The final bell rang so I slung my bookbag over my shoulders and began my walk home from school when my favorite park came into view. I usually come here with my best friend, Kaisar to play soccer or marbles, but today is going to be different. My relatives are coming over for dinner and even though I saw them just a few days ago, I love when they come over; my grandparents in the living room complaining, my parents and relatives arguing over politics and the smell of argila sitting dank in the air like an invited guest while something delicious is cooking in the kitchen, my cousins, siblings and I playing soccer outside or on the PlayStation, all the while Fairuz is singing the songs of our childhood in the background. Oh how I am looking forward to this evening!
My hair, short and dark, glistened under the hot Arabian sun. My shoes are starting to wear out but Papa promised he would buy me a new pair since I’m getting high grades. Papa owns a coffee shop, and although it’s a bit slow I don’t really mind because that means he gets to come home early and spend more time with us.
I slowly approach my house and at first glance it’s not attractive, just a duplex made out of concrete. I step inside the screen porch, plastic chairs idling on the side and Turkish carpeting covering the floor. The door opens to the living room and I see my whole family is present but my dad, huddled around the television watching Al Jazeera News.
Something is wrong.
It started in my beautiful city, Daraa, about two months ago, a group of people gathered in front of the city hall and demanded the release of fourteen school children. Our neighbor, a fragile old man but a political savvy at that, told us that they were tortured after writing on a wall the well-known slogan of the popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt: “The people want the downfall of the regime.” That was just one incident but for the most part my dad said that the people are starting to demand certain freedoms like self-expression and to end the corruption in our federal government and military.
After seeing the aftermath of the revolutions in Egypt and Libya, the Syrian people don’t intend on starting one; we are simply asking for reform and democracy. Lately, the protests have started to intensify and things just aren’t the same anymore. A year ago, I could walk down the street at three in the morning and not be bothered; but now, I am seeing soldiers roaming our streets and I know the names of every weapon. Even with everything going on, I still feel safe and Papa always taught my siblings and I that education is the key to a successful and happy life, that’s why I still go to school.
The house is very quiet and all I can hear is the anchorman delivering breaking news: “People marched though the city after Friday prayers this afternoon, security forces opened fire, killing four people…”
Mama is now wailing and repeatedly asking where my father is. Panic started to set in my stomach after I remember him telling me this morning that he is going to Friday prayer.
After hours of hysteric crying and grief, the moon has finally shown itself to purify today’s bloodshed with a sheet of blue velvet encrusted with diamonds to wipe away our tears. I can feel my own rolling down my cheeks now, but I am determined to believe that he will come back, he always does. My relatives never came for dinner either, officials have our city under siege.
I awoke from a nightmarish sleep and to the sound of my dear Mama yelling downstairs. The sun, already shining bright, blinded me as I arise from my coffin. I run down to the living room and there he was, back from the dead.
“Where have you been!” Mama screamed.
Papa pulled her to the couch and cooed to her until she stopped crying and shaking. My entire body was still, but I can feel a smile forming on my face, I won; Papa came back. I can hear him now telling us all about how he was at the protests yesterday when security forces shot at them. Papa ran as fast as he could with the sound of bullets ringing through his ears and spent the night with a close friend. After he told us his ordeal, I hugged my dad really tight and never wanted to let go.
Four more people died yesterday, the mourners of the victims from Friday’s protests.
Things are getting worse, ever since the Friday prayer protest the government cut the running water in our city and electricity only comes every six hours and that’s enough to just charge our phones. I heard Mama yesterday night telling Papa we might be moving to the city where my grandparents live, Deir ez-Zor. The protests are becoming more frequent and no one can sleep because just the sound of missiles alone are enough to frighten you awake.
I am not going to school today because there are soldiers marching by our street. I’ve never seen actual soldiers before, but now I see them so often it has become a normal sight. I am playing with my little sister, Aya, and the centerpieces on the coffee table fell. I reached over to place them back when the entire house shook like a thunderous God. I fell and hit my head on the corner of the table, everything is blurry when I see Papa scoop me up in his strong arms and I can barely make out what is happening when my surroundings turn dark. My heart is pounding right out my chest, I can hear screaming outside on the streets and the sound of missiles colliding with buildings and the sound of Papa yelling at us all to hurry into the pantry. Everything is chaos.
