Sarah sat with the report from Rehana in her lap – toxic run off into the water chain – she
Drawing by Ruth
shook her head. Poisoned. Her own children poisoned. The whole village poisoned. She dropped her head. What could she do? Then, a song came to her,
Don’t be afraid, my love is stronger
My love is stronger than your fear.
Don’t be afraid, my love is stronger
And I will promise always to be near.
She looked again at the last paragraph. Rehana had suggested holding a meeting of everyone in the village. Would they be able to? Would anyone come? Well, you could only try.
She and Nighat called at every house. She told them about the water report and that there would be a meeting in three days’ time on Thursday night to see what they could do. ‘Not much’ was the common response. What could they do, even? Sarah wondered but she was determined not to do nothing.
The new medication had also arrived and the children in the tent were showing signs of reviving. David, it seems, would always bear the scar across his forehead but it was a small price to have him breathing and sitting up and asking for food. At least, that was a good sign.
Thursday night came and Sarah and Sam, Nighat and her husband, Mohamed, waited for people to come. Only a few parents had arrived by the start time but kept quiet.
Time passed. The clock ticked round another quarter of an hour and no-one else came. One of the parents spoke up. ‘I don’t think anyone else is coming, Sarah. Everyone’s too scared. The police have been round telling us to stay home for fear of arrest.’ ‘Arrest? What are they going to do to people?’ ‘People are scared, Sarah. They don’t want to get involved.’
The next morning, Sarah and Nighat knocked on every door again. They explained. They cajoled. They pleaded. But it was no good. A young couple with small children had been visited by police. Someone else had disappeared for the night, turning up three days later, black and blue. ‘We want to help. We really do, Sarah, but…’ it was that ‘but’ that was the problem. And the smaller children hung round the backs of their mothers’ legs as the older ones looked on. And into the square drove a police van, just to keep an eye on things, to maintain order. And Sarah and Nighat went home, back to the tent to check on their kids.
It was mid-day afternoon next day when Sarah heard singing in the village. What was going on now? She wiped her hands and took off her apron. Nighat joined her and they walked up the village. A group of about ten children, from toddlers to teenagers, were facing the police van. And they were singing,
The river is flowing, flowing and growing.
The river is flowing down to the sea.
Mother, carry me.
Your child, I will always be.
Mother, carry me down to the sea.
‘What are they doing?’, Nighat cried. And they chanted, ‘Clean water! We want clean water!’ One of the policemen got out of the van, carrying a baton and advanced towards the oldest child. A few feet away, he raised the baton. At the same time, a figure stepped out from behind a tree, pointing a camera. Something must have been said from inside the van because the officer lowered his stick and went back.
The next day, the children gathered again in the village centre, a few more of them this time. And they sang and they chanted. The van was there. This time, two officers got out, holding their batons across their chests. They pushed into the kids and told them to go home. In the back of the van, they could hear a dog barking. The children had linked their arms but broke freely, rejoining behind the officers. They formed a circle and sat cross-legged on the brown earth. They stopped singing and sat in silence. A stillness fell. Pockets of parents looked on, fearful and unsure of what to do, Sarah and Nighat included.
On the third day, the children gathered, practically all the children of the village, who were able. All the parents stood watching. Three police vans were parked on the green by now. The officers got out of their vans, led by a senior officer. Two more held onto dogs on a leash. And they advanced into the children, scattering them. The children tried to reform but the dogs drove them back. Their parents came out to join them. The sirens were wailing, dogs barking, clubs on shields banging and, over all this, all the children and all of he parents started to sing ‘The river is flowing…’
The officer hesitated. A stranger to the village, whom nobody had noticed, stepped out from behind a tree, holding a camera. The senior officer ushered his men back to their vans. The children reformed their circle of silent waiting as the vans sped off, leaving a cloudy trail of dust.
The stranger’s name was Sean. ‘Hi,’ he said to the small crowd, gathered afterwards in Sarah’s home, drinking tea. ‘I’m a friend of Rehana’s. She told me about what was going on here and I thought I’d come see for myself.’ ‘You’re the reporter she spoke of?’ He nodded. ‘Truth is, there seems to be a pattern to these large companies polluting the land without telling anyone or putting it right, when it’s discovered. They walk away. I’m looking for evidence for an article I’m writing to open up the whole issue for questioning.’ ‘Well, you’re in the right place!’, Sarah said. They talked over tea and biscuits long into the night, agreeing to call another meeting. This time, surely, the whole village must come out.
