Jumanah, reddish-brown thalassaemia girl who survived an Italian sponsored bone-marrow transplant in 2005, walked out of the gate with other classmates, flushed in gaiety, dropped her books and smiled in her little face. She looked tinier and shorter than the rest of the batch chattering loud outside the school. Some on cycles passed through while others took home on foot. She was sixteen. Only evening classes continued for the 10th graders in the month of December during annual holidays. This batch prepared for London GCE O-Level overseas exams by the end of the month. It was almost thirty minutes to sundown and the sky brought colours of reddish-gold. Empty space of the playground with low-wall boundary exposed the area to sporadic breezes tussle their hair.
Efrémen Secondary School faced the playing field. An old-fashioned radar station stood behind the school by the southwest corner. A broad road, northeast of the playground, called Nargis Magu with River Oaks on sidewalks, dropped to northeast coast. Madand Pass, another broad road parallel to the northeast boundary of the playground, fell on Digwand Pass and to Digwand hamlet. The school sited in Madand centred Fua Mulak. This island generally referred to one big mass of land however geographically was an atoll formed of a cluster of islands with two large mangroves of water deposited in its body.
The island appeared like a bowtie from a bird’s eye view with its population concentrated in the nucleus and the rest of the houses stretched along coastal roads in type of linear settlements with dispersed villages.
“I have no time to watch the movie. I will make a copy and drop it tomorrow,” Jumanah protested.
Daniela, a white girl with blonde hair, was little annoyed, “You swear! That DVD is not mine.”
“I’ll drop it, I promise…tomorrow.”
“You say that all the time but you never return. And you lose them. You’re so careless.”
Another girl rushed between them, chased by a couple of girls. All wore white uniforms and blue skirts. Ahmed reached them on his Suzuki GSX500. “Take me home to Doondigam,” Jumanah requested.
“Climb my back!” he uttered.
Doondigam rural located on the southeast end of the island, two kilometres away, controlled the inlet harbour fortified against aggressive waves that hit the island around the shores ceaselessly as Fua Mulak sits in the middle of the Equatorial Channel.
Daniela said, “You can make a copy here from school.”
“No time. Bio starts in ten minutes.” Jumanah climbed the backseat of the motorbike. “I don’t have it. My sis is watching. I sure bring it tomorrow.”
“Oh! Come on, Juman!”
Ahmed kicked off.
“Switch on your lights, it’s six,” Daniela cried. Switch on headlights at six in the evening and switch off at six in the morning – that was traffic rule because in the Maldives there was no fog or blackening in daytime.
They turned around the playground corner and headed northwest up Madand Pass towards Digwand and not to Doondigam. Daniela watched them disappear out of eyeshot, disappointed.
“You’re riding too fast,” Jumanah cried holding on him tightly and her skirt blown up the thighs.
“Let’s get down to the beach!” he said.
The thick, weighty stretch of beach on northwest end of the island he referred was called thundi and it would be vacated by 17:30 hrs under regulation. Even when tourism began, these rules did not change because Fua Mulak waters were extremely dangerous; high waves and strong current persistent. Other rules apply; permission to collect sand and pick your own trash out. An elegant characteristic of the thundi was that there accumulated some groundnut-size gravel sand with natural polish coating and looked glossy; a rare nature of beach sand that appeared nowhere in the Maldives, ancestors profoundly obtained the sand to carpet their lawns and backyards. Typical beach sand elsewhere appeared fine and white.
“Cut Bio class?” she laughed, “We only have ten minutes.”
“Yep, I’ve got some stuff with me,” he told her. He paced up Digwand Pass, 1 km to western end, turned to the 1.2 km Dandimagu Street with new settlements of fine houses, modern cafeterias and tourist hotels on the sides for quarter mile. In recent time this was the main tourist area as the long beach lies parallel to the street on the western coast and to the breadth of the island. Night cafeterias lined up on the beachfront from south to quarter mile north. Further north, the thundi or the eminent seaside was an estate of the state and during daytime both guests and hosts were allowed bathing. Of habit Fua Mulak islanders picnicked to the long stretch of beach of thundi and therefore it remained very much a public area. Signboards carried notices to prohibit topless bathing strictly. The southern custom of bathing in the waters a week before the fasting month of Ramadan begins was indeed a huge event when the entire island population go down to the beach.
The northern quarter of Dandimagu adjoining Hodand remained fairly vacant with agricultural plots of micro-farming carried out here. Northernmost tip of the island due to changing seasonal currents extended the thundi beach even further out to the sea. The end of the airstrip lying parallel to Hodand was approached from the thundi flying low over the beach.
Halfway up Dandimagu Street, Ahmed missed a couple of beach routes and turned into a byway through the undergrowth and silently reached the shore. He hid the motorbike in the bushes and climbed down to the shore. The juveniles sat watching the windy lights of the beachfront cafeterias further south and greater thundi towards north.
Huge waves rose like mountains, hitting hard on the beach and creeping rapidly to the heels. The sun had gone down. He picked a pack of cigarettes, helped one out, screened a light against the lapel of his shirt and lit a joint of cannabis.
