There are nineteen children inside the candle-lit church. They are sitting on the benches and enjoying a dinner consisting of broth, while chatting about the situation outside. They are not heeding Father John Paul’s warning about chewing before swallowing. He goes to the statue of the Virgin Mary, kneels down in front of her and asks her to help him provide for the children. Since its outbreak six years ago, the tuberculosis epidemic has wiped out one third of the city’s population already. The first to die were the elders, who were then followed by the children. The few who managed to survive the disease are now killing each other over the last scraps of food. As if that wasn’t enough, the country has run out of oil. The wells that once dotted the desert have run dry. Hence, it is not safe to live here any longer.
Father John Paul made the right call, when, two years ago, he decided to turn Notre-Dame d’Afrique into a children’s shelter. He used to go out, scout the streets for homeless children who had been spared by the illness and offer them the church to stay at. That’s how this family of twenty children between the ages of seven and fifteen came to be.
After dinner, they sit down in a circle to swap stories about their past lives and make up new ones about imaginary places, in order to escape from the harsh reality around them. Father John Paul watches them, as their faces beam at times and crumple at others, while asking himself whether he is making a mistake by isolating them from the dog-eat-dog world outside, to which they will have to return eventually. By shielding the children he has taken under his wing from all harm, is he ultimately not crippling them and dooming them to a lonely existence?
Suddenly, he hears something. Unfortunately, it isn’t just the drumming of the rain. No, it sounds more like approaching footsteps. The kids have heard them as well. They immediately blow out all the candles, grab their rifles and crouch down under the benches. Silence ensues. The door opens. Two grown men and a child are standing on the threshold. The child is Farid. His face is heavily bruised. He used to belong to them, but then he suffered a mental breakdown and left. That was four months ago.
Lightning flashes, casting their long shadows on the church’s tiles and lighting up the statue of Christ on the cross, the Virgin Mary, Saint Augustin and Margaret Berger.
“Show yourselves,” one of them starts shouting, “we know you’re hiding here somewhere. We promise we won’t hurt you. We have just come to free you from this prison. Father John, it’s time you acknowledged the end has come.”
Father John Paul steps out into the light to face them. He has recognized the man’s voice. He had once heard him preach at the mosque.
“These are my children and this is their home. Here they have grown up and have learnt to become decent human beings, unlike your lot. Besides, nobody is forcing them to stay here with me.”
As soon as he has finished talking, the children stand up and start shooting at the newly arrived party, riddling the three of them with bullet holes. Their blood splashes on the church’s walls and the plaque at the entrance, which reads, “Lady Africa, please guard us and our Muslim brothers from evil.”
Written by Mustafa Boualatin.