Read a sample of the Refugee by S A Tameez
The brutal war between the Syrian government and rebels, broke out from protests nearly five years ago.
Government security forces, opening fire on demonstrators, instigated a bloody conflict that led to an inevitable civil war. A conflict that triggered the massacre of hundreds and thousands of people, the displacement of thousands more, causing extreme poverty among the survivors. The ensuing chaos was to give rise to the Islamic State jihadists.
Rape, murder, and torture – inhumane acts that somehow earned a type of legitimacy in the war. The mindless use of weapons in populated areas is no longer a crime. Chemical weapons are not used to target specific people, they are used to indiscriminately wipe out the population in an area. This is called genocide.
Living in a state of such intense violence and fear is like not living at all.
Amid this madness, millions have sought to escape with only their lives. Embarking on journeys that will probably kill them, in a bid to live. A bitter irony – dying to live.
Bombs dropping in the distance made Malik pull the bed covers over his head. A perfectly normal reaction from a 10-year-old boy who had never been exposed to such devastation. Malik asked his Father for a television as it would help distract him from the awful sounds of the bombs falling at night but he refused to have one in his house. So, growing up he wasn’t even familiar with it from the Hollywood movies or even the news. Both of which his father regarded as a load of rubbish.
Simply distractions, Father would say to anyone that would listen. You can’t live your life through a box, especially a box run by THEM! They will make you believe whatever they want you to believe; instil ideas in you that you’d have never had otherwise. Their enemies will become your enemies and their friends yours, and yet you will not know the truth about any of them. The television is a destroyer of truth. He spoke this often, so often in fact, that it began to sound like a script with only his tone changing from time to time, depending on his energy levels.
Malik’s father, whose name was Ahmed, Dr Ahmed, was a university professor and a passionate one at that. He was a concoction of stern principles and soft character. He had gone into work despite the cautions and warnings about the bomb blasts from Daesh and the… well whoever it was fighting them. Malik had no idea who was fighting and he didn’t care, he just wanted it to stop so that he could go back to his normal life. Although Syria had been in such an unstable condition for so long, with the threat of bombs, gunfire, and the endless screaming haunting them day in and day out, “normal” was almost forgotten – almost.
Malik’s school, in the once spirited city of Aleppo, had been reduced to rubble months ago, and it wasn’t safe to travel any further to the next one, if it was still standing that was. Cars had been replaced with military hummers and tanks. Most of the local shops had closed or been made flat, as Malik would say. Huge, and once vibrant office buildings, degraded to haunted shells, their walls covered with bullet holes and blood splatters. Food and water in short supply.
This was now “normal.”
Malik could hear the chime of keys and knew his father was home; he ran down the thinly carpeted stairs and waited at the door. His mother, Maryam, came behind him and held him tightly. Her arms wrapped around him like armour. He could feel her heart racing, it was thumping so hard that he thought it might burst out. Malik felt her hands trembling. She was never like this, Malik thought, before the fighting, she was a nurse and worked in the local hospital. She had been full of confidence and always seemed happy. She was a devout Muslim that became a nurse because she wanted to help people. She left her paid position in a private hospital and began working as a volunteer and treated sick people that couldn’t afford treatment. She managed to work for free because Ahmed could provide for the family with his salary. Not to mention the royalties from his academic books and study guides, which he worked on most nights. They were a normal family, a normal happy family, of course Malik and his mother, both wished they saw Ahmed more, but understood that he was a busy and ambitious person. So, they just made the most of the time that they did spend together.
All of this “happy family” business now felt like another life.
Mother released her grip on Malik when Father burst inside, he immediately fastened all the large steel locks behind him.
“Asslamulaykum…” Father said, dropping his brown bag carrying all his important university documents. He sounded short of breath, which wasn’t unusual. Neither Mother nor Father knew whether it was the clouds of dust from the explosions of “flattened buildings” seeping into the lungs or the rushing to get off the streets, avoiding snipers, that made Father breathless. Either way, if you came in without holes in you, it was a good day.