It felt like ten minutes passed when the pain in my head eased away and heard the shrieking of my little sister. We are all in the pantry, huddling in one corner with Papa’s arms protecting us like an angel. I heard it again, the loud roar of the missiles which made me shrivel into insignificant dirt burying my head against the cold unstable wall. It is quiet now and the missiles stopped but the peace ended as quickly as it came, the rumble of the earth and the vigorous explosions of nearby buildings immediately followed which made everyone’s skin jump. I start to cry realizing that this is how my life will end, and what happened next affirmed my belief that this is so.
It sounded like a million jets and NASA rockets all racing full speed. I can’t comprehend what is happening and I am boiling with heat with all of us crammed like sardines in the tiny pantry.
The noise was angry, it was pollution.
Solid colliding with solid.
The West wall of my home disintegrated into ash and rubble within seconds, and it happened again. The sheer power of the bombs has knocked us all down, everyone is holding on for dear life. The ceiling of the kitchen has been annihilated leaving us exposed to what is now a missile air traffic hotspot. My surroundings are not making any sense, the explosion left me shaking and temporarily deaf all I can hear is a loud buzzing sound.The debris of concrete and iron is raining down on us with gunpowder residue invasive to our clean air. For a moment I marvel at the beauty of destruction, how it can just destroy everything within seconds.
Everything feels surreal, and I still don’t understand why is this happening to us. What did we do wrong? Assad’s family has been ruling our country for more than four decades and has been denying us our rights, it doesn’t make a difference even if we do overthrow him; they will only replace him with another dictator.
Another twenty minutes passed when the bombardments and missile strikes finally stopped. The debris left us all with scratches and bruises but I’ll take that than death any day. We aren’t moving at all at this point, but still trying to grasp the impossible while my younger brother, Mohammad is crying out in pain from the debris. I turn around to see what is left of my home, I step out of the “door” which was not there anymore, just hinges, and I come out onto the street, the kitchen is gone. My once radiant neighborhood is now the epitome of bleakness and despair.
We reassemble in the living room or at least what is left of it, rubble and dirt is everywhere and I am covered head to toe with the toxic stench of gunpowder and gypsum.
“A’udhu Billahi min Ash-shaytan Ir’rajim” (I seek protection in Allah from the accursed Satan), is what Mama and Papa are repeating over and over as they march to and fro in the living room.
My siblings and I sit on a pile of debris and begin to cry, my home is destroyed, there’s no water or electricity, and my heart is still pounding from the deafening strikes of missiles. I was not supposed to see this, I was supposed to come home from school to watch Power Rangers.
دير الزور, Syria
1000 people died that day, the protests became too much for the government to handle so they met us with fire. By now, we completely scratched out the idea of reform and are demanding Bashar Al-Assad to resign.What happened that May afternoon triggered more anti-government protests but this time, across the country!
We had to walk in an intricate channel of underground tunnels in order to trespass the closure but from there my family and I boarded an old station wagon alongside four other families heading to Dier ez-Zor and occasionally passing through desert towns. There was no air conditioner and I was swimming in my own sweat, the only mercy I had on that trip were the breezy nights under the stars, but those were also the worst nights as I cried myself to sleep thinking of my childhood home, all the friends I left behind, but especially my best friend Kaisar whom I never got the chance to say goodbye to. We brought with us just the bare minimum; a change of clothes, few sandwiches and water. One thing that I still find pathetic is the family photographs Mama deemed too important to leave behind. Funny how humans, even in the most dire situations turn to memories for survival.
We have been living in my aunt’s house for a month now and although it doesn’t have my favorite screened porch, they have electricity and running water but sometimes we have to boil the water since it is not clean. One upside in the midst of downsides is I get to see my cousins everyday and play soccer and PlayStation. I enrolled in a new school and I start tomorrow, not sure if I want to go or not because it means starting over.
