SQUASH – Episode 6: The Underground Mansions of The Sahara.

I stared at the crowd of bandits assembled before me in bewilderment.

There were more than ten thousand foot soldiers who could shoot a fly 200 meters from their position. Some of these men were fortified against any form of sharp objects and it is rumored that bullets avoid them.

They started a near-silent parade and formed five groups of about two thousand men in each group…and went in five directions on four queues per group.

As I watched one of the groups from a distance, a large gate from beneath the soil opened upwards while they marched towards it…after some time, they all entered the gate and their bodies disappeared gradually as soon as they entered the open ground gate. When they had all entered, the gate came down slowly just in the opposite direction from which it rose…and all I could see was the dusty soil of the desert.

While I was in bewilderment, Danlami called out to me from within the hut.

Ali! Zo mana.(come here). I slowly walked into the hut yawning. I guessed the energy boost from the gazelle I ate last night has expired.

As I entered the hut, I saw Kadiri lift an Arabian-designed prayer mat.

Underneath the mat was a circular metal object. He held on to its latch and pulled it up, exposing a set of handrails that went down into the ground.

He motioned to me to come closer to him and with his help, I got my hands and feet onto the rail and climbed down into the vertical tunnel.

At the other end of the short climb, my feet touched the ground. I detached myself from the handrails. The space I stepped into was wider, compared to the hut above the ground.

Kadiri was right behind me on the descend, so I stepped away enough for him to get his body away from the handrails.

He held my tiny left hand in his and walked forward. As we moved, the lights above us within the tunnel lit up. The next set of lights lit one after the other like the ticking of a clock and exposed the long rectangular tunnel.

The more We went forward, the more the lights came on to guide us.

We walked for one minute, and there was a metal mesh-like door leading onto a box-like platform.

Kadiri slid the door to the left, and when we were inside the box-like structure, he slid the mesh gate shut. He pressed a button that looked like a triangle pointing downwards and the box made a sound as though it was coming to life.

We spent a couple of minutes in the box while the weird metallic noise from the box entertained me as it slid gracefully downwards.

The box stopped, from within it, I could see a wide rectangular passage.

Kadiri slid the metal mesh gate out of the way and we stepped out.

He opened the door immediately to his left, and we walked in. The air pressure down here was well controlled. There were air vents and air conditioning technology for the spaces under the Sahara.

Ali, Welcome to the Underground Mansions of the Sahara.

Kadiri guided me to another door, while still holding my hand, he opened the door, and I saw a large room with about 40 bunk-style beds.

There were young boys like me everywhere doing a small talk that in unity was outstanding noise. Immediately they noticed our presence, the room became so quiet that I could hear my breath out loud.

They all filed in front of their bunks left and right as we walked down towards the end room.

Each row of boys raised their right hand to salute Kadiri. Down here, Kadiri was the boss.

Kadiri spoke as we neared the center of the room. We have a new brother among us, his name is Ali. He will be here with us for some time, he will sleep in our bed, eat our food, use our toilet, shoot our guns, fight in our battles and conquer enemies, and rise in ranks just like every single one of you have.

Ali will go on his first assignment in a few months, and you must teach him our ways while I am not here among you. Is that understood?

They all echoed; Yes Sir.

Rahman stepped forward. Before Kadiri could finish the command, a young boy of 13 stepped forward from within the file of boys.

Rahman had thick glowing melanin-drenched skin. It was rumored that Rahman went back home to Kaduna and shot his father 13 times to commemorate his 13th birthday.

After your training within the camp, you are given an ultimate test you must pass to become a real bandit.

The test usually involved killing someone, but first, you must brave the desert journey, survive, and avoid being intercepted by border patrol.

It was said that Rahman’s test was the most brutal. He had only a map of landmarks he must find within the desert.

Each time he finds a landmark, he gets water and food.

It took him 122 days to make it out of the desert. When he got out, he earned his first military rank; The Jackal.

The Jackal is the first rank you earn for scavenging through the desert, surviving the wildlife, locating landmarks with a map, and avoiding being caught by border patrol.

Many boys have died in the desert trying to attain this rank. If you choose not to take the risk, you are never given a rank and will be among the infantry throughout your life as a bandit.

Kadiri gave a signal to Rahman, took a last look at me, and walked out of the room.

The boys still stood at attention as Rahman came towards me. He held my hand as if to shake me but pulled me along towards the bunk area from which he came. I followed his energy and walked with him. He lifted me and placed me on the top bunk and asked me. Do you like it, brother?

I replied; Yes I do.

That’s your bed now.

On the head of the top bunk bed were a few neatly wrapped clothes arranged by Rahman.

We will go out tonight so I can show you around the Underground Mansion.

For now, get enough rest.

I felt at home for the first time since I left the Almajirai school in Kano.

I was beginning to enjoy my thoughts about how I got here when Kadiri came into the room with a satellite phone.

He called out to me and I ran towards him. All the boys resumed their attention phase like they did the first time Kadiri came into the room with me.

He gave me the phone and said it was Danlami.

Hello, my young friend.

Hello big brother I replied.

I see you have gotten yourself comfortable. Your military training will start in three days and I was hoping you could do well to learn everything your instructor teaches you.

I also want you to be the strongest soldier in that camp. Will you do that for me?

I replied to him; Yes I will.

I will be coming to the camp to visit you soon. I will bring you gifts from Saudi. Stay focused on the goal okay?

Okay. I replied.

He said goodbye and hung up.

Kadiri took the satellite phone from my grasp and exited the room.

I walked back to my bunk and climbed onto my bed.

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