“Walikumaslam, daddy!” Malik said, holding his arms out.
Mother’s smile appeared forced as she replied, “Walikumaslam,” quietly, so quiet that it sounded like a whisper. She has that look, thought Malik. It was the look that she wanted to scream. Malik had heard her screaming into her pillow at night. She must have thought that no one could hear her, but Malik could.
“I’m so glad you’re back, daddy.” Malik put his arms around Father’s waist which was no difficulty with Ahmed’s skinny frame. “The bombs daddy, they’ve been happening all day.”
“I know son, I know. But hey, they can’t go on forever, right?”
“I suppose not.” Malik responded, not really convinced that they would ever stop.
“That’s my boy, now turn that frown upside down.” Father smiled. “Go on and get ready for dinner.”
Dinner that night, and like most nights, recently, was a loaf of bread with bits of yesterday’s salad. They had to share the last bottle of water between them.
Apart from the crunching sounds of stale bread and painful swallows, there was a deadly silence. Throughout the course of dinner and on a few occasions, Ahmed breathed deeply as though he was about to speak, but then decided against saying anything. This was partially because there was not much to say that would be positive, but mainly because he knew Maryam would push for them to leave the country. It is far too dangerous to stay here, she would say. And with good reason: food and water were running out, Malik wasn’t getting an education, apart from the hour or so where Ahmed would sit with him going through some maths or one of George Orwell’s books. And the blasts… those loud, ground shaking blasts, were getting closer and closer. They were so loud, sometimes they left a ringing in Maryam’s ears. A loud painful ringing, she would tell them. Ahmed never felt the ringing, he felt the blasts, but thought that maybe his ears may not be as sensitive – secretly, he thought the ringing was just in her head.
“How long before the bombs rain down on our street? God forbid… on our house!” she cried. “How long before they shoot us down and bury our bodies in the rubble of this God-forsaken house!”
Ahmed was stunned by her out-burst and knew that she would regret what she said later – more screams into her pillow – more sleepless nights.
He put the last part of his bread down, it clunked as it hit the plate like a rock, “Maryam listen… we have talked about this… where will we go? This is our home. What will—”
“This was our home…” she interrupted, “a home is somewhere that you feel safe, we are not safe here, I…” she lowered her voice, “I can’t live like this.” She put her face into her hands and sobbed, loudly.
Tears began to roll down Malik’s face, this happened by default whenever he saw his mother cry.
“Are we not people?” Maryam said, “are we not human that the world has forgotten about us?”
Ahmed moved closer to Maryam and put his arm around her shoulders, something he was guilty of not doing in a while. “Maryam… we will get through this… I promise. Before you know it, the fighting will stop and we will live our lives like we once did — better than we did!”
Maryam lay her head on his chest, and stopped crying. She sighed, sounding exhausted. “I hope you are right, Ahmed…though I cannot believe it will be.” Her head burned into his chest and it was as if he could sense the storm brewing inside it.
Ahmed was, however, wrong. The bombs didn’t stop, in fact they got more intense and more frequent. The next two days were the worst since the fighting began — day and night, the skies were lit up with explosions, and smoke covered the streets like a plague. Large bits of shrapnel had smashed through Malik’s bedroom so he had to sleep with his parents — which he preferred anyway. The neighbour’s house had been shot at from a distance and Mehmet, from next door, had been killed in a case of mistaken identity. A bullet in the back of the head while riding his bike, on his way to get bread for his wife and disabled daughter.
People being killed by “mistake,” something else that wasn’t unusual.
Later, Ahmed found himself woken by a loud banging on the front door. Maryam was shaking him.
“Ahmed… wake up! There’s someone at the door,” she cried, her bottom lip quivering.
