We hated him when he was a boy – he was a poor student, an embarrassment on the pitch, and his family owned the store to which so many of our own families owed money. We enjoyed embarrassing him in front of the girls, and exposing him to the wrath of our teachers and their wooden pointers.
Despite his habits he was sent to a good university in another country. For this we despised and admired him.
When he returned from abroad, we began to love him. He wasn’t handsome, but his bearing was manly and the women found his worldliness enticing. We were grateful when he proved informed and concerned about our local difficulties—he had not forgotten us—and we began to defer to his sharp political instincts. Also, he bought good wine.
But when he joined the army, we felt betrayed. Had he always had such ambitions? Was he just a stooge for the authorities? His claims that he wanted to fix our country “from the inside” were too familiar, almost pre-recorded. Still, if anyone could do it…
And when he became General, we must admit, we were proud. How could we not be? A boy from our little provincial town, a boy whose nose we had bloodied, who knew us by our given names, was now one of the head men, commanding thousands! Small improvements began to appear in our town—a new sewage treatment plant, a pavilion in the town square—and we knew that he was behind them somehow, that he was looking after us.
Then came the coup, and we were in awe. There he was on billboards, at the Palace, on the radio, on television. His lop-sided face was everywhere, even on the international stations, though it seemed somehow distorted. This was not the young man from our town—we did not know him. He had moved beyond us. Pictures of him with foreign movie stars filled us with confusion, as if the photos had been doctored. And rumours started about how he kept control. The sewage treatment plant broke down. The activists and professors among us began to grumble and disappear.
Soon enough the silence set in. Some of us might have been benefiting from the General’s generosity. Some were trying to get loved ones out of prison. Others may have still believed. But the rest of us had to keep our heads down and hope he didn’t remember us. The funny story about a ball kicked into his face became a reason to fear. Had he ever forgiven us for the way we treated him at school? The pavilion concerts were always in celebration of the General’s enlightened rule. We all came and clapped. Our peripheral vision grew exquisitely acute.
Then came the years of pain and hatred. What can be said of them? Our country is far from the only one to experience such times. We cursed him privately, huzzahed in public, and prayed for rescue.
When the General was arrested we wanted to storm the prison but the guards prevented us. We did not know if they were with us or with him in their hearts. Some of us waited outside, but most just spat on the earth and went home to wait.
We anticipated his trial like a national holiday—we had plans for picnics. But when we learned it would be an international tribunal, we howled in protest. How dare these foreigners, who think of us as mere children, prevent us from finding our own form of justice for what he put us through? Their judges, in absurd costumes, presided over our accusations with a dispassionate aloofness that insulted our pride.
Sentiment began to turn toward the General. Yes, he was a monster, but he was our monster, we had made him, he was one of us, and didn’t he begin by believing he could make our country better? Hadn’t he modernized the transportation system? Hadn’t he cleaned up the streets? What do these diplomats know of our pain and longing, who had never heard our birds sing their lonely songs at dusk?
We staged protests and burned effigies when they found him guilty of some paltry offences and kept him in comfortable confinement for 20 months. By the time he was released, everyone else had forgotten him. We found him in a luscious seaside villa, and tore him to regretful shreds.
Now there is a statue of him at our capital. We all chipped in to erect it.