Short Fiction by Steve Smith
I made a friend called Farid; I knew him for about six days, maybe seven. I first met him running full tilt into my arms as an explosion shook the ground around us, dust and rubble flying indiscriminately through the air. He was just a boy, barely a teenager, his face thudded into my chest with the force of the blast. He looked up at me helplessly, large brown eyes flashing with terror, streaks of tears cutting channels through his dusty face.
“Where are your parents, your mother, your father?” I shouted.
He shook his head, pointed behind him, I feared the worst. He held his hands to his ears as if expecting another blast, numb with temporary deafness myself I instinctively put my arms around him. I didn’t think about propriety, I wasn’t thinking about anything but covering the boys head and leading him away to safety. Without a thought for how I would get Farid out of this hell hole, I covered him with my jacket and led him back through the lines of cable, cameras, first aiders and army personnel, determined to do just that.
“Farid, my name is Farid.”
I was a journalist working the front line news in the civil warzone east of the city. The rebels were holding out for one last sacred plot of land, they had been beating back the government troops for six months and their citizens were starving. Despite political anxiety and peace talks when my crew arrived no aid had reached them for three months. In the mobile medical centres, there were a handful of doctors administering unidentifiable anaesthetics, stitching, sawing, wrapping and cleaning. Unwashed blood on the floors and walls attracted the flies. Out in the streets, I wondered how anyone found their way around any longer, landmarks were obliterated, buildings unrecognisable, roads littered with rubble. But the locals knew, they knew every last brick that lay in the road, every stick and stone, every exposed iron girder and blown out window. We travelled with the joint peacekeeping force and had connections, local militia helped us navigate. We had a guide called Haddid.
I had asked Haddid once how he could recognise which side everyone was on. He replied in his lazy drawling English, describing how in just a split second they could tell each other apart. The weapons or clothes were different and if they got close enough you could tell by the colour of their skin or bone structure.
Now I needed his expert local knowledge again, “Haddid, I need you to speak to my new friend, his name is Farid, I found him yesterday, he’s in my tent now.” He glared at me, probably wondering what my angle was, but agreed.
He found out from Farid that he was one of three brothers, living with his parents in the east side of the city. His elder brothers had gone to fight but hadn’t been back in months. Any sense of normality had been destroyed two years ago when the rebels first attacked the area. Farid refused to talk about his parents, instead dropping his head and staring at the ground. After Haddid left the tent I put my hands around Farid’s upturned face lightly pressing his soft cheeks with my thumbs and felt a pain from deep in my core, an acute anguish that promised never to stop.
I spent the next morning writing the first report of the campaign, the video footage was harrowing and would need heavy editing back in London, but I was happy with the copy. Farid spent the night in my tent, sleeping and shivering. I helped him clean himself up a little and tried to interest him in something to eat from our mobile food store. I introduced him to whoever we met as though it was the most natural thing in the world for me to be bringing a local Arab boy along on this journey. On the second day, the company Commanding Officer of the joint peacekeeping force paid me the visit I had been expecting.
“What the fuck do you think you’re doing?”
“Look I know this is irregular, it just happened, I didn’t have time to process it. His parents are dead, his brothers away fighting, I won’t apologise for my humanity, he’s still a boy.” The CO leaned in towards my personal space.
“You do this kind of thing you’re on your own. We cannot be responsible for this kind of stunt. I can arrange for him to be dropped at the Eastzone Mobile Medical Centre. Decide by the morning, we’re moving five miles deeper into the city starting at six a.m.”
I had some cash in different currencies, and I used it to negotiate with Haddid, for two guides to get us back to the border. I would get the boy out of the country backtracking the route we had come through. I’d have to write some hard-hitting copy for the paper along the way in an attempt to save my job.
That night before we left, I sat watching the sun setting behind distant mountain ranges. As night fell flashes of light accompanied the dull boom of artillery, the earth quaking from the blasts. Watching the fighting from a distance through the thick evening air brought a sense of detachment a feeling occasionally splintered by a stray shell hitting randomly nearby. Local buildings reverberated with the sound making it impossible to pinpoint the direction of any single attack. Radley my right-hand camera on this trip approached with a knowing smile.
“Are you going to do this with every lost soul you come across? Because this kind of work will kill you if you feel that way.” I knew he was right.
“I don’t actually know the answer to that. What I do know is if I was in the same position again with Farid I would probably make the same call, how do you train compassion out of your system?”
“The big picture, you keep your eyes on the big picture, and you do your work, it doesn’t mean you have to compromise your personal ethics, you’re doing your job, fulfilling your responsibility to your employer, and it’s a job that has real value.”
“And my responsibility to my humanity…?” We let this question hang in the sultry night air.
I tried to explain to Farid what was going to happen, his English was just good enough to understand. I managed to get him to at least nod in agreement, but there were more tears. I promised him a better way, a safer life, but what right did I have? His loss was of the heaviest kind, and for that, I had no answer.
“My brothers, my brothers,” was all he was prepared to offer.
“I will find out what happened to your brothers, I promise, OK? My friends will find out. Haddid can help us, don’t worry.”
Looking at him curled on the mattress that night I wondered if I could really carry this through, was it really the best thing for the boy? The chance of getting any intelligence on the brothers was pretty slim, but I had made another promise to Farid, and my commitment and feelings were getting deeper by the day.
