Kaim spent the entire summer surrounded by a fence that towered over him.
He was trapped in a prisoner of war camp.
It was a terrible mistake - not his but the dimwitted, cowardly commander's. Kaim was a mercenary attached to the man's regiment. They were invading the enemy's main port city when the officer miscalculated at the end and the unit's line of retreat was cut off. While the troops were prepared for an all-or-nothing charge, the commander almost casually opted for surrender.
"Don't worry," he had said to his men before they were locked up.
"Whatever happens now, the ultimate victory in this war will be ours. Instead of making a stand and dying for nothing, we'll be much better off if we just quietly let them take us as prisoners of war. We'll be liberated right away in any case."
This made perfect sense.
But the officer completely misread the feelings of an enemy on the brink of defeat.
Having survived hundreds of battles, Kaim knew better than anyone how people felt towards prisoners of war after the hated enemy had taken the lives of their friends and loved ones and torched their hometowns.
To the members of his platoon at least, as they were preparing to enter the camp, he whispered,
"You'd better forget about any rosy pictures. This could be worse than the battlefield."
His words proved all too accurate.
Life in the POW camp was bitterly harsh. Day after day, the men were forced to do backbreaking labor on a diet of scraps. The sick and injured went untreated and were not even allowed to rest. To collapse on the job was to die. Indeed, several of the prisoners died not by collapsing on the job but from brutal beatings for minor infractions.
Everyone with access to the camp - both the soldiers assigned to guard duty and ordinary citizens with business there - looked upon the prisoners with hatred in their eyes. Some guards would wave swords at them and boast, "I can kill you bastards any time I like," and certain officers slaughtered one prisoner after another, disguising the killings as accidents.
Even as they tormented the prisoners, such men were suffering the deaths of their families and friends in the war, and spending their days in fear of the coming invasion. The camp was a place ruled by hatred and revenge, but also a place shrouded in uncertainty and fear of the day when the captives would become their captors. This tense, complicated atmosphere ate away at the spirits of all, friend and foe alike.
The horror of war lay not only in the mutual killing of enemies clashing on the battlefield but even more so in places such as this that were far from the front lines.
Kaim knew this with every bone in his body.
A month passed after the platoon entered the POW camp.
The enemy troops were thoroughly exhausted.
THe fall of the capital was said to be imminent.
In spite or because of that, life in the camp was worse than ever.
The tasks assigned the prisoners were even crueler than before, and their diet, which was meager enough to begin with, fell below the level needed to sustain life.
The military guards bullied the prisoners as if for their own amusement, wounding them, and mistreating them with fatal consequences. All kinds of civilians did their part, too, hurling human waste over the fence into the camp. And even if secret stashes of food might be left for them, none of the prisoners dared eat them for fear they might be poisoned.
Hatred climbed to unseen heights.
To one prisoner who moaned "Why are you doing this to us?"
a guard spat out the answer, "It's just what your country is doing to us."
And it was true.
All the young men of the enemy country were being sent into battle, where most of them were being killed. Whole towns had been burned down and transformed into rubble.
While the soliders assigned to guard duty knew that defeat in the war itself was certain, they continued to be victors where the POWs were concerned.
And while the captured soldiers believed in the victory of their fatherland and waited for the day when their comrades would resuce them, they continued to be vanquished among victors.
The moans of the POWs could be heard throughout the camp:
"When is the war going to end?"
"The war doesn't have to end. Just let them get us out of here!"
"Have we been abandoned by the fatherland?"
Kaim kept offering the same advice to them again and again:
"Be patient," he would say, "Don't give up hope."
Kaim knew everything there was to know about war, and so he realized what was happening now. The fatherland's supreme commanders were trying to bring down the capital first and leaving the fall of this military port city for later. The POWs had, in fact, been abandoned.
The commander in chief would no doubts say, "For the sake of a great victory, we cannot let ourselves be concerned by a small set back."
And he would be right.
But precisely because he would be right, Kaim could not convey this to the prisoners, who firmly believed that their side was trying their best to rescue them.
One POW after another made plans to escape, and for every one of those there was an informant who exposed his plan to the guards.