“It’s windy out here,” said Jumanah pulling at the joint he passed.
“Let’s take a swim before dark!” Ahmed asked.
“I feel cold,” she said over the clamours of the waves.
“Come on! We get in wet and you’ll be alright. That’s how we rid off chill.”
She was up undressing and stuck her uniform clothes in the bushes. They ran across the beach in the fizz to the bouncing waves stark naked. The waters here appeared dark without a hint of a thin line of turquoise lagoon. They had fun. She was thrilled. The beach was officially closed and nobody around. The sky deepened in propensity still light up there.
“What is today?” Jumanah asked.
“I don’t know...maybe twelfth December.”
“No moon, no honey,” he snatched her frontal and she shrieked on top of her voice dropping on her back in the water. They did not go deeper knowing the waters carry strong current.
Just then someone flashed a light quite from a distance but to bother them to hurriedly dip in water in order to cover their nude. “Did you see that?” he asked, “There’s someone on the beach.”
“I sure did,” cried Jumanah, “It’s not someone. It’s something. I saw a boat.”
“In the sea...look! It’s there. It’s a boat close to the island. It’s going to wreck.”
He saw over the crest of a wave descending. It was totally a black form of a vessel. “I can tell that guy with the flashlight is waiting for it.”
“Waiting for what?”
“Smuggling...he’s expecting somebody to climb with the stuff.”
They observed for a moment. The vessel came closer and growing bigger. From that distance it looked as though it was almost over the rising tide, perhaps a hundred metres from the island, crawling towards the beach. “Oh God! It’s huge! It looks like a barge!”
“Quick...climb ashore! Get dressed!”
“Can they see us?”
They climbed from the water and rushed into the bushes. The breeze was strong and chilly. They got dry with their bottom wears and hurriedly dressed up. Even cold and wet or fresh, it was an uneasy feeling to catch the itches of salty water on the skin.
“I’m cold. I’m shivering,” she felt goose-bumps on her body for getting wet five minutes in water.
Ahmed lit another joint, pulled and passed to the girl, the scent of herb strong in the air. “What time is it?” Little sparks split away in the blowing wind on the brink of climate change to begin an easterly monsoon. The waves were high and the air was moist.
She checked her wristwatch, “Six-twenty-five.”
Abruptly, they heard the hum of an engine. He glanced through the foliage. “It’s landing on the beach. It’s a landing craft!”
They watched from behind the bushes. The girl held tight around his waist. They saw the barge reach the shoreline and drop its ramp which was not too clear because the whole object now appeared in a black form few hundred yards away from them. It shocked them when some lights of a vehicle lit up and an engine rolled down into water separating the thing in two forms. They saw people on the beach in obvious silhouettes carrying weapons. Shockingly they were a lot of people. Suddenly the juveniles grew tense and scared. The engine climbed the beach. In its black shape it was no doubt a tank and a cannon gun on top of it. It was a massive engine.
“Let’s get out of here!” Jumanah grabbed him.
Another vehicle rolled down. “They will kill us!” she was terrified.
“No. They come from the base in Suvadiva. I’m sure they are Indian troops.” And then he saw the dogs. “Oh! No! They have dogs! Let’s get out of here!”
In a final peek he saw the soldiers heading up this way. The juveniles rushed into the falling darkness through the undergrowth and hurried to climb Dandimagu Street hoping to reach the hamlet area.
Dog was not an animal allowed in the country. Lethal and non-lethal weapons, liquor, narcotics, Bibles and dangerous animals were among the illegal imports to the Maldives. No animals existed in the country apart from Egyptian cats and few rabbits.
Ahmed and Jumanah reached the street to hear a siren of a police car speeding up on Dandimagu Street. There stood a police ‘villifulus’ depot at midpoint of the street in mid village. An armoured car climbed from the opposite direction heading up southwards.
The police petrol stopped with its emergency lights blinking and its siren going down eerily. Sergeant Nadir climbed down from the car and stepped forward waving the approaching vehicle to stop.
The approaching vehicle turned on high-beams signalling to the police car. Suddenly, a rupture of submachine gun fire sent the sergeant rolling back on the bonnet of his car. The armoured vehicle sped pass by in rapid pace. There were four or six soldiers on top of the car and more inside. A white ensign on the rear antenna got a triangular symbol with a red digit ‘9’ on it. It was a four-wheeled Dozor-B armoured personnel carrier.
Ahmed had never seen a machine gun released in repetitious bursts. In the falling dark, he saw sparks unleashed from one of the soldiers standing on the rear bumper holding an assault rifle rattling the windscreen. Sergeant Nadir was wounded and his car battered, tires flat, the windscreen smashed. His companion got out to help him.
Meanwhile, further north, two more vehicles climbed Dandimagu over the micro-farm fields, turned inland towards the 1.2 km airstrip that gave easy access to the island midpoint. Had they taken Hodand Pass, 2 km northern coastal road, it would be trickily difficult for the tiny houses in linear settlement with kids on the long and winding road, an old settlement driveway and too narrow for those vehicles to move.
