Luis Noriega The Strip
Indigenous people: Guambiano woman wearing traditional attire for the indigenous Guambiano market, Silvia near Popayan, Cauca, Colombia, South America | Photo (detail): Gilles Barbier © picture alliance /imageBROKER
By Luis NoriegaPlay the short story as audio: read by David Mayonga
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1. The civil servant had been expecting something different. A high wall studded with barbed wire, electric fencing, watchtowers, foxholes, a round structure that represented punishment even visually, a symbol that – let’s be optimistic – could be torn down. In that respect, the reality was a huge disappointment: an endless expanse of dust and sand. The base today consisted of a complex system of bunkers linked with each other by tunnels all along the border. All the important stuff was happening underground, protected from the scorching heat, and of course from any kind of attack. It looked innocuous from outside: apart from a handful of buildings that had been abandoned for decades and were in danger of collapsing, he faced the same wasteland he’d been looking at over the last few hours every time he glanced through the bus window on the way down into the valley. It didn’t surprise him that anyone wanted to live here (that is to say, no one), but that someone could live here. He knew that the true “wilderness” only started a few kilometres away, but not so many that he would have been able to see a completely different landscape to this one. The people on whose account the base existed didn’t seek out this hell, they were driven here, holed up here. The fact that they were able to survive for over a century in an environment like that scarcely justified (in hindsight) the fact that they were dubbed “stubborn”, a label that no one was giving them anymore other than the history books. And the fact that the base managed almost without all the physical paraphernalia of control and danger (electric fences, barbed wire) was proof of its ultimate victory.
He realised that they had arrived when the bus pulled up in front of a checkpoint in the middle of nowhere and a guard got in to allow them to pass through. Twenty-two recruits and a bureaucrat, he heard the driver say, who didn’t even have to point for the guard to identify him. He looked over at him from his seat, without letting on that he realised he was meant, as if he hadn’t even heard, which both the driver and the guard must have clearly understood as an insult. The guard did a quick head count, went back into the checkpoint and radioed the base for instructions.
While they were waiting for permission to drive through, he asked himself whether he was offended at being called a bureaucrat. Not especially. In fact that’s exactly what he was. And he knew that in a military base where they were used to functioning without any real control from outside, it was unlikely that he would necessarily be made welcome. But maybe, just maybe, he was beginning to regret having come here. He was barely more than a lackey, a cog in a wheel, and he had no chance of bringing about change in a matter that the entire ministerial machine had been unable to move forward. He needed to remember that he hadn’t even come to bring about change.
He got off the bus with the recruits and had to wait with them in the searing heat of the desert for someone to come and greet them. He was surprised to see the Colonel himself coming towards them. But as he went to shake his hand, they held him back: the Colonel would greet the new recruits first and would speak to him after that. In the hierarchy of the base, the bureaucrat ranked below even the cannon fodder. This humiliation left him reeling. He glanced towards the bus. He could go back. Admittedly, he told himself, the Colonel wouldn’t view his disappearance as temerity, but as escape or surrender. He decided to go through with it, and dug a folder out of his briefcase to fan himself while the Colonel gave his welcome speech.
What happens in the Strip stays in the Strip, began the Colonel. Apart from him standing at the edge of the troop, all the newcomers responded to the cliché with smiles and knowing looks. What happens in the Strip stays in the Strip, they agreed, nodding as if this were the start of some game or high-jinks. He wasn’t smiling though: it was obvious to him that these words were actually meant as a warning, and it was crystal-clear that the warning was also directed at him – in fact he was convinced that the Colonel even aimed it specifically at him that day, at the bureaucrat and therefore infiltrator. What happens in the Strip stays in the Strip: it occurred to him that in some respects that was why he was here. To find out what did happen in the Strip. To find out what did stay in the Strip.
2. The civil servant remembers the first time he heard about the Strip in precise detail. It was thirty years ago, during the semi-final of the football World Cup. It was the first time their country’s team had ever got so far, a stunning performance that would not be repeated in the decades that followed. He remembers that half a dozen kids from the block sat in suspense in front of the TV, who he now realises were for some reason at his house rather than at home with their parents. Maybe because his father, as well as being teetotal, was also the only adult he knew who had no interest whatsoever in the football World Cup. From that the neighbours probably concluded that he was the most suitable person to be looking after the kids while they poured beer down their throats to help them cope better with the suspense and goals scored by the other team, whilst insulting a referee who couldn’t hear them.