Both types of prisoner had the same thing in mind: to save himself alone. No one could be trusted. THere were even some "informants" who made up phony escape stories about perfectly innocent men just to put themselves in a little better position with the guards. The only thing awaiting such traitors when the war finally ended would be the revenge of their comrades. As much as they understood this, all they could do was ingratiate themselves with the guards so as to secure their momentary safety.
The fence was not the only thing surrounding the POWs. It was not just their bodies but their minds that had been taken captive. In addition to the ones who died from illness and injury were increasing numbers of those who ended their own lives after a period of mental suffering.
Don't give up hope.
Kaim's word gradually ceased to make an impression on anyone.
After the men had been prisoners of war for two months, a new guard took charge of Kaim's barrack.
In place of the young warrior who had been guarding them came an old soldier.
His name was Jemii.
When he introduced himself to the men, he remarked with a grim smile,
"Things must be getting pretty desperate if they're calling up an old goat like me."
The young guard had been sent to the front lines. This probably meant that the battle for the capital had entered its final phase.
"I tell you, this war is almost over. In another month, you young fellows will be on the other side of the fence, and we'll be locked in here. Our positions will be completely reversed."
Jemii needed no prompting from the POWs, and his vocie contained none of the hate-filled agitation of the young guard's.
"All you fellows have to do is hang in there a little longer, be patient, and not give up hope."
His words were almost identical to Kaim's, which meant that Jemii, like Kaim, had experienced many a battle over the years.
"We may be in different positions, but deep down we're the same. You men are unarmed prisoners, and we'll be under your control as soon as you come to occupy the country. I'm what you will be tomorrow, and you're what I will be tomorrow. I don't know how long we're going to go on like this, but if you stop and think about it, isn't it stupid for us to keep hating each other and snarling at each other? Let's at least try to get along."
He twisted his wrinkled face into a big grin and laughed aloud.
His smile deeply affect the mentally and physically exhausted men.
Before they knew it, they were smiling, too. THis was the first carefree smile that any of them had managed since their capture, or, rather, since their time on the battlefield.
Jemii's kindness was not limited to words. Of course, the change of a single guard was not enough to substantially improve the prisoners' treatment. The hard labor and meager food were the same as before. But Jemii would speak to them with real feeling.
"Sorry for working you so hard, but there aren't any young men left in this town to do the muscle work. We're not making you do these jobs to punish or discipline you but because the town needs your help with these constructing projects."
"I'm sorry we can't give you anything decent to eat. I really am. But everybody outside the fence is starving, too. We're all in this together, so try to put up with it."
Jemii would try to order somewhat easier jobs for prisoners who had taken ill, and he would sneak them extra food. THat is the kind of guard he was.
The prisoners started calling him "Uncle Jemii," and would even joke around with him sometimes.
"We'd be way better off if the other guards were like you, Uncle Jemii,"
said one prisoner, to which Jemii nodded sadly.
"I'll tell you what, Uncle Jemii," said another prisoner. "If I had known that there were people like you in this country, I never would have volunteered. I'm not forgetting my place as a POW, but let me shake your hand once."
Jemii allowed himself the faintest of smiles at this and gave the man his hand.
"You know something, Kaim..." Jemii said, sitting down beside Kaim during a break in the heavy lifting.
It was a clear, beautiful day, but the sunlight pouring down on them had lost its midsummer glare. The season was shifting to autumn.
"I'd say you're a little different from these other young prisoners."
"I know you've seen your share of battles. I can smell it on you."
Kaim's only reply to Jemii was a strained smile. Jemii seemed to have known what Kaim's response to his remark would be, and he wore the same kind of smile as he carried on the conversation.
"Why haven't you escaped?" It would be easy for a man like you to break through the flimsy security they have here."
"You give me too much credit."
"You could make it by yourself, but taking everybody with you would be tough. Is that why you stayed?"
Kaim gave him another strained smile, saying nothing.
Jemii was right. If he decided to escape on his own, it would be easy for him to climb over the fence. If, however, he manged to gain his freedom, the prisoners he left behind would be punished or, at the very least, would have to live with increasingly harsh security measures. The young soldiers abandoned in the camp would feel only despair.
