This morning was different; I sensed it from the very moment I woke up. The noise was gone, the constant reminder of the menace that exists beyond these walls. I looked around the room; they were all still asleep lying on their mats, with tear streaked faces masked with red dust. I met the gaze of my mother, she didn’t sleep. She rarely ever does these days. She was different too, everything was.
Tawama hasn’t always been like this. About six years ago, I remember walking down its streets with no fear. I was ten back then. The violence began subtly, a few riots here and there against the dictatorial regime of president Bashar al-Assad. The riots got bloody and that was the dawn of the four-year on-going civil war. My town, unfortunately, serves as a military base to the Nusra front, an Al-Qaeda affiliate here in Syria. Father was a loyal member of the Nusra troops; he said his reward awaited him in paradise. He got gunned down during a clash. The news of his death came as no surprise to us for we had grown accustomed to death and pain.
The airstrike happened yesterday in the afternoon in the north-west of town, it was quick and in the blink of an eye it was destruction all around. This was the description given by the oldest cousin as she and the rest of her displaced family arrived at my home. We let them in with open arms knowing they had nowhere else to go. We let our small home become tighter than it already was. They lost a sister; three years old. She was crushed under the ruins of their home. No one said anything more. They all just cried.
Mother gestured from across the room, signalling that I should come over. I walked over to the other side of the room trying to avoid disturbing any of my cousins. I eased myself on the tattered mat beside her, there was something in her eyes that made my insides turn. Mother lightly placed her hand on my shoulder and began to speak in hushed whispers. Mother spoke of freedom and hope, of new beginnings. She said that it was the time the snatch the pen from the author and take charge of our own story. She had finally gotten a way for us to get there, her sleep deprived eyes burning with determination. I understood clearly we were crossing the borders, a boat journey across the sea.
Mother had always hinted this intent when she spoke to me, the problem was money but with the way she spoke now, I knew money was not a problem anymore. The house had been sold to the cousins and now we finally had enough money. I closed my eyes and saw myself in a warm furry coat, walking down a street full of warm smiling faces, snow in my hair. “We move tonight Zeinah” mother said as she left the room, curtains left to sway behind her. “Tonight,” I said under my breath, heart beating faster.
A strange man arrived with mother, he spoke good English. I packed the bags and everything amounted to a small bag with clothes and a second bag with a few loaves of bread .We stepped out into the night, there was a truck down the road, the man led us to it and assisted mother into the back of the truck. Mother remained silent through most of the truck-ride; both arms held across her belly, clearly outlining her bump. I stared at it and began to wonder if the child would be a boy or a girl and if the child would have fathers square-set jaw line. The journey to the border took about two days, with frequent stops along the way at which more people mounted the truck. We had to hide behind the bags of sand in the truck and we drove through a forest trail to avoid any interference. The strange man whom I later identified as Rashid spoke a lot during the journey; he did a good job of reminding us that he was doing us a favour and how we didn’t deserve to cross over because we got it really cheap. He got really angry when a young man complained about the truck being too tightly packed, he was so mad that he slapped the young man right across the face and gave him a series of blows to the stomach. Nobody said anything to Rashid for the rest of the trip.
The truck came to an abrupt stop, the door was opened and a group of men standing outside the truck began barking orders at us to get out of the truck, everyone hurriedly gathered their things and jumped down the side of the truck. As I jumped down the truck and helped mother down a life jacket was thrown in my direction by one of the men and the second one for my mother. I put mine on; mother had trouble with hers because the buckles couldn’t fit over her stomach.
The walk to the coast was several miles away from the truck. I knew the coast was near because of the salty sea breeze, the smell of freedom. I took a deep breath and glanced over at mother to see if she was enjoying the sea breeze too. She seemed unmoved; she just kept pulling at her life jacket and looking uncomfortable.
We finally saw the boat, it was a dinghy .A knot in my stomach, and “this is real” I said to myself. More orders were barked at us and we all got on the boat. The boat journey began after a lot of argument between the men, a dispute about the money, I assumed. Mother sat at one end of the boat while I sat beside her. Mother tucked a loose hair behind my ear, “the beginning of our happy ending” she said with a slight smile on her delicate face. I looked behind and watched the shore fade away.
The storm happened that night, the water got really rough. The boat was swaying from side to side, the cold wind against my skin. The boat almost got turned over, mother and everyone on the left side of the boat got thrown into the water, and I barely escaped falling in too. Screams and shouts erupted from the boat; I could not even hear mine. It took about thirty minutes before they got pulled back into the boat, all but one. Mother was gone, her orange life jacket left to bob away in the water. My heart fell, “mother!” I shouted, looking over the edge of the boat, hot tears welling up in my eyes, my limbs numb and throat sore. “Shut your mouth” someone yelled at me from the front corner of the boat. No one else noticed she was gone. I sat back down trembling, hot tears rolling down my cheeks. The storm had calmed down. This was meant to be our happy ending.