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The Sun in My Eyes

Jan-Louis Nagel

“Do you know why we are here?”
I looked at the man across the table and nodded.“Speak up, private – this is a recorded interview.” I sighed and said, “Yes, sir – I do. I shot someone.”

The Captain switched off the recorder. I looked at him. I had seen him on many occasions, but I had never spoken to him.

The other man in the room was silent. I had never seen him before. Though none of the men were unfriendly or aggressive there was a tense atmosphere in the room. And it was hot and stuffy.

The Captain offered me a cigarette, but I didn’t want one. I took a sip of water.

“Look”, he said, “this is normal procedure. When something like this happens we have to arrange this interview – you know, to satisfy the wolves out there.”
I just nodded. He switched on the recorder again and said: “OK, let’s take it from the top, soldier.”

I had taken my position on the rooftop and been given my sector by the squad leader. I had visual contact with him in a broken window across the street a couple of houses down. Two other guys were in the same building as I in windows on the floor under me. I was very uncomfortable with my position on the rooftop. My silhouette was the perfect target for a sniper. But perhaps it was somehow important to show our presence, I don’t know – but I felt like a decoy. Our mission was clear and simple. There had been some intelligence on possible enemy activity in the area, and we were there to check it out and take action if necessary. It was not my first mission, but I was nervous.

The dusty roof was burning hot in the afternoon sun and I was sweating in my combat uniform and bulletproof vest. I don’t know how long I had been up there, probably several hours. I was lying on my stomach with my legs stretched out behind me, and leaning my gun on the rim running along the roof. My neck was aching from its awkward position and lying on my lungs like that made it hard to breathe. It should be routine, but the whole situation was getting to me and weighing down on me like a heavy load. The little village seemed deserted; the street below was dead silent. No sound, nothing. But I tried my best to stay sharp. My automatic was ready to spit out death at a little twitch of my finger. The waiting game was on again.

Suddenly I heard the distant and foreboding sound of a vehicle approaching. My senses were on edge. The car would probably be stopped at a check-point farther up the road. But stopping and checking a car here might be the last thing you did. I saw the dust cloud long before I could spot the car beneath it. As it came closer I could see that it was not a military vehicle. All the more reason to be alert. My finger was on the trigger.

The car didn’t seem to slow down for the village; it just headed straight through and disappeared in a yellow cloud of desert dust. Then there was silence again.

My eyes were hurting from staring through the rising dust which settled on my arms, neck and forehead and blending with my sweat into a sticky yellow matter, itching and irritating. I had the sun behind me, and by its position I reckoned it was probably some hours after midday. I was exhausted from staying alert for so long, but this was what I had been trained for. Months and months of simulated action over and over. Still I was nervous.

Suddenly I thought I saw something move in the building across the street. No, probably nothing – just my strained eyes playing tricks on me. I closed my eyes hard for a second, and when I looked again there was a sharp light flashing right into my eyes. My finger reacted before my mind, and it was like the shot went off all by itself. The flash startled me, and my instinctive reflex was that little twitch of my right index finger.

After the shot the squad leader signalled and the four us met up on the ground floor of my building. I just said that I thought I saw something move, but that I probably was mistaken. Then I told them about the light.

We had to go and check, the two of them covering me and the squaddie as we crossed the street. I slowly and cautiously made my way through the entrance which was partly covered in debris and rubbish. I stepped on some corrugated iron – it was like ringing the doorbell. In the half-darkness inside I saw nothing. The sunlight was still in my eyes. So I just stood there and waited for the others to catch up with me. We were inside. One stayed to watch the entrance, while the three of us slowly started the search of the building, covering each other from room to room, one floor at the time. Gradually we approached the part where the light had come from.

The building seemed empty and it was completely silent. My eyes were gradually getting used to the dim light inside, but I still saw nothing. The floor was covered with broken glass and destroyed furniture. Then we entered the room where I imagined I had seen the flash. The room was bright with sunlight. I saw something looking like a bundle beneath the broken window. I went over and poked it with my gun, and it was like I died inside. What I saw in front of me cut into me with blurred and surreal horror. My eyes flickered, my pulse thundered, and then the whole situation overwhelmed me – the mission, the place, the heat, the dust, the war, and this - and I vomited. I had shot a child.

I wiped my face and sat down and leaned up against the wall trying to collect myself. There was a broken mirror lying on the floor. I picked it up and saw my own stupefied image and asked myself in a whisper: “What the hell are you doing here?”

I looked at the Captain. “That’s about it,” I said, “you know the rest.”

“All right, soldier,” he said. “What about this light that you mention in your report, I don’t get it. It doesn’t make any sense to me.” The Captain had raised his voice slightly.

“You have been specially trained for operations like this, and you know you are supposed to hold your fire until you are positive of an enemy target, or until you are fired at. We can’t have trigger-happy cowboys like that at large”.

“I know, sir” I said feebly, “but, eh – the flash blinded me and the reflex made me pull the trigger, sir.”

It sounded stupid, but it was the only explanation I had.

“It still doesn’t make any sense to me,” he said. “Where did it come from”?

“I’m not certain, sir,” I answered. “But we found a broken mirror next to the body, and I suppose the kid could have been playing with it, and – you know, the sunlight…”
The Captain didn’t answer. He just switched off the recorder, and the interview was over.

The following days and nights were a nightmare. No sleep at night and off duty during daytime. The guys said I had to be back in the saddle again as soon as possible, to try and put it behind me. But I wasn’t ready – and I was grounded anyway. This was a new kind of waiting game.

They wanted to hush down the incident, but it wouldn’t have made any difference to me. I still had to fight the same demons. I got some sort of follow-up by a team of amateurs whose only contribution was to keep the whole thing warm, in case I would forget. And I had to see the Chaplain; they all meant well, but it didn’t help. I had to come to terms with this alone, only I didn’t see how. The medication I got for my sleep only gave me nausea and a couple of hours hallucinating where the footage ran over and over in slow motion. Had I been trained for this? Not as far as I could remember. You can’t simulate things like this. How can you prepare yourself for what has to be experienced to be dealt with? And even then it is hard.

One night I sat on my bunk and listened to the sounds of sleeping day-shift soldiers. Soon they would be out there again – fighting for a cause which to me seemed to fade all the time. I felt out of place and left alone to deal with what was eating me up inside. Where was redemption?

There was no chance of sleep – so I just sat there, and my eyes fell on the picture of my wife and nine-year-old son. I picked it up and looked at it. My thoughts started wandering, and my eyes were going wet again. I put the picture down and went outside.

The night was so soft. I looked at the amazing multitude of stars above my head, and I noticed that the darkness gradually gave way to a new day from the east. I sat down on the front steps and waited for the sun to rise. After a while the crest of a red sun appeared on the horizon and as its first beams hit my eyes I knew what I had to do. It would probably not kill the demons, but it might be better than the alternative.

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