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The day was drawing to a close. The sun was slipping slowly beneath the horizon, daylight was fading fast and darkness beginning to descend rapidly on the city. To the East a few ﬂickering sparks revealed that the welders in the shipyards had started their overtime. The traffic began to ﬂow through the streets, weary workers making their way home. Car headlights ﬂickered on among the stream of vehicles, creating a river of light, winding its way through the narrow streets, the working population of a bustling city beginning the routine trek home.
High above, the sniper observed all this through the telescopic sight on his riﬂe. The scene had long since ceased to capture his eye, and his attention was now centred on the busy streets, for any sign of the security forces – whom it was his mission to kill. It was a dangerous mission, for light had not quite given up its battle with night and the sniper lay dangerously exposed. At any moment a helicopter could come whirring above making the gunman an unavoidable target. The background hum of constantly moving traffic had been blocked out long ago by his city tuned ears and they listened for any noise that may lead to his discovery.
Cursing the cold, he hoped that High Command had their intelligence right – if not, then this was almost certainly his last mission. Although an experienced veteran, if intelligence got enemy numbers wrong or omitted the enemies’ possession of armoured cars, not even his tactical knowledge could save him.
Suddenly the sound of rotors chopping the air reached him. He reacted instantly, rolling in a well practiced movement to the cover provided by a nearby chimney. A helicopter surged past his hiding place, a soldier clearly visible, pointing his weapon towards the city below between his dangling feet. It banked to the left, away from him, and vanished below the edge of the roof. He waited until the sound had faded away, then clambered back into his original position.
It was purely by chance that he glanced at the building opposite – and froze momentarily at the sight of another riﬂe poking out of the shadows, at the street below. Military training took over and he looked quickly down the telescopic sight to gauge the level of danger from his potential enemy. As he looked, a blurred face moved upwards to face him and the men stared at each other for a moment. Surprise was elated at seeing this unexpected company, and he began to lift his gun.
The sniper acted instinctively. The inherent urge of self-preservation is buried within all people and the sniper’s instinct had been honed to a fine point by years of similar situations. A moment ago, the opposite man had been a neutral, not betraying his inclination to either side. The second he lifted his gun, he instantly became an enemy.
The sniper fired. The crack of the high velocity bullet had just started to echo when the sniper moved to his secondary position. Bent double, clutching his riﬂe, he sprinted along the roof to the corner where he ﬂung himself down and immediately sighted his weapon again. The surge of adrenaline was still coursing through his veins and he took a few deep breaths to steady his jangling nerves. He peered down the scope once more. The other man had tumbled forward onto a ledge, overlooking the street. His head was propped on his chest, which was an ugly mess of blood. The chest heaved in and out, as if he was having trouble breathing. The lethal 7.62mm bullet had done its work – ruthlessly efficient as usual. His riﬂe was still clutched uselessly in one hand and his feet twitched convulsively.
The sniper was neither a callous or cold-blooded man, but the man across the street was obviously horribly injured and undoubtedly in terrible pain so the thought of a mercy shot ﬂeetingly crossed his mind. But he dismissed this instantly. He could never do such a thing. Years of training urged the sniper to get away, and fast. No doubt the gunshot would be reported and any moment army units would arrive to ‘search and sweep’ the area.
Yet the he lingered, telling himself that he had to make a report, so he glanced over the injured man quickly. He wore the usual green flap jacket, but with one crucial difference. The little Red enemy symbol was just visible on his lapel. A German made riﬂe, standard trooper boots. But for some reason, the sniper ceased to observe with such a military eye and took in the human features of the man.
A young, unmasked, almost innocent face, an unruly cap of blond hair being rufﬂed by the cold evening wind. A young man, probably no more than twenty-one, maybe on his first solo mission. No doubt he would have waited for the sniper to fire on the army patrol before trying to pick him off – a common practice. The ghostly wail of a police siren drifted up to the sniper on the chill breeze. The whine of a car driven at full speed and even he hoped he was wrong – the rattle of tank tracks. Every moment he stayed he edged closer to capture – or Death.
The guerrilla trooper in him warned him it was almost too late to escape – yet the sniper lingered on, unable to tear himself away. Obviously, he was in no danger from the injured man, but strong reinforcements were hurtling towards him and yet he felt compelled to stay, to make sure that the trooper was rescued. Maybe it was a reﬂection of himself – no matter how long the war lasted or how many people he killed the sniper never wanted to waste a life – particularly a young one – if it was possible to save it. His eyes lacked the cold hard glint of a fanatic and although fully aware that his life expectancy could probably be measured in minutes, he stayed.
The Army patrol nosed cautiously around the corner, guns poised, alert to any danger. The sniper crouched low and waited. A single neutron begins the chain reaction that in an instant can destroy a million lives and the toil of generations. Equally insignificant and unimportant are the trigger events which can sometimes change a man’s course of action and so alter the whole pattern of his future.
It was a simple thing that alerted the sniper – the patrol had stopped – usual practice for Army ‘sweep and search’ – but their guns weren’t aimed at him. The formation of troopers suddenly spread out having spotted something.
The injured man’s act of clutching the gun sealed his fate. The sniper realised what was about to unfold all of a sudden and began to shout – too late as a hail of gunfire raked the injured man and he tumbled headfirst down from the roof. The Army had seen the man, holding his gun and fired instinctively.
Fury swept through the sniper. He jumped to his feet, sweeping the weapon to his shoulder and jerked the trigger. A trooper fell and the sniper switched targets, not thinking of himself but the young life wasted so needlessly. He raked the street with bullets, causing unimaginable chaos, his teeth clinched, more angry than he could ever recall, not feeling any satisfaction as soldier after soldier crumpled to the ground. He pumped bullet after bullet down onto the road, not rational, not in control, bordering on madness, the scent of blood in his nostrils, under the command of rampant emotions. It came as a complete shock when he squeezed the trigger and only heard a ‘click’ of an empty gun.
The rush passed and he stood silhouetted against the twilight sky watching as twenty gun barrels swung toward him. He felt no emotion now, as he stared down the blank tunnels of the riﬂes. Only a twinge of amusement at the irony of it all, before the guns roared and oblivion swallowed him up.
Written by Bernard Kelly
Published here 16 Feb 2023 and originally published 1997
The Athenry Journal
The Athenry Journal was founded and edited by Finbarr O’Regan (and later Conrad… Here some recent records:
A View of Athenry from the Outside – Christmas 2001
Athenry Pastoral Council – Christmas 2001
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