Few minutes past noon, a deadly explosion goes off somewhere at the end of Ibrahim Tukur drive. It causes a stampede that leaves people scurrying for safety. Television crews struggle for a piece of the action. Rescue workers grapple with the resulting inferno. Later, they would break into the compound, lift the few injured ones to the specialist hospital in ambulances, and transport the scores of charred bodies to the morgue in open vans. But the story did not all begin with the blast. It did somewhere else, this fateful Christmas morning.
St. Agnes’ Cathedral was wearing a new look; a fresh coat of glossy paint; new iridescent windows that replaced broken or faded ones. The marble floors had been polished, so much that they bore the reflections of gay worshippers who sauntered in. Its translucent roof also gleamed in the bright sunshine as worshippers trickled in, just in time for the special mass. The car park had begun to fill up slowly. Parents led their kids by the hand; young couples cuddled and giggled. A crowd of happy people was gathering.
Farouk Hameed joined the throng of worshippers. He waded through even though he didn’t share in their feeling of happiness. He had something else on his mind. The same thing that brought him to a place he never imagined he would someday step into. He adjusted his coat and ran his fingers over the pocket that carried the lethal contraption. He had chosen a brightly coloured tie to go with his Santa Claus hat. He did his best to look happy in the eyes of unsuspecting parishioners. He remembered how the last few days played out. How he had committed himself to this fatal cause because he thought it was the only way out of his mystery.
The service began with a young teenage girl rendering the special number. Farouk didn’t sing along like the others. He didn’t think it was any of his business. Instead, he found a seat close to the entrance, away from the gathering crowd and kept track of the time. He reminded himself of his mission. He had to detonate the explosive and reduce the magnificent Cathedral to rubbles within the hour.
Few minutes after settling in, he was joined by a young family. Two hyperactive kids led in by their Mum. She carried the boy in her arms and held the older one by the hand. And they appeared just fine even without a father figure. Their presence seemed to unsettle him. He shifted his gaze at regular intervals between the podium and the kids who were already chattering away. There was something about those kids that attracted him, but he didn’t want to be caught staring.
“It would be impolite to stare”, he told himself repeatedly.
“We are gathered here today to commemorate the birth of our lord and saviour, Jesus Christ…”, the priest bellowed on.
“Tamuno, will you stop pulling on your sister’s hair. Can’t you see that we are in church?”
It was their mother remonstrating with the younger kid. Farouk who had been watching them the whole time didn’t think the young chap meant any harm. At least, not the kind of havoc he was here to cause.
“He tugs at his sister’s hair out of sheer curiosity”, he told himself.
His eyes met those of the young mother. He realised she had caught him watching for minutes on end.
“I’m truly sorry for the distraction.” she whispered in that soft voice that sounded like she was hitting musical notes.
“It’s just that these kids can be a handful sometimes”
“Oh! Don’t worry, I understand perfectly”, he smiled. He didn’t want anyone suspecting him this early, so he reached out and placed his hat on the little boy’s head.
“Ah! Now you look like Santa Claus”, he exclaimed. “Merry Christmas to you, little man.”
Tamuno seemed a little bemused by the hat that hung over his head, almost covering his face. The look on his face drove his Mum and sister into fits of laughter.
“Just see the look on his face! I think you handled him well!” Both their faces lit up as they spoke.
Then the little girl turned to him.
“Uncle, do you really believe in Santa Claus?”
“Yes, I do” he replied, wiping off the beads of sweat from his forehead.
“But how can he be real when he’s in so many places at the same time? My teacher once said he’s a white man, but most of the time I’ve seen him he has a dark face and he even sounds like someone I know. And this year, he’s tall and the next year he’s shorter with a bigger belly.”
She couldn’t have been more than five. Farouk nudged her close, smiled and answered,
“Has Mummy ever told you he’s real?”
“If mummy says he’s real, then you have to believe her because she knows better than you.”
He watched his response draw an innocent nod from the girl and an appreciative smile from her mother.
He was still in awe of the little girl. The conversation they just had sounded too odd to be true. She was way too intelligent for her age. And she had lofty dreams too; he could see it in her eyes. Besides, speaking with her made him feel like a father again.
Yes, he once had a family.
And in fact, he was in this goddamn place because of them; to wreck vengeance just like he had been doing in the past eleven months- because he lost them.
He had been away in the United States, studying for a Doctorate degree in Atomic Physics. He had been there on the bill of the Nigerian-American University, Zaria, where he was a celebrated high-flyer. He had woken up one morning to the terrible news that he had lost his beloved family to a reprisal attack by Christian youths in his hometown. They had been dragged out, slaughtered in the most barbaric manner imaginable, and left to bleed to death with their guts out. He certainly despised Christianity for that. He had returned in his rage and tendered his resignation to the University. His wrath at the treacherous murders led him to where he was today. El jihadi, an Islamic insurgent group, had offered the opportunity for vendetta. He had spent the last couple of months making explosives, training foot soldiers and planning attacks for the organisation. They knew he was motivated by the death of his family. But three weeks ago, he shocked everyone including General Gusau, the brain behind their operations, when he volunteered to carry out today’s attack. He volunteered to do it because he felt he had nothing else to live for. He had decided it was time to carry one to the death.
Farouk couldn’t stop staring at Tamuno, his elder sister, and their Mum. He thought about the girl who rendered the special number earlier. She had an amazing voice. The way she sang, Hark the herald, angels sing, he was sure the angels themselves were jealous. And this brilliant one who just voiced her suspicion about Santa Claus. She was indeed very bright. Her mother too was a young beautiful woman. But it was young Tamuno who left the greatest impression. He had wished him Merry Christmas in gibberish. He reminded him so much of Rasheed, his dead son. They had the same eyes and the same infectious grin. Rasheed himself would have been about the same age if he had been alive; if he hadn’t been killed along with the woman and the daughter he loved so much.
He looked around the massive hall as the priest’s voice sounded at a distance. He felt scales fall off his eyes. He saw innocent people all around; people who never knew his family. People who never knew he was angry. They didn’t know the reason for his anger because they weren’t responsible for what befell his family. He felt a wave of guilt wash over him. He had been responsible for hundreds of deaths over the last few months. And with all these people seated around him, he knew he was not about to commit another injustice. While seated there, he’d seen more reasons why he needn’t go on with the dastardly act. He knew there was no way he would go through with it.
He had always known that there was more to El jihadi than met the eye; that all the talk of religious ideals was a farce; that those who financed them were powerful members within government who used the violence to convince government to purchase arms which they themselves supplied. And being with them all this while had served its purpose until now. They got what they wanted while he got his shot at revenge.
Good people like Tamuno and his Mum would not continue to die at the expense of the wicked ones. It had to be different this time. Members of the El jihadi group would be converging on the fortress at his behest, to honour his martyrdom and seek repose for his soul in Al jannat. Farouk never believed killing innocent people would guarantee his place in paradise. He wasn’t like those ignorant folks they usually brainwashed into dying for the cause. He had been doing this for the sole purpose of getting back at Christians the eye-for-an-eye way. Though he knew he couldn’t possibly right all his wrongs, he was willing to do what was right for the first time in months. He decided his mission laid elsewhere. He would purge the country of those sinister elements. He would seize the chance to make a meaningful change.
He gave Tamuno one final hug and stormed out of the Cathedral.
“There shall be a cleansing. Today, our nation must be purged of the evil called El jihadi”. He took out his PDA and sent the message to the National News Agency. Then he pulled his SUV out of the car park and headed straight for Ibrahim Tukur drive.