The humvee sputtered and coasted to a halt.
“Jump!” the driver yelled. But it was too late. A rain of bullets hailed from the sky as gunship helicopters flew over. The fuel tank exploded like a fancy display of fireworks and the five passengers’ screams were cut into half. Climbing flames engulfed the four-wheel vehicle and a mushroom of black smoke rose into the sky. Then all was quiet but for the distant sound of the circling helicopters: the smell of diesel fumes was thick in the air: the charred bodies sat limp in the vehicle seats.
“Dad! Dad, the choppers are turning around,” Ishmael cried out as he scanned the opaque atmosphere.
“Follow me!” his dad yelled as he grabbed his wife’s hand and started running: through the dust and smoke: into the forest as fast as they could, fingers crossed, hearts in despair. Ishmael turned around and saw rebel platoons running for cover: the government had a superior air power. He ran after his father but right before they entered the forest Ishmael turned again and saw something more horrific: government soldiers on the ground, hot in pursuit of the rebels!
“Don’t look back Ishmael,” Dad said. “We will be safe in the forest. They won’t find us in there.” Ishmael looked up and saw the sun sinking and prayed for darkness. Around him, men, women and children hurried for the cover of the trees, hopeful that when the light came up, they would not be the ones lying on the grass dead.
Suddenly, his dad veered to the left and Ishmael’s forehead wrinkled in confusion. “The caves!” his dad yelled. “Run for the caves before they see us!”
Ishmael saw the logic and quickly followed his parents. Everybody else was running into the trees and hopefully none would think about the caves. The little family made it to the caves just as the soldiers entered the forest. The cave was dim and visibility was limited but there was enough room for ten people. Ishmael led his parents deep into the cave but just as they made it, Ishmael’s dad turned and fired his gun. Boom! It felt like the cave would collapse. A soldier had sneaked up behind them and two guns went off simultaneously: dad’s and the soldier’s.
Ishmael turned and saw the soldier fall, clutching at his stomach. Not knowing what had happened, he turned to his father and saw him leaning against the cave wall, his face distorted in pain. “Dad, you’ve been shot!” Ishmael stared in horror as blood gushed out from his father’s neck. The sight was horrifying and Ishmael’s mum started crying.
“No, noooo!” Ishmael cried as he watched his dad sink to the floor. “No dad!”
His dad’s face was a mirror of pain and disbelief: his eyes watery.
“Ishmael?” Dad’s voice was like a whisper. “Ishmael? Promise me that you will get your mum to the border.”
“Dad? Daaad?” Ishmael called as his dad’s eyes slowly closed. “Dad, don’t close your eyes, pleaseee!”
The eyes popped open and dad grabbed his son’s hand in a vice hold. “Promise me?” he yelled in an angry tone. The change startled the boy and he stammered the words back.
“I pr…omi…se dad. Please don’t leave us! Please don’t go!”
But his dad wasn’t done yet. With one last breath he uttered his final words with a lot of effort. “Ishmael? You ha…ve to ki…ll the sol…dier.” And then his head dropped and his body went limp.
“Nooooooo!” Ishmael and his mum cried simultaneously as they watched a life slip through their hands. The change was instant and terrifying and Ishmael almost recoiled as the light left his dad’s eyes. “Daad! Daaad! Pleease…..”
Beside him, Ishmael’s mum dropped heart-wrenching sobs. And then a noise behind them brought them back to reality… the soldier! Ishmael, gun in hand quickly turned and jumped on the bleeding soldier. He slammed the gun’s barrel on the man’s head and heard the skull crack. He did it again and again and again as tears cascaded down his face. And then he stopped and dropped the gun. He put his face into his bloody hands and cried like a child. How? How had it all come to this?
They called it the Arab Spring: a wake of uprisings… revolutions and protests in the Arab world. It started a few years ago with the toppling of autocratic leaders in Tunisia and Egypt: non-violent protests in Yemen, Jordan and Algeria: and then came the bloody Libya war and lately the Syrian revolution against President Assad and his government. With the western world backing, not including Russia and China, the people of Syria had become emboldened enough to stand up against oppression and the result was a civil war.
The Syrian rebels had arrived in Ishmael’s city a few days ago and ever since, the people had been living on the edge with the knowledge that the Government with its superior air power would attack any minute. And then they had, and the people’s only hope had been to run for the neighboring country, Turkey.