I am reading a book in my new room when I hear Mama calling me to come downstairs, she sounds urgent and almost grief-stricken. I slowly make my way to the dining room, it is a grand room with a crystal chandelier hanging right above a long slab of marble that seats twelve people in the center of the room. My siblings and older brother, Khalid are all outside and Mama and Papa are sitting down with Mama’s hands covering her face. Her long brown hair fell across her slender shoulders, in a sad kind of way while my dad is sitting stiff in his chair.
“Sit down, habibi (my love),” Papa quietly spoke.
I sit down across from them, the mood is very sullen. I ask if everything is okay.
There was a long pause when Papa finally said, “There were protests at your old school in Daraa last week, the students were chanting, ‘Leave Assad Leave.’ Security forces came and bombarded the school, missiles were flying in all directions and nothing could have been done. All the kids that were on the first floor, died.”
I hear a distant buzzing in my ears and I am not sure what to say.
“How do you know?” I finally ask, with a hint of annoyance.
“One of your friend’s fathers called us to deliver the tragic news. God curse him! Assad is a coward and a disgrace to leadership.”
“So now what?” I ask, and I can feel a lump in the back of my throat.
Papa exhaled a sigh, “Kaisar was one of them.”
Papa’s almond eyes were too sad to meet mine, and all I can register was the buzzing sound that keeps on returning.
“Allah yerhamoh (May God have mercy on his soul),” Papa trying to say helpfully, but it is not working.
“No it can’t be! How can you be so sure?” I am in disbelief, this just cannot be. Papa is not saying anything and so is Mama, her somber hazel eyes are looking right ahead of me in an unspoken sorry. My eyes are like a dam just waiting to burst into a river of tears so I get up from the death chair and run up to my room to do all my crying there.
True tragedy has never existed to me until today. I choose not to believe this, what makes them so sure Kaisar was one of them? He can’t be. I have known him since I was four years old and he has always been faster than me and could never catch him when we played Tag, I am sure he outran the explosion and soldiers. I can almost picture him right now, running like a blur with his ginger hair being tousled by the wind.
I cried myself to sleep last night. All I could picture is my old school blowing up in flames and everyone burning down with it, I try and fail to shake away the image.
Papa always told me to never cry but yesterday and today and for the coming days, my tears are front in line waiting to jump off my eye sockets and I will let them roll. Not for Kaisar, but for the fact that I never had the chance to say goodbye and to tell him how much he means to me.
I will always love him and will always see him as my one true friend in the midst of all the hate and chaos..
Ever since the protests broke out and the government striking back, people have been losing their jobs, including me. It was hard leaving that coffee shop, I built it from the ground up and it was really going well for me and my family. Slowly people stopped coming because it wasn’t safe anymore, the government began to take sixty-five percent of my earnings, and the crisis was making it impossible make any orders or shipments for inventory and soon enough I had no business to run. It has been six months since we fled Daraa and things are only getting worse. A friend of mine here in Deir ez-Zor helped me get a few odd jobs and it should be enough for the meantime to get things moving again.Common food staples like sugar, flour, or bread are very now expensive and all the banks shut down. What started as only a few minor protests for reform and negotiations has turned into a full scale revolution, and Russia, the Satan’s right hand, has become involved in backing Assad against the Freedom Fighters. The world is watching us suffer as our own government is slaughtering us like cattle and the saddest part is, the people and activists from United Nations or World Vision that are donating money and fundraising for aid and medicine; little do they know that it never goes beyond the barricades and it never actually reaches the people but rather all these precious resources end up in the hands of the enemy.
