Layla stroked Ahmed's head full of curls - lulling him to sleep. His bright brown curious eyes now had deep dark circles around them. She cradled him in her lap, and tried to shift a little atop her single suitcase to release the cramp in her leg. It was more difficult to breathe now, the air was recycled too many times over. The truck bumped along the potholed road and with the rocking movements her mind drifted back to her last days at home.
Three days ago, the fighting had moved from the outskirts of the city, to the heart of her neighbourhood. Everyone was an enemy and no one could be trusted. Friends, family, each trying to save themselves and the weakest would be sacrificed. She knew long before that day that she would not be safe. Ali had warned her before he left. He had little choice when the soldiers came, demanding that he go with them - they needed his expertise. He never thought his engineering skills would be sought during war time, least of all, by the occupiers. He warned Layla then that she would have to be vigilant and strong for both of them and especially for little Ahmed. They had talked about the possibility of having to leave many times before and he'd always said that Ahmed was to be protected no matter what. She never imagined that Ali wouldn't be with them when they left. Maybe if he had been, their departure would have been smoother. Maybe they wouldn’t have to be huddled into the back of a truck in the dead of night to escape.
She could feel the tension rising in the town - going to buy bread was becoming too risky. The sounds of gun-fire were getting closer and closer and people in her street spoke of neighbours disappearing or their homes being raided. She heard the whispers behind her that her husband was a traitor and sold-out to the enemy. And then the local mosque was hit in an air-raid. She knew it was time to go. There was no way of reaching Ali, but she remembered where he had gone to arrange for his parents to leave. She bundled her gold chain and Ali's old watch into a packet and made her way to the cafe in search of Hasan. He would help them, she only hoped that what she could afford as payment was enough to get them to safety.
The truck came to a sudden halt. Ahmed woke in shock and began to cry, but she tried to quiet him. Forty people's lives depended on his silence. There was no telling where they were or why they had been stopped. She had long lost track of time in the darkness of the crowded truck. There were muffled voices outside and then the roll-up door at the back of the truck opened. It took Layla a few moments to adjust her eyes to the blinding light, she had no idea the sun had already risen! The driver began shouting: "Come on, get out, get out! " Fearfully, each person in the truck stumbled to their feet and gathered their few belongings, walking toward the light. She hurried Ahmed up and stretching her limbs, she reached for her suitcase and a little sandwich box she had packed for him. She was one of the last in the truck when she noticed the old man who had played a game with Ahmed earlier when they first got into the truck, hadn't woken up. She reached over, nudging him, but he wouldn't wake. Ahmed was tugging at her sleeve, his beautiful wide eyes showing his confusion. "Mummy, I want to go home." Taking him out to the mouth of their truck-cave, she lowered him down into the dust: "Ahmed, sweetheart, this is our new home. Look, we'll live in a tent like the one in which you and daddy used to play in in the backyard."
As they walked to the registration desk, Layla felt a wave of sadness overcome her. This was the moment that she and Ahmed would forever be something other than just people. This was the moment that they took on the label of refugee-: a person without status, without a home, without even family - a person in need of others – in need of strangers. Refugees - the label that would stick forever. She felt defeated. She felt imprisoned in her freedom. Their every movement was to be regulated from this point on. Where they slept, when they ate, how much food they consumed, what medication they took - everything they did from this moment would be subjected to total scrutiny. Of course it was for their safety, for their freedom, to make them feel a sense of normality. But there was nothing normal about this!
The woman at the desk stamped her forms and in a stern voice said: “Tent 254, you’ll be sharing with 20 other women”. Layla gathered her things and guided Ahmed to her side. He was confused and hid behind her skirt, fearful of this new environment. As they walked in search of Tent 254, Layla felt nauseated by the rancid smells emanating from every crevice. She looked for familiar faces in the lines and lines of people waiting for their ration of food and medicine. There were none. Reaching Tent 254, she handed her papers to the warden and the moment she and Ahmed entered, she wanted to turn around and run back home. Even in the midst of war, she thought, there was still a sense of comfort - the comfort of being home. In this tent, all she found were other mothers with their screaming children and nothing but a plastic mat to sleep on. Ahmed joined the chorus cries and snuggled closer to his mother for comfort. Layla found a clean spot, where she and Ahmed could rest a while. She fed him his sandwich and tried to calm him by humming a familiar tune.
The next few days, she busied herself with getting acquainted with her surroundings. She chatted to some of the other women in the tent, many of whom had their own horror stories to tell. Two had been raped and then ousted by their communities; they came here in desperation and because they feared they would be killed. Their bastard babies would at least have some hope for survival here, in this camp.
Each day was a struggle between hope and despair at the stark reality of their new existence. And that is all it was - an existence - not a life!
In the days that followed, Layla tried talking to some of the soldiers around the camp. She wondered if there was any way of getting to know where Ali was, or sending him a message letting him know that she and Ahmed were okay. She wrote many letters but had no way of knowing if any had reached him. They did! And within a month, Ali reached the camp, ecstatic at the thought of reuniting with his family. The warden at Tent 254 stopped him from entering – “only women and children allowed in there, sir.”
“Yes, yes, my wife and child are in there – Layla and Ahmed!”
But they were not ….
Ahmed developed a fever – he had never felt quite comfortable in the camp. She tried to distract him, keeping him busy with little things, taking him for walks and looking for toys or reading him books she borrowed from the make-shift school. The nurses said the doctor would be back in three days and they were only able to give him some syrup. That didn’t quite help and he would wail throughout the night and wouldn’t eat. Malnourished and in need of immediate medical attention, Ahmed’s body got more limp. Layla began to mimic his symptoms. She brushed it off as exhaustion but day after day, she got weaker. One day, a Sunday evening, Ahmed stopped crying. He quietly slipped into a slumber from which he never awoke. Devasted and heartbroken, and consumed by hopelessness, Layla soon followed her beloved son.
Mother and child, became just another statistic of mortality in a refugee camp.
(In commemoration of World Refugee Day: 20 June)