The armoured car reached the end of the long, straight road, Dandimagu Street. Soldiers climbed down flooding into the garden of Hotel Korakeli, the largest tourist hotel with western tourists and in this time of the year those hotels in the Equator Zone were full.
Noises died and it was very quiet. The blinking red light of the police car cast on his face. They were off the road in the bushes. Jumanah was trembling like a fish out of water, flat on the ground, she pissed to her clothes. She cared not to watch fearfully. The sky toned deeper and stars seemed to twinkle. Ahmed caught the echoes of the forceful waves in his ears. “Let’s get out of here! Come on, Juman!” he reached for her.
“I’m scared! I’m scared!” she cried.
“I am too. Get up! We must go. I can’t fetch my bike, it’s too far. Let’s reach the settlements through the bushes. This is very serious. Dandimagu is under siege,” he whispered.
“Who are they?” she asked.
“Terrorists,” Ahmed told her.
Two armed guards standing on duty facing the apron front saw those vehicles approaching. They fired bullets hitting the vehicles and ricochet in sparks. The big eight-wheel BTR-4 armoured car turned towards the terminal and hissed to a halt on hydraulic brakes. “Give up your guns and surrender!” A massage conveyed on loudspeaker in the English Language, “We instruct each and every soul to leave the building immediately.”
Airport staff gathered to the glass panels of the tall windows. Machine gun fire from the armoured truck sprayed at the panelling cutting down the glass sheets smashing to the hall. A bunch of staff hastily dispersed in absolute fear. Two guards watched it and then ran for their lives.
The huge tank did not stop. It advanced up the airstrip and climbed a narrow lane in Hodand. Islanders felt the ground shaking and heard rumbles of an engine. They rushed to the gates on the dark narrow lanes. An old boundary wall, five foot high and moss grown, fell down to the vibration of the heavy engine as it rolled on island soil.
A call relayed on loudspeaker spoken in Divehi and in Fua Mulak dialect, “Attention! All islanders stay home. This is an order. No one is permitted to leave the house. Stay where you are.” A mercenary threw a smoke bomb and the dazed islanders ran inside their houses. Children and adults crawled on their paws to get inside in such hurry and fear.
The tank rolled to a cross road lying to breadth and headed towards Madand Pass to the nucleus.
Up on Madand Pass, police watched the vehicle approach. Two armed policemen stood in the middle of the road. The tank fired gun shots hitting the pavement inches from the policemen and the two officers ran for cover. One fled to an east road lying parallel to Nargis Magu. The other policeman lurched over the playground wall and ducked behind the low boundary. People ran out to the gates to observe.
The Ukrainian model, Oplot, battle tank pulled close to the ground at the point where officer Iqlal took cover. A mercenary leaning out from the roof vault said, “Drop your gun!” He spoke English.
The police officer did not move. A round of fire hit the wall. Iqlal threw his Thompson to the roadside and pulled up his arms. Simultaneously, shots hit the battle tank in a ricochet; police fire from Nargis Magu lined with old police station and cinema. The mercenary pulled down his head. The police set up a roadblock, a ramp of spikes, outside the police station. Somebody called from the tank on an amplifier, speaking standard Divehi Language, “Give up your weapons! Abandon the police station immediately!”
Its turret turned to aim the KBA3 cannon down on Nargis Magu and launched a 125 mm shell with such a loud blast hitting the police station and set ablaze. A crowd of islanders further behind the tank ran away in fright but to come across more fright; the heavy BTR-4 armoured truck turned up from a corner towards them. The people screamed and ran in spontaneous directions disappearing into the gates. Not a soul in the Maldives ever heard such a loud explosion.
The armoured truck passed the battle tank and turned towards the school by the playground corner. It stopped right outside Efrémen Secondary School.
Sixteen mercenaries of the unidentified militia entered the schoolyard, two of them holding police dogs – German Shepherds. A mercenary in charge talked to the principal who stood by the gate. He spoke English, “Nobody from the school is allowed to leave. This is an order. Got it? If anyone tries to leave, we shoot without hesitation. Clear?”
“What’s going on?” the principal asked.
“No questions. Follow my orders.”
The tank rolled towards the playground, low-wall boundary, 120 metres long and a metre in height. It hit the wall and the fence collapsed on its full length. The battle tank pulled close to the school, its cannon still pointed to the left as it fired in that angle earlier. The Divehi voice, of a distinctive Maldivian nationality, came alive on loudspeaker, “Attention! All islanders get back to your houses. Do not stay here. We warn you that you’ll be shot. Do not attempt to come here.”
Three officers lay dead outside the old police station. Six died inside the depot. Others managed to escape.
Six mercenaries climbed over the rear boundary wall of the school and headed towards the radar station. The mercenaries wore camouflage uniforms and some wore bullet-proof vests, black berets and unclear of any particular rank but heavily armed and each carried a