“What way? You’re not from this place, from this life. You have no idea where you are. Where do you plan to go in this desert once you jump out with no food and no water? The only living things out there are things that want you dead.” Susan knew she was right and she tried to think carefully about her choices. Malika looked Susan in the eye. “Worse than death, this area has people who are thirsty for a woman like you.”
Susan looked over at Heja, who was staring out the slit in the fabric and watching the hills roll by. “Hey, Heja. Come look here.” She motioned with her hand. “Can you see outside? Can you tell where we are?” Susan noticed Rima straining herself trying to hear what Susan was saying but it was clear she couldn’t make out the words.
“Uh, yeah. It’s the desert,”
“I know.” Susan rolled her eyes. “I mean, do you think we’re in Iraq still, or Syria?”
“Well we’ve been on the way for hours.” He looked at his watch. “Yea, we’ve got to be in Syria by now.” He shifted uncomfortably; his leg having fallen asleep. “We’re heading straight for the heart of evil, straight to Da’esh. I don’t know if you can see from where you are but we aren’t on the road anymore. Haven’t been for a while. We’re driving across the open desert. Looks like we’re heading straight west.”
Susan stared intently at Heja. She wasn’t sure if she should share her idea with him. “Do you want to escape together?” She blurted it out without thinking.
“Escape?” Heja breathed deeply as though the utterance itself was a crime. “That word has the same definition as capture right now.”
“Well, I’m certain that if they take us into Raqqa, Idlib, Homs, Manbij, you name it, I’ll be dead for sure anyway.”
“Girl, you don’t know where you’re at. This place is dangerous even for smugglers who act like Da’esh.
Imagine what it would be like out there for regular people, an Iranian woman and a Kurdish boy.” He looked out the slit in the fabric. “I wish we could afford the classy smugglers. We’d be out of here on an airplane instead of this old Bongo.”
They both smiled a little but Susan wished Heja would be more hopeful. This wasn’t the end of the world, and Susan knew there must be multiple ways out. She just needed to find the
right one at the right moment. She could see the hopelessness in everyone’s eyes. It seemed these refugees had begun accepting their fate.
The car seemed to be reducing speed, gradually slowing until the engine sputtered. They were out of fuel. Everyone looked at each other, waiting for something to happen. Heja closed his eyes. “It can’t get any worse, right?”
Suddenly the fabric covering the back was ripped away. Abu Bayda stood there, sneering. Somehow, he looked angrier each time he saw the refugees. Malika’s children clung to her, trying to hide their faces from his seething glare.
“Everyone out!” he shouted. “Yalla! Hurry up!”
Heja was right. There was nothing in any direction except brown dirt and sand. The earth looked scorched by some unseen catastrophe. A sharp wind whipped across the plain and bit Susan’s cheeks, catching her by surprise since the ground was so hot. She shivered, handing Fatima back to her mother so that she could tighten her shawl. She began walking around, feeling like she was on an expedition to Mars. She knew she couldn’t escape now. There was nowhere to go. There were no buildings, no trees, no people, nothing.
Susan looked around at the other refugees. Some were stretching their legs, others sitting on the dirt, staring into the distance. Not one of them was overweight, their faces were bony, lips dry and white. They all seemed to have been underfed for years. Some hadn’t had water for almost a day. They looked like prisoners of war.
Ala went back to the truck and closed the door. He bent the side mirror so no one could see what he was doing. He pulled out a little black kit from his clothes. He looked around once more and then tied a rope around his arm. He took a little syringe from the kit and found a good vein in his arm. He leaned his head back, letting the heroin transport him away from this desert. He hadn’t flipped the mirror on the other side and Susan had seen what he was doing. She didn’t dare say a word.
Abu Bayda made his way over to Ashwaq. “Hey, Yazidi.” Ashwaq looked up at him with silent anger. He was standing so close she could smell his unwashed teeth and the scent of dried blood on his menacing dishdasha. He stared at her for a moment. “If you want, you can sit in the front of the car while we figure out this fuel problem. Are you feeling better?”
“I’m fine.” Her voice was weak. After a moment she decided to go to the front anyway.
She hadn’t sat on something soft in days.