If he was going to escape, it would have to mean getting everyone over the fence. Most of the others, however, were so wasted away that they were beginning to lose even the strength to go on living. Men like that could only be a drag on his own flight to freedom.
"You're a kind-hearted fellow, aren't you?" Jemii said.
"And you're a smart one, too, I'll bet."
"What do you mean by that?"
"Any soldier with as much experience as you has already seen the handwriting on the wall. The war is over. Another three days, maybe a week, and our side is going to announce a total surrender. Right now, we're just making our last stand out of sheer stubbornness. The second the war ends, you prisoners will go free, and we'll take your place."
"It'll just be a little longer. Really, all you have to do is hold on a little longer. You must know that as well as I do. So you're probably not even thinking of making the effort to escape."
When Kaim nodded, Jemii smiled and said, "That's fine. I'm just as fed up as you are with all the pointless fighting and hatred."
He looked up at the autumn sky, his profile marked by a number of deep wrinkles. On closer inspection, Kaim realized that some of those wrinkles were scars left by sword cuts.
"Let me tell you something, Kaim."
"Our country doesn't have the strength left to make it through another hard winter. I knew that when summer was still here."
"I just wish we had given up sooner. Then there wouldn't have been so many young men killed in battle, and so many towns burned."
Jemii released a deep sigh and added, "When this war is over, we're going to have to do whatever your country tells us to do. We can't complain if we're enslaved or tortured to death by the young men who are now our prisoners of war."
Kaim could not assure him that would never happen.
As a mercenary, he would just go off seeking new employment when this war ended, but this was not true of the other prisoners of war. As the conquerors, they would now have peace. They would return to the lives they led before. But how many among them would be able to treat the vanquished people with kindness and respect?
"I think you'll know what I mean, Kaim, when I say you can be as cruel as you like to us old folks when the fighting ends, but please, I'm begging you, be decent to the young men and to the women and to the children. Don't do anything to them that will make them hate your country. Otherwise, there'll just be another war sometime in the future. Ten years, twenty years, thirty years, maybe even a hundred years from now. I don't want any more of this. Countries fighting each other, people hating each other..."
It happened that very moment.
The violent ringing of a bell began to echo throughout the camp. It was the bell in the watchtower, signaling an emergency meeting of the guards.
"Oh, well, gotta go," Jemii said, standing up. "Don't bother going back to work right away. Tell the other fellows everybody can have a little break."
He took a few steps before turning to say to Kaim with a smile, "You know, if we weren't enemies, I would've liked to have a drink with you sometime."
That was the last Kaim saw of Jemii as a guard.
The sun was overhead when Jemii left, but he did not come back even after it had begun sinking in the west.
The next time someone came into the enclosure it was to the cheers of the POWs welcoming the arrival of their countrymen.
"You're going to be all right now, men! The war is over!
It's a huge victory for our side!"
Jemii's country had agreed to a total surrender.
The guards assembled in the tower were stripped of their weapons, and anyone who resisted was killed on the spot.
"Get a move on there! Hurry up!"
The soldiers who, until a short time ago, had ruled the camp were herded into the enclosure with whips and under the threat of drawn swords.
The POWs, who until only moments ago had been under their rule, now lined up to stare at their former guards, and before anyone knew it, the guards were being cursed and stoned.
Hands tied, the soldiers could not ward off the stones, and before long they were drenched in blood.
Jemii was among them.
He started at Kaim, blood gushing from his forehead. His eyes showed no hatred or resentment. He simply gave Kaim a little nod, looking straight at him as if to say, "Remember what I asked you to do."
Kaim shouted to the men surrounding these new prisoners,
"Stop it! Stop it! They've surrendered! Leave them alone!"
But, liberated from the fear of death and from days of humiliation, his young comrades, wild-eyed and screaming like animals, went on stoning their former guards.
"Can't you see who this is? It's Uncle Jemii! Stop it!"
One of the soldiers gave him a contemptuous snort and all but spit out the words, "The old bastard was just sucking up to us for when our side won."
