Fiction: The Red Sand (Taruraj Attli)

“Ummah”, she called out, no response. She struggled to breathe, the air was heavy with dust and she felt immense weight on her chest, her throat felt scorched and was dry as a bone. “Ummah”, she said again, voice barely escaped her mouth. She tried to move her body, but she was pinned down with something heavy. Slowly as she regained her senses, she felt searing pain in her forehead. It was pitch dark and she lay there motionless as she tried to comprehend what had happened, all she could remember was a deafening explosion.

A ten-year-old Amal was taking care of her little brother, while her mother tended the oven. The smell of freshly baked bread wafted through the air. The food was scarce lately, ever since the rebel forces took over the city. Liberators of Syria they called themselves, however liberation was the last thing that her city witnessed. She had stopped going to school because the ‘Liberators’ didn’t believe in educating girls. Her father, Mahdi, ran a small business in the local market, selling rugs and other textile products. The business had taken a nosedive after the conflict started. The markets lost their sheen as people began to flee. The rebels blamed the west, they are evil and infidels they said, they want to destroy our culture, our heritage and our way of life they said, and they declared war on them. The West didn’t stay silent; they retaliated with bombs, a lot of bombs. People lived in fear, the skies rained fire at given time of the day, but today was a good day, Amal’s father had managed to find some flour, today they can feast on fresh bread. Her father had gone out as there was news of rice and beans being distributed. Amal played with her five-year-old brother Arad, Amal missed her friends, she missed her school and missed playing in the school yard. She hadn’t seen her friends for months now, Arad was her only companion now. Her day usually passed by helping her mother with the chores and taking care of her little brother. 

Amal was in a good mood today, the usual stench of smoke, dust and gunpowder was overpowered by the aroma of freshly baked bread. She eagerly waited for father to return so they enjoy a decent meal after a long time. She whiffed the scented air and gave her bother a beaming smile, who responded with an innocent smile. A sudden roaring crack took her attention, she rushed towards the window of their tiny apartment and looked around, another thundering roar diverted her attention towards the sky. Several fighter jets ripped through the sky at great speed. Fiery projectiles wisped away from causing series of explosion around, the shockwaves pushed her back and she landed on the ground. Her brother started to cry, terrified by the tumultuous explosions. Her mother came running hysterically to check on her kids, she held her wailing son in her arms and looked towards her daughter. 

“Amal” she called out, extending her arm.

Amal turned towards her and just then, the building violently shook. And the very next moment she found herself falling, as though she was sinking in the ground. Her mother, who was extending her arm, was no longer to be seen. She found herself bogged down with an incoherent weight, and then, complete darkness.

Amal woke up with excruciating pain shooting through her body, it took her few moments to realize if she was dreaming or if this was real. How long was she here, was it just moments ago when her mother was extending her arm towards her? Or longer? Time seemed to have stood still. The thought of her mother brought her back to her senses, where is she? Is she alright? What exactly happened? Questions began to race through her mind, fear and panic gripped her like a python grips its prey. She screamed for help, she felt a sharp stinging pain in her parched throat. She screamed again and again, but in vain, no one responded and her voice muffled by the rubble around her. Immobile, helpless and scared, tears began to roll down towards her ears. Amal, which literally means hope, began to extinguish as she began to slip in this endless void of despair. 

A few muffled voices woke her up again, was she hallucinating? She heard some men talking frantically, she screamed for help like her life depended on it, because it did. The closer the voices got, the louder she screamed. 

“Is anyone there? Can you hear me?” a man asked.
“I am here, help me”, she replied back.

“Hold on child, we will get you out”, the man replied and now she could hear several men shouting.
Oblivious to the efforts of men and women outside, Amal lay still beneath the mammoth rubble. Her throat felt sore and body numb, she thought about her mother and her little brother. She wanted to hug her mother and tell her how much she loves her, she wanted to play with her little brother again, watch his innocent smile. 

