By: Steven Jakobi
His quarry approached slowly and haltingly. A very nervous boy of about 16 carrying a metal bucket. From his vantage point of the 6th floor apartment, the sniper could see the boy’s face clearly in his sights. Blond peach fuzz on the upper lips, a mole on his right cheek. Eyes darting in every direction. Perspiration on his brow. Dirty and unkempt hair hanging limp over his ears.
“Ah, sooner or later they have to come out of the fallout shelter. They all need water,” thought the sniper. He caught himself humming a Beatles song as he adjusted his telescopic sight. “We all live in a yellow submarine, Yellow submarine, yellow submarine…” He was surprised that this song popped into his head as he was about to snuff out a life. He focused on the boy’s right temple. He didn’t need to see if he hit his target. He never missed.
He picked up his rucksack, slung the rifle over his shoulder and began to move to another apartment, just in case someone noticed where the shot came from. These days the snipers had their own snipers. There will be time enough to switch buildings when it got dark.
He slumped against the wall in an 8th floor flat in the abandoned apartment building and his mind once again replayed the events that led to the chaos and killing that he became part of. Recounting the circumstances had become an almost manic ritual after each kill. He wondered if he was going insane trying to find some justification for his actions. His conscience ate away at him like a hungry piranha. The entire world was going mad and he was being sucked into a black hole by tentacles of mayhem and destruction. Killing for the sake of killing. Terror for the sake of terror. What was the point of all this?
It hadn’t always been this way. His city was once a vibrant, lively place. A lovely metropolis of neighborhood coffee shops and restaurants; the big open-air market where one could buy anything from a watermelon to a moped; wide boulevards with ornate wrought-iron lamp posts; the government square and its monuments of long-ago military heroes; the opera house; and a great night life. The clanging of streetcars and rumble of buses lasted long into the night. A city of over three million people with an art school, music academy and two universities. A beautiful, wide river that sparkled in the sunlight.
He had been a student, studying philosophy and psychology, immersed in Nietzsche and Descartes and Kant and Jung. He read everything he could get his hands on and he hoped, one day, to be a professor at the university. His girlfriend was a student of agriculture and she had lofty goals of helping to feeding a hungry world. She had been offered a scholarship to work at the International Rice Research Institute near Manila, and they planned to marry when she returned from the Philippines.
But all was not well in his country. Anger and political tension in the cities and villages had been building for a long time. A corrupt government tried to divert attention from the country’s economic and social problems by fomenting religious hatred among the population. Unrest began to spread when the national elections were suspected to have been rigged and stolen once again by the ruling party. For weeks, the situation escalated from demonstrations to riots to martial law. The sounds of gunfire could be heard, first at night and then during broad daylight. An armory was raided and stripped of its weapons and munitions by an unidentified group of men. Acts of sabotage and firebombing of government buildings began. The army came with tanks and helicopters. Open warfare raged in the streets.
Then one day his girlfriend was killed by soldiers firing a mortar into their building by mistake, and all of his dreams died with her. For days, he was in a daze. Nausea overcame him every time he thought about the caved in apartment where his girlfriend and her parents were crushed by falling bricks where the shell landed.
Bouts of despair were followed by rage. His fury left him exhausted even as he was unable to sleep. He couldn’t eat or think or function on any level. The grief was unbearable. He had to do something or he knew he would go mad.
He attended his first underground resistance meeting two days later. One of his university colleagues made the connection for him with a group of men organizing to fight the government and its army. They needed volunteers of every sort: couriers, medics, spies, and men who knew how to handle guns.
He had grown up in the countryside and his uncle taught him the art of hunting. He was good with rifles, bow and arrow, tracking a prey. His skills with the gun had earned him a spot on the university’s rifle team. Once, there even had been talk of going to the Olympics to represent his country. Now the resistance needed him as a fighter. They got a Dragunov sniper rifle for him from somewhere. He was astonished to get this fine weapon with telescopic sights and several 10-round clips.
His first targets were the soldiers. Burning with hatred and anger, he took out three of them during the first week. They were easy targets. The soldiers were arrogant, cocky and confident and that made them careless. He ambushed another two the following week. These had their guns slung over their shoulders and smoked and argued loudly while they patrolled the streets.
Gradually, the soldiers became wary and more cautious but their brutality increased. They randomly stopped passers-by on the street and those they suspected as enemy supporters were executed on the spot. Their orders were to instill terror in the hearts of the people.
