All around me, there’s movement in every direction. Shouts fill the space and bounce off the moldy walls. The other prisoners are awakened just as abruptly and start milling about confusedly. Legs are entangled, heads bang against the top bunks. A mountain of muscles in uniform barks:
“Shut up and line up outside! Let’s go, get up!”
I walk through the door. It’s still dark. What’s going on? What time is it? A baton thrust into my back jolts me out of my daze. I join the row of people forming in the yard. Two minutes later, we’re all standing up, pressed together, stiff as boards. We’re waiting silently. We haven’t had any time to think yet. Fear seeps through us now and spreads like a virus.
Powerful spotlights suddenly flash on. The aggressive white light makes me close my eyes. When I open them again, I’m frightened to see another row parallel to ours, directly across from us, about fifteen yards away. Astonished murmurs ripple up and down the row.
Women. These are women. I hadn’t seen any here until now. These madmen captured women too! They look exhausted. They are a dreadful sight, and I realize that they reflect our own degradation like a mirror.
Our jailers surround us, armed to the teeth. Finally, one of them moves forward and positions himself in profile, halfway between our two rows.
“You do not know who has imprisoned you or why, you do not know where you are, and don’t expect me to put your mind at ease. You so-called rebels are nothing but worthless troublemakers!”
A few weak exclamations burst forth.
“From now on, I don’t want to hear a single word! Your “Stand Up” movement has been wiped out, destroyed! Your cause is lost! And you are also lost. You wanted to resist! Did you really think that standing still in front of the palace would change anything whatsoever?”
“But since that’s what you like, fine! We’ll see how long you will “resist”! You will all stand in line here. That’s what you wanted, right? The rules are simple: whoever does not stay firmly planted on two feet will die.”
My body begins to tremble. It takes me a moment to grasp the meaning of these words. How long? How long are we supposed to stand at attention? I fear I know the answer… One final torture to exterminate us all. What tragic irony! Our torturers are turning our own strategy against us.
I close my eyes. I see the tyrant’s face with its mane of blond hair displayed on every wall, every screen. A charming or bloodthirsty smile. His despicable ideas flowing like poison.
We were galvanized by our convictions. Networks gradually formed. Stand up! We could not let him destroy our country. Stand up! Raise our voices! We wanted to believe that pacifism would win out over the growing violence of our government. We were passionate and full of illusions, and we planned a demonstration. We got the idea from the stories our grandparents told. In the late 2010s (I don’t remember the exact year), when they were still teenagers, a pacifist movement had sprouted all over the country: Tonight We Stand.
My spirit now lies at the very bottom of my crushed soul. My dreams of rebellion are far off. I don’t even know how many months I’ve been in this camp.
I open my eyes once again. Day is starting to break. The heat is already rising. A face flashes to life in the anonymous row of women across from me. Despite the distance between us, I suddenly recognize her. Her name is Méline, and she must be barely seventeen. She had secretly joined the movement right before the demonstration. She stares at me. I try to smile at her, but my lips can only twist into a shapeless scowl.
Minutes pass, then hours.
My legs hurt now. It’s daytime. A sky of pure blue assaults us. Each ray of light strikes us. My brain is baking in the sun.
A shot pierces my eardrums. Ten feet to my left, the head of a man who has just collapsed explodes like an overripe fruit. He is not the first one to be struck down. A figure yells and rushes towards us, breaking the women’s ranks. The soldiers say nothing. They wait until she is three feet from us and shoot her in the back. She crumples near the lifeless body of her brother or lover. Another woman becomes delirious. She starts babbling incomprehensible words, then she raises her arms and sits down calmly on the ground. A bullet is fired.
Every inch of my skin that is not covered with striped fabric is crimson red. It has started to peel in places. My body is sticky with sweat, but it evaporates before it can trickle down. My legs are in atrocious pain.
Unconscious bodies fall like flies from heatstroke. Some consciously choose their deaths, sitting down resignedly. I can’t bring myself to do this. I don’t want to die. Not while Méline is still looking at me. And the time comes when she and I are the only ones left.
The girl’s mouth trembles. Her shoulders shake with small spasms. Is she crying? Her lips silently form the two syllables of my name. She can no longer speak. What good is it to live a moment more among all these corpses? I can’t think anymore. I can’t abandon her. She is much too young. Mechanically I move toward her. Each step is torture. I am afraid of keeling over before I reach her. The guards watch us silently. Just as her legs give way, my arms slide underneath her shoulders to hold her up. She straightens. I collapse. A shot rings out.
She is standing.
Translated by Kate Deimling