Immediately Hakim knew. The men were kidnappers. He had heard about these bands of thugs who were snatching young boys and forcing them to become part of the militia, to become one of the vicious child soldiers of the region.
He had been searching for healing herbs in the nearby undergrowth when he saw them. Two were carrying rifles and the third, a tall man, had a machete tucked into his belt and a green bandana around his forehead. They all wore camouflage patterned military fatigues. The tall one was standing while talking to the others and swinging a burlap sack in a big circle around his head. The sack wasn't really that big; just big enough.
Instinctively, Hakim, a lanky fourteen-year-old boy, crouched down low and hid himself in the tall grass. He looked out over the plains below and studied the scene cautiously. There was a khaki jeep nearby. He moved into a position where he was in line with the jeep and hidden from the men.
"Ah," he gasped.
A boy was tied behind the jeep, tied and bound with a thick rope to the fender of the vehicle. The boy couldn't be more than ten or eleven years old, and he looked to be asleep.
Hakim lay down and flattened his body against the earth. Then he started to crawl towards the jeep, a hundred yards away. Two birds darted out from under the brush. He froze for a moment, then continued. The tall grasses created a perfect cover for a while, but then he had to crawl out onto the open savanna. He was careful to keep the jeep between the men and himself so that he would not be in their line of vision. Slowly, ever so slowly, he crept. When he reached the vehicle, the boy was still asleep.
Hakim moved close to him, and then with a sudden thrust, he clamped his hand over the boy's mouth. The boy instantly awoke, and Hakim, keeping his hand firmly pressed, looked into the lad's eyes. The fear was palpable.
"Shh," said Hakim. "Don't say a word. All right?" The boy nodded. Hakim untied him and told him to crawl back to the tall grasses and the wooded area, pointing in the direction from which he had come.
"And then run; run as fast as you can," he whispered. The boy nodded and was quickly gone.
Hakim watched him creep the hundred yards towards the tall grass. As the boy neared the edge of the woods, he stood up and then started to run. Immediately Hakim strode out from behind the truck walked rapidly in the opposite direction.
"Hey, look at that kid," said one of the men. "Let's get him!" The three men took off running.
Though he was barefoot, Hakim started to run. He ran fast. He flew across the savanna. He ran like the wind.
Two of the men were not very fast, but the third one, the thin athletic man with the green bandana, was gaining. He was taller than Hakim, his legs were longer, his stride was wider.
Hakim could hear the man's strained breath behind him as he dashed towards the path that curved up a slight hill. When he reached the top of the ridge, he looked down. With only a moment's hesitation, he dove off the cliff like an eagle in flight. The river was clear and it was cold. He swam without stopping for a full ten minutes.
The thin man stood atop of the precipice and looked down. When the others reached him, they looked puzzled.
Why'd you let him go?" one asked.
The thin man shrugged. "Can't swim."