It has been over two months since I have been here in Latakia, recuperating from an injury. An old school friend and his family decided to take care of me, in spite of the dangers lurking at each corner of this city that is still managed by the authorities. My left foot was injured in a crossfire between FSA and the Syrian army in Deraa in December, last year. The insurgency that brought together many young boys to join FSA (Free Syria Army) and fight against the authorities, became my mission as well after my family of my parents, two younger siblings and an older sister, were vanquished in an attack in July last year. With the city smashed to rubble and the resources thinning, there was no way I could have survived, with my life experience of 16 years, if not for this faction.
My name is Aran Al-Aboud and this is my story. I was born an Arab, but now I am in search of my own identity amidst this chaos I have become a part of, unwillingly.
FSA had already placed itself well and had emerged as one of the most powerful anti-government forces in Southern Syria. And like many young boys, Mouawiya Syasneh*, was my hero as well. Ever since he, along with his friends, had painted a graffiti on the school walls with anti-authority slogans, the face of Syria, as we know today, had changed. Along with that, the lives of many children, women and men, young and old, had changed forever. To my young eyes this changing face of the world around me was new, and as much as I was scared I was also eager to know what lay ahead for me and for the little children I would often see playing with burnt tires, fallen shells, broken bottles and empty bullets that lay dropped around the rubble left from their homes.
Syria is sitting on a time bomb and young boys like me are ticking. Today I have been summoned back to Deraa because there is a mission that I have been assigned. Aland, a friend from FSA, along with a few of his comrades, came to pick me up in a battered jeep along with some papers that, he assured me, were required to have me back.
“We’re not going to Deraa actually. We are headed to Damascus instead,” he announced unexpectedly.
“Ah, the caller said that I was required in Deraa,” I argued.
“Yes, but the situation in Damascus needs us there,” he claimed, taking a reference from the two suicide bomb attacks that had killed 44 people last December.
Aland was one of the boys I had seen grow up around my neighbourhood. Since he was a few years older, I had barely had any engagement with him before FSA happened to us. His wise, deep-set eyes were always sad as if there was a certain dearth of life there. Though most eyes looked similar these days, Aland’s had always been like that, as far as I could remember, more sadness less wisdom.
Damascus, I had read in school, had great historical relevance. But when I landed here, nothing that I had read about the glory of the city, could be seen. The city showed no signs of progress and every nook and corner looked like an ugly faced monster hiding behind the walls, wherever we would turn our jeep. It had taken us almost 4 hours to reach in the middle of the night where danger seemed imminent. At about 5 in the morning, we checked into a small obscure house hushed in the folds of a tiny street about a few feet away from Hotel Four Seasons, where another few men were already stationed. These burly older men were no match for my tiny frame. They were large by any standards. Aland introduced them as the members of Jabat-al-Nusra, an allied faction of Al-Qaeda, who had travelled from Egypt to help us stay safe. This was, really, all that I needed at the moment. That I was going to be trained by them, was another development that I saw myself enveloped in, involuntarily.
“This is AKM,” announced one of the men, throwing a heavy gun my way, which I caught as a reflex. “It is an assault rifle using 7.62×39 mm cartridge, an improvement from your FN FAL,” he continued, smirking appreciatively at the piece of metal he had just handed over to me.
“Now, what do I do with this?” I held my FN-FAL that hung on my shoulder as if an extension to my body.
“Keep it as a reward!” he threw a wry smile towards me. I glanced at Aland who in turn smiled assuredly, indicating that they were serious.
The Syrian army operations in the city were already at a peak. It was highly dangerous to have operated from the place. Since the attacks in December, the city had experienced millions of gunshots and airstrikes that had robbed it of its yesteryears’ glory. A few months of operation in the city saw me getting more comfortable with the AKM that brought more power, more grit to my shots. Having this kind of power in my hands and lobbying from my fingers gave me a certain high that was unexplainable. I wanted to know what else I could do with my hands, that a few months ago, only knew how to hold a pen in school.
As a child, I had always wanted to travel to Aleppo. My father had worked in a construction firm in the city, a few years ago, when I was just a child, back in Deraa. From all the stories of his travels that my father used to share, he had the fondest memories of Aleppo, especially because this was a city that brought his dreams to reality.
