ON BEING A FIFTH COLUMNIST
[Essentially this piece was a response to articles in the Islamic National Front newspapers accusing me, among others, of being a ‘fifth columnist’ (‘taboor khamis’) for the Sudan People Liberation Movement (SPLM) fighting in southern Sudan]
Someone must have falsely denounced me, for without having done anything wrong, I was accused one day of being a ‘fifth columnist’. At first I didn’t take the matter seriously for the simple reason that I didn’t know what being a ‘fifth columnist’ meant, although for some inexplicable reason the term was vaguely associated in my mind with the Olympic Games. I shrugged off the matter as yet another exercise in character assassinations that had recently gained currency in the local tabloids. Besides, I had no undue reasons for concern. A lot of people had been accused of more serious crimes (like being ‘advisers’ to the deposed ‘Rais’) and had either escaped retribution altogether or were given optional residence in Koper prison in conditions that rivaled the best five-star hotels. (Note: many NIF leaders were allies of former ‘President’ Numayri).
Moreover, I was certain that whoever denounced me were claiming a ‘pious’ and biased monopoly of patriotism to smear anyone refusing to subscribe to their rituals of intimidation. Surely, no one would believe their unholy fabrications. Or so I thought. It never occurred to me that they had mastered to perfection Goebbels’ brilliant strategy of repeating a lie long enough until people came to believe it.
My first inkling of something going terribly wrong was when a friend came to tell me that I could no longer count on his friendship. He remarked, as he was leaving, that during the Spanish Civil War, people were shot for being ‘fifth columnists’. I couldn’t understand what that had to with me; to the best of my recollections, I had never joined the Republicans’ International Brigade; nor could I have been even remotely associated with Franco’s Fascists. Besides, any connection with the Spanish Civil War was a physical impossibility; at that time I wasn’t even a twinkle in my parents’ eyes.
I began also to notice that people in the streets were eyeing me suspiciously and occasionally I could hear the whispered words: “he is a ‘fifth columnist’”. I came to realize that people were avoiding me: whenever I approached a group I knew, everybody would fall silent and some would hastily move away. Many of my acquaintances suddenly stopped shaking hands with me.
Things became even worse with the reaction of my family. My father gave me a lecture on the shame I had brought on the family’s name and said he would pray daily for the salvation of my ‘lost’ soul. My younger brother, an army officer, spoke bitterly of what he darkly called a “stab in the back” and vowed never to hold the line with me again, by which I assumed he was ending our fishing trips together. My elder brother, being a businessman and therefore a man of a practical mind, advised me to make a public repentance, recanting my crime in full ‘Colours’, and hailing the ‘Flag’. (Note: these two are English translation for ‘Alwan’ and ‘al-Rayah’ – two of the NIF newspapers). He added with his usual cynicism that not only could I get an immediate reprieve but perhaps even a permanent column ‘On My Own Responsibility’! (Note: a reference to a regular column in al-Rayah by a former communist leader who recanted and became prominent in NIF circles).
The situation at my home was even more distressing. I noticed that my wife was becoming aloof and depressed. I was increasingly feeling as though I was a stranger in my own house. When I asked her about it she didn’t even bother to reply at first but finally exploded lamenting her everlasting shame in having lived with a closet ‘fifth columnist’ and in being betrayed like Helen of Troy.
I was nonplussed. What Helen was she talking about? Before I could recover my senses, my younger son came rushing into the room and tearfully told his mother that in school they started calling him the ‘son of the fifth columnist’. I evaded the see-what-you-have-done glare of my wife and ran out of the house uncertain that I would ever return.
My situation was assuming Kafkaesque dimensions. So far no one had raised the obvious question as to what exactly I was supposed to be guilty of. I decided that only legal counsel could resolve my dilemma. I went to see a lawyer friend of mine. He received me correctly but coolly. I asked him whether my denunciation as a ‘fifth columnist’ would lead to my arrest and trial. He was absolutely positive that it would, and that the verdict would be one of a terminal nature. I asked him what my crime was and he admitted that he didn’t know; I was a ‘marked’ man that was all. He paused and added that those who denounced me were invoking a divine mandate to give the charges against me a wider and spiritually sanctioned validity. The verdict might possibly seem excessive, but it would be politically and morally expedient and therefore inevitable. I protested, echoing the anguished words of Kafka’s protagonist Joseph K. in The Trial: “But I am innocent, it is a mistake. Besides, how can a man be guilty of a crime he hadn’t committed? Surely, we are all human beings here, one like another. Has the lie become the order of the world?” The lawyer answered that he had come to learn from long experience that it was precisely the guilty who invariably insisted on their innocence. I asked him if he would take my case. He shook his head muttering that although he sometimes defended lost causes, in my case he had a reputation to maintain.
