Fifteen or twenty minutes had now passed and it seemed that we had almost finished, perhaps in record time. As I sat down and began to rummage through my mental checklist, from outside I heard the sound of metal scraping on metal, and instinctively knew the source. From the back of a truck soldiers were sliding out an enormous bolt cutter. Unlike any cutter that I had ever seen, this one was enormous, about two metres in length, and obviously heavy. Clearly, building gates that had not been opened were about to be cut. In one respect this was welcome; there have been instances when hand grenades were used instead.
I continued to listen, and could hear soldiers trying to gain entry to the adjacent building where one of our volunteer security leaders resides. I went to the balcony door and peered furtively below and to the buildings across the street. Soldiers had not only entered them, but were in the individual apartments. Three of them were standing on an upper-floor balcony gazing intently toward our deputy security leader’s apartment, probably checking for any indication of an escape attempt or anything that could be a threat to them.
We knew that he had no weapons and wouldn’t flee, leaving his family behind. But he has a connection to the young resisters who, in August, jumped to their deaths on 44th Street rather than surrender to police. Out of necessity, he’s been in hiding ever since. Only recently, and against our advice and wishes, did he return to his apartment to care for his family. I wondered whether he could be one of the primary targets of this invasion. In our volunteer security chain, he is the link next to me, and if he is caught and tortured during interrogation, I would be next. What was unfolding in front of me was therefore all the more troubling. If he were arrested, I and those in my apartment would have no option but immediately to go into hiding.
Having nearly finished what I needed to do, I took a minute to check how May and Zoo were coming along. They too were almost done, but on edge, searching for a document that they were having difficulty locating. I didn’t know what exactly they wanted it for or why, though clearly it was of some importance. However, I couldn’t help. I had one last critical task to perform. All my computer data are stored on a thumb drive that I keep hidden outside my apartment, since I’ve never found a safe place to store it inside. To stash it back there, I’d have to go onto the balcony and out through the door to the stairwell. The soldiers had already warned us to remain inside our apartments, so I had to leave hoping not to be noticed. Ordinarily I would crawl out on my hands and knees, but this evening I’d surely be spotted by the soldiers posted on the upper balconies across the street.
I decided instead to make a short, quick run for it. As I stepped out to the balcony, and before opening the exit door, I couldn’t help but sneak another fleeting look at the scene unfolding below. I was stunned. Never in past incursions had I seen so many soldiers, and they were all congregated at our end of the street, right in front of our building. No doubt something big was going on here tonight.
In that brief moment, to my surprise I also noticed among the soldiers our informer friend, the Mole, and next to her the oakkahta, the ward’s military-appointed administrative officer, as well as the administrator’s brother-in-law. The brother-in-law was assisting the soldiers, as he’s done in the past, which makes him the most despised person in our quarter. About a month ago I caught wind of a plan to assassinate him, but so far that hasn’t happened. I have little doubt, however, that his untimely demise will arrive rather sooner than later. Despite my personal dislike for him, I’ve often thought about warning him, but there’s no way that I can do that without bringing attention, and danger, to myself and my associates. So I’ve let it go.
Having crossed the balcony, apparently unnoticed, I went out the door and entered the pitch-black stairwell, which, given the unevenness of the risers on the steps, is dangerous to negotiate even during the day. A flashlight was out of the question as it would have been seen from outside, and I couldn’t be certain that soldiers weren’t already inside the building at the bottom of the stairwell. I descended with ears on ultrahigh alert, stealthily exited the rear of the building, and found my way to my hiding spot. Having deposited the thumb drive, I silently returned to the door at the top of the stairs. As I once again readied myself to dash across my balcony, I saw that soldiers were raking the buildings with the beams of their high-powered torch lights. Timing my reëntry to the beams, as if in a prison-escape movie, I dove safely back inside my apartment without being detected.
Relieved, I sat down at my desk and once again ran through the mental checklist of what needed to be done. It was then, for the first time that night, and after many fearful months waiting for just this kind of intrusion, that I noticed I was more composed than I had imagined I would be. That is not to suggest a complete absence of fear, but the terror I had always expected hadn’t arisen. I was OK; my anxiety remained at a manageable level. If I could push on with this mindset, a little of it might rub off on the others.