“It is the best city to stay in,” he had claimed. His wide eyes and animated gestures while narrating the stories of all the massive buildings that he had been a part of constructing as a building contractor, made the stories sound like a fairytale. He had been in construction business for the most part of his youth and his contribution to some of the magnificent buildings that adorned the city was an excellent evidence.
A few days later, this was to become history. With AKM in tow and a few grenades pinned to my waistcoat, I was about to destroy the dream that my father had contributed to, even if minuscule. The civil war’s most devastating bombing and the fiercest battle had taken place in the residential columns of Aleppo, killing more than 15,000 people, including children, and injuring another 30,000. And I was, one of the many disillusioned youth, responsible for perpetrating it.
If the subjugation of Deraa was a nightmare, this was the worst carnage I had seen from my own eyes. Somehow, the gun power of AKM in my hands started diminishing me. A few months of staying put here and fighting each day was taking a toll on me. I was losing my sanity, waking up at odd hours always looking for safety, trying to find a corner where I could lay my head without a worry. The constant echo of firing stood permanence in the innards of my being. Sick to my stomach was an expression that I had heard before. This was a whole new experience. My colleagues realized that I was not stable, but a war like this, needed men with guts.
“Are you out of your mind?” Aland scolded me one day, as I was about to reach out for the bread during a brief break.
“Why, what happened?” I inquired innocently.
“What happened?!! You seem withdrawn as if your mind is elsewhere,” he paused as I started playing with the little piece of bread that I held in my hands. “They can see you, Aran…they know. They know exactly when a rebel becomes yielding. And when they know for sure, they kill. And believe me Aran, if they won’t, the war surely will.”
I knew exactly what Aland was saying. I could sense that they were trying to get rid of me lest I became useless cargo for them to carry around. There was, indeed, no looking back. Once a rebel always a rebel. I joined FSA for survival, but this was far from it. I was drowning in my own dirt.
A video of Nusra’s Abu Suleiman Al- Mujahir* in late 2012, where his slogan “…leave our lands…. Stop interfering in our affairs or face perpetual war”, made me realize for the first time that this was not just a revolution against the Asad rule, but it was a war against the rest of the world. For now, I had obligatorily participated in this war…here on, I wanted to search for my purpose.
The government loyalists had already been overrun by the Islamist jihadists in Al-Raqqa in March 2013 and our small battalion was now sought there to establish ourselves. A sharia court was established there, and a pseudo-government started running from the centre of the city. As we were finding ourselves more comfortable with the daily mechanisms of the city, we started hoping for some form of normalcy within the city. That, of course, was a short-lived dream. ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and Levant) had already started their proceedings in the city. They attacked the Nusra disputing territory and ideology.
A year of constantly being in the middle of the civil war, being privy to thousands of deaths and having the sounds of bullets and bombs constantly echo in my ears was now getting out of hand for me. The purpose with which I had initially joined FSA now seemed to have diluted. With AKM firmly on my shoulders at all times, I was finding myself hiding behind it more often, as a child hides behind her mother in the presence of strangers.
By January 2014, I was getting so tired I simply wanted to quit or die in the crossfire. ISIL was alarmingly close, and they were capturing the most part of what we had set up as our base. Heavy firing was thrown towards us that made me lose the only friend I had, Aland. After I had lost almost everyone I had ever known, Aland’s loss was the biggest blow in about a year. Others from the FSA who had joined Nusra were not on the same radar as I was. As I stood on guard, firing the AKM furiously and mourning the demise of my dear friend simultaneously, I suddenly saw something sprint across the shambled corridor of our hideout, up towards the stairs. I followed, my AKM firmly pointed towards the danger, that was so close I could hear its breath.
I called out, “who is it?” my tear-soaked eyes, due to the loss of my friend Aland, were now wide with anticipation of what lay ahead of me.
“WHO IS IT?” I called out louder over the gunshots outside, in the hope of getting some retaliation- a fire shot or a shell, or anything. I was prepared to die, but the least I wanted to know was what would kill me. And there she was.
From under the staircase, between the cleft, I saw the most amazingly scared sea blue eyes, washed with drops of angst and fear, hoping for refuge. I called out, “don’t be scared, come out.”