Early next morning our two guides Abdu and Jamal packed us in the jeep and we left before sunrise. As we stepped into the vehicle, I felt the beginnings of a panic attack and leant out of the jeep sweating and vomiting. For the first time I felt the enormous weight of what I was attempting. The biggest concern for western journalists was kidnap. Haddid had briefed us, he advised me to stay well out of sight through checkpoints. The problem being no one knew who was running each checkpoint, friend or foe, or opportunist. Journalists, particularly Westerners, were cargo worth trading, I was currency.
Farid and I camped down low in the back of the jeep. It was a rough ride with the occasional stop for water, a small amount of dried food, and toilet breaks. On the whole the day was without incident until dusk began to settle and we hit a checkpoint.
“What do we tell them, Abdu?”
“Depends who they are, cover the boy up. You’re either my hostage or an important Western guy I am delivering. It depends who they are…”
As we drew near the checkpoint three guards came out of a makeshift hut holding AK47s, presents from a stakeholding superpower. Abdu and Jamal immediately jumped out of the jeep talking incessantly, gesticulating as they walked. The guards seemed cautious but relaxed enough. I could hear the rhythmic thumping of my pulse throbbing in my ears. One, two, three, four, relax… slower… slower, one, two, three. I jumped as the guard’s face appeared at the jeep window and shouted something at me.
“What? Hello, yes?” I instinctively gave my full three Christian names, and nodded furiously about nothing in particular. Jamal walked toward the guard still talking rapidly and put something into his hand. Smiling he continued to talk while the guard started backing away from the jeep. Whatever the transaction was it worked, we were on our way again within minutes amid more shouting and gesturing. Sweat trickled down my temples and into my shirt collar, I gently lifted the sheeting covering Farid, he was frozen still, large brown eyes staring up at me.
The night grew rapidly cold as Jamal kept driving. I started to drift off, in and out of consciousness. Farid was leaning against me in a blanket, I looked down at him wondering what kind of life he would be able to lead across the border, or even back in my homeland, even if only temporarily. I was about to ask Jamal if he’d had any contact from Haddid when he violently swung the jeep into the side of the road. Abdu began yelling frantically in Arabic, then English.
“Turn out the lights!”
The slowly rising whine of jet engines filtered toward us, and within seconds filled the whole of the night air with a screaming harshness.
“Under the jeep. Now!”
We all dived for cover, I flung myself on top of Farid. A thudding repetition of gunfire hit the ground around us. The boy’s frame shook uncontrollably beneath me. The engine noise droned off into the distance, Abdu and Jamal stayed motionless. After a few moments I had the terrifying thought that they could be dead, but then I heard Jamal.
“Stay down… they will be back.”
The planes did return but this time they screamed overhead without firing. Minutes later Abdu called for us to get back in our seats and drive on, but his time with no lights, just the moonlight to guide us.
“Fighter jets look for moving lights, convoy lights, then shoot everything up.”
“Who were they?” I asked
“No idea… no idea, could be friend or enemy, either way.” I shivered at the thought.
On the second afternoon, we were nearing the last part of the journey, I felt some small comfort in recognition looking across the flat featureless land that ran all the way to the border region. I gave Farid some food and he gave me the faintest of smiles.
“Not long to wait now, my new friend.”
Border crossings could be perilous, control changed hands and attacks were frequent. We headed to a well-known crossing for western journalists, crews and peacekeeping patrols and hoped for the best.
We arrived at dusk, pulling up into the holding area. Several soldiers in friendly combat colours came out to greet us with rifles, everyone seemed relaxed enough. Jamal motioned for me to come out with Farid. I walked out with my arm around his shoulder.
“Are there any Blue Helmets here, UN?” No one answered me; the soldiers sent us into the makeshift administration hut and told us to wait. Jamal told me to keep cool, the border was run by friends. We sat on the hard benches and tried to be patient. I spoke to Farid under my breath, not expecting him to answer.
“This is the border, Farid, this is the line, between freedom and terror, right here.”
Minutes became hours, as night time fell, I slept. Waking with a start I sat up, Farid was asleep on the bench beside me, but Abdu and Jamal were gone.
“Hey, Abdul?! Jamal?! Anyone?” I looked in the adjoining room. Finding nothing but a single chair and a blacked out window I turned toward the main door of the hut, and for the first time noticed the flag of a friendly country in the corner of the room. At that moment the door opened, and four men entered. I recognised one of them as Haddid, another was a western army officer. The two other men were locals, one middle-aged with bloody dressings on a wound the whole length of his right arm. I quickly felt the presence of Farid at my right shoulder.
Recognising Farid, the injured man engulfed his son, shaking with emotion as they exchanged a rapid flurry of words.
My head began to swim. The next thing I was aware of was the father holding my shirt with his one good hand shaking me, shouting in Arabic, I stood stupefied, swaying uncontrollably.
The following twenty-four hours are a blur. I was interviewed by the western army, by the local army, the peacekeeping force, and a news team. But none of it mattered, I was numb. Farid was back in his father’s care, probably back in his hometown on the wrong side of the border, and safe, or so I had to believe.
The next day back in the anodyne comfort of a featureless four-star hotel room drained of energy and impetus I picked up the phone and made a call. My son’s voice on the other end was immediately comforting
“Yeah, it’s me… how are things?”
“….cool, is everything OK? Where are you?”
“Middle East… working… how’s your mother?
“She’s OK, out, with… with Ted.”
“Oh right. Good. Is it going OK with Uni?”
“Sure, not bad, heavy workload you know… Dad, did you want something specific? I mean it’s been a while…”