The Ruin of Dreams
Dawn was just breaking over the horizon sending coral streaks of sunlight piercing through the cerulean surface of the Aegean Sea. Nikolai sipped his coffee, weak and watery, taken from the dispenser installed in the patrol boat pantry. What else could you expect from the useless administration? Everyone was there to either fulfill their pocket or role-play at being employed. He at least had a job and a steady income. Hardly the same could be said for most of his friends.
He wrapped his hands around the cup for warmth. It was the fag end of October and the sea temperature could fall below 10degC without warning. Today was such a day. The air was cold and the steady wind added a factor of chill. He hoped no one was foolish enough to brave the waves in such conditions.
His thoughts were broken by the sound of slurping. Francisco was licking his fingers with abandon after having polished off a gyros roll fat enough for both of them. Maybe the reason he was beginning to resemble a roll himself, he thought and chuckled. He almost choked on the next sip of his coffee as the radio started blaring.
“Here it comes.” He sighed as he realized the peace and quiet of the night was gone with the announcement blaring from the instrument.
ACCIDENT NEAR THE WESTERN COAST OF KOS. CASUALTIES FEARED. ALL AVAILABLE UNITS RESPOND IMMEDIATELY
The two were transformed within minutes. Francisco took the wheel of the boat and set a course for Kos. Nikolai gathered and checked the necessary equipment. The Greek Coast Guard patrol boat cut through the waves with the ease of a dolphin and headed to the scene of the disaster the magnitude of which they had no inkling of.
It was chaos when they arrived within minutes at their destination. The western coast still embraced darkness and probably that is why the rubber dinghy had approached from that side. It lay submerged in the water a few kilometers away from its intended destination. People thrashed around in the cold water in the dark, like dumplings bobbing in hot oil. It was difficult to determine how many people were actually there. Screams and terrified whimpering rent the air, resembling a battle scene. After all, the journey had been a battle with the sea, which these people had lost.
A few figures could be seen running off into the darkness in the direction of the coast. Nikolai and Francisco however knew they first had to take care of the injured people. It was not going to be an easy task, seeing the people were trying to enter Greece illegally and would not appreciate help from the same entities they were trying to avoid.
The two went on about their task with a calm determination. Fortunately the water was not cold enough for the people treading below them to freeze. They helped the survivors over the boat and gave them blankets to wrap themselves in. Nikolai handed them out steaming cups of the same watery coffee but the look of gratitude on their faces made him feel ashamed of his earlier lack of gratitude.
Once they were sure the survivors, a defeated lot with hardly anything to their name, were settled in, it was time to look for the bodies of those drowned. With the arrival of morning, local people crowded the beach to appease their morbid curiosity. Some were brave enough to wade into the water too. Soon, Nikolai and Francisco were pulling bodies from the sea along with them while the survivors stood on the shore and watched.
There were around twenty people on a small dinghy meant for only eight people as per the survivors. The Coast Guard had rescued around twelve people. The rest seemed to have been drowned. Eleven bodies were soon pulled out and lined on the rocky beach. They lay there like broken toys. Wails and cries rose in a keening from the gathered people and Nikolai felt overwhelmed by the grief. However, one voice rose above the rest.
“Saira! How did this happen? You promised to accompany me all the way. All I ever wanted was for my family to be happy and safe. Now you lie here, unseeing, unfeeling, never to hold my hand again, never to gladden my heart with your laughter. Where is my son? Where is my boy? My little boy?” The anguish in the voice was enough to break even a stone.
Nikolai looked. The bodies belonged to men and women of all ages, some even kids as young as ten. One man searched among them frantically, running from one end of the morbid line-up to another and returning back as if his son could materialize when he turned his back. Maybe God took pity at his exertions and the deluge of tears that lost themselves in his thick hennaed beard. A cry arose from the midst of the gathered crowd of the local people. Another body had floated into the shore a few hundred meters from them. The man ran as if he was crazy. Nikolai followed.
The scene was enough to break anyone’s heart. A little boy of around three, clad in a red t-shirt and blue pants lay face down in the water, his sneakers bobbing in the sea water next to him. In the early morning light, he looked more like a doll than a boy as he lay there unmoving. One could be forgiven for thinking he would jump up like a Jack in the Box, full of mischievous laughter and say Boo! Then assure in his childlike voice that he was only trying to scare everyone.
It was a useless thought. The kid was dead. He was not going to laugh, ever again.
The man saw him and stopped. “That is not my son,” he murmured next to Nikolai. “My Alan cannot stay still for so many moments at a stretch.” Nikolai stayed quiet. He turned towards the man to comfort him when he saw a woman, part of the gathered crowd taking photographs. She immediately left the scene before he could say anything.
The next day the whole world woke up to the photograph of the little drowned refugee boy.
The Brutal Night
The journey lasted for around six to eight hours. There were men, women, and kids of all ages with Alan being the youngest inside one little van which was totally cramped with no space for movement. However, if any of them made a sound, even a muffled moan while shifting from one leg to another, someone from the front would bark at them to keep quiet. Everyone acquiesced knowing they had no choice. All the lips had prayers upon them not to encounter a patrol vehicle. If they did, their hopes for a dignified future would be smashed to smithereens like the ruins of their erstwhile homes.