Her eyes shifted momentarily from me to the gun I was holding and back. As a reflex, I mounted the gun back on my shoulder and offered her my hand, “come on, you are safe here.” Unbelievable as it sounded, considering the amount of ear-numbing blasts going on around us, it made me believe I could at least try to make it safe for her.
Slowly she came out from behind the steps, reluctantly at first and then I saw the faith that she had shown in me built up. She reached out to me and held my hand, kissing it incessantly. “Please save me…please save me from the monsters!” she pleaded, her desperate, meek and tired voice just a mere whisper as tears rolled down her cheeks.
I calmed her down for a bit, all the while bothered about the heavy firing going outside which was now beginning to diminish. With Aland gone, I did not have to necessarily let anyone know that I had met a stranger in our part of the territory. I consoled her, while she sat close on my heels, trying to gather her composure. By the time the ringing of the bullets finished, she was pacified as well. I noticed that her clothes were tattered, her skin scraped at places, her left ear was chopped, that looked like a recent aberration.
“What happened to your ear?” I believed it was a fresh wound and wondered if she needed medical aid. My inquiry quickly made her cover her head with the piece of cloth she was holding close to her chest ever since we met. Her round little face looked perfect though. Behind the fear and abandonment, her eyes displayed innocence. The kinds that had vanished from my eyes as soon as I had fired my first shot from my FN-FAL and killed another human.
“Are you hungry?” I tried to reach out again. She was possibly not interested in food anyway.
“I want to leave,” she said instead.
“Where do you want to go?” I inquired in the hope that she would delve into what got her here in the first place.
“I want to go home,” she gave a faraway look as she said this, the teardrops dried at the corners of her eyes. Getting to anywhere from here, at the moment, was close to impossible but I thought maybe I could try getting her home in Raqqa during the night.
“Okay, I will try to get you home during the night, so that I can return to safety back here, well in time.” I sounded as much in control as I could, given the circumstances that the only young girl I had ever known before was my younger sibling, and now her. I certainly thought little girls were a lot of trouble, too demanding.
“I don’t live in Raqqa.” As she declared this, my eyes were curious. She continued, “they got me here with them from Dier Ez-Zor and now they are taking me to Mosul.”
“Who?… Daesh?” The heart pounding in my chest began ringing in my ears. Previously, I thought the girl was lost and upon the discovery that she was a slave, I was sure there was no way out for us anymore. If they found out that she is here, not just us but my whole troop would be dead meat in no time. Oh! these little girls… they are always trouble.
I started pacing up and down in the hope of finding a way to rid myself of this chaos that I had gotten myself into. She looked at me, her pendulum eyes following my steps, left to the right. And then I stood still, thinking to myself. I have nothing to lose. I have no friends, no family, no future, no life. What am I scared of? I was ready to die, anyway? What harm would it bring me to help this little girl reach home?
“Okay,” I turned to her, “I will help you get home. But promise me, you will do exactly as I say.” She nodded like a little puppy. How easy it is for a disillusioned person to acknowledge hope? I wondered. I smiled at her and she smiled back with a twinkle in her eyes.
The two-hour journey that we were headed for was not an easy one. Considering that Daesh (ISIL) were in the middle of their movement at this time, I was sure we would run into them at least once. How I wished Aland was here to help. Fortunately, one of Aland’s friends agreed to help and lent me his UN captured vehicle only because I told him that a few of the FSA men were to come and join us here for the rebellion, so I needed to get them to join us from Aleppo. I guessed that he had seen through the lie, but he managed to help me regardless.
We had to make sure she not only reached her town but reached her home in the safe custody of her family. Considering that there was little hope that anyone from her family would be alive or present where they lived, I probably needed some more time to ensure that she is safe.
“Do you know exactly where you used to live in the city…the street, the house?” I inquired.
She nodded silently, constantly looking out of the window. We had taken a route I knew from what I was told by the resource back in Raqqah, but I was also warned to keep a lookout for any danger that we may face on the way. Along with that, I was given an M1911 pistol, in case I needed a short-range target to shoot. I also placed my AKM right under my seat where I could access it immediately. A few MK2 grenades and IEDs were also stashed in the boot.