“Amal!”, a man screamed, which broke her chain of thoughts. 
It was her father’s voice.
“Baba!” she called back.
“Oh, my daughter!” her father said, with a quiver in his voice. “Don’t you worry, I will get you out, just hold on!” he said.

Several hours passed, Amal lay patiently as the men dug laboriously through the rubble. After hours of careful removal of rubble, Amal finally saw a beam of light. A waft of cool breeze filled her lungs. A handful of men smothered in dirt and dust lifted the beam that had pinned her down. She felt a sudden rush of blood through her body which was cold and numb. In the commotion, her eyes searched for her father, and then her eyes met his kind eyes. A thin lanky man in his mid-forties, with sunken cheeks and a graying beard stood there with eyes soaked. His tears left a track on his dusty face, his hands covered with cuts and bruises.

“Baba!” Amal broke down as men carried her out of the collapsed building. Her father rushed towards her and took her in his arms, tears flowing from his eyes.
“Where is Ummah? Where is Arad?” she asked. 
“Here, drink this,” her father said hurriedly opening a water bottle. 
“Where is Ummah?” she asked again after gulping down large sips of water.
“You need the doctor to examine you, you are hurt,” he said, avoiding eye contact.

He carried her to a makeshift medical camp set up nearby. The scene inside the camp was horrifying, people lying on the ground groaning in pain, some with limbs torn off clean from their bodies, cuts, tears, bruises and blood, the aftermath of a violent dance of destruction. Cries and wails of people who lost their loved ones filled the air. The horrid stench of smoke, dust and despair was overwhelming. Mahdi placed Amal on the ground and went to look for the sole doctor in the overcrowded camp. Amal sat there alone, in the midst of the chaos, smothered in dust wondering about her mother and brother. Wondering why her father won’t talk about her. She hoped her mother might just walk through the crowd anytime and hug her, tell her that everything will be okay. 

Her father returned after sometime with nothing but a bucket of water, a few rags and a half used anti-bacterial ointment. The sole doctor wasn’t able to come, he was trying to save a life of another child with a severed leg. There were no hospitals to go to, they were the first to be destroyed by the ‘Liberators’ in order to create a humanitarian crisis and use civilians as their cover. Most doctors and nurses were either killed or fled, the brave few salvaged whatever they could from the destroyed hospitals and setup makeshift medical camps. Even the medical camps weren’t safe ever since the West started the airstrikes. The rebels deliberately took refuge close to heavy civilian population so the airstrikes which are meant to target them, inflicts maximum damage to civilians, which they hoped will cause a global outcry and airstrikes would be forced to stop. Seemed quite comical for an organization that is promotes valor and sacrifice in their propaganda videos to take cover behind innocent civilians.
Mahdi cleaned the layer of dust off her with a soaked rag. He then gingerly squeezed the thick pasty ointment out of the tube and gently applied on her wounds. Amal winced because of the stinging pain.
“Baba, where is Ummah and Arad?” she asked in a squeaky voice.

Mahdi abruptly stopped and looked in her innocent oblivious eyes. Just two days ago he heard about a camp organized by some NGO who were distributing rice, beans and other essentials just on the outskirts of the city. Food was very hard to come by lately. The war between the rebels and the government had already wrecked the local economy and severely hampered supply lines. The airstrikes had made the situation even more desperate. Fresh vegetables, fruits and meat had completely disappeared and prices of grains went through the roof. Mahdi couldn’t give up the opportunity to procure whatever he could to feed his family. His efforts weren’t in vain, he managed to get a care package consisting of rice, beans, flour and cooking oil. It was like a flicker of happiness in the realm of gloom. He couldn’t wait to get back to his wife and children and have a proper meal. But on his return, he was greeted by shock and anguish. The building which was his home was nothing but a pile of rubble. He dropped his grocery bag, he felt sick and nauseated. The shock, fear and anxiety struck at the same time. After collecting himself, he ran towards his once stood home. Several people were already digging through the rubble, trying to look for survivors and the dead. A missile had struck the adjacent building and obliterated it and the shockwaves caused the nearby buildings to collapse, such powerful was the attack. Without giving a thought Mahdi started digging through the rubble. A man informed him that they had already pulled out few bodies and he should check if any of them were his loved ones.

