the talk of new rebel-trouble, but we got a lift in a lorry as far as Villa Manica on the Mozambique side of the border, and that’s as far as the driver would go with strangers in the back.

A couple of days later we were sitting in a bar planning our next move when a greasy looking man who we knew was probably bad news offered us a lift. He said he was going on to Beira. We didn’t have much choice but to accept because no-one else seemed to be heading our way. We arranged to meet him at the edge of town that night after he had left his uncle to a village some way out in the bush, and when he turned up there were two other men in the car with him. They were big and sweaty and we debated silently with each other over the roof of the car for a few seconds by way of knowing looks, but we had to get moving somehow so we decided to take the risk anyway.

I got into the back with the other men and Enzo got to sit up front with the driver. An hour later we were still heading through the night with headlights picking out small animals and a lot of snakes on the road. We were both feeling tired and a bit sick and Enzo’s fever started to rise again. When the forced conversation with the driver finally dried up, the engine cut out and the car rolled to a stop. The silence of those last twenty yards was eerie and threatening. Not only did the engine cut out, but the headlights went out too which was odd, and the bush on either side was suddenly visible in a different kind of way, all dead trees and creepers. We piled out and everywhere there was nothing, just the dirt road and bush closing in on us from all sides. The clouds were hiding the moon and stars so it was dark. The driver said something about the car doing this from time to time but it didn’t feel right. After sitting a while at the side of the road and them talking in Portuguese, the driver said we’d all have to push to jump-start the car, so the two of us and the other two men bent down and put our shoulders to the back end. The other two didn’t seem to be putting too much into the pushing and we soon found out that they had other ideas along with the driver, and in no time me and Enzo were on the ground, knees instinctively pulled up to our chins, and the weight of six fists and six boots slamming into us all over.

The beating and kicking went on for a while till they saw we weren’t going to give them a fight; all we did was try to keep as close to each other as we could and curl up and cover our heads as best we could with our hands. Soon the car roared off into the night with no difficulty getting started, leaving us lying bloodied and sore. Our clothes were torn and Enzo’s ribs hurt when he tried to move so we lay at the side of the road for a long while, breathless, too stunned to wonder what we should do and not wanting to think about it. We were scared. It was terribly cold after the heat of the fight wore off and we hadn’t a clue where we were or how far we were from a town or a village. My neck and back hurt the worst. Our bags were gone of course, and at one point I had been able to feel my wallet disappearing from my hip pocket. Then I’d been flipped over onto my back and after a bit of fumbling around my chest a big, thick hand had pulled my shirt open and ripped away the pouch I’d been carrying my passport in; there was no point asking Enzo if his stuff had gone. After ten minutes or so we were about to start asking each other what we should do but both seemed to think better of it and said nothing. After another while Enzo said that he could see an orange glow in the sky, off in the direction the car had gone. It had to be a town for it was too early for the sun to be coming up, and we had to try to get to it. We walked for hours, the forest closing in on us from either side of the narrow road with all the potential in the world for leopards and forty foot pythons, and it was well into the morning before we limped into town.

The town was Dondo, the place we had been trying to get to. We walked into it sore and tired and hungry. By that time our situation had been well mulled over and decisions had been made. We had no money or passports or other identification. We had no possessions. We managed to laugh at the idea that there would be an Irish embassy in Dondo willing to hand out replacement passports to two seventeen year olds who couldn’t identify themselves, so we got our minds set for a difficult day down by the marshalling yard on the edge of town, keeping low till the night train we had originally planned on buying tickets for stopped on its way north from Beira. In the dark, and well away from the lighted platform, the plan was to jump one of the open goods wagons that would be well down the track and hopefully out of sight of anyone standing abut at the station, and it must have been a good plan for it worked. The only difficult part was trying to get Enzo hoisted up over the top of the side with him suffering an agony that was getting worse all the time because of his ribs. I was concerned too with the open wounds we both had getting dirty and infected. Being hungry and thirsty all day didn’t help either and we were more than just a little bit concerned about anyone wondering what we were hanging about all day looking the way we did, blood and muck on our torn clothes, and generally looking like trouble. But there we were at seven o’clock with the sun not long set, safely fallen into the wagon, and laid back on top of a tarpaulin that was thick like a big giant mattress, piled up at one end of the wagon. We were shunted about a bit, up and down the tracks, other wagons getting coupled on, but in time we headed off and left Dondo behind, taking with us only our wounds and empty stomachs.

When we got clear of the rebel checkpoint in the early hours and sank back into the blackness of all that was around us, heading off for Malawi, we felt good, more than good. We lay and smoked the cigarettes Enzo found in his inside coat pocket and looked up into the clearing, star-studded sky, losing ourselves in its vastness. We pulled a corner of the tarpaulin over us like a blanket for a bit more heat and it felt very good to be us, to be young, to be alive. We talked about stuff we’d never thought to talk about before: stories and dreams, hopes and disappointments, all honesty and unafraid, and there in the wagon, with broken ribs and bloody sores, hungry and vulnerable and covered in all sorts of grease and dirt, we planned our next trip.

On into the cold night Enzo’s fever began to rise again. The rain came on which didn’t help much and I had to keep him dry as best I could and propped the tarpaulin up in a sort of a tent shape over the two of us. He sweated and shivered in turns and there wasn’t any water to give him. We hadn’t had anything to eat or drink since the night before and he wandered around a bit in his head, never too lucid and not really knowing what was going on. Sometimes the train would pitch a bit and send Enzo rolling further over on his side than was good for his ribs and he’d wince or whine a bit. He slept most of the night but I don’t think I did. In the morning Malawi came, and for the first time in weeks the sun shone down on us. It was one of those bright, kind and cloudless mornings, but it still wasn’t hot, and when we snuk off the train in Blantyre we heard that the line had been blown up behind us not long after we crossed the bridge over the Zambezi. That was the last train out of Mozambique for months.


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