Ishmael and his mum didn’t know how lucky they were, but with all the chaos and sporadic gunfire outside, no other government soldiers ventured into the cave. It wasn’t the first time Ishmael had seen a dead body but when that body is your father then the scales are immensely tipped. It was hard to believe that the man who had taught him to laugh, play, and fight… was the same broken body lying on the floor, growing cold by the minute.
The night was long and cold. The distant sound of gunshots trickled down then finally died. Inside the cave, Ishmael and his mum mourned the man they both loved. And then came hunger and Ishmael’s stomach grumbled.
“We have to go now mum,” Ishmael finally said and the words echoed in the cave. His mother nodded, gave one last anguished look at her husband and together they left the cave. There were a few dead bodies around, civilians, rebels and a few soldiers. Ishmael picked up a 9mm from the ground and tucked in his waist under his white robe. He picked up a 45 pistol that was lying next to a dead soldier and strapped it to his ankle. He had never fired a gun before but he was confident that he would learn quickly when the need arose.
Dawn approached as mum and son stole their way through the forest. Eventually a scotching sun replaced the chilly morning. The trees vanished and the land ahead was defined by hot brown sand. Ishmael scanned the horizon for choppers but there were none. Conversation was brisk mostly because fear had numbed their minds. Grief turned into despair and despair into hope. Would they ever make it to the border?
A car engine. Both dove into a bush and peeked. The occupants were two civilian boys. Gun in hand, Ishmael stepped out of the bush and his mum gasped. The jeep suddenly braked and one of the boys, rifle in hand jumped out.
“Ishmael? Is that you?”
Ishmael exhaled in relief. It was Ali and Mohammed from his village, his childhood friends. “Hi guys.”
The three boys hugged each other and Ishmael noticed their sunken eyes and hollow expressions… fatigue. They too had been hit by some kind of tragedy. And then they saw his mum and they stepped back in surprise and respect.
“We need to get to Turkey. Can you guys help us?” Ishmael asked.
“Sure,” the boys replied without pause. Ishmael’s mum had pretty much raised them, seen them grow up into youth.
The engine revved and the jeep bounced back on the sandy road and headed for Turkey. A welcome breeze tagged at Ishmael’s robe and eased the impact of the scotching sun above. The vehicle was full of candy and vendor machine snacks and Ishmael and his mum consumed as much sugar as they could. A while later, the barbed border fence appeared in the distance, a desolate stretch away. Hundreds of people thronged the place on both sides of the fence. Some folks were crying while others walked around with blank expressions. Lives had been taken and those left behind shaken. An hour later, Ishmael and his mum reached the office and Ishmael’s mum walked in first. But when she finished her paperwork and turned back, her son was nowhere to be seen. “Ishmael, Ishmael!” she called. She tried to run back through the gate but the guards wouldn’t let her because she was already in Turkey. “Ishmael!” she yelled as she ran along the fence. And then she saw him with Ali and Mohammed, and Ishmael walked over.
“Ishmael, what are you doing?” her voice sounded scared.
“I have to go back and fight mum, they killed my father,” Ishmael said as he loaded bullets into the 45 pistol.
“No. Ishmael, you don’t have to do this. Your father died protecting you. Please don’t let his death be in vain. Please Ishmael, come with me! In the name of Allah, please come with me.” Tears trickled down mum’s face.
Ishmael’s eyes were empty and his mum saw this, regretted that she hadn’t seen it sooner.
“Goodbye mum, I love you.” Ishmael turned and walked away, his mum’s screams of plea ringing in his ears. He didn’t know it yet, but he was a dead man walking.
He jumped into the back of the jeep and the big car rolled into the sand leaving behind a cloud of dust.
“First,” Ali said as he stepped on the gas, “we teach you how to shoot.”
They drove into the forest and Ishmael emptied a 14-round clip into a metal can a few yards away. It felt great and he lowered the gun feeling invigorated. He was ready.
“That should do for now,” Ali said. “We don’t have a lot of bullets.”
The boys jumped back into the jeep and drove towards the city. On the way, they saw injured civilians and journalists scrambling in different directions. The radio crackled into life. “Turn in up,” Mohammed requested.
The voice on the radio: Some 8,000 Syrian refugees fled to Turkey overnight in the face of escalating clashes between rebel forces and troops loyal to Damascus near the border. More than 120,000 Syrians have crossed the border into Turkey since the start of the uprising in March 2011, more than 450,000 Syrians have fled the country. The number of the dead is currently 40,000.