Mahdi held his breath, his heart pounding against his chest as he approached the covered bodies lying in a row. At the end of the row there was a body of a child. With trembling hands, he lifted the cover off. His fear came true. Arad, his son, lay there lifeless. Next to the boy, was his wife Fatima. The pain he felt was indescribable, he felt like someone kicked him in his gut and rammed a red-hot iron through his heart. He looked for his daughter but there was no other body of a child. Maybe there’s still hope, he thought. He swallowed hard and took a deep breath and walked back to the rubble and started digging. After hours of relentless strenuous digging, he began to lose hope. The chances of survival of his daughter seemed dismal. Just then someone shouted that he found a child trapped beneath the rubble and Mahdi got back his hope, he got back his Amal. 

“Baba, Ummah is gone, isn’t she?” Amal asked in low voice. 
Mahdi capped the ointment tube and put in his pocket. He looked at his daughter with moist eyes and nodded. 
“Your Ummah and Arad has left us and are with God now”, he said with a shaky voice.  
Amal felt silent, something she was already expecting. The truth she already knew but too scared to confront.
“Can I see them?” She asked.
“Tomorrow morning, we will send them off, you should eat and rest now,” he said and handed her pack of biscuits. 
“Baba, where will we go now?” she asked
“Somewhere safe, away from here,” he said.

Next morning, she and her father along with couple of neighborhood people buried their dead in a nearby playground which now served as a graveyard, the city graveyard quickly filled up since the war started. Amal said a tearful goodbye to her mother and brother, she kissed their foreheads and placed some wild flowers she plucked from the ruined garden nearby. After the funeral, they returned to the camp. Her father said that they will leave soon, he said that they will make a journey to Europe, where they will safe and there is plenty to eat. They spent rest of the day salvaging whatever they could to prepare for the journey, clothes, food and water.

Mahdi managed to find a smuggler who would take them to Turkey in truck and then they’ll have to take a boat to reach Europe. The journey wasn’t cheap, Mahdi had to shell out last bit assets he owned. He gave away his ring which was in his family for generations and a gold chain which was luckily still around Amal’s neck. They travelled to the outskirts of the city in very secluded place where about fifty other people were already waiting. More and more people kept arriving as the day progressed. At night, in the cover of darkness, a rickety old truck arrived and parked next to the group of asylum seekers. The smuggler Mahdi had paid hoped down from the truck, accompanied with two brutish men and started reading names from a piece of paper under the flashlight. Amal and Mahdi’s names were called out and they occupied a corner inside the truck. Within minutes the truck was completely packed, only a handful of people remained outside.

“How are our names not on the list, I paid you what you asked!” a man screamed.
“Sorry, the truck is full, I can’t let in anyone else”, the smuggler said.
“But you took all my money, you cannot do this!”, he shouted back.
“Too bad,” the smuggler pushed the man and he fell on the ground.
“Please! My family will die here, take us with you”, the man pleaded, pointing to woman, who carrying toddler not older than a year.
“You cannot do this!” the man screamed angrily and charged towards the smuggler. 

One of the brutes pulled out his gun and shot the man in the head. With a thud, the man fell on the ground, dead. The woman shrieked and ran towards her dead husband. The gunshot scattered rest of the remaining people.

“Come on, let’s go, we are late,” the smuggler said, leaving behind the wailing woman and toddler who was hopelessly shaking her husband, hoping that he would miraculously come back to life.

