We move forward, dragging our punished, callous-covered feet in the vague direction of a hypothetical salvation. It is freezing cold, and this spiteful European wind spits rain into our faces. The storm strengthens, and the droplets turn to hail stones, which sting our cheeks like the words of the people who line the roads to curse us as our pathetic procession shuffles through their towns. “Stay Out!” and “We Don’t Want Your Problems!” scream the placards. “Stay Away Terrorists!” reads another forceful imperative. I look at the scholarly looking woman in wire-framed spectacles holding the sign, and wonder if I should stop and offer her advice in how to recognise real jihadists, since she’s clearly a novice.
The wind howls, and I pull Abdullah closer to my chest and try to transfer my body heat through the thin polyester skin of my cagoule, which was given to me by a Red Cross worker in Skopje, Macedonia. Perhaps it was financed by a member of the public in the West persuaded by a television appeal in the advertisement breaks between instalments of a sitcom or Netflix-supplied Walt Disney movie. Somebody in front of a high-definition television would be more likely to sympathize with their wallet after a good meal and a DVD filtered in jolly yellow colours with a pop idol soundtrack and a beautiful couple who find happily ever after. Although I am grateful to the nameless stranger far away whose five-dollar sacrifice has given Abdullah and I something to stay dry with, I curse the presumptuous, fork-tongued foreign big-shots whose idiotic crusade for my ‘democracy and human rights’ has burned my country, and destroyed my family.
On and on we march through the fecund landscape. I see a ghostly copse of ash trees, with branches creaking in the wind, lurking behind the misty rain. They watch us with suspicion, like wooden proxies of the people from this region making sure we don’t stop, linger, and ‘destroy their way of life.’ We are entering a valley of lush grass and cottages, but we are not permitted to knock on their doors, and we would not want to anyway. I sigh when I see the cosy-looking barns and inviting hay bales. Sheltering in this peaceful, pastoral countryside would be the greatest miracle of mercy right now, but I must discard my idiot fantasies of raising Abdullah in a place like this and concentrate on walking.
Howling, whistling wind. Rain lashing into us. Visibility of the line ahead and behind is diminishing. Swarthy, bearded men with agitated eyes dressed in Parka jackets clutch their infants like me. Perhaps the donation and the remote saviour also crosses their minds, or perhaps not. African women in headscarves and bundles balanced on their heads laugh and joke in tribal tongues with the companions in their cliques. Underneath their jovial exteriors is an inspirational determination as solid as steel. I find the African ladies good company, even though we have no mutual language.
There are other Arab women huddled together, with their soaked headscarves clinging to their heads. There are gangs of feral youths from the Persian Gulf with gaunt faces and shifting smiles you need to look out for. They frequently ask me for water, but I am wary because what they really want usually has an uncomfortable subtext. There are Palestinians bombed out of their hovels seeking better alternatives, and Nepalese displaced by earthquakes. There are destitute Pakistani cobblers who have spent all their euros. There are African women with buried husbands back home but without dowries joining me on this brutal journey. Our multinational caravan is a vast centipede of tragedy crawling across a treacherous world. We are hungry for shelter, thirsty for help, and bleeding desperation.
The centipede is tens of thousands of people long. People at the very front and back are miles away. They are the opposite poles of a different Earth. The procession is a mystery, because nobody knows exactly where it started or in which conflict zone or godforsaken cesspit of misery it was born. Some Chinese whispers that pass down the line suggest it started in Africa. Others swear Central Asia, but its origin is of no interest to me. I only know and care that it is on this breathing, sweating, vomiting river of life that Abdullah and I will eventually float to sanctuary.
People merge with the line, joining it from other pathways of need that intersect on the terrain. There is a faltering solidarity, and people you can speak to mostly stay strong and positive. There is camaraderie, and sometimes kindness. If you stumble, fellow refuge seekers will steady you. Some will encourage you when the comets of despair strike and send you reeling. Others shut you out or become supercilious and contemptuous of your presence if you so much as try to walk beside them or chat. They won’t give you the time of day. It’s as if they are projecting some futile hubris to guard the grave of their murdered dignity in these circumstances. There is the sense that they were once wealthy and influential in their hometowns. Pride seems to be the only thing comforting them now that their homes are incinerated and their security obliterated. Perhaps they were once government officers, or people with ‘wasta’ and Middle Eastern influence. Perhaps they were from Baghdad, or Fallujah, and had gotten salaries from the Americans in return for translating orders. Adios, good times.
Days later, and it’s another punishing trek along train tracks beckoning us towards the border with Slovakia. Our minds have suspended all other tasks superfluous to the job of getting to the border. It’s just a visualizing exercise. See the gate, and prepare for the jostling, and the mayhem, and the degradation. Our eyes stare blankly ahead as the horizon maintains its hypnotic hold on our attention. We all have money—currency tucked away in out-of-bounds places—but distance and ground covered is more valuable than anything. Malnutrition has reduced our faces to pallid moons with craters in our cheeks. Our mouths hang half open craving sustenance. We look, as young people in stable countries accustomed to parties and drugs would say, wasted. However, we are wasted in a purer and crueller sense. Our unwashed bodies reek as badly as abandoned corpses would, and our rotting teeth belong in the mouths of ghouls. Who knows? Perhaps we can band together and put ourselves on YouTube as one of those ‘zombie walks’ the youth of today are so crazy about staging. However, we’ll go one better. We are the real thing! Maybe that could be the path to our salvation: the touring Flash Mob Freak Show of the Bombed, Raped, Murdered, and Displaced. Come and like our Facebook page.