The van stopped. All of the people cramped inside tumbled out, cursing the pins and needles stabbing them with a thousand pricks and blinked in the darkness. Naseer helped Saira, who stumbled as she got down. Alan held onto his neck firmly, like a little monkey. They stood huddled among a group of around six families, all refugees like themselves, desirous of a passage to the promised land of Europe.
They could smell the sea and hear the waves crashing on the shore nearby. The men who had brought them herded them into lines and led them forward. The roar of the sea made them realize they were walking towards the shore finally the asphalt under their feet gave way to loose sand.
It was dark all around but few of the smugglers had torches. In the bobbing light Naseer saw other groups such as theirs. All of them looked tired, hungry and haggard. A few boats could be seen bobbing in the water. Soon one group of people was taken towards the boats. Loud arguments could be heard, but the boat soon launched into the darkness of the water.
After around one hour and the departure of three boats, it was the turn of Naseer and his family. Meanwhile the wind had risen steadily and the waves were hitting the shore with a pulsating anger, ready to devour any trespassers into its territory. As they approached the inflatable dinghy, he saw that it was hardly big enough for eight of them and they were around twenty people, kids included.
Some people raised a hue and cry, but they all knew it was useless. All of them somehow fit themselves into the small space, their bodies providing warmth and invading each other’s privacy simultaneously. The captain reminded them not to move and started the boat. The engine sputtered to life with a whine, as if it did not want to venture out into the unwelcoming waters.
“May Allah realize our dreams and make this journey a safe one for us,” prayed Saira. Alan bobbed up excitedly in their laps. Saira hugged him and Naseer held her hand, his eyes full of hopes for the future. In a voice choked with emotion he thanked Allah and said, “I am sure we will all be happy and safe where we are going. Allah, in his generosity has made this journey possible for us.”
He didn’t know his fate held something else in store for him.
The journey began easily enough. The waters were choppy and the overcrowded boat sailed through it with some difficulty. The cramped spaces made sitting difficult for the travel weary people but the thought of their destination helped them keep their equanimity even in the presence of the noxious diesel fumes. Just when they could discern the shore of Kos in the distance like a faint line separating the sky and the horizon, the engine sputtered and stopped. Twenty hearts stopped beating for a second in unison.
The boat refused to humour the repeated efforts of the captain to revive the engine. Soon the boat collapsed due to the weight of its passengers. Naseer tried to hold on to Alan but his little fingers slipped from his in the ensuing chaos. He searched, but Alan was nowhere to be seen amidst the struggling bodies. Naseer turned his attention towards Saira and could not find her. He dived underwater too but nothing could be seen in the darkness before dawn.
“Allah,” he cried, sending a supplication towards heaven. “Keep my family safe.”
The Difficult Days
Saira looked at the stale bread with despair and hopelessness. How was she supposed to feed her family with that half piece of loaf? And that was all their family of three would be having for the whole day. They were yet to get registered as refugees even though they had submitted their applications at least a fortnight earlier. She hoped they would not be rejected, as was common for most of the refugees that had arrived in Turkey after fleeing from the fighting and bombing in Syria. It was impossible to gather the papers the authorities asked for. When you were escaping bombs, lethal gasses and daily shelling, with whatever you had on your back, you could hardly be bothered to think of official documents.
She felt a familiar anger uncoiling inside her bosom. What did they do to deserve this fate? Why did they have to leave their homes and demean themselves in a foreign land before people who would never know or understand their plight. Her stomach growled and she felt the anger ebb away to give rise to another feeling she had become accustomed to in this last year. Despair slowly reached out and clutched her heart in its deadening grip once again. She put her face between her knees and sobbed, her chest heavy with the searing dry heaves. She had no tears left now.
“Saira, I’m back,” Naseer’s voice reached out to her from beyond the hastily strung sheet, doubling as a curtain in a desperate attempt for privacy. She smoothed her errant curls, plastered a smile on her face and lifted the dirty sheet so her husband could enter. One look at his fallen face and the smile she had somehow put up faltered.
“What happened?” She asked, in a voice still shaky with her unshed tears.
“No jobs today. I refused to work for that slave driver today. He gives me half the money that he pays the local men and thinks it gives him the authority to keep insulting me. I am working doubly harder than any turk. Why do these people think they have us for charity?” Naseer replied in a broken voice. “I know you were counting on some money to buy some food. I am sorry. This is a trial for us. Allah will make things easy soon.”
“Allah will not make anything easy soon. If there is a God he has long forsaken all of us Syrian people.” Saira exploded.
“How am I going to tell my three year old son we have nothing to eat apart from this stale bread? That we have no meat, or milk or fruit which he used to love? Or why has he been living in the same two set of clothes for the last three months? Why are we living in this ruin with walls made of used cartons and a threadbare bedsheet for an entrance? No Naseer, Allah does not look down upon us or hear our prayers anymore.” She broke down and this time, big fat tears fell down her face.