Abu Bayda turned and looked around at the group of refugees sprawled in a rough semi-
circle around the back of the truck. “Listen up, everyone! We’re twenty minutes from our next destination. We have no fuel. Everyone knows what happened to the extra fuel we had.” He looked at Rima, who was staring at the ground. Everyone else was looking at him intently, hoping he’d finally have some information to offer.
Heja stood up. “How are we going to get fuel in this desert?”
Abu Bayda walked up to Heja, grabbing the boy’s chin with one hand and tilting his head up as though he was inspecting a goat for the Eid al Adha sacrifice. “A very good question, little boy.” He broke away from Heja and casually pulled the pistol out of his belt. He spun it lazily on his finger as he walked around to each of the refugees. Each person braced themselves, bristling as he approached. He seemed to revel in the fear and hate that he conjured in their minds. “Not to worry, we’ll wait here for a little while in case a car passes by. No need to waste our energy if we don’t have to. No more questions.”
Rima ran up to him. She whispered something in his ear and he immediately turned to face Susan. Susan froze. He tapped his gun on her shoulder, then turned to address the group.
“One more thing, if anyone else is thinking to escape, tell me now so I can use less bullets later.” He looked at Heja and shook his head. “Otherwise, if you need to pee or touch yourself or whatever you need to do, hurry up.” He looked at Susan, grinning. “Yalla!” His words chaffed at Susan. He sounded like a farmer yelling at his livestock.
Malika ran to Susan with Fatima and her brother clinging to her abaya, and her infant Lina wrapped against her chest. “See? I told you Rima is still one of them. She was trying to listen to us to report us if we tried to escape.”
“I know but we can’t give up.” Susan looked up, watching Rima light another cigarette. Suddenly a girl’s scream caught everyone’s attention. It was coming from the front of the truck. Abu Bayda ran over first, followed by Susan. Malika came too, her children in tow. Ala was on top of Ashwaq’s body, moving with heavy, groping motions, trying in vain to tear away her abaya. He was too drugged up, his body too heavy. Malika reached in with her free hand, tearing at Ala’s face, trying to stop him. Little Lina was now between Malika and Ala. Ala’s behaviour reminded Susan of her own father and she stepped back in fear. Ala threw his hands up, finding his strength, pushing Malika back so violently that the toddler wrapped against her chest came loose, banging her tiny skull against the doorframe. The baby vomited immediately. Her eyes lost their muscular control, rolling back in her head.
“Stop! Stop!” Susan shouted, running back into the fray and pulling Malika away from the
flailing man. Ashwaq ran out of the truck and rushed to Dalal. Malika saw the baby laying limp before her. She shrieked and beat her own head with the palms of her hands, falling to her knees in the sand. The baby was silent, motionless. Fatima looked on, wide-eyed and with her mouth slightly open, unsure what to do.
Heja ran over and picked up the lifeless little body. Malika stayed kneeling, gripping her hair with her hands but now totally silent. Her eyes were wide, her skin a shade lighter. Strangely, a smile appeared on her face. She couldn’t move or speak. Heja crouched down and laid the baby carefully on the dirt, examining the bleeding gash on the back of her little head. He leaned close to her face, looking for a rise and fall of the chest, a pulse, anything. He wiped her face gently and looked up at Malika, who still sat in shock nearby. He gathered the limp body into his arms, stood and walked slowly over to her. She reached her arms out, ready to take her child. Tears were coming down Heja’s cheeks. He placed the baby in Malika’s arms. Everyone was silent, even Abu Bayda.
Malika became delirious. She switched back and forth from tears to that strange smile, staring wide-eyed at her unmoving child. Susan sat on the ground nearby, clasping both hands on top of her head, exasperated. The other refugees sat silently, motionless, fused to the earth as if God had cursed them all. No one could believe what they saw. The refugees were innocent but it was they who suffered while the smugglers seemed to carry the blessings of heaven.
“Susan,” Malika called out. “Come, come see.” She waved excitedly. Susan couldn’t hold her tears. She found the strength to stand but she felt gravity pulling her down. Malika rocked baby Lina slowly in her arms. “Come Susan, come see my baby. She’s my life, my other half. She’s sleeping now, you can see.” She smiled. “She’s sleeping forever.” She moved her finger across the baby’s face, then held the baby’s colourless hand. “Sleep mama,” Malika said, kissing the baby’s hand.
Abu Bayda stood there, staring. Finally, he broke away and walked back to the truck.
action & adventure