My wife and I were so happy together, we have many children who are all beautiful and smart and I had a good job that people were jealous of our prosperity. Half the time I just don’t know what to say to my dear wife, Fatima anymore without arguing over money or the kids or how she doesn’t want to live at her sister’s house anymore. The war changed us all, I’ve grown thinner from the lack of food and my complexion, paler but not her. Fatima still stays that beautiful woman that I first met when I was twenty-five. Her long sable hair still shines with pride with no gray hairs unlike myself and her oval face still radiates with colour, she is always there for me when I need her most, she is my rock, my beam of hope, the strong resilient woman who bore me eight beautiful healthy children whom we pride ourselves to call our own. My two eldest sons, Omar and Khalid, were and still are my glory and accomplishment but I feel like I have disappointed them somehow especially Omar. I should have never told him about Kaisar that day four months ago, now he refuses to eat or play or do anything especially with me and when his gaze does meet mine it is like a knife of sorrow plunged in the depths of my heart. That boy was like my own son, he bore a strong resemblance to his father, a stocky man with ginger-brown hair who runs his barbershop right across from my coffee shop. Oh how I will miss Kaisar and everytime he passes by my shop to buy some candy and soda, he didn’t get his stature from his father because he was quite tall and had freckles that covered the bridge of his nose.
I shake away these useless thoughts of despair, no point in moping around about the past. My brother, Yousif is supposed to come by today so we can run errands together but I am not sure I want him to come anymore because there have been airstrikes near our neighborhood all morning and they are getting closer.
I walk into the kitchen to make myself a sandwich and I see my youngest child, Yahya playing with toy cars that he borrowed from his cousin. My heart throbbed just seeing his pure innocence and his complete oblivion to the cruelty of this world.
I feel a vibration beneath me and I hear shouting outside, I look out the window and I see a military tank rolling down the street five meters away from our house. Its heavy metallic armor almost invincible and its long large-caliber cannon being controlled by a rotating gun turret with machine guns and other weaponry mounted on either side. Military personnel are marching by its side and pushing anyone who is standing in their way, I open the door just enough to see what the ruckus is all about, and I spot a resistance starting to form in the opposite direction of the tank and soldiers, and they all carried AK-47’s like a bouquet of roses and that’s when all hell broke loose and an open-fire against one another began. I swivel back and shut the door, but the sound is undeniable. I shout at everyone to go inside the dining room which was in the far wing of the house and more secluded from the behind while I go stand by the door to see what is happening.
I open the door again and inch closer outside to get a better view but the thick smoke and gunpowder is hovering in the air and can’t see much while the bullets are ringing through my ears and the amount of people in combat and bystanders is too chaotic for me to concentrate.
But even in the midst of the pandemonium I still spot him.
My dear older brother, Yousif stepping out of his car and surveying the disarray five meters from my house as if trying to maneuver through land mines. I step down the steps and wave at him to try and get his attention, luckily he spots me and waves back and I see a smile spreading across his face.
“Go back!” I yell, but he doesn’t hear me because I can see him trying to advance to my house.
“Go home!” I try again extending my arms as high as I can reach and wave him to go back inside the car, but I am barely audible through the hundreds of people shouting above me and another hundred firearms blasting away. And he waves back with his twinkling eyes looking right at me.
Everything happened so quickly after.
I would trade it all so I could have taken his place. It should have been me, I was always the disappointment in my family. He was the rich successful engineer who married early and whom everyone adored while I was a small businessman whose wife my family initially did not approve of and had my enemies. But despite all our differences our love for one another is indestructible, stronger than a thousand armors.
The streets were all blocked by rebels and security forces but my poor brother was too persistent. As he tried to make his way through the people, a bomb blasted right through his stomach and a gaping hole is what is left behind in his muscular body.
I fell down on my knees in agony and cried out in pain like a lone wolf who lost its pack, as if someone stuck a knife through my heart and a dagger slit my throat. I ran to my big brother while ballistic missiles are raining down on me and soldiers and rebels are marching on top of one another in a stampede.
He was dead before I even got to him. I brush his curly hair away from his face which was black from the smoke. I pick up his fragile body which is still bleeding out and rest his head on my lap as I sob on his burnt chest, I have never cried this much in my life until today. I dread looking down at the rest of his body but I do it anyway, there is a bloody mouth where his stomach used to be and my guts clench. Bystanders start to surround me and ask if I’m okay and I yell at them to leave me alone, I don’t need traitors.