Couple of days had passed since the truck left Syria. Amal had lost sense of time, every day was the same, sitting in the dark corner of the shaky noisy truck. The truck would stop once, only at night, when they were allowed to come outside and stretch their numb legs and do their business. The little food they carried was starting to run out, which worried Mahdi greatly. Their anxieties shot off the roof whenever they crossed the military checkpoints. The smugglers had already paid them off but there was always a risk. The truck often travelled on off roads to avoid attention as much as possible which made the truck shake even more, many people threw up, with the lack of ventilation, the stench was unimaginable.

After almost a week’s journey, one afternoon the truck halted, the backdoors flung open. Amal squinted her eyes because of the sudden influx of bright light. A man whom she hadn’t seen before banged on the truck to wake everyone up, many of them really weak because of lack of food.

“Everyone out!” he shouted in an unfamiliar accent.

Everyone got down the truck one by one. They found themselves outside some kind of an illegal transit camp in the middle of a forest. Amal look around, the vegetation looked very different than what she had seen back home. The weather was hot and humid and the air smelled salty.

“Where are we?” Mahdi asked the man.
“Turkey, we are close to the coastline, you will wait here in the camp till you get a boat to Greece,” the man said as the hopped back in the truck. 
“Who will take us to the boat?” a fellow passenger asked.
“I don’t know”, the man said and drove away.

They entered the camp, it was quite crowded. There were refugees from many other countries were waiting for their chance to get on a boat and make their journey to the supposed promised land where they hoped to find peace, prosperity and a life of dignity. The saw temporary stalls providing food and other essentials, for a price of course. Nothing was for free, even water. The Syrian group found refuge at an empty spot below an olive tree. Almost poetic, a group fleeing violence and destruction seeking refuge below a tree which is a metaphorical representation of peace. Will they really find the peace as they were looking for? Time will tell, for now, Amal was just happy to stretch her legs and breathe fresh air. She lay there basking under the filtered sunlight through the olive tree wondering how much her life had changed in the span of few short months. Not too long ago, she was playing with her friends, joyous and carefree. Her loving mother and her brother who she adored more than anything was no longer in this world. She no longer had a home and she was now lying in unknown place, heading to an unknown destination, to live an unknown future.

Mahdi spent part of his last bit of money to buy some food, which wouldn’t last for more than two days if they ate frugally. Rest, he reserved for the boat. He hoped they would find a boat soon which will take them to the land of plenty. Later that night they heated a can of rice and beans on the camp fire. It was the first decent hot meal Amal had in several days.

“Baba?” she said.
“Yes, what is child?” Mahdi asked, looked at her with his kind eyes.
“Will there will be more of this in Europe?” She asked, pointing a her can or rice and beans.
“Yes, there will be plenty of this and more”, Mahdi chuckled.
She smiled and scooped out the remaining rice, slurping it down. 
“I wish Ummah and Arad could eat this too”, she said, Mahdi nodded.

“Come on, time to sleep, we might leave tomorrow morning”, he said taking the empty can from her.
Amal woke up at the crack of dawn. Her father was still asleep beside her. The campfire had almost extinguished, simmering slowly. Amal walked away from the camp towards to forest to relieve herself. She walked towards the dense shrubbery, looking for a secluded and clean place. Just then, she felt a hand firmly gripping her mouth forcefully dragging her away from the camp. She struggled to set herself free, but was completely powerless against her beastly captive. She dug her nails at the back of his hand and scratched it as hard as she could, it loosened his grip a bit. 

“Baba!” she screamed at the top her lungs.
“Shut up!” the man’s companion growled and slapped her hard.
The other man planted his hand on her mouth again as she whimpered.
“Let’s get out of here, she’ll fetch us a hefty price”, the man said to his companion.
His companion, a stout balding man with thick moustaches grinned sinisterly. The rustling sound of leaves behind them caught their attention. Mahdi emerged, panting.
“Amal! Let her go!” He screamed and started running towards her captive.
“Stop right there!” her captive pulled out a gun from his jacket and pointed at her head.
Mahdi froze on his tracks. He slowly raised his arms and bowed a bit.
“Please, let my daughter go, I’ll pay you”, with one arm still, he slid his other hand his breast pocket and pulled out a thin stack of bills. “Please, take this, take all of it”, he said.
Both men looked at the thin stack of money and roared with laughter.
“She will make ten times of what you are offering in an hour where she is going”, the stout man jeered. 
“Please, have mercy on my daughter, we have lost everything, please let us go”, Mahdi pleaded. 
“You can walk away and live or we kill you and take your daughter anyway, the choice is yours”, the captive said.