“How old are you?” I asked curiously since she looked too young to remember the whereabouts of her family considering the current situation.
“Twelve,” she said, looking towards me.
“You are just a little girl, why did they take you, anyway,” I immediately regretted what I had said. I did not wish to torment her any more than she already was.
“Age does not matter to them” she sounded calm as if the worst was already behind her. Is there anything more dreadful than the worst face of humankind?
“Is that a wound given by them?” I pointed towards her severed ear.
She was silent for a brief moment, possibly considering her response. Finally, with a deep sigh, she said, “He was trying to force himself upon me and trying to stuff my mouth with a cloth to stop me from screaming. In retaliation, I bit his hand, as hard as I could. As a reflex, his blade found my ear as payback.”
Her narration of the event made me believe that the age of barbarians was not yet over. At twelve she had learnt lessons none of us would have ever wanted to learn. I wish there was a way for me to make her cheer.
“What is your name?” I realized suddenly, that this basic query was left unasked.
“Insiyah”, she smiled, the twinkle back in her eyes, possibly reminiscing the last time she would have been called that, out of pure, unadulterated love. I was satisfied with my progress.
“What is yours?” she managed to ask me cheerfully.
“Aran…my father named me,” I responded with pride writ all over my face.
After a pause, I asked, “How did you escape?”
“I don’t know… I just ran away as soon as I could.” I realized how simple things are when we are young and they get as complex when we grow older.
I did not realize that we were almost at the border of Dier Ez-Zor. Trying to enter the city was another major hurdle. I was sure we would encounter a barricade. Before I could contemplate anything, I heard a loud bang about 20 meters away from our car. ‘Airstrike!’ my mind screamed. I manoeuvred the car towards the scanty bushes along the road and tried to go deep into the thickets. Another loud thunder and Insiyah and I were tossed out of the car. I lifted my head to see exactly what had happened. Insiyah fell about a few feet away from the car while I was thrown a bit further. My left arm was bruised, but I saw no movement from Insiyah. I crawled towards her, all the while keeping an eye on the car. It had all my ammunition which I needed right at this moment.
I heard a few gunshots a bit further away and realized it was not our car that was attacked but we were caught in a crossfire. What bad timing, I thought as I reached out to Insiyah.
“Are you hurt?” I called out to her.
She raised her head from under her arm to respond, “No” she called out over the loud noises around us. Though I could see that she was bruised, I realized we needed to move out from here soon. I held her by her arm and lifted her. We ran towards the car, quickly took out the pistol and ran as far as we could. It was almost dark and impossible for us to see where we were headed. But I was sure, anywhere apart from here would be safer. Just then, right behind us, with another airstrike our car went off in flames, all my ammunition lost forever.
We ran till we reached a ruined house in the outskirts of the city. The debris of the house was enough to have kept us safe for a while. I asked Insiyah to station herself in a corner while I moved to the other end to check where the firing was coming from. As soon as I spotted away out in the opposite direction, I went back to get her. There she lay, in a pool of blood, her eyes open towards the sky.
“Insiyah…oh, Insiyah!” I cried bitterly, feeling sorry for my failure. “I really wanted to be able to save you…get you home…reunite you with your family.”
I buried my face in my hands and cried. I let out an anguished scream and cried some more.
What use is it if we cannot control our own actions?
What God, in this whole world, watches our actions but does not watch over us?
What right do we have to take lives if we cannot save even one?
Who am I to hold this gun and kill someone if the one person I set out to guard could not be saved?
What country is this, that has a million crushed homes, displaced lives, ruined buildings and not one person to nurture the young dreams of children?
Why is this land barren, robbed of its men who could have stood for humanity?
Why is this a country without people?
Disclaimer: This story is inspired by true events during the initial years of Syrian Civil War. All the characters (except asterisk marked) are fictional and bear no resemblance to any person living or dead. The death toll in the Syrian War totals over 500,000+ in the last seven years of conflict, including children who have been most affected.
This story is a loud cry of every child whose future has been thrust in the hollow gloom created by humans without an ounce of humanity. This is the story of every child who wishes for a reason to smile, a dream to live by, a chance at normalcy. Let us pray that these children are returned their childhood. Soon.