In the Line of Fire
By Rafael Contreras, Cuba Free Press
February 16, 2001
Translation by Edward Lopez
Someplace in Angola. 1979.
They had been two days pinned down under artillery fire. Alfredo the mortar operator had argued with the squad’s lieutenant. They sent him to carry out a mission in the same line of fire and he fulfilled it. The dispute with the lieutenant would mean a military field trial. He was prepared to face the consequences. The important thing now was to get out of that place alive. By day and by night, enemy artillery mortar fire fell on the Cuban troops.
That same morning they had received the news by radio. Cuban forces would arrive by helicopter to rescue them.
All they could do was wait. Alfredo looked to the west toward the other spot where the rest of the Cuban troops were surrounded. El Gordo, Fat Palacios, was there operating his artillery equipment. He signaled with his hand and Alfredo answered. All this was under fire. They had been over one week in the trenches. It was during these two days that the enemy artillery surrounded them completely. Now all they could do was wait for the helicopters to take them, or at least the wounded and the living.
Alfredo thought about Cuba and that made him forget momentarily the sound of shrapnel fire, but he always remembered that Death encircled the trenches.
Suddenly an explosion drowned out all the noise they had endured for nearly two days. It was a devastating bomb blast. Everywhere the air was filled with smoke and the smell of powder. Alfredo discovered that his ears were bleeding. He touched his body all over to confirm he was not wounded. When the smoke cleared, he looked toward el Gordo Palacios’ position and saw neither el Gordo nor his equipment.
A while later he arrived at the place where el Gordo’s equipment stood. There was a huge pit and no sign of el Gordo. He saw part of the mound devoured by fire and the smell of burnt flesh told him what happened. Then he saw Palacios’ boots with his feet still inside. The rest of his body was missing. It took an effort to avoid crying under the sound of enemy shrapnel:
He was too choked up to speak another word. There at his feet he saw what was left of el Gordo Palacios, his friend from the neighborhood and school. A chunk of charred meat dripping with dark blood like motor oil. He knew it was el Gordo Palacios by the chain he always wore around his neck since childhood.
A short while later he heard the rescue helicopters. They were coming for them, for the ones who lived.
When the helicopters took off with what was left of the Cuban troops, Alfredo saw from the height the place where el Gordo Palacios fell. The hillside still burned along with what was left of twenty-two year old el Gordo. Alfredo and he were the same age. At twenty-two years of age, he had seen what war could do when you were in the line of fire.
He let himself fall from the back of the truck. The morning was cold and he felt a sharp pain in the soles of his feet. They had fallen asleep. He had made a long trip in that truck full of people. Now he was alone in the middle of the highway.
He was wearing his knapsack on his back. It was the knapsack that accompanied him during the war in Angola. It was full of memories and old smells. It was also full of merchandise he was going to sell in the capital.
“One more time in the line of fire.”
He said it to himself mentally. In the knapsack he carried products from the sea that are now illegal in Cuba. Cuba is an island surrounded by salt water and the Cuban people are prohibited from acquiring products from the sea. It is a crime to catch lobsters or fish, in the end what is prohibited is craved that much more. Alfredo has been unemployed for the last five years and he makes a living in the black market selling those prohibited products. He lost his job following a massive layoff during the Nineties Cuban crisis following the collapse of the Soviet regime.
An hour later he decides to sit along the edge of the highway to rest for a while. He has walked enough. He looks for a clean place in the grass along the freeway and when he goes to sit he hears a car approach.
His clandestine salesman’s instincts alert him. He sees the vehicle approach and recognizes it is a police car. Without time to do anything else, he takes off the knapsack and lets it fall by the wayside along the highway. Without the knapsack, he feels lighter. The important thing now is to get away from this place.
When night falls the truck returns to Alfredo’s town. The truck stops and Alfredo drops slowly onto the road. He stretches his legs and watches the vehicle pull away. He knows it was a lost day. The merchandise had to remain abandoned. There is no money to bring home, but he smiles anyway. Later he cries. He doesn’t know what to do. He curses his bad luck and then he thinks about el Gordo Palacios, dead nearly twenty-two years, destroyed by mortar fire in a distant foreign war.
He wished el Gordo was still alive. They would have had a chance to stand together here in this other line of fire.
Agencia Abdala, Pinar del Río