And they were right. Under the large oak in the centre of the village, almost a hundred people were sat on the grass or stood waiting. Sarah reminded everyone of what had happened over many years. Sean backed this up with stories of water pollution, unproven, by this company across the land. They heard them coming. Several police vehicles with lights flashing powered onto the green and drove straight at the group, headlights on full beam, breaking only at the last minute. Officers poured out of the vans with dogs. One on a loud hailer ordered the villagers to disburse. They were holding an illegal meeting and failure to disburse would be considered an act of violence, which the police would be bound to meet with force. ‘You have two minutes to go home!’
Everyone looked round at each other and some started to leave. ‘Stay’, cried Sarah. ‘Stay. We can’t go back now. They are killing our children. They are killing our future. We have to say ‘Stop!’ No more!’ A police officer focused her camera on Sarah. A CCTV camera was turned on the crowd from the top of one of the vans. Sean also had his camera out. Everybody held their breath. Nobody moved till a small boy, wires dangling from his arm, his forehead bandaged, appeared out of the shadows. He lent heavily on a make shift crutch, dragging one of his legs behind him. ‘David!’
David walked slowly up to the officer in charge. ‘I don’t want to die here. I don’t want to go to prison. I have done nothing wrong here, except play with my friends. And you threaten us. I want to know why. Why do you hate us? Are we not the same people? Aren’t we?’
‘You don’t know what you’re talking about. You’re just a kid. Go home, go back to your family and keep your mouth shut.’ But a couple of teenagers came and stood by David. The police were so close, they were almost breathing on them. Then, more children followed. Parents tried to hold them back but soon all the children were standing next to David. ‘This is our home! Put down your weapons and stay with us for food. Else, go now!’
The officer froze. This was something he’d never experienced before. Snap went Sean’s camera. ‘Out of here now’, shouted the officer. And they left.
The sound of hearts beating of everyone in the village for a moment was louder than any words. All of the children around David cheered. The parents looked at each other, grinning nervously. Everyone hugged one another in pairs or small groups. Something had happened here. Something significant. They just couldn’t name it.
David was exhausted. His dad carried him back to his bed in the tent. ‘You stay there, young man, and get some rest.’ Sarah and Nighat made sure he was ok. ‘We’ll talk about this tomorrow’ and they left. Quiet settled on the tent. Julie asked, ‘What happened up there? What did you do, David?’ ‘Oh, nothing, I had to warn the village they were in trouble, that’s all. I had to be there, and so I went.’ It was still warm outside. Night birds sang outside and through the tent flap, David could see the full moon, lighting up the night sky. Not long after, he fell into a deep sleep.
Drawing by Ruth
The police never came back. Sean wrote his report for ‘Despatches’ with photos showing the stand-off and detailing accounts of intimidation and harassment. The story was picked up by the national press and even got TV and radio coverage. An investigation led to the dismissal of the police chief and a retraining education programme for all officers in community policing. Elections were held and new councillors were elected, a clean sweep, including Sarah. And the multi-national, agro-chemical company declared its total ignorance of any wrongdoing and promised to put right the problems quickly. Afterwards, the regional court fined it an enormous sum for polluting the water supply and awarded compensation to the village.
To celebrate, the whole village gathered one evening around the old oak tree. Every family had laid out tables and chairs or picnic blankets. Food and drink were shared for all and they had a great feast. Sarah and Ian, Nighat and Mohamed and the other children’s parents hugged and smiled at one another in a circle. ‘Aleluja!’, sang out Nighat. And the others joined in. It was picked up one by one by all the village for it was a song they all knew but hadn’t had cause to sing for a long time. ‘Aleluja!’, the whole village sang out across the valley.
Six months later, a group of children gathered together one Saturday morning. They’d just finished their morning chores and had come out to play by the pond. The news had come though about the retesting of the water supply. Now it was clean and good. Julie and Nathan, Amina and Biswas, David and Ella sat in a circle swapping stories and sharing food, mostly samosas and rice. Later, ‘Who’s for a swim?’ Nathan raised an eye brow. ‘Don’t think I can manage a swim’, David said, ‘after all that rice but a paddle would be good.’ And they all kicked off their sandals, rolled up their trouser legs or tucked skirts into knickers and ran into the water, splashing each other and laughing. In no time, they were all soaked but the sun was shining, the trees were green and damsel flies joined in their dance around them. Even a kingfisher whizzed past. David missed it. ‘Here? Where, show me!’ But it had gone. ‘Never mind, I’ll see it tomorrow or the next day…’ and a tune came to heart and he started to remember a favourite song. Soon, all the children joined in.
Every little cell in my body is happy.
Every little cell in my body is well.
I’m so glad. I’m so happy.
Every little cell in my body is well.
Soon, they would be back at their studies and daily chores to help their families but right now, they were just thankful they could play.
Every little cell…
Drawing by Ruth