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She knew she couldn’t go back.
She knew that everything that up to now had been her life, was gone.
She had heard of the fights for months, first through reports on the radio, later from friends who had returned from the fighting area. Returned, for the fighting took place far away from her town… maybe even in another country, she wasn’t sure. One group was fighting another, but it had nothing to do with her or her dear ones.
Their lives went on as usual. She got up in the morning, made porridge, woke the oldest girls, who were going to school, made sure they ate their breakfast. Made sure they looked proper in their uniforms, brushed their hair and braided it.
By then, her husband had already walked over to the square and sat on the flatbed truck, with the other men, to go out to the fields for the working day. Before, when she was younger, she had sometimes joined them, to serve the men lunch. She knew that the trucks took the winding, dusty road past the old tree with its peculiar outgrowth. "The pregnant tree”, one of the girls had called it.
When Shirin and Samira were on their way to school she tiptoed into the room where the boys were sleeping. She studied their faces, peaceful and lively at the same time – maybe in the middle of an exciting dream – where they lay, slumped all over the bed. She smiled and slid carefully down beside them, felt their bodies against hers, until they awoke or until the youngest one, in the adjacent room, where she and her husband also had their bed, woke up and started to make herself heard.
Later, when Mahmoud and Youssef had run across the street to play with their cousins, under the supervision of their grandpa, she had taken her youngest to her breast. Although she had stopped breast-feeding her, both she and Fatima appreciated those moments of carefree nearness.
The president in the capital is a despot, an evil man! some of the men with whom her husband had coffee in the evenings said. And one of the women could tell of a relative of hers, who had been manacled and thrown into a prison cell because he had dared to question something the government had done.
Those are bandits rebelling against our leader, elected by the people! others said. They come from the other side of the mountains and they have support from another country, and they want to introduce a barbarian regime that we haven’t had for a hundred years. If they win the war, your daughters won’t be able to go to school anymore, Umm Ahmad said. You will be forced to wear a niqab and throw away all your beautiful clothes.
One late evening when the children had gone to sleep, she stepped out on the street. The day had been warm and she enjoyed the cool of the night. She looked at the rough walls, the irregular cobble stones on the ground, the houses further down the street. Everything was so familiar she would have been able to draw it all, blindfolded.
Then she noticed how the sky lit up, faintly, for a moment. And then she could sense a rumbling sound far away. She felt her heart beating fast in her chest and held her breath – to calm down, and to see if there was more to come. She could see, or hear, nothing more, but she sensed a shadow behind her and turned. It was her husband, who had joined her, and she understood that he had heard and seen the same as she had.
They are far away, he said. They are still far away.
She closed her eyes and thought about her children, whose lives had just begun. And she thought about the children in that place where the sky had just lit up and from where the rumbling sound had come. Those children must be terrified now, she thought.
He put his arm around her and brought her inside. They went to bed, she saw the outlines of Fatima’s body in the cot next to their bed. She embraced her man and he penetrated her with a sincerity she hadn’t felt in a long time.
They have taken our neighbor town! Umm Ahmad was short of breath as she came in through the door. They dragged men, women and children out into the streets and killed them! Hundreds have run away!
She met her daughter’s gaze. Shirin, the oldest, sat at the table doing her homework. She put down her pencil and said: Mom, I don’t want to go to school. I wanna stay at home. She walked over and sat down next to the girl, stroked her hair behind one ear, caressed her cheek. You have to go to school. You have to learn things. Because knowledge is the only thing that can save us!
Her daughter stared intensely at her for a while. Then she nodded and grabbed the pencil again.
The soldiers were marching along the street in an endlessly long line. Mahmoud and Youssef ran out to look at their guns. She took her sons by the hand, stood with them in the doorway. All the neighbors were outside their houses. Nobody said a word.
We will protect you, said the commander. Don’t worry. As long as we are here, you are safe.
Then: We need beds in your homes. Share your food with the soldiers. They are here to protect you, surely that’s the least you can do for them.
She heard from the women that one of the wives down the street had been forced to accept getting intimate with the soldier sleeping in her house. She didn’t dare to object and her husband didn’t dare either.
When will someone come in here? she asked herself. When will a soldier enter our home and force himself upon me, maybe in front of my children? She didn’t dare to talk about it with her husband.
Then came the night when the battle for the town started.
She heard noises, one more terrifying than the other, that she couldn’t identify. And it wasn’t faint rumbling anymore, like the other nights, the noises were as loud and piercing as if they came from somewhere inside her own house.
Her husband was talking and she knew that he explained what the noises were, but she didn’t understand what he said, couldn’t take it in, couldn’t register it. She moved in a circuit, lap after lap, between the girls’ room, the boys’ room and her own bedroom where Fatima was sleeping in her cot.
If one of the children moved, cried, opened its eyes, she would caress their hair, kiss them and say: The soldiers are here, they protect us. Sleep my darling.
Somehow, the night passed and it was morning.
Worn-out, with lack of sleep, she mechanically made the porridge and, while her husband stoic went out to take the truck to the fields, she woke the girls.
They saw, like she did, when they looked out through the window, that Umm Ahmad’s house was gone. A pile of stones, wooden beams and twisted iron rods were all that was left of the woman’s home.
Mom… Samira had a worried look as she stood in the doorway with the satchel on her back.
You’re safe in school. No one would even consider bombing a school. Off you go!
The boys had their breakfast and walked across the street to play with their cousins. She was alone with the little one.
Then they returned, the sounds that she now knew were airplanes, airplanes carrying bombs. And those other sounds, when bombs hit their targets… or hit something else than their targets, for example a school.
Run! Somebody called down the street. They will be here within an hour! Run!
We are safe here, grandpa said. Our house is solid.
The teacher has taken the children to the pregnant tree, somebody said.
Stricken by panic she collected some bread, dried meat, oil and a few other things in a bag. She put Fatima in her reins and fastened it to her back. Then she left her home, walked down the street and out of town. She didn’t want to watch the black smoke rising from where she knew the school had been. She didn’t want to turn around as the planes came back and dropped their load on her street. She didn’t want to look at the destroyed road leading out to the fields.
She didn’t want to leave. But she had no choice.