Mukalla, Yemen, 1962
The city gate was the end of several caravan routes, and there were always trains of camels being loaded or unloaded. Roaring and gurgling, the camels folded and unfolded themselves, tipping and bowing like huge insects. Lines of sweaty bearers staggered away through the gate with monstrous loads suspended from headbands down their backs.
But today there weren’t any caravans. Instead there was a largish crowd outside the gate, completely blocking access to it. Whatever the crowd had gathered for had obviously not yet started, and I clearly wasn’t going to get through quickly, so I turned off the ignition and got out to see what was going on. The crowd wasn’t dense, and parted amiably to let me through. They had left a clear space ten or fifteen yards wide extending about fifty yards along the wall north of the gate. About a dozen soldiers – armed and in QAC uniforms – were resting and smoking near the gate. A Land River had just emerged from the gate and a group of uniformed officers had gathered around it. Some sort of military display, I wondered?
Well, sort of. An unshaven youngish man in white shirt and dark trousers was roughly manhandled out of the vehicle. His hands were tied behind his back. A couple of guards, each grasping an elbow, frog-marched him a few yards from the gate, then shoved him against the wall. He stood there, alone, while the legionnaires loaded their rifles and formed a rough line about thirty yards from the wall. Suddenly, I knew what the occasion was.
Public executions took place here. Someone had pointed the place out to me. It was easy to recognise. There were lots of bullet marks – circular brown scars about the size of saucers. They resulted from impact exfoliation of the whitewash and its mud sub-crust. They mostly occurred from three to six feet above the ground and extended almost the whole length of the wall. I had wondered why they were so uniformly distributed along the wall. The unshaven man was standing right in the middle of them, and it seemed that I was about to find out.
On a signal, the soldiers raised their rifles, and began to shoot – not in a volley, but individually. As the riflemen fired at him, the man actually ran up and down the wall ducking, dodging and weaving, bullet impacts blowing great flakes of whitewashed plaster from the wall behind him. A hit knocked him down, but in a second he was up again, lolloping unsteadily sideways.
The crowd – mostly boys – behaved as though the execution was a sports fixture, shouting and cheering. Because things happened so fast, crowd reaction lagged behind events and I couldn’t really tell whether they cheered the hits or the misses. More misses – a storm of whitewash flecks – then another hit spun him around, blowing red streaks across the wall. More cheering and shouting. He stumbled, then took off again, running heavily through the clinging sand.
A third hit slammed him backward into the wall in a cloud of plaster particles. For a second he stood as though winded, head back, the mud plaster surface erupting around him in a blizzard of whitewash flakes. Then, knees slowly buckling, he began to fall forward, away from a red sunburst on the wall. Another bullet blew part of his face into a cone of red mist, spinning him around and smashing him against the wall.
For a few seconds he balanced there facing into the wall, bullets plucking at his clothes, impact haemorrhages, like obscene little red flowers, blooming all down his back. Then he tipped sideways, sliding slowly down the wall, his head tracing a ragged red arc along its surface. A last flurry of plaster filtered down on him like snowflakes.
The crowd went suddenly quiet. The whole thing had taken only about thirty seconds from first shot to last. An officer stepped forward and shot him behind the ear. The crowd burst into applause, clapping, cheering and whistling. I wondered what on earth the dead man had done.
There wasn’t any further drama about it. Four soldiers picked up the corpse and threw it into the back of the Land Rover, which drove off. The firing-squad, still carrying their weapons, wandered back through the city gate in ones and twos, mingling with the slowly-dispersing crowd.
I found myself curiously unmoved by the whole thing. It seemed more interesting than awful – like some exotic documentary unrelated to real people. Even now I feel that way about it. I never discovered what he was executed for.
I found out later that the condemned man had had a sort of choice. He didn’t have to die by firing squad. They also did beheadings. The royal surgeon – whose main job was lopping off the right hands of convicted thieves – was also the royal executioner. He apparently did the honours with a very large two-handed broadsword.
I knew the surgeon slightly – we’d met several times at Alec White’s booze-ups – and had found him a bit vague, but likeable enough – this was, of course, before I found out how he made his living. He was a large, soft man with a slight stammer and a chin full of whiskers too fine to make a decent beard. I never got to see a beheading – not that I especially wanted to see one – but, unless the surgeon was incredibly ham-handed, it must have been a quicker sort of death than the execution by firing squad I saw.