Ahmed looked at the clock with blurry eyes. 3.15am. In a dream-like state, he got up and listened carefully. The banging started again, but this time louder and harder. Ahmed heard his wife’s nervous breathing. It became so heavy it sounded like she was having an asthma attack. She didn’t have asthma. It unnerved him to know she was so afraid.
Ahmed walked to the door confidently, this was his home, he had every right to be here and he hadn’t done anything wrong. He could deal with whatever was to come next… but the colour draining from his face told a different story. His hands had a slight tremble as he put his palms on the door.
“Who is it?” he yelled.
There was a pause, and then a familiar voice replied, “It’s Afzal… open up.”
Ahmed sighed in relief and paused for a moment, needing a few seconds to compose himself and say a little prayer before he opened the door. He saw Maryam staring down from the top of the stairs like a hawk, looking petrified.
“What if it isn’t Afzal, Ahmed?” she whispered hoarsely. “What if there are men with guns standing behind him, waiting for us to open the door?”
Although Ahmed knew what she was saying could be a possibility, he ignored her and opened the door.
“Afzal… aslamulaykum,” They hugged like they hadn’t seen each other in a while. Afzal was a close family friend. He had an important job in a government office. It was one of those jobs that when he was asked what he did, he’d give a different story every time, as if he had forgotten what job he’d made up the last time someone had asked him that question.
“Walaykumaslam Ahmed, it is good to see you.” Afzal looked pale, and looking pale for someone as dark skinned as him was difficult.
“Is everything ok? Ahmed asked, noticing that Afzal’s lips had crisped over and he had stubble for the first time in his life. Ahmed desperately wanted to offer him water, but they had just used up their last bottle.
“Not here…” Afzal whispered and closed the door. They sat in the living room.
“What is it?” Ahmed asked.
“Ahmed… you are in danger, they’re after you.” Afzal held the back of his own neck with his palms and squeezed. “It’s got to do with all the people that have spoken against them, your talks and articles were scrutinised and they think you’re dangerous.”
“Dangerous? Me? They are the danger, and someone has to stand up to them!” Ahmed felt like steam was about to burst out of his ears. “They are killing us as much as those… those evil… Daesh.” He forced himself not to curse, even though he wanted to, so badly, and with all his might. He hated
Daesh, but also hated the fact that the ones supposed to be defending them against the fake Islamic state, didn’t care a one bit about the people… civilians were simply collateral.
“Ahmed listen… you are my friend… you are my brother… I want to help you. I have arranged for you to get out of here.” Afzal reluctantly put his chubby hand on Ahmed’s shoulder.
“You want me to run?” Ahmed hissed, now standing up, “No way!”
“Ahmed… you don’t understand how serious this is, I… I am risking my life even being here. Take your family and get out of here before they find you.”
Ahmed remained silent; a herd of thoughts stampeded his mind. His stomach cramped and he suddenly felt faint.
“How long do I have?” Ahmed realised that he may not be able to talk his way out of this one. Although he was a strong believer that the captain goes down with the ship, he wasn’t prepared to let his crew go through the same fate.
“You leave tonight. A truck will pick you up in an hour and will take you to Adana in Turkey. There, you will have a car waiting for you, that will get you to Konya, where I have arranged for you to stay in a room for a few hours to rest. Then you will continue to Cesme from where you will get on a boat to Chios, Greece. Brace yourself Ahmed, you will be on a rough road trip for over twenty hours or maybe longer. The driver knows the best routes to keep you alive, avoiding the authorities. This will add time to your journey, but has to be done. It will not be easy. I have pulled as many strings as I could to make sure that you will not be stopped on the way.”
“Get on that boat Ahmed,” Afzal hugged Ahmed with watery eyes. “I won’t be able to do this again.”
“Thank you, Afzal…” He wanted to say more in terms of gratitude, something… anything… but no words would surface.
“Get on that boat. Get – on – that – boat,” was the last thing Afzal said.