In their fear and helplessness, the city’s population began to turn on one another. People who supported the government were safe from the army. Former colleagues, co-workers, neighbors, and friends gradually became bitter enemies. Neighborhood by neighborhood, the city became more fragmented, more hateful, more vicious. Then ethnic cleansing was started by soldiers, vigilante mobs, paramilitary groups, and individual criminals. In their secure hideout the fighters often discussed the atrocities. The mood of the group began to shift from fighting the army to taking revenge on the “other side”.
The sniper observed with increasing alarm what in philosophy classes they debated as Zeitgeist: the idea that people in a society were motivated by a collective consciousness created by circumstances. He had always argued with his classmates and some of his professors in favor of an existentialist view that individuals had choices and didn’t need to follow the dictum of the day. But then he was reminded of the German Third Reich and Rwanda and Kosovo and countless other examples where all human decency disappeared seemingly overnight.
The situation grew more desperate by the week. One day his group leader drew him aside. The man had been a university professor of mathematics and physics until the government pogrom that purged “undesirables” from the faculty roster. He was a small, bald man, with dark, sunken eyes and a booming voice. The sniper could see in his mind’s eye that this man, as a 12-year-old boy, already had a mustache and a deep voice, but whose long bones had begun to stop growing. Despite his minuscule stature, the leader’s passion and determination made him a formidable presence in the room. The man said that it was now time to move beyond killing only soldiers. It was time to target the enemy population.
“An eye for an eye, like we said weeks ago. Hadn’t our people been raped and massacred at random by soldiers and their thugs, while their people stood by and watched or even cheered? Think about revenge,” the leader said, pointing a stubby finger at the sniper. “But don’t think too long.”
The sniper was stunned. It was one thing to take out uniformed men who killed innocent civilians. It was an entirely different thing to …to kill his fellow citizens. But, then again, he had seen the atrocities committed by his former neighbors. He even saw a scalped corpse ‒ something he only read about in books about the history of North America.
He thought about the philosopher Schopenhauer’s writings that humans are motivated only by their own basic ‒ and base ‒ desires. Is killing civilians a proper desire to settle the score? After a few days of agonizing debate with himself, he came to a decision.
His first civilian target was a balding man in his 60s or 70s, pulling a hand cart laden with vegetables. Through his binoculars the sniper could see crates of cabbages and potatoes and figs, and bunches of carrots dangling from the side of the cart. The man was moving slowly, carefully trying to avoid the mortar holes in the pavement and the assorted junk littering the deserted street. He was an easy shot from the 10th floor window of the empty apartment building. This old man was no soldier. He hadn’t done anything to deserve death.
The sniper was nervous. His palms were sweaty and he was shaking like a poplar leaf on a breezy day. He carefully adjusted the dial of his scope, yet again. Sweat was trickling down his back and from his brow, and the salty rivulets stung his eyes. His prey was beginning to turn a corner. He had to act now or lose his man. The sniper pulled the trigger. The man simply crumpled by the side of his cart, blood seeping from his left ear.
The sniper began to cry. His body shook uncontrollably and after a while he realized he was wailing. He threw his rifle across the room and it crashed into an elegant China cabinet housing a collection of miniature porcelain ballerinas. The smashed figurines scattered all over the floor amid a shower of glass and splintered wood. His body convulsed and he vomited. Then, instead of leaving the apartment as he had been instructed, the sniper fell into a deep, troubled sleep.
Slowly, his focus returned to the present from his reverie. By now he had taken out nine soldiers and 11 civilians. Each time he killed, it got a little easier, and this scared and disgusted him. Deeper and deeper into Hell. He had no doubt about that. He had never been religious, but he felt that he had to account for all these lives when the end came. He could also begin to understand now how perfectly decent and ordinary people could become murderers capable of committing unspeakable atrocities. You just had to push their buttons in the right sequence.
He thought about the boy he killed earlier today. What was this boy like? What were his dreams and his goals? Would he have been a great musician, or a school teacher or… No one will ever know now. He often thought about all of the people he killed. The soldiers, too, were somebody’s son or husband…but he had made his pact with the devil and now it was dark and he needed to move to another building.
He carefully picked his way through the empty darkened corridors and stairs strewn with rubble. His footsteps crunched as he stepped over broken glass. He stopped and listened but could hear no sound. Now, the run over open terrain from one building to another. He sprinted, wishing that he had night vision goggles. He made it to the ground floor of Building 23. He started climbing the stairs. Find an apartment, force the locked door with his short, home-made crowbar, unroll his sleeping bag, check his rifle and pistol, eat, relieve himself, sleep. He yearned for a steaming cup of strong coffee and a hot bath. He wished he had someone to talk to. He didn’t want to die but he wished that someone would come along and end his misery.
But tomorrow is another day. Another target. Another life. Another day closer to Hell.