I have always conceived of death as a misfortune that befell others, other people’s parents, other people’s brothers and sisters and loved ones, but never mine. I get up from the dirty ground with my big brother in my arms trying to make my way back inside the house, I can barely see a thing with all these tears gushing like a waterfall and bombs going off everywhere. People are trying to help me but I push them away, those savages did nothing to help my brother, the supposed “Freedom Fighters.” I wipe away my tears with my bloody hands and run as much I could while carrying my brother, when I finally reach the house I vigorously knock on the door and my sister-in-law, Zuhair opens it.
Her mouth drops to the floor and starts wailing.
“Ya Allah, Ya Allah (O God),” she is crying out on her knees and pounding her hands on her head.
Fatima runs to the door and sees Yousif.
“Make sure the kids are in their rooms, don’t make them come out,” I say, and try to hold back my own tears. I walk across the living room and kitchen as blood is dripping from my brother’s body and hands and I make my way into the backyard.
Zuhair, her husband, and my wife Fatima all rush outside.
“Leave me alone, I don’t want anyone coming near him” I yell.
“Go!” and they all slowly trudge back inside.
He didn’t do anything wrong and yet he was forsaken.
This is the thing about war: it does not care who you are, whether good or bad, or what religion or race or gender, it will destroy you nonetheless.
I only found out about my uncle two days after his death, they had to put him in one of the spare rooms because it wasn’t safe to go outside and even when things did settle down we still couldn’t give him a proper burial. By now, I am growing accustomed to death it’s like the friend you don’t remember how you met but now you’re close. I think about Uncle Yousif and Kaisar everyday, no one will understand how much it aches me to know that I am alive and two very important people to me, who were not deserving of their tragic death, aren’t. Papa doesn’t talk much like he used to, he leaves early in the morning for work and comes back at night when I’m sleeping. My older brother, Khalid, found a job as a carpenter in a workshop because we’re starting to run out of money and everyone sometimes tells me that I should go find a job but I won’t, I need to focus on school.
The school year started a few months ago and I managed to make a couple friends, but they will never be Kaisar. The war has escalated all over Syria, and although things are definatly not safe anymore I still persist to go to school. Part of my daily routine is to walk twenty minutes to get there and part of that is walking past a Freedom Fighter base every morning and there are days when they’re testing out time bombs or grenades just depends on my luck.
Today is a school day, and I finally reach the parking lot to the side door. I say goodmorning to my teacher and take my seat.
We have recess and I am playing Man Hunt with some of the people in my class when I hear the older kids in grade eleven and twelve chanting something on the other side of the field. As I walk closer to the crowd I can hear them shouting, “Assad Assad, coward is what you are!”
I can sense things will only get worse from here because the teachers and principle come to try and get them to stop and the students are pushing them away but I pictured Kaisar part of these demonstrations, was this what happened? A grin formed on my face and my feet are guiding me toward the crowd and soon enough I hear my mouth moving forming the words, “Assad Assad, coward is what you are!”
Out of nowhere the school field erupts with smoke bombs and everyone is coughing, including myself. Nothing is clear, all I can see is the silhouettes of people screaming and running around in panic. I quickly run to a corner of the field to hide under a tree, when the smoke dispersed and sure enough there they were, the killers, the life stealers.
My heart is pounding faster than ever, this is happening to me. It happened to Kaisar now it’s happening to me they’re going to bomb my school. I hear missiles going off, where are they coming from? I am not sure, I am not sure of anything anymore I feel like we’re constantly being watched by the government how else could they have responded so quickly to a petty protest much less in a school.
My eyes are following the missiles through the sky like a space shuttle, and I see the harrowing fact that it is getting closer and closer to where I am.
There was a sudden blinding flash followed by a roar that was smashed, torn, then spat back out in a fury of shock waves and debris that shot out like meteorites as they headed for the field. A black turmoil of smoke rises to engulf us and I grab for the fence and attempt to climb over it. More smoke bombs are going off and soldiers are grabbing and shooting at children. My own thoughts are drowning under all the screaming and shooting.
I escape through the parking lot and look over my shoulder, the school isn’t there anymore just rubble and smoke. More military personnel arrive to surround the perimeters of the used-to-be school but I run several more blocks and I see trucks and tanks blocking the streets, I need to go home.