His father was not looking after the kids though, it was his mother. She was a bit of a football fan, quite a big one in fact, so that he could say that he’d inherited this passion from her (the only reason she wasn’t round at the neighbours was because she preferred to watch football with the children, because they didn’t tend to take their emotions out on the television quite as much as the grown-ups). Why wasn’t his father with them? The fact that he had no interest in the World Cup didn’t mean that he refused to watch the games, especially when the rest of the family was watching. As far as he can remember, his father had spent almost the entire time in his study preparing his university seminars – which as far as he remembered was what he always did when he wasn’t doing the washing-up and tidying the kitchen. But now he understands that it doesn’t make much sense (the previous term had only just finished and the new one wasn’t due to start for another month) and for that reason he would have to correct his memory: it’s much more likely that his father was in the kitchen washing up and had tuned into a radio station that wasn’t broadcasting the World Cup. This memory slip seems excusable. What was important on that day was what was happening in the living room and specifically on the TV. And he hasn’t forgotten that. He remembers jumping around on the sofa and cheering at the goal that brought the score to 2:1, leaving them hopeful that they could catch up, although unfortunately that never came to pass. He remembers hugging fat Sánchez, his best friend. He even remembers the excited chatter of the TV commentator: What a performance, my fellow countrymen, what a battle against history and statistics. And suddenly his father appears on the scene. Presumably he’s drawn by the yells, and wants to share in the joy of the neighbours, indeed of the whole country, watch the goal replay, share the excitement up to the final whistle. But no, his father doesn’t come into the room, he stays leaning on the doorframe, looking neither happy nor hopeful, quite the opposite. The figure standing there in the doorway, what his memory told him he saw in the doorway, was a gaunt spectre, overcome with grief and horror. From the black hole into which he had fallen, his father looked at his mother. “The army is bombing the Strip,” he said. And began to weep.
Years later his father’s weeping, set against the cheering of half a dozen children and the explosion of happiness coming through the window, would become a living reflection of powerlessness for him.
But years would have to pass before that happened. He realises that he didn’t pay much attention to his father’s tears that afternoon. His mother stifled a cry with her hands and threw herself upon him. Dad’s crying, Mum’s sorting him out, he registered in his thoughts, and shifted his gaze back to the television. There were still ten minutes of the game left. It was highly unlikely that any of his little friends had even noticed what was happening.
The army is bombing the Strip, his father had said. But the following day all the newspapers found it more important to report the national team’s defeat just as they were on the verge of victory. Pain of a nation, ran the mournful headline of the country’s main daily newspaper.
3. The nation also featured prominently in the Colonel’s address to the recruits. The defence of the nation was stated as the primary goal of the base; the love of the nation as the sole reason someone of such a high rank as this officer addressing them would sacrifice the best years of his life for this forgotten border; and the interest of the nation as the primary justification for the secret into which the recruits would from now on be initiated. What happens in the Strip stays in the Strip, because the nation in whose service they had sworn allegiance ranked above everything and every single one of them.
He asked himself what the recruits must think of these well-worn platitudes. The formal and stilted tone of the Colonel wiped their original smiles off their faces, which meant they no longer believed in the idea of a game or high-jinks. However there was more – their sweating faces showed no emotion. He meant that seriously, some of them were thinking perhaps. Others had hopefully retained some of their teenage rebelliousness, and would prove to be immune to their captain’s hot air. When he thought about it properly though, the most likely scenario was that they had all switched off mentally a long time ago, partly through disinterest, partly through dullness after a long and uncomfortable journey, and that they were only tolerating the military blah-blah because they had no choice. The bureaucrat had no choice either, but at least he could fan himself and didn’t have to stand to attention.
Did the recruits have even the slightest idea of where they were? Obviously not. These soldiers had recently graduated from high school, and had been unlucky enough to have been selected for military service instead of going to university. They were certain to have undergone a few weeks of induction in barracks somewhere before they were dispatched here, to a remote place of whose existence and function they had previously known nothing. He was sure that the Colonel would spare them the details for the moment in his welcome speech.