Mahdi looked at her daughter, deep into her eyes, full of fear and innocence. The eyes that had witnessed horrors which no one should experience in their lifetime. Yet, this tiny soul bears the scars and carries the pain which she didn’t deserve. She has had enough. And that moment, rage, valor and fatherly love shot through Mahdi’s body and he launched himself at the captive with all the strength he could muster. Amal was free from his grip and fell on the ground as the two men wrestled. 

“Run Amal! Run away as fast as you can!” Mahdi screamed as he tussled with the man.
Amal sat petrified as she witnessed the scuffle. 
“Get her!” The man screamed at his stout companion. 
“Run now!” Mahdi screamed again. 
Amal got her knees getting ready to run suddenly got startled by a loud bang. The man shot Mahdi in the chest. 
“Run”, Mahdi whispered, making his very last effort to save his daughter, looking straight into her terrified eyes.

The man stood up and fired two more rounds in his chest, killing the valiant father. Amal snapped back to her senses and dashed away from them, as fast as her legs could take her. She zipped through thin vegetation without looking back, crying and whimpering. Too terrified and confused to comprehend what just happened, she ran. She tore through the bushes and entered a beach, vast blue ocean stretched to the horizon in front of her. At a distance she saw a group of people about to board a dinghy.

Amal ran to one of the women, in the group. 
“Help, my baba”, she panted, gasping.
The woman offered her some water, she had a daughter of her own, almost of Amal’s age.
“What happened child, where is your baba?” the woman asked.
“Over there, some men shot him” she could barely put together words, still terrified and shaken by what she had witnessed. 
The woman looked in the direction Amal pointed, thought for few moments and then she leaned down and wiped Amal’s tears. 
“This is my daughter, her name is Shireen, stay with her, I’ll be back”, she said and stepped away to have a word with her husband. Amal couldn’t make out what they were speaking, they spoke frantically for few minutes and the woman returned.
“What is your name child?” she asked.
“Amal,” she said.
“Beautiful name, it means hope. You are coming with us Amal,” the woman said.
“My baba….” Amal said in a low voice.
“Your baba would want this, you are brave girl, now come on, we are about to leave,” the woman said, extending her arm.

Amal boarded the boat with the family as they slowly drifted away from the land, soon the land was no longer visible as the entered the deep sea. The kind family that took her came from Afghanistan, they too were escaping the destruction of war in search for a better life. The kind woman used to be a teacher, until one day the school she taught in was blown up, all in the name of liberation. This tiny boat was full of such stories, people escaping conflicts from different parts of the world. These conflicts, no matter where they were happening, were always fueled by the insatiable hunger for power of certain people. Some countries become proxy battlegrounds for greater powers or some fell victim to dictatorial regimes which waged wars just preserve their own self interests. Either way ordinary folk suffered and died because of the whims of certain people who thought they were better than everyone else. Maybe one day we will live in a society where all men and women are equal and free like god intended us to be. Maybe one day countries will be free from wars and conflicts. Maybe one day the world will be governed by people who care about the interests of all. Amal looked towards the horizon as she drifted towards the unknown, she lost everything she ever had, left behind everything she had ever known. Yet, she carried what she always had, hope.


2 comments :

  1. Brilliantly captured the human sacrifice so nonchalantly accepted by mankind. And finally there's the triumph of hope, because what's there if not hope to keep us going in our perpetual quest for peace and happiness. Wonderful work! 👍🏻

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