Waiting for the Barbarians is a harrowing allegory of the war between oppressors and the oppressed.
The protagonist is a loyal civil servant who conscientiously runs the affairs of a tiny frontier garrison town, ignoring the threat of impending war with the “barbarians”, a neighboring tribe of nomads. But with the arrival of a special unit of the Civil Guard spreading the rumor that the barbarians are preparing to attack, he becomes witness to the cruel and illegal treatment of prisoners of war. Torture is used to obtain confessions from the barbarian prisoners, thus “proving” the necessity of the planned campaign against the tribe.
Jolted into sympathy for the victims, the old man decides to take a stand. He attempts to maintain a final shred of decency and dignity by bringing home a barbarian girl, crippled by torture and nearly blind, and subsequently returning her to her people – an act of individual amends. This dangerous, exhausting expedition brands him forever as a traitor, after which he himself becomes a victim of public humiliation and torture.