I cut through a series of houses until I reach a back lane that opens to a main street and run onto the street but before I can stop, the tank like a hunk of metal runs over me. I scream out in pain as the heat surges through my hands and spine, I can’t feel my entire body.
Just as things are turning black I remember, today is my birthday.
That happened three years ago, I turned twelve that day. I don’t remember anything from that day but I was told that I was taken to a “hospital,” which was really just a makeshift infirmary because Russian Forces demolished every hospital in the area.
What I do remember is waking up from the anesthetic, and looking about the dreary room.
There is something missing.
And then it hit me, my left leg is gone.
I remember the anger boiling right through my eyes and ears and refusing to speak with anyone but the doctor and when he finally came in I screamed at him. He tried to calm me down but I was hitting and kicking and screaming.
“How could you, ya hakir! (Arabic insult)” I shouted in exasperation.
I begin to cry and say between sobs, “How could you do this to me?” I sniffle.
I am hopeless in this bed with one leg, you might as well feed me to the wolves.
“I am sorry, Omar but it was the only way. The infection was spreading everywhere if we had not done what we had done, you could have died. And your right leg was nothing but bone, I had to take skin from your arms to put on your thigh and calf,” the doctor explained.
I quickly look down at my arms, and he was not lying. There are scars and stitches all over my arms from where he took skin, I stare at him in disgust then at myself through the mirror in pity.
He comes back an hour later with my family to tell me the news that I am not allowed to stand or walk for one year! Now I really hate him.
I cry a river and start kicking at the hospital sheets, how can this happen to me I had two legs just twenty-four hours ago now I barely have one. I would have much rather died than go through this cruel suffrage.
Throughout that year I stayed in my room upstairs while it was mostly Teta (Grandma) who took care of me, I will forever thank her and still need to return the deed. She fed, washed, and clothed me it was very embarrassing I felt like baby but I had no other choice.
But like all things, there was beauty in every tragedy. I had a lot of spare time as one could imagine, I stopped going to school, and there were times when my family and friends grew impatient with me and I became very bored and depressed. I would spend hours alone in that room gazing out of the window just longing to go outside and take a walk while the breeze played with my hair and fill my nostrils. It was those times of yearning and hopelessness that I discovered my new found love for art, I would draw ten or fifteen sometimes even twenty sketches per day.
Art filled that dark void of despair in my soul, it was and is my way of manifesting my visions and thoughts and the urgent need to birth these ideas into the world. Ideas of peace and happiness and also wacky ideas of people of different statures or had more or less limbs than the average. At that time, art was my salvation and my only outlet otherwise I would have turned insane.
It has been three years since I last went to school, I miss learning new things but there is no school where I live and no money to register me and my siblings to one.
We fled Syria the year after my full recovery with two of my uncle’s families, and are now living in a city called, Buadha, Lebanon in an employee camp. The man running it was gracious enough to find us a place to stay even if it was in the middle of a construction site. It is not a house, just a block of concrete and a single room the size of a tuna can and I have to share it with my family. There is no door, the only way we can go in or out is through a makeshift window which was actually a hole and there is no bathroom which means we have to go outside and do it in a hole.
The Lebanese people hate us and Papa can’t find a job but my older brother Khalid got hired as a carpenter in a workshop because he was sixteen. This is not the life I envisioned for myself, I have always dreamed of finishing school and becoming a doctor so I can help Syrians and children.
I sit on the ledge of the “window” and make the minor jump to the ground. I walk a couple minutes to the workers common room which consists of a television, two sofas, coffeemaker, an air conditioner, a coffee table, and a deck of cards, it was as lively as the block of concrete I live in just two minutes down.
The employees are on their break and Uncle Sofian and my family are sitting around the television watching an Arabic translation of Fox News. It is a conference somewhere in America talking about Syria and its rising death toll due to Russian and American involvement, an Arab spokesperson is accusing the American military of targeting civilians and national artifacts.
The host and a few other researchers quickly assured the worried graying man, “Our money goes to support our military, it seeks to protect and serve Americans as well as seek social justice for those oppressed overseas. The US Air Force and Troops are targeting Assad regime military bases and personnel only, all other miscellaneous deaths are simply collateral damage.”