He felt sorry for them: they would find out brutally what the nation really was. And once again he thought of his father. It was nothing but a pigsty, this nation, that was what he always said. Not so much because he rejected the concept, but more that he couldn’t stand the pompous talk his father had taught him to watch out for since he was small. People who are all talk are cheats. All those pompous words are concealing a scam. His father really wouldn’t have had any patience with someone like the Colonel, so he would probably have ended his life in a lonely cell or with a bullet in his brain if they had encountered each other.
Suddenly the Colonel started to talk about bureaucracy in the capital. They were getting mixed up in things which had always been and should continue to be the responsibility of the army. The absurdity of such a welcome speech in front of the new soldiers confirmed that the Colonel knew the purpose of his visit and that the repeated infrastructural problems, which had made smooth communication impossible in recent months, essentially amounted to one thing: the refusal to communicate at all. The Colonel received the reports, studies, warrants, orders, but he resorted to an old tradition of taking them without following them. That was all. He should have realised that straight away. The Colonel had transformed the welcome address into a preventative defence.
If he had chosen him as recipient of this message, for him to take it to the capital, he was guaranteed a serious disappointment as soon as he found out the position he held at the ministry.
Without disguising his exasperation, he put the file back in his briefcase. “Is there somewhere I can wait until this has finished?” he asked the sergeant, who had stood beside him right at the start of the speech. The man didn’t answer. “Maybe I can help you?” he heard a voice behind him.
When he turned, he caught sight of a priest. The presence of this man surprised him. He hadn’t realised the base had any religious personnel. He immediately asked himself if that was good news. An priest could be a good ally. Or exactly the opposite. In this case it was a relatively old man. Of a sufficient age to have been a chaplain before the position of priest was introduced (and the job title of chaplain was abolished), and consequently someone who’d had religious tolerance imposed upon him by decree.
“Thank you,” he said. “If possible I’d like to sit down while I wait for the Colonel. Preferably in the shade, if that isn’t too much of a problem.” – “Of course,” replied the priest with a kind, gentle voice. “Come with me.” He followed the man to the entrance of a bunker. At a signal given by the priest, the soldiers posted there allowed them to pass.
“It’s a breach of protocol, but only a slight one,” he said. “I’m afraid we’re not used to visitors here.” The use of the plural did not escape him. Nor the way the soldiers obeyed his signal. His knowledge of the internal army codes might have been limited, but he knew that priests tended to be more for decoration and were not taken seriously in hierarchical terms, and his guide’s attitude did not fit with this model.
4. The bombing, of which the press reported nothing, was neither the first, nor would it be the last. But it was the definitive one. You see, the Strip – which no longer existed anyway other than in a handful of secret government reports – disappeared from the archives immediately and completely, in the same way as it had already disappeared from history, and became part of an obscure legend defended only by eccentric academics suspected of dissent. But he would only find out about that much later, by the time he had almost convinced himself that the story he’d been told at home was really a load of nonsense, nonsense that cost his father his professorship at the university and would have cost a good deal more if his mother hadn’t supported him.
On the day after the semi-final game he – even though he was also mourning the defeat of the national team – didn’t link the miserable mood at home with what his father had said in the doorway the previous day, and it was not until several years later that he heard mention of the Strip again.
And it was on the occasion of another independence anniversary, when as usual the schools submitted with more or less enthusiasm to the inevitable patriotic rigmarole. The later history of the young state (an almost continuous civil war) was put on the back burner for a few days in contrast with the conflict to which it owed its liberty. The liberty to shoot yourself from behind and stab yourself to death, as his father liked to say, but by now he had grown into an adolescent who considered the stories told to him by his “old man”, as he now called him, an annoyance and an embarrassment – especially when his mates were listening.
He remembers this moment very well, although he’s embarrassed by his attitude back then and finds it difficult to defend the carefree, naïve teenager by putting it down to his age. The half-dissident priest who taught them history started off all that stuff about the war of independence as dictated by the syllabus. According to him, the main trigger for the conflict had been the discrimination of the Creoles during the colonial era. Unlike the inhabitants of the peninsula, they bore the “mark of the earth”, they were born here, not in the metropolis – which made them second-class citizens. The war of independence transformed the “mark of the earth” into something to be proud of. The nation grew on the basis of this pride. But then the priest joined forces with the geography teacher – she had a reputation of being a dissident too – to dismantle that version (insofar as this was possible at a school run by a religious order, of course). For this he organised a series of lectures to which his father was invited as well, after all he was an expert on the era. His father’s lecture bore the title “The Real Losers of the Independence War” and defended the controversial theory that the greatest loss resulting from independence was suffered by the native population.