I left the lawyer’s office and roamed the streets. My mind was in turmoil and I couldn’t think coherently. I sat on a bench on the river bank and the cool Nile breeze began to clear my head.
I was by then beginning to entertain the possibility of my own guilt. Why should anyone denounce me if I hadn’t done something wrong? But what did it all mean? Where had I gone wrong? I recalled my life history. They were three ‘fives’ in my birth date. I was fifth in class in school. I spent five years in the University. I could count only five friends. My salary was regularly paid out to me in banknotes of the five-pound denomination. The soccer team I supported always lost with a five-goal margin. The more I recalled my past and present life, the number ‘five’ cropped up again and again like a bad penny. So, after all, there was something suspicious about this life-long association.
I then turned to the ‘columnist’ part of my crime. There was also hard evidence of my incriminating familiarity with the word. (I had already looked it up in the dictionary and found out that it could mean ‘queue’ which gave me some valuable clues). Like the vast majority of Sudanese, I was an expert practitioner of the art of ‘queuing’ in all its acrobatic manifestations. Most of my time was in fact spent queuing for essential commodities and by a coincidence, which I could now realize was not entirely coincidental, it always happened that I was ‘fifth’ in the queue at the precise moment when supplies ran out. Even the articles I wrote for the newspapers almost always appeared in the fifth column of the fifth page.
I was now convinced of my guilt. Those who had denounced me were absolutely right. Paradoxically enough, although the charge against me was indeterminate and vaguely articulated, it was, at the same time, specific and effectively formulated. I was guilty because I was a ‘fifth columnist’ rather than for any individual criminal act that I had committed. One had to take my whole life to determine the extent of my guilt.
Once the truth dawned on me, a strange mixture of serenity and agitation settled over me. I became suddenly obsessed with the process of my impending prosecution and trial. It was as though the very revulsion of my crime somehow endowed me with a kind of macabre yet noble distinction; as though my new status amounted to some strange spiritual validation; as though my life was being given a ‘divine’ meaning it had lacked before. In short, if I was worthy enough to be denounced for a crime I hadn’t committed, I was worthy enough to be punished for it. I must have meant something for those who had denounced me.
I now began telling people that I was really a ‘fifth columnist’ and reassuring them that my fate was already sealed. Some were sympathetic wishing me a smooth termination. “Don’t let them mess it up as they’ve been messing up everything else in the country,” someone advised me.
But after a while I began to get impatient with the procrastinating pace of the legal process. I wasn’t even arrested. I went to see the Police Commissioner and complained about the delay. He told me that the matter was no longer under police jurisdiction and had been passed on to the courts.
I immediately made an appointment with the Attorney-General (Note: at the time, of writing, NIF leader Hassan al-Turabi held this position). He listened sympathetically to my passionate plea for an immediate trial and a verdict that would put me out of my misery. He told me that he would do everything possible to speed up the legal process. Besides, he added reassuringly, in my case the verdict didn’t come all at once since the proceedings gradually merged into the verdict. I didn’t understand the legal jargon and reiterated my constitutional right for the immediate execution of the verdict. Otherwise, I told him, I would have no option but to carry it out myself.
At that he interrupted me looking greatly perturbed. He said such action on my part would be politically embarrassing to the authorities, and would unduly undermine public confidence in the credibility of those who had denounced me. It would also upset the stable legal code and disrupt the smooth dispensation of justice. That would give the authorities no end of trouble. What would the world come to, he pleaded with me, if potential victims started abusing their own human rights instead of waiting for the state to do it through due process? With tears swelling in his eyes, he begged me to be patient and promised to expedite my case. He pointed to the huge files scattered all over his office and cried plaintively: “you see, we haven’t even finished with the cases of the ‘first columnists’…”
SUDAN TIMES (Khartoum) Wednesday 30 December 1987
A fifth column is a group of people who clandestinely undermine a larger group, such as a nation, from within. A fifth column can be a group of secret sympathizers of an enemy that are involved in sabotage within military defense lines, or a country’s borders. Origin: Emilio Mola, a Nationalist General during the Spanish Civil War, told a journalist in 1936 that as his four columns of troops approached Madrid, a “fifth column” of supporters inside the city would support him and undermine the Republican government from within