Abdullah wails and beats his mittens into my chest in protest of the start in life he’s receiving. I absorb his angry blows and must humbly receive his three-year-old fury, as I am his parent and responsible for burdening him with this appalling version of life. I try to stop myself from imagining the deadening pain in his belly—God please understand I’ve given him every scrap of rations and water doled out by the relief agencies and the kindly locals who offer us food. I turn my head and hide my tears. I want to tell him how sorry I am for this travesty of a childhood, this beastly farce of an upbringing. I reach into my knapsack and find a muffin that was donated by a ruddy Balkan lady at least forty kilometres back, and Abdullah takes it in his hands and nibbles it like a squirrel. Hunger isn’t the only source of pain however, because although he is tiny, his nascent senses can feel. He is grieving for Sarah.
“Hey! What’s up?”
It’s Mimi, from the same Aleppo suburb. We grew up and went to school within five hundred yards of each other, but we never met, not even in the weekend souks. Yet here we are, finally brought together on this hideous highway. She was a biology teacher, and her husband, Bilal, was a journalist. They fled, just as we did, when the smelly psychopaths with black flags driving sports utility vehicles entered our city. They managed to escape with their sons, Ayam and Sayeed, and spent two weeks at a camp in Turkey. She witnessed things there she is not able to describe. I have been travelling close to them for a while, sometimes losing track of them for days after I stop with Abdullah to sleep next to roadside ditches reeking of human excrement. Then I catch up with them later, when they have slowed their pace. When the soles of her shoes wore through, Bilal gave her his own and has been walking in socks ever since and joking stoically about the agony.
“Word is there’s a hospital treating refugees here,” she says pointing to an unpronounceable place on her phone’s map app. It reads Brezice. Being a mother, she is thinking of my Abdullah’s malnourishment and his worsening diarrhea.
“Will you be taking Ayam and Sayeed? Maybe we can go together,” I suggest, thinking of safety in numbers, moral support, and the practical utility of Mimi’s more fluent and persuasive English. Yes, please, I would say to a sympathetic face with a doctorate in medicine looking at my Abdullah.
“Sorry, sister,” she says in a downcast tone. “We have to meet somebody when we get through the border.” Her eyes dive into my soul to kneel before it and plead forgiveness for the closed, secretive act of family survival Abdullah and I cannot be part of. ‘Meet somebody’ of course means a negotiation with stone-hearted profiteers of misery. Those bastards bussing people to Berlin, Paris, Stockholm, or for the premium price, over the Channel to England. Sealed holds, suffocation, stink, danger, and a paid-for ‘as is’ no guarantee of passage in return for your life savings. I don’t ask or even speculate how much they are paying to chance for the possible fast-track to asylum. They have been my on and off companions for nearly three weeks, and I know they are sorry that they cannot include me in this hazardous stage of the odyssey. We hug, and make surreal pledges to find each other on social media when this unbelievable ordeal is over and our lives, god willing, are situated in a more human and livable future. “You must come over and try my mashi. Your family would be welcome!” I squeal with feeling. We hug each other and weep briefly, and with Abdullah’s plaintive wailing, we achieve a sorrowful harmony.
“Buses to Austria. There’ll be buses to Austria!”
I hear the announcement in the distance coming through the bullhorn of one of the volunteer messengers. A murmur of optimism passes down the line as people crowd around the competent English speakers for translations and the scene imitates life in the Tower of Babel. Here we are, either citizens with hard-luck passports, or those hunted by armed criminals with twisted beliefs sponsored by super-rich shadow governments treating our lives as though we are digital ciphers in a computer game who can be displaced, massacred, and beaten for their amusement. People who think the Olympians were merely figments of the whimsical imagination of ancient Greek mythologists should think again.
It is the worst border crossing so far. Soldiers in face masks and quarantine suits—do they assume Ebola or SARS comes automatically bundled as value-added misery for us? —prod us like cowed cattle towards the fifty-metre-wide barbed-wire mouth of Slovakia, which does not look equipped for the task of swallowing and excreting us smoothly. There is a battalion of police in full riot kit, and when a stampede starts to get through quickly to the volunteer food tents on the other side, volleys of pepper spray are fired from behind the rows of shields that resemble a ‘testudo’ of the twenty-first century. There is an almighty crush when the crowd surges back in the retreat, and the screams of the elderly, frail, and female trampled and killed under the surface of the river of shoes are long and apocalyptic. The flashes of Reuters and AP photographers standing at the periphery of the mayhem go off, and the documenters of our misery conduct their work with an attentive intensity. They wait for the tsunami of anger and fear to recede before closing in to get their face-flattened horror shots and images of infants pressed into the mud with contorted limbs. They need fresh fuel for c-list celebrities invited onto British and American talk-shows to rev up the engines of their proper moral indignation. They will quarrel and emote to audience applause while we starve. Outlandishly, they propose ‘diplomatic solutions’ for my country’s salvation when they can’t point to my nation on an atlas in a quiz, or even correctly identify our president.