When it became clear to his companions that the speaker meant the “Indios” when he talked about the native population, laughter rang out. The Indios had been defeated long ago. They couldn’t even lose a war they had already lost. His father didn’t let himself become discouraged by the audience’s hostility and continued to talk as if he were teaching a class about the indigenous population groups, who had managed to escape extermination in the Conquista and consolidate boundaries that were more or less accepted by the colonial authorities. These groups, the “untamed” or “recalcitrant savage Indios” were allegedly the true losers of independence, because the victors were not prepared to forgo these territories. You might say they continued to be driven by the Conquistador spirit, his father noted. That triggered some cynical laughter, but also some complaints.
He remembered that the headmaster began to slide back and forth at the podium. The priest looked around him, searching for an excuse to interrupt the lecture. Finally he decided to intervene. “Excuse me, Professor,” he began, but the savagery of the Conquista was instigated by the inhabitants of the peninsula, a sin for which the new nation cannot be held responsible. We are a mixed-race country.” His father passed no comment on the fact that the audience he was addressing didn’t exactly provide the best example of this “mixed-race country” – he merely limited himself to the remark that the new nation need not envy the peninsular population in matters of savagery. “And this savagery doesn’t even belong to the past. It continues right up to this very day in a secret area known as the Strip,” he said.
How many of those present had heard of the Strip before, he said. Judging by the headmaster’s shocked expression, he had understood the direction in which this lecture was likely to go. However most of the spectators seemed more confused. Unfortunately for the school authorities the friction between the headmaster and the speaker had the unexpected effect that the students were now listening more attentively than they were a moment before. His father used the opportunity offered to him by the headmaster’s indecision, and hurried to explain: “The Strip was the place where the liberation troops corralled all the indigenous people who didn’t want to be set free from their tribal lands, from their customs and convictions. And they still live there, in the largest jail on earth.” At this point the headmaster abandoned any semblance of politeness. “I’ll have to ask you to stop your lecture, Professor,” he said. And his father obeyed, with a smile of satisfaction that increased the embarrassment – which had been causing him to shrink in his seat the whole time, wishing the ground would swallow him up – even further.
The first consequence of this incident was predictable: the rest of the lectures scheduled for that week were cancelled without notice. Further consequences would follow before the end of the school year. The rebellious priest who had organised the lecture series was sent to a new location by his order at short notice, where he was no longer able to poison young, malleable minds with his seditious ideas. A file was created for the geography teacher, after a student reported that she had spoken up in class in favour of abortion, and in the end her contract was not renewed. As regards himself, the most direct consequence could be summarised with the question his classmates were asking him: Why is your dad such a troublemaker?
5. The priest led him through a labyrinth of corridors and what seemed to be workrooms, into a large office. The décor was austere, the furniture functional at most: desk, meeting table, metal shelves; quite harsh lighting, in fact it was so harsh that sunglasses might have been appropriate.
“We can wait here for the Colonel,” said the priest and indicated two chairs in front of the desk. “Is this his office?” He couldn’t help but ask the question. “Yes. Does that surprise you?” – “I admit it does. It’s far more Spartan than I thought it would be.”
“What should I say to that? The function of the base is what it is. We’re at the frontier of civilisation, as you know. And at war.” – “I can’t agree with you there. The war ended a long time ago.” – “Try telling that to the boys you just saw outside.” – “They know that.”
“They think they know it. Like you. But they will soon have a chance to see things through their own eyes, if the Colonel permits it. Anyway, if you’d rather, there’s a common room in the officers’ mess, we could go there instead…” – “No, that isn’t necessary. Will it take a long time? The welcome address, I mean.” – “I don’t think so. Can I offer you anything in the meantime? Coffee? A glass of water?”
