It was late morning, and already the temperature had climbed above 100 degrees. An open-bed cargo humvee raced along a narrow ribbon of dull asphalt. The passengers, four American soldiers sweating in thick camouflage fatigues and bulky flack vests and a Somali interpreter wearing a loud Hawaiian shirt and flip-flops, scanned the brush for roadside mines or signs of ambush.
A small overturned white truck came into view. Bodies, some moving, some still, lay fanned out from the vehicle. Thick, deep red arterial blood flowed on the gray pavement. The shambling, dazed movements of some of the survivors indicated that the accident had occurred only moments earlier.
As the humvee rolled to a stop, the captain got on the radio and called headquarters. The lieutenant jumped off to investigate. There were no flames, but a broad swath of gasoline poured out of the truck. The wheels of the vehicle still spun slowly as it lay on its side. One of the tires had been completely shredded. The lieutenant looked up and saw a large group of vehicles approaching slowly from further up the road. He counted at least half a dozen of them – small, open-bed trucks, medium-sized covered cargo trucks, and a rickety bus.
As the humvee driver watched for other signs of approach, the captain stepped carefully among the bodies, trying to determine who was dead and who was merely injured.
The lieutenant signaled to the rifleman next to him. "We have to keep them from getting up to this wreck," he said as he walked toward the approaching vehicles. The interpreter and the rifleman followed. The ragged convoy stopped, and a loose collection of men jumped out, shouting and running toward the crash.
The agitated men stopped running at the sight of drawn weapons, but they continued to approach. The interpreter translated the lieutenant's words. He told the men they could not pass until a helicopter arrived and the wounded were evacuated. To cement the point, the lieutenant drew an imaginary line on the road, directly in front of rifleman. He motioned and said, "Do not cross this line." He gestured with his rifle emphatically.
"I've called in a medevac. Mark the LZ," the captain ordered. The lieutenant moved to the side of the road. As he looked for a good spot for a helicopter to land, he saw two bodies. They were lying in strangely contorted positions, glassy eyes aimed at the sky. He looked around. Though two or three men were still trying to get up, the rest lay inert, dead or dying. A low moan emanated from one as the lieutenant moved quickly away.
After a couple of minutes of casting about, he found a spot and marked it with yellow smoke flares. As he popped the last of them he could hear the helicopter, screaming in low and fast, a giant red cross on its side. Dust was still blowing from the giant main rotors as the battalion surgeon bounded out of the helicopter and ran up to the carnage.
The lieutenant turned and saw that the crowd had swelled. The rifleman was having difficulty persuading them to maintain their distance. A man slipped past him, cigarette in hand, jauntily walking toward the truck, smiling mirthlessly and surveying the situation.
He was thin, but not emaciated, and he was sweating as much as the Americans. He hesitated as the lieutenant approached rapidly. He smiled broadly, as if innocent and uninformed. The lieutenant's face reddened. With one arm he pointed his rifle at the man, then at the crowd.
The man's smile turned knowing. He languidly found his way back to the group behind the imaginary line. On the way he took the cigarette from his mouth and carefully, deliberately flicked it onto the faded pavement, so that it fell just outside the puddle of gasoline that spread from the truck's remains.
The lieutenant squashed the cigarette with his boot, then ran after the man, who heard his footsteps and broke into a run. The lieutenant stopped and shook his head, then returned to the truck.
Two more young men had slipped past the rifleman. The interpreter angrily shouted at them to no effect. They rushed to the remains of the truck. A bearded old man lay next to it, a pool of blood beneath him. His white robe was dirtied and blood-soaked. The surgeon was cradling his head, shining a small light into his eyes.
"This man stole this truck from me!" one of the two interlopers shouted as his friend grabbed at the dying old man, catching his shirt for a brief moment before the lieutenant yanked him roughly away. Turning back, he saw the life disappear from the old man's eyes. "He's dead," the surgeon sighed.
Jaw clenched, the lieutenant hauled the men back across the line, one in each arm. "If any of you try to get past us again, we will shoot you. Do you understand?!" the murmuring crowd stood its ground, wordlessly reabsorbing the men.
The helicopter whined as it lifted the dead and wounded into the sky. The captain walked up, putting his hand on the lieutenant's shoulder. "Let's go," he said.
The Americans and the interpreter jumped back into the humvee. Three still shaken but relatively unharmed men stood near the truck, holding on to its battered frame for support. The crowd parted and the humvee moved slowly down the road. Looking back, the lieutenant saw the crowd surging toward the three survivors.
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