Another soldier - the young man who had asked to shake Jemii's hand that day - shouted, "He might act like a good guy, but an enemy's an enemy! And besides, he's just some old geezer from a country we pounded into the dirt." He threw another stone at Jemii.
Kaim's shouts did no good. He started grabbing hands that were readying to hurl stones and smashing people in the face, but no one would listen to him.
The commander of the troops that had galloped to the rescue just grinned and said, "Good! Good! Get it out of your system!" and he handed swords to the unarmed men.
"Kill them all, and raise some victory cries while you're at it! Think of the humilation you endured as prisoners. Now's the time to get even!"
"No, stop it!" Kaim shouted. "The war is over!"
"Wait, I know you. You're a mercenary.
You're just spouting a lot of nonsense. A few good sword thrusts could shut that mouth of yours!"
The commander's aides took this as a signal to surround Kaim.
"Don't waste your time on him, men! Warriors of our beloved fatherland! Kill these soldiers first, and then we can attack the town. Set fires! Take the women! We won this war! This town, this country, everything belongs to us now!"
The commander laughed aloud, but in the next moment, his smile turned into a grimace. His aides were falling to the ground. Kaim had grabbed a sword from one of them, and now it flashed in his hand.
"Traitor! Somebody take him down!"
Kaim swung around and started for Jemii.
But it was too late.
The soldiers were already slashing wildly at the former guards, who had no means to defend themselves.
Standing amid the hellish scene of human butchery, Kaim saw it happen.
The old soldier, who had been kind because he knew all too well the link between war and hatred, fell to the ground without uttering a word, a hateful blade thrust into his back.
Kaim made a break for the camp gate.
He ran for all he was worth, a soundless roar reverberating inside him.
Why did people have to hate each other so?
Why did people have to fight each other so?
And why was it impossible for people to stop fighting and stop hating?
He did not know the answers to these questions.
Saddened and frustrated by his own incomprehension, Kaim ran at full speed through the rubble of the town.
A hundred years pass by.
"This is it, Kaim," the commander says with a smile. "I am enormously grateful for the magnificent job you've done. You can name your own reward when this war is over."
The last great offensive is about to begin.
This should bring the war to a close.
It has taken a hundred years.
After all these long, long years as a vassal state, the country that lost the war the year Kaim was a prisoner has raised its banner against the ruling power under which it endured such suffering in the last war.
The defeated country has spent a hundred years nurturing its hatred for the ruling power, passing the hatred down from parent to child to grandchild. The country that won the war a hundred years ago was too filled with a ruler's arrogance and insensitivity to notice what was happening. The only things that it has handed down from parent to child to grandchild are the scorn and contempt for the "inferior country" under its sway.
This war ends with almost disappointing ease.
The results are the exact opposite of the war a hundred years earlier.
No one knows on which side the goddess of victory will smile if yet another war occurs a hundred years from now.
"All right, Kaim, name your reward."
Kaim answers the commander's question softly: "I don't need a thing."
"Why not? It's true that you're a mercenary, but you far outdid the regular troops. Our country wants to show its appreciation for your efforts."
"If that's how you really feel, I'd like you to promise me one thing."
"Don't make your enemy hate you."
"What are you talking about?"
"I'm talking about treating the people of the defeated country with kindness and respect."
A shocked expression on his face, the commander laughs and says,
"Aren't you the softhearted one!"
Kaim, however, is deadly serious.
"This is the legacy an old man from your own country left me a hundred years ago."
"Enough," says the commander, still looking shocked. "Dismissed."
Kaim himself has no hope that Jemii's legacy will be fulfilled. The hundred-year journey he has taken since that fateful day in the camp has shown him only the selfishness and stupidity of the human race. It will be the same from here on out as well. Indeed, nothing has changed since long before he met Jemii.
Back at his post, Kaim grips his sword and holds his breath.
It will change someday.
They will see someday.
I want to believe that.
Unless I believe it, I can't go on with my endless journey.
You know what I mean, don't you, Uncle Jemii?
Eyes closed, he can see Jemii's face smiling sadly.
The order goes out to the entire assembled force: "Charge!"
Within the rising clouds of dust, Kaim grips his sword and starts to run.