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A sketch of rescue operation

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Ecuador. Photo: VAXBEFORETRAVEL

Barring rhythmic chirping by birds in surrounding bushes and mild north-easterly winds sweeping across Ecuador and her environs, all was funereally silent on that starless night.

A stranger walking or driving about on that night would come away with the impression that the coastal town had been recently evacuated of its residents following one of the many natural disasters that often troubled those parts. But to a resident, it was a typical night in Machala.

At exactly 11:17 pm two familiar glistening cars eased into an undulated driveway and proceeded at a pace dictated by topography. Lithe security operatives behind huge steel gates at the end of the driveway were already making to release the safety catch on their AK-47 riffles when coded signals came from the front car. ‘‘Shit!’’ one of them cussed.

‘‘What the hell are they coming back for?’’ another asked in anger. Their ever-grinning commander and his cohorts had taken leave of the premises about three hours earlier, and in the days since the African VIPs took up residency there, Controller and his associates had not called at the isolated guesthouse more than once a day.

No, this was not in keeping with the established routine here, thought one of the senior security operatives, hesitating; his index finger yet on the safety catch. His heart missed a beat and accelerated when a young operative started to unlock the gates and had actually been at the verge of issuing a counter-order when he recalled how fast established routines had been changing around them in the past few days. Their commander and his associates now made daily calls at the main house and stayed for uncharacteristically long periods at a time; significant changes that lent some credence to the current rumour by domestic workers in the central house that the present siege was about to end.

The middle-aged operative was thus rationalizing when the first car past the gates and headed towards the central house. On passing the gates the second car moved a notch slower than the first, as though dithering, but the security operatives were no longer paying serious attention to the all-too-familiar sleek cars.

Within a twinkle of an eye, the snail-paced motion turned into lightning speed as the boot of the second car flew open at the same time as a hail of bullets rocketed out of silenced submachine guns. Two men in bullet-proof vest adroitly hopped out of the luggage compartment, their index fingers did not relent even as they did so.

By the time the first rugged Toyota Land Cruiser reached the steel gates twelve-odd men were sprawling on the ground either dead as a herring or dying; it swiftly drove past and headed towards the rear of the central house, its equally ruggedly clad passengers hopping out from all directions and smartly taking positions. The second Land Cruiser did not venture past the steel gates.

Meanwhile David, leader of the rescue operation, closely followed by Jacob, Dayan, Isaac, and Ben, had smashed their way into the central house through large windows, promptly dispatching three security personnel to permanent slumber even before the trio were fully awakened from the transient variety, although one of these had been able to dislodge a handful of bullets from his pistol before. One of the bullets grazed the audacious leader’s temple. Less than one minute after entering the house David, Jacob, and Dayan were already on the upper level calling out ‘‘Mister President! Mister Foreign Secretary! Identify yourselves! We have come to take you home! Mister President…!’’

Ben and Isaac, as eagle-eyed as they were keen-eared, and holding the ground floor by the staircase thought they heard amidst noisy opening and closing doors overhead distinct report of riffles coming from behind the house. ‘Come on now Mister President! All’s safe now; we are your friends…’’ Dayan’s husky voice was calling out above Jacob’s when a seemingly suppressed response came forth from one of the locked doors along the narrow passage. The three dark figures dashed, like an arrow in flight, towards the direction whence the response had come.

As they did so, another if more confident response came from the opposite direction of the first. Firmly seated behind a steering wheel and calling out precise instructions to a manager in Miami was the Colombian operation coordinator; seamless weaving of multiple activities was the sole key to success in the operation at hand, Marcos kept reminding himself. Soon after, both captive VIPs, donning purpose-designed bullet-proof vest over outsized pyjamas and barefoot, were being part-carried and part-led down the exquisite wooden staircase.

In another moment both glossy cars were speeding past the steel gates much like racing cars, completely unmindful of the undulated tracks. The two Land Cruisers brought up the rear. The entire operation had taken less than the maximum time allotted to it by the mission-managers. From when the first hail of bullets was fired to when the convoy of four sped past the steel gates was recorded as 4.52 minutes on Marcos’ wristwatch.

Not sparing a thought for his wound and taking the same attitude that one took to common people to the VIPs seating next to him, David roughly snatched the satellite telephone from Marcos, who was having some difficulties keeping pace with the leading car while following a conversation in far away from Florida.

As the leader snatched the handset Jacob impulsively turned and per chance caught a glimpse of David’s wound and thought it was nothing to make a song and dance about at that point. He then took a good look at the objects of their mission as though making assurance doubly sure that the two completely dumbfounded men sitting next to his leader were the actual people the team had come halfway around the world to rescue, and not some impostors. Not that he had any foolproof way of differentiating the chaff from the wheat, but the exuberant ex-commando was depending solely on his animal instincts to alarm him if something was amiss.

Speechlessness was as often as not caused by shock than an addled state of mind; neither Vice President Alhaji Sai’du nor Honourable Nwankwo could tell with any accuracy whether or not the group of men into whose hands they presently found themselves were indeed friends or modern-day Jacobs in the skin of Esau of old. The foreign minister had seen reels of movies where hostages moved from one set of kidnappers to another in very precarious circumstances. And on a sub-continent where abductions hardly made news such dramatized fiction as soon translated into a living reality.

Since taking French leave of their respective bedrooms nothing in the purported rescuers’ demeanour suggested to the dignitaries that they were once again liberated men, what with the unsettling discourteousness in which they were presently enveloped and the belligerent countenance of the purported rescuers.

Even with that heavy air of uncertainty still shrouding their fate, the two Nigerians seemed marginally pleased with the present situation; one of them had actually quietly exclaimed ‘‘What a great relief it is to be let out of that prison after four consecutive weeks!’’ the moment they sped past the steel gates. A nineteenth-century sage had remarked that none could appreciate freedom more than a people who had been completely denied it for long.

A goodly while after the convoy of four had left Machala the elderly VIP suddenly remembered the existence of the Most-Beneficent-and-Most- Merciful, and spontaneously commenced telling his beads even though he had understandably left those precious-looking stones back whence they came. David involuntarily turned towards the familiar soliloquy and just as involuntarily uttered ‘‘Shalom!’’

Nkemdiche, an engineer, wrote from Abuja.


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