“Bloody opposition groups still dragging their feet,” Ali cursed.
Mohammed looked up from his gun and said, “I hear the opposition is holding talks in Jordan. It’s not as easy as it looks. And then you have all these radical jihad groups springing up inside Syria: they freak out the western world. What a mess!” The jeep hit a bump and swerved dangerously.
“I wish the rebels had stayed away from our hometown,” Mohammed pointed out and the others agreed as they tried to keep their emotions in check. The rebels were like magnets for the Syrian government troops, and in their trail they left bodies, a sacrifice in the name of freedom. The boys arrived in the city to the sound of heavy artillery fire and clouds of smoke.
His name was Captain Bashir and he was a leader in the opposition army. “I see you boys are not hiding behind your mothers’ skirts,” he said with approval and the three boys puffed out their chests in bravado as the Captain inspected them. Everything about the Captain personified a man who wanted to be seen as a rebel: the beret on his head, the disheveled beard, the scar on his cheek. “First, you will need weapons.” The pistols were replaced with AK 47s and the boys received their matching orders. It was simple, you see a government soldier, you fire, you see fighter jets, you run for cover. Training over.
The following day and after a good night of rest, Captain Bashir led a platoon of soldiers into the city as they tried to sneak around the government soldiers. This would be the boys’ first detail. The city was in ruins: crumbled buildings and dead bodies: burning cars and broken windows. What had once been a thriving city of commerce was now a pile of stones. “Take cover!” the Captain suddenly yelled as a shell exploded nearby. The ground trembled and Ishmael dove behind a wall. But a few rebels were slow to react. Two were flung into the air, dead before they hit the ground. Gunfire erupted all around. So much for a surprise attack, they had been spotted.
“Fire at will!” Captain Bashir yelled and all the rebels began to fire. The sound of gunshots in his ears startled Ishmael at first and it took him a while to adjust to the noise. It was the loudest thing ever and he felt like his eardrums would explode.
Most of the rebels shot without looking and when Ishmael peered around the wall, all he saw was a cloud of smoke and occasional muzzle flashes. He fired a couple of rounds and in reply, the wall around him exploded with bullets and he hit the ground hard. Visibility was minimal as dust rose from the ground. Where was the Captain? Ishmael wondered. And then he saw him. Dead! A bullet in his head: his rifle on the ground nearby.
Ishmael’s heart began to race. It was time to retreat. “Retreat!” he yelled. But he couldn’t see anything… anybody. “Ali!” he called for his friends, “Mohammed!” No response. Were his friends dead? Had they fled? He didn’t know. All he knew was that he was all alone and exposed!
Bullets ricocheted around him. One bullet hit his left shoulder and dropped him in a jarring impact. The heat burned his flesh and he screamed in pain. He fell down and tried to rise but he couldn’t. And then all was quiet. Move Ishmael, move! Now! But he couldn’t, the whole left side of his body was paralyzed and blood gushed out like a tap.
His eyes darted around in fear, wary of the inevitable. The cloud of dust began to settle and something moved through the haze. A man! Ishmael reached for his gun but his movements were too slow and the man walked over and kicked the gun from his hands. He wore uniform: a government soldier! The man raised a pistol and pointed it at Ishmael’s head in a kill shot and the only thing that the boy could think about was his mother. Am sorry mum. But before the soldier could fire, another bullet dropped him and blood from his exploding skull spill all over Ishmael’s body. By now, Ishmael was in a minor state of shock. To see a gun pointed at his own forehead was as real as it could get: the thought of dying…
The silhouette of three men suddenly appeared running and Ishmael looked at them in surprise. These were no government troops! These were… the pain was too much… he was losing conscious… don’t close your eyes Ishmael… voices around him…
“We are friends little man,” the voices said. “You are too young to be fighting. We’ll get you out of here. We’ll get you to Turkey.”
“Who are you?” Ishmael asked as his eyes lost the battle.
“We are friends, that’s all you need to know,” the men said.
Ishmael’s eyes closed. Americans… the accents … Americano… CIA … was the last thought on his mind before he lost conscious.
Off to AFRICA
My book A Whisper in the Jungle has been picked by a publishing company and approved by the board. It has been scheduled for release soon.
The music is all around you, all you have to do is listen
Without God, what are we? What do we have? What is life...