Gold Frankincense and Murder
The weather beaten vessel was snaking its way surreptitiously towards Brussels. The longboat being erratically pushed forward by a dilapidated one hundred and twenty horsepower diesel engine; which was now running excessively hot. The peripheries of the canal were motionless, frozen hard under two inches of overnight ice. A gentle wake unfolded behind the barge the water breaking softly over the iced up borders.
Three men stood on the outer proximity of the craft as it chugged through the dark waters of the Albert Canal. One lingered at the bow, two were either side of the stern. They were stocky and hard looking men with grey complexions and black disturbing eyes. The heavyset man lingering at the front of the barge had small earphones stuck deep into his freezing ears. Katy Perry was shouting emotionally about a teenage dream but he didn’t understand the lyrics it was the melody he was absorbing. It helped him cope.
The barge slipped smoothly past prime residences and fertile farmlands; it was a normal everyday scene. Businessmen transporting their cargo from Antwerp towards the bleak industrial hinterland of Liege.
The morning was routine even pleasant a crisp December day was unfolding for many. Abruptly a bell rang out from the canal bank as a family of four cycled in line past the barge. Mother, father and two small children; they were on their way to the nearby village for last minute Christmas shopping. The children, ebullient and excitedly waving towards the barge. The men did not wave back, did not acknowledge the high spirits.
The unshaven man on the left of the stern covered his nose and mouth with the back of his right hand. The stench of human excrement had become overpowering. He shifted uneasily from one foot to the other trying his best to inhale in gaps that the light breeze inconsistently delivered.
To the three shadowy figures the shipment inside the barge was worth a fortune; he knew he had to endure just one more hour. Once the cargo had been delivered all three of them were going to collect enough money to last for the remainder of their lives. Just sixty minutes more to endure. It would be easy this was after all the smoothest leg of the journey.
Some had borrowed up to fifty thousand dollars to make the trip. The ramshackle wooden fishing boat had ushered them through the peaks and troughs of the huge Atlantic breakers. From the remotest point on the coast of Sierra Leone, the frail handmade fishing vessel had taken them out towards the rusty freighter. For most it had been their first time on water. Nervous panic-stricken but determined they faked their bravery. They had come so far they could not go back now.
It didn’t get any easier, once alongside the freighter they were kicked and pushed up rusty steps as the decaying ship heaved and pitched in the turbulent ocean. Just as they thought they were safe they were then unceremoniously thrown into the cargo hold. It was the first brutal shock, many more were to follow. The money they had borrowed could never be paid back but the hope drove them to take the chance.
They were young, full of optimism and courage. They wanted to better their lives, they sought success and to take a chance just one chance. Never wanting to die old and lonely regretting not having tried. Their dream was to be free, to be affluent and living in Europe, it was the golden mountain.
For what seemed like six days they huddled together in the dark desolate cargo hold, each day becoming more horrified. By day three they were sitting in their own vomit and waste. Seawater swirled up and down the floor of the shivering cargo hold as the ship pitched and tossed through the wild wintry ocean. The salt water cutting painfully into the blistered feet of the group as it sloshed over them. Half of them had septic sores on their soles oozing pus.
One of the desperate group had been incubating chicken pox and the rest of them were unaware that they too were gradually becoming infected. The ocean had been violent through the Bay of Biscay as a winter storm ploughed across the black water towards the French Coast. The pitiful group now huddled together in the ships hold were becoming battered and bruised. Their once sturdy bodies were being hurled hard against the cold steel hull. For all of them it had been the first time to see the ocean, but it was no pleasure trip.
The stale smell and the constant roll and pitch in the dark putrid confines of the ships hold had made some very sick. The deafening earsplitting roar of thunder barreled over the decrepit rusting freighter while flashes of electric blue lightning flickered and sparked. The displaced migrants thought they might just be in hell.
The frightening experience filling them all with such apprehension that each had vomited violently. Their nervous tension grew more intense as cold cooked rice and raw vegetables were tossed in to the hold. In only a matter of a few days the group of migrants had been brutalized and dehumanized, was it going to be worth it?