He decided on both, and the priest pressed a button on the intercom on the Colonel’s desk to have the drinks brought. This show of trust would probably be considered a breach of protocol. “You know, we’re really glad you’re here. The studies you sent were really a good motivation.”
“So you have read it? We were worried that they hadn’t actually arrived.” – “The Colonel showed them to me. He wanted my opinion on them, you understand? My opinion as a man of faith, I mean.” – “And what is your opinion?”
The priest appeared to be pondering his words with a theatrical sequence: he took a deep breath, clasped his hands together, looked up at the ceiling. Then he delivered the answer he had prepared. “I assume the studies are correct.” – “They are correct, I guarantee you.”
“Well, I think it’s exceptionally good news for the staff on the base, and in general for all believers.” An answer like that was exactly the opposite of what he had expected and feared, and he allowed himself a smile of satisfaction. But the priest continued. “This new science, the genetics you promote, is a wonderful thing. It has been disputed for a very long time. That we now definitively have confirmation, scientific certainty, is encouraging. I can’t wait to tell the new recruits about it, because there’s always one who can’t understand the differences separating us from the sub-humans.”
The mention of “sub-humans” set him reeling. What was this miserable man taking about? He hadn’t understood a word. Without expressing his annoyance, he said: “Studies show that there’s no difference at all. I’d like to make that absolutely clear. There are no “sub-humans”. And there never have been. The faster you accept that fact here at the Strip, the better.”
You’re wrong,” answered the priest with a self-assuredness that in different circumstances he would have envied him. “You’re absolutely wrong. The fact that cutting-edge science has failed to identify any difference between humans and sub-humans…” Angrily he interrupted him: “Please, do stop using this term now.”
The priest shrugged his shoulders. “As you wish,” he said. “The fact that science has failed to identify any difference between humans and savages doesn’t mean that there isn’t a difference, as you seem happy to believe. It just means that science, your science, is incapable of explaining that difference. It means that there are truths which lie outside the scope of science, and that therefore there are truths, deeper truths, which can only be reached through faith.”
“Faith, true faith?” he asked in a mocking tone. He didn’t intend to let that go. “And I had thought that for you, as a priest, all religions are equal when it comes to spiritual searching.” – “That’s right.” – “But what about the faith of the native population? Does their religion also take them to deeper truths outside the scope of science?”
The priest was silent, so he took it that he had scored a point. Of course, this victory was no use to him, after all the Colonel was still the true authority, but it filled him with satisfaction to have shut this fanatic’s mouth. But suddenly he smiled. “By God, do you actually realise what you’re saying there? You come here because you think you know whatever, but in fact you know nothing. There is no sub-human religion. The sub-humans have absolutely no spiritual awareness. What you call religion is nothing but idolatry, the reverence that an animal experiences, especially when his limited mental capacity is exceeded. If the sub-humans weren’t controlled by that irrational hatred they show us, they would worship us.”
6. Troublemaker was a fashionable term then. If he understood correctly, it was applied to anyone who complained loudly. They’d picked up the word in the playground, from other students, who in turn had learned it from their parents, who used it without hesitation against the priest who came to the school with that old story of social justice, from the activists who complained about the situation on the news, or the politicians, who (whether of their own conviction or not) championed the battle against social injustice. No demands were made without involving some kind of trouble: feminism, minority rights, environmental protection or, as in his father’s case, the native population. When he thought about the fact that he had grown up around these people, he suspected that his parents hadn’t picked this school because of its quality, but to show him that he didn’t belong to that class.
Why is your dad such a troublemaker? The truth is that he didn’t know how to answer. His father wasn’t a troublemaker, if he’d understood the term correctly. His father wasn’t even the sort of person to grumble. He was simply someone who took certain matters very much to heart and protested if there was good reason to do so. He was also capable of getting angry and protesting in rage, but it didn’t come to that in the school hall. If anyone had behaved rudely, it was the headmaster. Unfortunately that didn’t mitigate the feeling of shame he felt at all: he wished his father had never accepted the invitation. But in addition to the shame he also felt rage, yet he didn’t know exactly against whom the rage was directed, or more precisely against whom he should direct it.
“He isn’t a troublemaker,” he said finally. He’s like our teacher: he believes in these stories, that’s all.” – “But they’re troublemaker stories,” countered his friend. “And they’re false,” observed another classmate.
