We arrived at the pick-up point at 8.02 am, engine dawdling. The rendezvous spot, underneath the spreading branches of a jacaranda tree, engulfed in purple blossom, was a hundred meters from the bridge crossing a small stream in the dry season where rebels lurked.
An Aid Agency Land Cruiser would be rich pickings for such men in the wilds of Burundi, as would the belongings of those inside. Depending on the whim of their commander we could be left stark naked with slit throats, or left to trudge back to Bujumbura in our underwear.
‘Where the fuck, is he?’ said Jake, already sweat forming like boils on his forehead. ‘Doesn’t he know there’s a bloody war going on?’
Bloody war indeed. Tens of thousands slaughtered like rats and even more displaced. We had rigged up two refugee camps protected by the Army — a not very effective defence, as the conscripts were mere children with outdated guns.
Sat beside Jake, behind our driver, I glanced at my watch. Followed the second hand as it ticked off one minute then two, as the still air between us became tense.
‘It’s fucking hot in here,’ he said, wiping his brow with a dirty rag. ‘And I need a leak.’
Outside, palm trees and a field of seven feet high maize crops. An ideal hiding place for those who needed to hide — or to ambush us.
‘Wait,’ I said. ‘He’ll come.’
Another minute ticked away. Fatso, our driver, a native stick-insect with a head like a mantis, fidgeted in his seat.
Relax, I said to myself. No pressure, none at all. Connor, our practising locum for want of a better word, was attending to several sick infants in a local village. Suspected malaria. We had dropped him off at first light, hightailed it back to camp for a mug of black tea laced with ginger, a boiled egg, followed by a roll-up, then drove back to the jacaranda.
Another minute ticked away. Fatso was squirming, his head revolving to look at me in his mirror, and Jake’s face was contorted. He opened the window and looked out.
‘For god’s sake,’ he said. ‘For god’s…’
The first shot blew off the top of his head, and blood and bone spattered against my face. I yelled to Fatso, but he’d already got us moving. A cry, and a figure hurtled out of the bush waving his arms at me.
More shots. I ducked, heaved open the car door, caught hold of Connor, dragged him inside, and slammed it shut. A cavalcade of bullets hammered against the door.
Then we were away down the track.
When Connor saw Jake, blood drained from his face. He stared at me, my right arm in a sling, and shook his head.
‘Strewth, Sarah. My kids are stronger than you. How the hell..?’
‘Drag you inside?’ I said. ‘One thing’s for sure, mate. I can’t believe I did it.’