Running for the Bus
I find it strange that you choose to watch fireworks for pleasure, whereas I am forced to watch the fireworks every day and every night. Here they are now. Great bursts of color erupting in the otherwise silent night, greeted not by gasps of pleasure, but by screams. These are the screams of my neighbors and my friends and of children. My name is Yaseen. I am eight years old. I am from Aleppo.
I crouch, sandwiched between my mother and my father who hold me tight, under our dining table in my home. I can hear the bombs exploding, so loud and so close and with so much anger, seeking only to kill and destroy us. But what have we done?
The whole world is shaking and photos fall from the mantel and our windows shatter into a million shards that pierce our skin and draw blood. I close my eyes and pull closer to my father, who holds my mother and I even tighter. Through great raking sobs, my father recites verses from the Quran over and over until the night finally dies and a new dawn appears. A dawn that invites the fresh hope of a new day. But one, without my mother.
I gently lift the heavy arm of my father from around myself and he looks up and I see his face. Old tears and fresh tears plaster his brown hair to his forehead and my fathers blue eyes are so lost and so sad, that I just hug him like I won’t ever let go and we sit for a while, in the grey rubble of our home. And we cry. I bleed my tears dry until finally my father hands me a small pack and says, “Yaseen, we must go.”
Every step echoes a ‘crunch crunch’ as we step over rubble and metallic remnants of bomb. A metal bar sticks out from an ugly, unrecognizable building with a gaping hole in its wall, like an open mouth calling for help. There are people lying on the floor too. My father tells me to look up at the sky and focus on the clouds as we walk. He does not want me to see what is here. So I look up past the buildings billowing smoke and just beyond the grey of my city, I see clouds. They swirl slowly round each other in a manner so peaceful that, for a moment, I wish I were a cloud.
We have been walking for so long, and my feet are starting to blister. The pack on my back is starting to weigh me down in a way that makes me want to sink to my feet and just sleep forever and ever.
“Yaseen, let me carry it for you.” At first, I don’t let him, but then my feet stumble and my eyes begin to droop and my father not only takes my pack, but gently lifts me onto his broad chest and carries me onwards through a war torn Syria. All I manage to whisper into his ear is “I love you,” before my exhaustion takes hold of me and the blessing of sleep carries me away.
I dream of my mother.
Distant gunfire jolts me awake and I am placed quickly on the ground by father whose eyes are wild and scared.
“Yaseen, get on my back, now!”
I clamber on and feel the sharp whizz of a bullet fly by my face, and my father runs. Every pace throws me off balance on his back and I look around, searching. There are men, perching on broken rooftops with rifles, screaming things I can’t hear. My father suddenly cries out but continues to run. And I’m scared, terrified that we will go down, just like my mother and I hold onto my fathers back with a vice-like grip that I didn’t know I had, and then the men on the rooftop explode in a ball of fire and flame and red. Another barrel bomb.
The night comes quickly after that. We stumble around looking for shelter and finally curl up in the doorway of a deserted block of flats. My father’s arm is bathed in a deep red. But he is a doctor. He saves people. He can save himself, can’t he? From out of my Avengers Assemble backpack, I take out some stale pitta bread and offer it to my father. “Abu, eat.”
But he shakes his head and smiles a sad smile. “I’m not hungry Yaseen, you eat,” he says as he wraps a dirty piece of cloth around his upper arm, trying his best to shield my view from his injury. I can see from his eyes, it’s hurting.
“But Ummi would never let you leave for work without a proper meal,” I say. My father smiles at this distant memory of my mother and I know I have him. So we sit in the corridor, sharing stale pitta bread and taking sips of water from a flask being careful not to eat and drink too much, even though we both secretly want more. I shake some crumbs off my fathers beard and we laugh together a little. We pray the evening prayer side by side and my father insists I recite some Quran before sleeping, just as I did before bedtime, back when my whole world was okay.
I curl up in my fathers lap and close my eyes, but I see guns and bombs and my mother. My father claps his hand over my mouth to keep me from screaming and he whispers words of comfort into my ear. A very long time later, I begin to fall asleep.
Morning comes and I turn over to feel my father, but he is not there. I stand up and open my mouth to scream, but then I see him, by threshold looking outside towards the city. My father hears my movement and smiles that broken smile, and I walk towards him to give him his morning hug.
And then we are running again, me clinging to my fathers back and the heavy ‘thud thud’ of his footfalls filling my ears. I am even more unstable because my fathers arm is not working and I am being thrown around on his back, but I just pray and pray that we are going to make it to some place safe where I can go to school and look after my father. But I also pray that we will one day go back to my street, to find my mother, to close her eyes, to bury her.
My father has been running for so long now, his legs must be burning. He is gasping after every rattled breath but still, he runs. The morning is turning into afternoon and we stop to pray the midday prayer. I force some water down my father’s throat, and still, we flee. The rubble is never ending but it is not unrecognizable. There are crushed cars and signs reading “Al Hijra School” and “Elijah’s Bakery” strewn across the uneven ground, cast aside as if they are worth nothing.
The evening is beginning to show itself and pink and yellow ribbons streak across the sky. My father’s breathing is too fast, too heavy and just when I am about to force him to stop, we stumble into an open clearing, just outside the city.
I can hear gunfire, but I can see a bus.
I feel a burst of speed beneath me that is my father and I swear, I love him even more. We are going to make it out of Aleppo and there is gunfire somewhere and more people will die today, but I smile.
We reach the bus and I jump down off my fathers back. I gasp as my father pulls out more bank notes than I have ever seen before and pleads with the driver, giving him the money. But the driver shakes his head and starts the engine. I begin to sob and the gunfire seems closer, but then my father is pulling off his wedding ring and his chain and his belt and handing it all over to the driver who finally nods angrily. I cry out in relief as we both hoist ourselves up onto the bus, so full and so crammed, but a bus all the same. There are people from the city, men women and children, hundreds of people loaded like animals onto this single bus. But one that will take us far away from here.
There is a hardly space to move let alone embrace my father, so I just squeeze his hand and try to tell him with my eyes “thank you.”
After perhaps two or three hours, people have begun to fall asleep and the roar of their voices dies down. The bus is moving in a way that I’m sure isn’t safe, but I don’t care. This great lumbering machine will save us.
“Where are we going, Abu?” I whisper into his ear. It is only now that I finally have the chance to look at him. Black circles surround my father’s eyes and there are lines on his forehead that weren’t there before and grey hairs too, but he is my father. Exhausted and injured and mourning, but alive.
“Europe,” my father whispers back.
“Is Europe safe for us?”
“Perhaps,” he says, brushing some hair out of my face.
“Did they watch us die Abu? Did they watch and do nothing?”
The bus lumbers on through the night,
and my father,
he doesn’t reply.
By Hannah Zia