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A small island in the Indian Ocean. Around midnight.
The little girl’s name was Basheera. In the island's language it meant Bringer of Joy. But there was no joy in that small house tonight. Only sadness.
Basheera lay on her bed, her frail body lit up by the dim electric light that hung from the ceiling. Her breathing was heavy and noisy, and her parents knew just what that meant. They sat on either side of her, each of them holding one of their daughter’s hands. Neither of them said a word. There was nothing to do but wait.
A blanket covered the lower part of Basheera’s body. It was not there to keep her warm - it was a hot, humid night anyway - but because the adults could not bear to look at her legs. Those legs that they had watched grow strong since she was a baby, now bloodied and broken because of the men and their machines.
She opened her eyes. Basheera’s mother gasped. A miracle! But it soon became clear that although her eyes were open, they saw nothing, and they flickered shut again. Her mother put her free hand against the girl’s forehead. It burned. The two adults cast worried glances at each other before returning to their silent vigil.
When the men had come, with their diggers and their machines, everyone had known it meant trouble. Before long the bulldozers had moved in, clearing trees from the forest that was so precious to these villagers, and preparing to dig for the thing they spoke of as if it were the most precious substance on earth: oil.
The children, of course, had been transfixed by the big machines, just as the grown-ups had been suspicious of them. Despite warnings from their ¬ parents and shouts from the men, they had played games around them. It had really been only a matter of time before an accident happened. It had just been a question of to whom.
If it had been someone other than Basheera who had been caught under the heavy wheels of the bulldozer, her parents would have been sorrowful too. Theirs was a true community: they shared each other’s happiness and they felt each other’s pain. But when they had seen their daughter’s body, damaged beyond repair, their anguish had overcome them. It could not have been put into words.
The men responsible had washed their hands of it. It was Basheera’s own fault, they said. She should not have been where she was. But all the villagers had known this was not true. Basheera had had every right to be there. It was the newcomers who had been trespassing.
The villagers had rallied around. The chief had declared that all their resources should be directed towards saving the life of the little girl. They had tapped the deep-red sap of the dragon’s blood tree - a well-known cure-all - to wash her damaged legs, but that had not been enough. They had performed sacred rituals, but still Basheera had grown more and more ill. There had been talk of taking her to a hospital on the mainland, but she could not have been moved.
And now it was clear that all anyone could do was pray for her soul, and curse the invaders who, in their greed, had caused this to happen.
Basheera’s last breath was long. It sounded as if her soul was escaping from her body. In the silence that followed, her mother started shaking her head, as if refusing to believe that her daughter had passed away. But the signs were all too obvious: she was no longer breathing, and her chest had stopped moving up and down.
She had been dead for a full minute when her mother screamed. It was a pitiful sound, an inhuman shriek that echoed not just around their poor house, but around the whole village. Basheera’s father gently let his daughter’s hand fall, then hurried round to hug his wife, to give her some kind of comfort in that moment when there was no comfort to give.
Everyone in the village knew what the scream meant, of course, and before long they were gathering outside the house. There was a painful silence as Basheera’s father emerged, carrying his daughter’s lifeless body in his arms.
‘This is what these people have done!’ he roared in the language of the region. ‘First they destroy our land, now they destroy our children! It must not continue!’
The villagers muttered their agreement as Basheera’s father turned towards the chief of the village. 'It is your responsibility,’ he intoned. ‘You are our chief. You must see to it that these invaders leave our land. Basheera’s brother, he has spent much time in the West. He will do what is necessary to avenge his sister. And there are others too. Others in the village who will help. You know who they are.’
The chief was a tall, gaunt man. His face was deeply lined and his eyes were dark. He nodded solemnly and the crowd grew silent to hear what he had to say in his deep, rich voice.
‘These men think we are stupid. They think we are savages. They do not understand that we choose to live like we always have. They do not understand that we are like a sleeping snake - quiet when left alone, but deadly when angered. I swear to you now, over the body of this dead child, that this will not continue.’ He turned to Basheera’s mother and father. ‘They will suffer as you have suffered. I do not care if it costs all our money or all our lives. They will leave our land and never come back. That is my promise to you, as long as I am your chief.’
His words resounded in the air, and they seemed to satisfy the assembled villagers, who voiced their approval before melting away into the night. Soon, only one of the crowd remained. He was a small man, but muscular. There was an angry scar along the left-hand side of his face and his eyes burned with a zealous fire. The chief looked at him seriously, pointed at him and then nodded. The scarred man nodded back and smiled. It was as though he had been chosen to do something, and that choice had made him glad.
Without saying a word, the two of them left, and then there was no one remaining outside the house. No one except Basheera’s mother and father, helplessly clutching the cold, still body of their little girl, knowing that their life would never, ever be the same again.