They kept quiet, the Gold Mountain was close, and they could feel it. They would soon be calling back to Mr. Ademola’s general store in the village back home in Chad. They would be sending money home for their respective families to come and join them, such was their collective dream. Just a few hardships then the sun would be on their backs and the golden life would be theirs.
They had been told that European streets were paved with treasure; they would soon be rich so just keep quiet and the appalling journey would quickly be over and forgotten. But young Makemba was scared; she was terrified, something was not right she knew in the blood running through her veins and into her pure African heart that she had made a mistake.
Her memory was confused but the journey was smoother now. Still they were huddled together and weaker and sicker than six days ago. The cramped canal barge was meant for transporting coal or bales of cotton not humans. Several of the group had high temperatures and their dull lifeless skin had broken out in fiercely itchy spots.
When the corroding merchant ship had docked in a remote part of the Antwerp docks once more the group had been abused. Thugs thumped and kicked out at them to move them rapidly onto the canal barge for their final leg. The air had been so cold it had shocked Makemba, breathing the northern European air was painful. The freezing Antwerp atmosphere had been the first taste of Europe for Makemba and the group of migrants. It tasted damp and inhospitable but still their hope burned deep. Just a few more hardships and it would all be fine.
High on a grand imposing building she had noticed through the heavy morning gloom a large and brightly coloured tree. She was caught for a moment by its attractive lights as they twinkled through the dimness. They seemed to be calling to her was it a sign. And then her head was forcefully pushed down.
“Keep your head down and shut up” a harsh voice had boomed out from somewhere above.
The canal longboat began lurching as the engine began to cease up. The steel soul fought to keep pushing on yet again shaking its nervous human cargo. The engine noise stuttered and spat then faded until there was only a nervous and unpleasant silence. The heavy smell of oil filled the air around the wooden craft. The engine had finally died; the pistons exploded and were now compressed hard against the casing of the obsolete machine.
A collective anxiety came over the three men, who exchanged agitated glances. People traffickers, brutal men, each of whom had killed more than once with their bare hands. Now with fifty illegal African migrants they were stranded drifting towards the bank of the canal.
“What the hell” came a shout from the bow?
A curious head popped out from underneath the grubby tarpaulin covering the longboat cargo hold. Then another and then a dozen heads stuck out, the human cargo saw its chance.
“Get your heads down” screamed the thick set man who was making his way from the front of the barge to join with his criminal colleagues. He reached into his chunky leather jacket and pulled out a pistol. The barge crunched into the ice then into the canal bank and suddenly confusion had erupted.
The smuggled migrants had no idea what had just occurred and one quickly told the others that they had arrived. Makemba poked her head out from the darkness. It took her a few seconds to adjust her eyes to the shimmering brightness. People were shouting, three men were waving guns in the air. Before her was open countryside, above her a heavy brooding sky with clouds hanging like sinister moods as if pressing down on her dream. There was utter confusion the three men were screaming in a language the migrants did not comprehend they in turn shouted back in their own tongue.
Makemba quietly slipped her frame out of the cargo hold and for the first time stood on the soil of her new home. Her weary blistered and throbbing feet did not feel the biting cold. A loud splash shocked her, a struggle and fight had exploded at the rear of the vessel, at the other end from where she stood. Someone had been pushed into the deep black canal. It was her opportunity and she took it.
Makemba could run fast and she could run for hours; her eyes pored over the countryside and made contact with a farmhouse one mile away.
Head down she broke into a shaky run, her knees felt like jelly her tired legs were moving but she felt no momentum. But now the freezing air felt good it was fresh on her cheeks, a smile was at long last breaking through the personal gloom that had hung over her.
Several cracks rang out in the remote winter air from the Makarov pistol and Makemba fell; her strong back bloodied by three bullets.
She collapsed face down onto the bare and frozen ground her life slipping away. Makemba stretched out her right hand spreading her talented fingers into a patch of wild buttercups and she had found her gold.