“You are brave, my dear wife. And so is our little Alan. This is your despair speaking and despair is the work of Shaitan. We will soon go to Europe and find a better life than here in the streets of Hatay.” Naseer consoled her as he dried her eyes.
“You always say that,” Saira sobbed. “But these are nothing but empty words. We have no money to buy even food. These locals won’t give you work most days. How will we pay for the passage to Europe? I know the people who operate the boats charge a hefty amount for passage. Rabiyah by the corner was telling me her brother was getting together 2000 euros. Where will the money come from for our family?”
“Allah finds a way, Saira. Humairah sent the money for us to cross to Europe. She said she can’t see us, especially her little nephew, living in such deplorable conditions. I have already met a man who told me he could arrange a passage for our family. There is a lot that we have to do. Call Alan. We need to pack whatever’s essential and head to the bus station. We have to be there before sundown. For once, we will have some safety and security in our lives like we did earlier.”
Saira fell into Naseer’s arms and cried openly.
“May Allah give Najmah a long life and an exalted place in heaven for her generosity. I am sorry I shouted at you Naseer. I am guilty of abandoning hope. May Allah forgive my transgression. May he keep us all together, at all times, in health and happiness.”
“Alan, where are you? Come quickly.” She called out.
A little boy of three came running, in disheveled clothes, far too big for him. They looked borrowed, which they were. Saira held him in her arms and started talking.
“Little Alan, qurrat-ul-aini*… My little darling, we will be leaving this shelter and traveling to a beautiful land. First we will travel by bus and then by a boat over water as blue as the sky at dawn. We will have everything we want there. A big soft warm bed to sleep in and all kinds of food that you can imagine. It will be a big adventure. Help me to get you ready, habibi*.”
“Will we have oranges there?” Alan asked.
“As big as watermelons.” Saira told him as she deftly changed him into a red t-shirt and blue pants his aunt Najmah had sent over on the Eid last year. The day seemed an eon away. Once they had gathered everything necessary, which wasn’t much, they shared the little piece of bread among them and happily chewed on it. After months, their hearts were full of happiness and a glimmer of hope shone like a beacon on the horizon.
The Hurried Exile
The call of Asr azan* floated faintly into the dust laden interiors of the dilapidated building. Two rooms stood intact on the first floor. The rest were more rubble than rooms. Loud voices interspersed with laughter could be heard from the inside. It was the month of Ramadan and the two families were getting ready for iftar* the meal with which to break the fasts.
The kids from the two families played downstairs in the streets which were overlooked by ruined carcasses of once stately buildings on both sides. The men put on their skull caps and headed out to the mosques for the prayers.
“Naseer, don’t forget to bring some khubus. We are all out of them,” Saira reminded her husband. Life had become tough after the war began and it was difficult to find even basic items of food and daily needs. Naseer nodded as he stepped down the bare stairs, devoid of a hand rail.
“I don’t think I will be able to. The UN food aid trucks are also not being allowed to cross the city border these days,” he called over his shoulders, not letting his wife see the worry creasing his brows. With the fighting getting more tough, difficult days were ahead of them in Aleppo. Saira had been after him to go to some other place where the fighting wasn’t so bad but he didn’t want to leave the land of his ancestors.
The kids called out greetings as the adults proceeded towards the mosque, which had also bore the brunt of the bombings and shellings. Just after they proceeded a few hundred metres, a loud whisting sound was heard and the buildings around them shook. Dirt and debris rained down all around and Naseer found himself pinned under the lifeless body of his neighbor. Before he fainted, his thoughts were all about Saira and Alan.
When he gained consciousness, he was apalled at the sight that met his eyes. All around him buildings had buckled and fallen like matchbox castles. So much dirt had accumulated that it was the street was not recognizable. All around him he could hear the spund of cries and wailings. He got up and limped to his house. When he reached there, he looked at it in disbelief. The while first floor had caved in. The bodies of kids lay strewn around. He frantically searched for Alan but he was not among those damaged little bodies.
Bricks covered the entrance to the ground floor of the building, but he could hear the faint sounds of crying from behind the rubble. He fell on the bricks with a vengeance and had soon carved a hole wide enough to crawl in. Once he was inside, he found Saira crouched in a corner at the back holding Alan tightly and rocking on her haunches. He embraced the two of them and cried tears of relief.
“We cannot live here Naseer. Please let us go to some place else,” pleaded Saira.
He looked at the dirt smeared face of Alan and the look in his shocked eyes and relented.
“You’re right Saira. We will leave Aleppo for someplace where we can be happy and safe together.”
The next day, they left their home, their land and their country in search of the unattainable : peace and safety in a land forever cursed. Forever in exile.
The story has been inspired from Alan Kurdi and the photograph of the little drowned boy that woke up the world to the plight of the refugees. Of their struggles for live, safety and dignity in countries that are not their own. The war in Syria is responsible for the killing and displacement of millions of people and still continues, though it is out of the eye of the media.
Qurrat-ul-aini – coolness of my eyes, term of endearment for a child.
Habibi – Loved one
Asr – Afternoon prayers
Azar – Islamic call to prayers
Iftar – evening meal for opening the fast
Khubus – bread
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