In his memory this was a key moment of his youth: he had the opportunity to take his father’s side, to overcome the shame and use the rage to stage a counter-attack. But instead he hung his head and shrugged his shoulders.
And when he came home, his father was the one whose pent-up rage caused him to lose his temper, his father, when he thoughtlessly related his friend’s question – Why are you such a troublemaker? – followed by something that seemed terribly unfair in hindsight, the conclusion drawn by his classmate, who wasn’t his friend: I don’t want to hear any more of your lies. Yes, unfair, because he didn’t believe they were lies, he just wished they were. Why couldn’t his father be like other fathers? Why did he always have to contradict?
The subsequent argument into which his mother would ultimately be dragged as well, followed all the rules of teenage drama, including storming off, the leave-me-alone, the door-slamming and sulky silence the next day. A silence that he only broke when he noticed that his mother wasn’t taking the usual route to school. “Where are we going?” he asked, not mincing his words. “We’re visiting someone,” replied his father from the passenger seat. “But I’ve got to go to school,” he said, with more confusion than conviction, as he noticed that they had driven out of town. His parents reassured him that he needn’t worry.
It was only a while later that he realised they were heading for the village where his grandmother lived. Since the idea of not having to go to school after the previous day’s incident appealed to him, he had trouble keeping up the show of anger. Anyway, he was very fond of his grandma, and although the purpose of his parents’ visit that day was unclear to him – maybe to calm him down? – he soon discovered that he was in good spirits.
He remembered it because at some point he caught his father’s eye in the rear view mirror. Unlike him, his “old man” (he wasn’t even forty) didn’t seem to be in such a great mood, but he wasn’t angry either. He saw the sadness in his expression that reminded him of the image of the doorway during the semi-final five years ago (the previous year the national team hadn’t even got past the group qualifiers), and for the first time he asked himself why his father had been crying that afternoon. But he would never have guessed that at the end of the day his own face would reflect the despair and powerlessness he had seen in his father then.
The story that his grandmother was to tell him, as requested by his parents, was particularly harsh. It was the story of Mama Luisa, his grandma, who had died while he was still very little, and of whom his only memory was a blurred image of an old lady nearly a hundred years old. She was a shy and frail person but she was contented – especially if her grandson was within tickling distance. He knew that Mama Luisa had spent almost all her life as a servant for a rich family, a fact that sometimes cropped up in conversations between his parents. And He was old enough to understand that his grandma’s never-mentioned father had been a member of this family. His great-grandmother was a native. His grandmother on the other hand was white, whiter than white, and had blue eyes. Just like his father and himself. But that wasn’t what his parents wanted his grandmother to tell him. Mama Luisa had been a maid for this family in a different sense, one that the dictionaries didn’t usually spell out.
When they penetrated the territories of the “savage Indians”, the colonists abducted children and gave them to new families, who were supposed to bring them up – which meant baptising them into the Catholic faith and making them into “civilised” human beings. As time passed, these acolytes became domestic staff, servants, a form of slavery that outlived independence and continued at least until the middle of the century. For years the Strip was a treasure trove of natives who were supposedly in service. For slave girls. Mama Luisa was abducted from the Strip at the age of eleven or twelve, and made sure that her daughter and grandson, and now him through the two of them, found out about the existence of the Strip.
This knowledge made his father want to become a historian. He, with his more practical or less romantic tendencies, would opt for law and civil service when the time came to decide.
7. He would have liked to think that the Colonel’s arrival was what stopped the priest from getting the punch he deserved, but that wasn’t what happened. He’d never hit anyone in his whole life, and wasn’t going to start today. In truth he was a scaredy-cat, he was forced to admit. If he had even the slightest hope that he could achieve anything at all with his visit, then it had been completely dispelled by the conversation with the priest. The Colonel’s first words confirmed this conclusion. “I don’t know what your intention is here,” he said, without even a greeting. “We made it quite clear that we can’t fulfil the ministry’s request.”
“This isn’t about a request.” – “It is a request. The Strip has absolute autonomy in these matters.” – “The courts will decide that.” The Colonel looked him directly in the eye for a few seconds. “The courts are a long way away, you know?” he said and looked away.