May let me know that while I was out the Mole had called to report that she was out on the street among the soldiers, and had noticed that they were continually referring to a list. Eventually she was able to position herself such that she could steal a look at it. The list contained the addresses of 13 or 14 buildings. Our building, containing 12 apartments, was among them. Therefore this was not a random search concerning guest registrations, but something more targeted. Given the number of soldiers and trucks that I had seen minutes ago, I was not surprised by this. May told me that a member of our security group had also phoned to tell her that a young man a few buildings away had been beaten for cursing the soldiers. He cursed them again as they were leaving his apartment and was beaten a second time. During my brief absence, May had managed to steal another glance out on the street and noticed that the soldiers had already arrested several people, but in the dark she was unable to identify any of them.
And then, Damn! I suddenly realized that I had forgotten to clean the cell phone that I leave turned off and hidden. This phone’s only function is to run one of the communication apps that I use. Despite being switched off, it accumulates all the text messages and phone logs from my computers and other cell phones. This phone has always been a security risk and, as much as I would prefer to eliminate it, it is impossible to use the application on my other devices without it.
After retrieving it, I was certain it would take too long to wipe clean. I stood there, the phone in my hand, considering my options. I came up with only two. I could throw it out the back window, but I wasn’t sure whether I could fling it far enough to clear the building behind. Should it fall short, there was a risk that the soldiers would find it and, if it hadn’t broken on impact, I’d be in serious trouble. Option two was to drop it into the water tank that we all have in our bathrooms, hoping submersion would be sufficient to destroy the data. But I had no idea whether that would work. I knew that the phone was water resistant, but was it waterproof?
I recalled an advertisement that I’d seen some years ago about a cell phone being immersed in a container of water, and as I stood there wondering what to do I explained my dilemma to May. She instructed me to delete all the offending apps, and assured me that, unlike the programs in my computer, phone apps were quick and easy to delete. I handed her the phone and in a minute or two she deleted the apps while I went through the apartment once again to ensure that everything else had been dealt with.
As I sat at my desk trying to calm myself, I could hear soldiers in front of the building calling out to command the attention of the residents. They wanted someone to come down and unlock the steel gate, but everyone remained out of sight without responding. Most apartments do not have doorbells. Instead, strings run from street level up to a bell attached to the balcony of each individual apartment. By pulling on the string, someone on the street can ring the bell and get the attention of those in that apartment. It was such bells that I now heard, but I ignored them and remained focused on what was in front of me.
I asked May and Zoo if they had reviewed their plan about what to do with Zoo should the soldiers enter. As part of my resistance to the military junta, I had decided months ago not to comply with the guest registration law. Neither May nor Zoo were legally permitted to live in my apartment. May has always had a plan to explain her presence, but for Zoo the only option was to keep hidden. Unfortunately, my apartment is small, essentially a single room, so there are no adequate hiding places other than the bathroom at the rear, which, other than permitting someone to remain out of sight, is no hiding place at all. Our hope had always been that May’s dog, River, who never fails to growl when he sees soldiers, would act as a deterrent and dissuade any soldiers from going as far as the rear of the apartment.
The phone rang again. It was May’s uncle who lives nearby. The oakkahta, who knew him, had called and asked him to go over and unlock the gate to our building so that the soldiers wouldn’t be forced to cut it open. Her uncle had explained that he didn’t have a key, whereupon the oakkahta suggested that he call his niece and ask her to do it. And so he phoned to tell May that we had resisted as much as was prudent; she now needed to open the gate. Rather than drag her uncle into it, we reluctantly decided to do so. In any case, we could hear the soldiers preparing the bolt cutter.
At that exact instant I experienced not merely a sinking feeling, but the agony of drowning. I suddenly remembered that I had forgotten to wipe clean my e-mail account! Shit! While explaining my memory lapse to May, I quickly opened my computer. We could hear the sounds of the bells ringing on the balcony and the soldiers downstairs demanding that someone unlock the gate. I opened my e-mail page and feverishly began to delete everything as May shouted to the soldiers below that she was on her way down with the key. After another few minutes of delay, and when I had almost finished, I told her to go.
She began by unlocking the wooden door and steel gate to our apartment. I felt certain that by the time she had descended the stairwell I’d be able to erase the remaining sections of my account. As I heard the gate slide open below, I finished the deletions but did not have time to shut down the computer. Instead, I left it open and brought up a video of Greta Thunberg chastising and belittling a delegation of politicians over climate change issues. Then, as I listened to multiple footsteps on the stairs, all I could do was lean back in my chair. For eight months we had known this day would come, and now we were about to be tested. When they arrived, May was in the middle, followed by four soldiers, one of whom was a colonel, and a high-ranking police officer. But at the front of the procession was the quarter’s oakkahta and our Mole.