Maryam had already started packing. She told Ahmed that if he didn’t go, she and Malik would. But this didn’t have to happen – Ahmed was sensible enough to know when to quit. He thought about the people that would be left behind, the people that had nothing, and wanted nothing to do with this pointless war. He was beginning to realise that reasoning, and intellect, would not help in stopping this war. Mostly because reasoning and intellect had nothing to do with the war.
From a young man, his attitude had been getting him into all sorts of trouble – he would defend the kids getting bullied in school, and often, take the thrashing for them. He would give the excess of his salary to the poor and didn’t save a penny. He taught all his students, his family, and anyone he encountered to be selfless. All these things are on loan – you will not return to God with your wealth, so give it to those who really need it, he would preach at every opportunity.
The loud diesel engine woke Malik up, “Malik… come on, get up, we need to go,” Mother was urging him, tugging at his arm to get him out of bed.
“What’s going on? Where are we going?” Malik leapt up and rummaged under his pillow for his favourite action figure. He didn’t know what the official name was – he was a dark-haired male figure with bulging muscles. For Malik, though he would probably never admit it, he was more than just toy; he was like his personal body guard, a symbol of hope, justice, and strength. He named him “Quww,” which meant strength, and took him everywhere he went. Malik stopped playing with toys a few years back and donated all his toys to the hospital that his mother used to work in. Apart from Quww, his loyal companion.
“Malik,” his mother said, kneeling, putting her hands on his shoulders, “we have to get out of here… the bad people, remember the bad people that we talked about before?” Malik nodded, he noticed that the semi-circles under her eyes were getting darker and her eye balls looked they were getting sucked into her head. “The bad people are very close to our home and we are not safe here anymore…”
“We need to go now!” Ahmed said with his huge rucksack on his back. He looked around the room, frowning. He clenched his teeth at the thought of leaving all his things behind – his large comfortable office chair that Maryam brought him as a present – one that he spent endless hours working on. His books, his beloved books, mammoth shelves filled with the love of his life. Mountains of priceless knowledge, left here to rot. It wasn’t right and it wasn’t fair. Nothing about this stupid war was right or fair.
Maryam had packed Malik’s old school bag, a blue Thomas the Tank Engine rucksack, with a few clothes and a couple of his favourite reading books that Ahmed had brought for him from some second-hand online bookshop. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, BFG and Matilda. It was no accident that they all written by Roald Dahl – he was Malik’s favourite author. Malik, just like his father, was obsessed with reading. He would read a book a day, more if he could. Authors like Roald Dahl and Ian Fleming took Ahmed and his son into wonderful worlds of fiction and he would find himself falling in love with all the brilliant characters that they would create.
Outside, they were met by a black SUV. It seemed new but had no make or model and the wheels looked like they belonged on a tractor. The windows were blacked out with a limo tint, including the windscreen. The driver wore a black and white scarf over his face, only exposing his big brown eyes. He didn’t speak much; in fact, he didn’t speak at all. He drove fast, keeping a close eye on the rear-view-mirror.
Ahmed looked out of the back window of the truck and got one last glimpse of their home. It seemed unreal. It was hard to believe that this was actually happening. He had promised himself that he wouldn’t leave regardless of what was to occur. But promises were sometimes made to be broken, as Ahmed would soon learn.
The journey felt like was never going to end. They drove silently for almost six hours before getting to Adana in Turkey. They were out of Aleppo. They were out of the warzone. They had no idea about what was to come next but they had escaped the bombs.
The mysterious driver brought them cold bottles of water each time they stopped for fuel. And as Afzal promised, they weren’t stopped, not once. The vehicle passed checkpoints and road blocks like a ghost.