But his words didn’t have a threatening undertone, and they even helped relieve the tension a little. “Colonel,” he said, trying to sound conciliatory, “we all know that this has to end. You’re dealing with people here, and the time has come for both the government and the army to take responsibility for their mistakes. It’s better…”
“How long have you been working for the ministry?” interrupted the Colonel. “Three years,” he answered hesitantly. He didn’t understand what the Colonel was getting at. “I’ve been here for more than twenty years. When I came here, I was a lieutenant. Do you know how many governments have already tried to do what the current one is attempting?”
“No.” The question didn’t permit any other answer. There were no archives, or at least none that were accessible. In all matters relating to the Strip, the ministry would have had to start from scratch. “Since I’ve been here, three have tried. Four, if we include the incompetent Escobar government. Four out of six. Not bad, huh? But they all had to step away from this. And exactly the same will happen to this one. And do you know why?”
“Because it’s a matter of national security?” He quoted the standard answer from the documents to which he had had access. “No. It isn’t just the national security that’s at stake here. When we say the Strip’s the frontier of civilisation, those aren’t empty words, as you tie-wearing bureaucrats believe. No. It’s the truth. Civilisation ends at the checkpoint you passed through on the way in here. That’s why the Strip doesn’t exist outside the Strip.”
“I’d agree with you in that respect,” he admitted. “Ignoring the existence of the Strip is necessary so that civilisation can continue to consider itself civilised. What you’re doing here is inhuman. It’s barbaric.”
“Maybe.” The Colonel shrugged his shoulders. “But it’s work, and someone has to do it. And I’d like to do it well,” he added sharply without allowing interruption. “But I’d like you to understand that governments come and go, but the Strip stays. Politicians are fickle. And so are voters. Those same studies that you sent us, they might serve the next government as a basis to declare the Strip a huge organ bank, just as others have decided that this was an inexhaustible supply of labour.”
It was a shocking idea. He tried to reply, but anger had given way to horror, and the horror rendered him speechless. He was certain that the Colonel’s “for example” was not intended to disguise a crazy speculation, but to let him glimpse a plan that might even be under way already, but above all served as proof that all his efforts had failed.
What happens in the Strip stays in the Strip, he thought. And decided that it would be different this time: he had to get away from here. Alive. “Then it looks like we’ve nothing left to discuss,” he said. “But you already knew that before you came here,” retorted the Colonel with a satisfied smile.
It seemed to him that saying nothing would be eloquent enough: he accepted his defeat. He would leave. However, from his expression the Colonel was insisting on an answer. “I suppose so,” he said at last. “So why did you come then?” asked the Colonel, leaned back in his chair and folded his arms.
His curiosity seemed genuine. The gesture of relaxation authentic. And so he opted to reply in the same spirit. “To see the Strip,” he said. “To prove to myself that it doesn’t exist only on paper.” – “Well, here it is,” said the Colonel. “Yes. But I would like to have seen the natives as well.” – “That can be arranged.” Even before he could decide whether the comment was a well-meaning offer or nothing but irony, the blow struck home and everything around him went black.
He woke up in a moving vehicle. An off-roader, probably. They had put a sack over his head so that he couldn’t see anything, but it was clear to him that they were taking him somewhere. They had taped his mouth shut and tied his hands behind his back. Instead of native villages he was going to see mass graves, he thought bitterly. And he cursed himself for having trusted that his status as a civil servant would protect him from these people. They would kill him. He knew he couldn’t do anything about it and, just like his father in the doorway, he wept with helplessness and once again recalled the Colonel’s welcome speech: what happens in the Strip stays in the Strip.
Suddenly the car stopped. Without a word he was grabbed violently by the arms, pulled outside and pushed to the floor. He heard the click of weapons being loaded (there were no goodbyes), and then the shots. Dozens of them.
He only noticed that he hadn’t been hit when the off-roader started up again and sped off. The prospect of dying of hunger and thirst in the middle of the desert seemed even more terrible than being killed by a bullet. But the Colonel’s men had even deprived him of the opportunity to cry out, complain and curse, and so he lay on the ground at the mercy of his fate.
Then he heard the footsteps. Slow. Hesitant. And subdued murmuring. Blind because of the sack over his head, he turned his neck uselessly from one side to the other. And suddenly he was blinded by harsh daylight. And he saw them.