by Michael D. Roberts
He woke with sudden start. Reality came as a shock flooding back at him, jolting him into the painful realm of consciousness. Now, he sat upright, ramrod stiff, as the cold black night wrapped itself around his frail 12-year old body. How the raw, painful scars of yesterday opened up anew incomprehensible, bewildering and real. Sharif agonizingly remembered one minute playing in the dusty streets with his friends in the Syrian border town of Raqqa. It was about 3:00 p.m. when he heard the gunfire in the distance – loud, booming, ominous and frightening. The very next minute his mother had called out to him to get inside. Saying goodbye to his friends, he beat a hasty retreat from the street that was fast becoming very empty, as he scrambled inside the small house.
Now, as he sat in the cold, yet comforting dark, Sharif knew that the events of the day before would haunt him forever. The men in black came in pick-up trucks brandishing AK-47s and other weapons. Peeping through the window of his home he saw one of the men shoot and kill the kindly shopkeeper, as he knelt with his hands up, just up the streets. At that moment, Sharif could see that he was very terrified. As his body convulsed and shook on the ground Sharif watched as the shopkeeper’s wife ran out yelling and screaming. Suddenly, a man clad in black pulled out a pistol and shot her – one time in the head. She fell on to her husband’s lifeless body lying in the streets. He had let out a loud scream, involuntary and unplanned.
Now, he wondered sadly what had become of his mother and father and his little sister just 8 years old. As the men came closer and closer to his home, going house to house, shooting and killing, his mother worked up the courage to pack a little backpack with some food, three bottles of water, and some other clothes and told him to run quickly through the back door and “go north” – as the pointed with her index finger. She had kissed him, trying to be brave, but he knew that she was petrified because she trembled from head to toe, as he hugged him.
Sharif kept to the back roads that he knew so very well walking and running, as the sound of gunfire got fainter and fainter. He did not know where he was going. He’d met an old woman running away too and then suddenly there were literally hundreds of people fleeing the violence of the ISIS killers. Men, young and old, women with babies, teenagers, toddlers dragged along by their mothers, a frightened, desperate sea of humanity fleeing the vicious dogs of war.
He lost track of time and as the evening grew colder and the shock and hopelessness of is situation set in Sharif fought back the tears. But it was no use – they came anywhere, like a river, fast, free and uncontrollable. He was scarred to his very soul by the events of the day indelibly stamped in his young mind struggling to comprehend the brutality and violence of man towards man. Mr. Ali – that was the name of the smiling, pot-bellied, and kindly shopkeeper – was not a violent man. He’d never saw a person shot and killed and the memory of that horrible event caused him to tremble in the darkness of the forest that he and hundreds more had sought refuge in.
As he took out a bottle of water from his backpack and drank a few sips, he mentally recounted the past day. He wondered what had become of his family. He thanked an old man who could walk no more for giving him an oversized black coat that now defended him from the nagging cold. He knew not how many miles he had trudged but thought that by late evening he could no longer hear the snarling cacophony of deadly gunfire. In the distance, he could just barely see the flickering of pale lights. He’d followed his mother’s “finger” and just ran and walked with the fleeing human mass punctuated by the sounds of babies crying, children complaining about being tired, old men and women coughing and young men and boys carrying their sisters on their backs and women hauling meager belongings behind them – all that they could grab before the killers reached their doors bringing death with them.
He listened intently as those around him huddled together and made do with what food or water they had. He heard mothers – he could not see them in the gloom – speaking softly to their children, now and then someone coughed or a young child cried, softly, almost quietly and ruefully. Sharif’s longed for his family. He’d be fast asleep by now, he reasoned without knowing the time. The pang of fright hit him now, as he did not know where he was going or what was going to become of him. He cried again and then mercifully fell into a fitful, dreamless sleep.
Sharif woke to the sound of birds screeching loud and sharp. A little confused it took him just a few seconds longer for everything to come flooding back to him. He looked around and took some comfort that there were many people around him. Hunger hit him hard. He’d not eaten since yesterday. Feeling inside his backpack he found a piece of bread wrapped in plastic. He broke off a small piece, ate it, and washed that down with three swings of water. Again, he wondered what had become of his family.
We’re they shot and killed? Did the ISIS fighters take them away to prison? Were they separated? Why did his mother send him away? Maybe she did not want him to be forced to become an ISIS soldier, he thought. What happened to his friend Malik and Atim? Did the ISIS soldiers kill them and their families? What will become of me? Tears welled up in his eyes again when the answers to these questions were not forth coming. He sat there in the early morning sun a frail, shortish boy who used to have a smiling face with twinkling eyes and dimples in both cheeks. He loved school and soccer and he wanted to be a doctor.
His mother had whispered in his ear that he must never give up and that Allah would protect him. Sharif sure hoped she was right. Again, lost in his thoughts he could see the ISIS soldiers coming down the streets shooting at every house and killing people on the streets. It was horrible and he knew that this scar would remain with him for the rest of his life. Try as he might he could not put the picture of people being executed in the streets of his close-knit village out of his mind. As people got up shook their clothes a tall, strong man told everyone that they needed to get a move on. All of the young men and children banded together to help each other – their very survival depended on each other.
As Sharif followed the group now numbering about one hundred people, he felt safer. In his mind he resolved to make it to the border as he’d heard the grownups say and survive. He promised himself to find his family – no matter how long it took. As if to strengthen his resolve he said a silent prayer to Allah asking for His protection and help to find his family. It drizzled lightly, a soft, caressing blessing from Heaven, falling on his desperate, scared, traumatized and helpless group. Sharif stuck out his tongue as the raindrops fell on it. He smiled, feeling a bit of hope now.
By mid-day they had come to a clearing in the woods. Sharif and all of the young men looked at a little village about a mile from where they were. He heard the grownups talk about “the border.” They also asked everyone to be quiet and rest until nightfall. He sat propped up against a large tree and took out his bottle of water. An elderly woman smiled at him and told him that they would be soon over the border. Nobody spoke about the ISIS raid. Everyone was lost in his or her own private thoughts.
As night fell the grown up told everyone to pack up and get ready to move. Sharif picked up his backpack and put it on his back. He carried a little stick in his hands. Now he remembered his loved ones back in Raqqa. He remembered a peaceful village where he lived before the war. Sad and alone he steeled himself. In just over 24 hours his life had changed. Yesterday he was a boy – today he was a man. Sharif walked toward the lights and freedom.