Adana was a major city in Southern Turkey, on the Seyhan River. Ahmed was amazed at the modern buildings, people were walking around without fear. It was like a different world, a beautiful peaceful world, just next to theirs. A depiction of heaven in comparison. They had been so used to seeing buildings with holes, and tanks roaming the streets, with threatening armed men, that they almost felt out of place in a normal world. A world where children were walking to school, people were dressed smartly and walking to work, and into shopping malls. The only screaming being heard was screaming children, having fun in a park. The only people running were joggers.
They’d had to swap cars and their new driver was also a mute, but he didn’t have his face covered, not with a scarf anyway, his huge shades, however, hid his identity somewhat. The vehicle they swapped to was also an SUV. It was a shimmering black, with limo-tinted windows, like the other.
The drive to Konya was long and exhausting. They drove for eight hours with only two stops. They were relieved to get to a small hotel, where a room had been arranged for them to stay in. The hotel manager looked nervous when he let them into the room, as if he was taking a great risk with them being there. He didn’t make eye contact and looked around every so often, nervously. Ahmed felt guilty that because of them so many people were putting themselves at risk.
Inside, the room was small and only had one large bed, not that it bothered him. They all crashed, and stayed knocked out for five hours before the driver knocked on the door. The next seven-and-half-hours of the journey were probably the most painful. Ahmed’s back was murdering him, and Maryam’s lap had gone numb from Malik resting on her. It didn’t help that the driver became edgy after they passed the Izmir Province. His eyes kept moving from side to side, hands clenching the steering wheel so tightly, they were red.
The last part of the drive to Cesme was just as intense, and the rough surface wasn’t doing any favours for Ahmed’s back. Even the powerful suspension on the vehicle wasn’t enough to absorb the shock, as they went off road. The driver looked confident, like he had done this journey a million times. But from time to time, his hands trembled and his eyes grew.
Ahmed knew that they were near the sea as the air became more humid – the sticky horrible kind of humid. The AC in the vehicle was doing nothing, so the driver wound down the windows, not that it helped. It felt like an oven, blowing warm air into their faces. Their clothes were drenched with sweat.
“We’re nearly there… sit tight and keep your heads down, the driver instructed. His voice was shaky. Ahmed held Maryam’s hand as the car drove over rocky ground.
The vehicle came to a sudden halt. The driver leant over to the glove compartment, removed a leather bag. It looked like a purse, though more masculine, like the ones in which people carried their passports and important documents.
“Here take this… Afzal gave it for you.” There was a strong leather smell coming from it, like it was brand new. Ahmed had a quick look inside: ID cards, paperwork and money, a fair bit of money, Euros mostly.
“You are going to have to do the rest of the journey on foot. The truck will definitely get us all shot.” The man said, “It’s just over this small hill, not far, shouldn’t take you more than fifteen-minutes.”
Maryam was looking at Ahmed with her mouth open wide, as if she expected him to argue with man.
“How can he just leave us here?” Maryam whispered loudly to Ahmed. “We do not know what is beyond that hill? Surely he can’t just abandon us?”
Ahmed put his hand on the man’s shoulder, “Thank you friend… I know that you have risked your life to get us this far.” the man nodded but didn’t speak. Out of the corner of his eye Maryam looked at him incredulously. “May God protect you.” Ahmed said as they grabbed their bags and gestured for his family to get out of the vehicle.
As they made for the hill, the humidness was getting worse and the sky was waking up. Streaks of a lighter shade of blue were appearing and this alarmed Ahmed, as if he had been using the darkness of night as a shield.
The man was wrong about the distance, they weren’t sure whether he just judged it incorrectly or whether he had lied but they had been walking for almost forty-five-minutes and still there was no sign of the boat or the sea for that matter. Malik had fallen asleep on Ahmed’s back and Ahmed was still thinking about one of his bags that he had to dump ten-minutes ago in order to keep moving at a good pace.
“Ahhhhh…” Maryam cried out, and then fell to the ground. “My foot!” she screamed.
Ahmed bent down to let Malik off his back. He tore off the sleeve of his shirt and scrunched it into a ball, “bite on this…” He took off her shoe.