There is no chance to take Abdullah to any hospital. It is, as so many things have been over the past year, out of my reach. I hear terrible reports of lines a kilometre long there anyhow. A group of fifty of us are corralled by police into an enclosure. We are fed quickly then herded onto a rickety bus and driven up a highway for about ten miles. The driver sits behind a protective metal mesh—like those for taxi drivers in New York City—and says nothing and answers no questions. After ten miles, the bus reaches a police roadblock, and the officials order us off, turn the bus around, and tell us to walk to Austria.
Let me invite you into the lounge of my former life, which was full of laughter and sweetness. Those were the days when tomorrows were cherished and not dreaded. There was stability, pride, community, and family love. Each of these things flourished and prospered like fruit-bearing trees in my own Garden of Paradise. There were family discussions with crusty old uncles holding court in the cool shade of our home’s courtyard. There was salah. There were the soothing adaans rousing us from sleep. There were holidays, and parties, and celebrations galore. There was Ramadan, and there were the iftar meals that brought us together.
I was the head teacher of a girls’ secondary school. I nurtured my girls and tried to inspire them with confidence. I told them that as Syrians, they could face all challenges in life with courage, and they could achieve anything they wanted. Now I am crushed by a hundred tons of shame at my glib, careless, and catastrophic words. Did my words irritate God and cause him to bring this on us just to contradict me or punish my complacency?
My husband, Ayam, was a government engineer working in Palmyra when those invaders encircled the city. How will I ever forget the despair in his voice during that phone call from his hotel balcony when he described the actions of those animals? One week later, I saw my husband’s face on one of their propaganda websites. It seemed to be dozing peacefully, without a care in the world, hovering supernaturally on top of an iron railing next to other men with similar expressions whose bodies were also missing. In front of the decapitated heads, there was a stocky man in a robe with a massive beard and stern, foreboding face holding up his forefinger. This foreign trespasser organised the slaughter of my husband. He shouted instructions to dim-witted, uneducated thugs living out their barbaric computer game programming while shrieking jihad. Did they actually know the meaning of this word when they butchered the love of my life, or think in their tragic ignorance that Saladin was a kind of pizza topping?
My grieving time was limited because the mercenaries closed in on Homs. With some neighbours, I took Sarah and Abdullah and what money we had, and we crossed the border into Turkey. We joined the exodus, snaking its way through valleys, and arrived at a camp that was filthy and terrifying. The foreigners handed out food, shouting at us like unruly children to get back in line. Once they had done their charity, they disappeared, and demons more evil than the most terrible jinns entered the unguarded camp at night. Savage men arrived and kidnapped girls who just disappeared into the vast, swelling totality of Syrian victims. Their screams reverberated in the humid night air. Gangs high on khat grabbed orphans and held sex-slave auctions using the headlights of their sports utility vehicles and gyrated to rap music. Others intimidated mothers into selling their daughters for ‘one-hour marriages.’ I was gang-raped twice, surrendering my body on condition that my children were spared. I lay motionless in agony for days, unable to stir myself as the wails and exhortations for early deliverance from life carried through the canvas of the tents. A former nurse from Aleppo tended to Sarah and Abdullah as I recovered. Outside, United Nations workers floated around on their little magic carpets of self-importance trying to choose the happiest looking refugees to interview for public relations purposes or to stand with when giving interviews for cable television channels.
A week later, I used up nearly all of our money paying a weasel on the Turkish coast to take us, along with a hundred others, to the island of Lesbos. The invigorating sea air did battle with the odours of vomit and sewage to dominate our sense of smell, and I had to make one bottle of water last for three days. Despite my best motherly efforts and instincts, and the help of other passengers, my one-year-old, Sarah, died of dehydration during the voyage. I buried her near the beach of Lesbos, and my Greek tragedy was complete.
We are curled up in a sleeping bag by the side of a major road. The cold is piercing. There is fragile security being close to other resting refugees; since we are stateless, we are also powerless. We are at the mercy of anybody unscrupulous or brutal, but I am thankful that the zombies haven’t broken into this country—just yet. Where are we? Why are we here? Where are we going? What will tomorrow bring, apart from yet another move in this tiring, soul-destroying game of survival gambit? In my prayers, I have asked God to reverse all this, or simply make sure it has all been a dreadful mistake in the cosmic software of destiny. This wasn’t supposed to happen to us, surely. Abdullah is getting weaker and paler.
I look up into a clear night sky and am comforted by the brilliant stars, which seem to have aligned into a new constellation. There is the dotted outline of a water bearer light years above me. This is celestial Aquarius, no question, but what changes will this cipher of humanity bring? Whatever they are, they’d better be quick.
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