“What is it?” Maryam asked.
Ahmed, closing his eyes, pulled out a wedge of glass from her foot. Maryam’s eyes rolled back in pain and blood seeped out.
“You stepped on some broken glass.”
He waited a moment for her to get over the initial outburst of agony and then gently removed the sleeve from her mouth. He kissed her lightly on the forehead and whispered, “sorry…” in her ear. He wrapped the sleeve tightly around her foot to try to stop the blood.
“I cannot walk like this. What are we going to do?” Maryam said, “this is like a nightmare.”
“Dad…” Malik tugged at Ahmed’s arm, “I can hear waves.”
Ahmed listened carefully, “yes, I hear the waves…” his eyes lit up, “we must be close. Are you okay to walk for a bit Malik? I need to help your mother.” Malik nodded and helped Ahmed get Maryam up. “Put your arms around me,” Ahmed instructed. Maryam held on tightly and they struggled to where the sound of the waves was coming from.
“There!” Ahmed quietly cheered as they saw a ghostly Silhouette of a large boat in the distance. “Come on…” They could see a few men with guns surrounding the boat, and the guns raised higher as they got closer. “Please… we don’t want any trouble…” Ahmed said, his arms high.
“Paper work!” one of the men demanded. His face was covered, except his menacing eyes, which sent chills running through Ahmed, forcing him to shiver as he handed over the papers that were in the black leather bag.
The man looked through the papers, then looked at Ahmed, then at Malik and Maryam. A second man now had the paper work, he nodded, as if to say that they check out ok. The first man looked down at Maryam’s foot and noticed the blood. “Wait here…” he went back and the men started talking quietly among themselves, in a language that Ahmed didn’t recognise.
“What is going on?” Maryam asked. Ahmed was getting paranoid, worried that paperwork was not okay. He began to question that everything was all right.
The first man strolled back. “You and boy go, but woman stay.”
“What!” Ahmed said looking perplexed, “what do you mean? We have the correct paperwork, for all of us, right?”
“You have paperwork… but woman cannot travel because of foot.”
“Why? She is fine, it’s just a cut… please, we need to get on that boat, all of us.” Ahmed pleaded.
“She not getting on. You have two minutes or you stay, too.” The man said robotically.
Maryam began to cry as the man walked away. “Just go… take our son and save his life, I can’t bear to see him live like this…” she sobbed. Ahmed’s head began to spin.
“Ahmed… please, you don’t have much time, you have to go now. Think of our son.” She hugged Malik tightly and her tears began to soak his shirt, triggering his own tears.
“I love you,” she whispered to Ahmed. His watery eyes filled with anger.
“I am not leaving you here!” He grabbed the leather bag and ran towards the men.
“Please… help us… I have money.” Money, a language that everyone understood. He reached into the bag and grabbed a handful of the Euros, “Here!” He held out the notes. “Please let us all on that boat… please.” The man looked at Ahmed and then at Malik and Maryam. He pushed Ahmed’s hand back, “She will not make it. You have more chance if you leave her.” The man looked at them with a hint of compassion in his machinelike eyes.
“I’ll take my chances… please.” Ahmed begged, “please… let us all on.” Ahmed offered the money again. “Keep money… you will need it.” The man nodded, “Get on – all of you.”
“Thank you… thank you.” Ahmed ran back to Maryam and Malik.
“Come on, let’s go.”
They rushed on to the boat as fast as they could, Ahmed hoping, praying, that the man didn’t change his mind.
Maryam was, as usual, as paranoid as ever, any minute now… any minute, he is going to say stop and they would all stand there laughing – this was cruel joke that they were playing. Her legs were wobbly, or maybe it will be worse, maybe they will just open fire and compete against each other on who had the most accurate shot…
“Stop!” one of the men with guns yelled. I knew it Maryam thought. She closed her eyes and shielded Malik with her body.
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