A short story by: Alexandra Kinias
Still in a state of shock, Naomi’s heart was pounding hard inside her chest as she sat in the back seat of the cab with her feverish two-year-old daughter Zahara in her lap. Naomi was drowning in fear and panic. Her future was at stake. Six months ago she escaped from the refugee camp, crossed the Sudanese desert and illegally crossed the boarders into Egypt. She almost died on the way, from hunger and thirst, to save herself from an imminent fate if had she stayed behind. The risks she took were not for herself, but to offer her daughter a better life than the painful one she had endured. How fate had sabotaged her dreams and hopes in a blink of an eye and left her a fugitive running away from her present. Her innocence would be hard to prove, for nobody would believe that she had stabbed him in self-defense. He was a drunken loser living off his rich and famous wife who was well connected to powerful people, and it would be hard for Naomi to run away forever from the police.
When she was offered the job as a housekeeper in the lavish residence of the movie star, she thought her troubles would temporarily diminish, but the drunken young husband wouldn’t leave her alone. And that night he was totally wasted. The traces of the white powder he sniffed were all over the desk he sat behind in the den when her misfortune walked her inside the room. She tried to run away, but he grabbed her forcefully by the arm, threw her body on the desk and pushed himself on top of her. She fought hard, but he wouldn’t let go. Naomi reached for the letter opener and stabbed him in the chest. She didn’t stop until she felt his thick hot blood covering her. She threw the letter opener from her hand and ran away leaving her finger prints all over.
Remembering the details of this incident made her shiver and she looked over her shoulder. The streets were crowded. Her sad hazel eyes scanned the mass congestion in the street. The four intersecting Cairo streets were jam-packed with cars. Five rows of cars drove in three lane streets and brought the traffic to a complete halt. Loud nerve-wracking horns blew nonstop and her temples were on the verge of exploding. Pedestrians crowded the sidewalks and spilled over into the streets. Traffic police officers gathered at the intersections. They blew their whistles for the cars to move, but the streets were uncontrolled. She was lost in the crowd and for a moment she felt safe.
Zahara’s ear infection made her restless. The painkiller that Naomi gave her earlier together with the antibiotic hadn’t taken effect yet. The heat and the noise drove the poor little girl over the edge. She squealed in pain and as she lifted her hand to touch her ear; she dropped her worn-out stuffed bunny to the cab floor. Naomi reached for it, held the girl close to her heart and softly bounced her fragile body up and down on her knees.
The cab driver lit a cigarette and exhaled the smoke inside the cab. It blended with the exhaust smell from the cars’ mufflers and made Naomi dizzy. It was getting late; the street lights were glowing as well as the neon lights from the shops on both sides of the street. As the traffic slowed down, she could hear the loud music echoing from inside the surrounding cars. She was already late and worrisome thoughts that Mousa and the others would leave her behind filled her mind. He warned her not to be late. She cracked her knuckles and waited impatiently for the traffic to move. The idea of them leaving her behind scared her. She twirled her long cornrow braids and wondered how a single moment three hours ago had changed her fate.
After crossing the borders illegally into Egypt, she had applied for a refugee status and then applied for asylum in America, where her brother had also sought refuge when he escaped their doomed lands. Her refugee status was being processed for her repatriation with her brother, and under no circumstances the thought of fleeing the country would have crossed her mind. But now she was cornered, like a mouse in a trap, with no other option left for her. Her only salvation was to cross the Egyptian desert into Israel with Mousa and the other Sudanese refugees where their future looked brighter.
Father Alissio had opened the gates of his church to all the Sudanese refugees and Naomi found shelter there when she arrived to Cairo, exhausted and penniless. She met Mousa for the first time in the church’s courtyard. It was the day of the Christmas market. The refugees were selling handcrafts and small gifts to the church goers, to supplement the meager allowance they received from the High Commission of Refugees [HCR]. On that day Mousa had just been notified that his refugee status was suspended. He was angry and frustrated with himself, with her and with the world. And when the photographer insisted to take a picture of him and Naomi, he forced a smile and then walked away. She never saw this photograph and when she asked the photographer days later, after all photos were finished, he told her that it was never developed.
Within the gates of the church Naomi and Mousa often crossed paths. He would either be helping Father Alissio with work around the yard or he would be on his way to the only classroom built in its far end to teach the Sudanese refugee children reading and writing. Other than casual greetings, they hardly exchanged any conversation and because of that Naomi was perplexed at his hostile behavior towards her. But for a strange reason she knew all along that she could trust him. A few hours earlier when she sought his help, Mousa insisted that she should flee the country with them. He increased her fears that she would get arrested for the crime she had committed and her daughter would be thrown into an orphanage. Naomi couldn’t bear the idea of losing yet another child.
Traffic moved slowly and the cab drove down an unpaved road in a slum neighborhood with brick shacks on both sides. He stopped a distance from a warehouse. Naomi and Zahara got out. She looked around, but saw no familiar faces, and her heart was swelled with panic and fear.
Mousa had been limping up and down the street impatiently, with his backpack on his shoulder. He stood at the other intersection in anticipation. He was worried that the others who had been waiting for hours would insist to leave without her, and sighed in relief when he saw her coming out of the cab. Mousa approached her from behind.
“This is not the time to be late. Everybody is waiting for you.”
His soft firm voice sounded in her ears like the most beautiful melody she had ever heard and she was overwhelmed with relief. She wanted to explain to him that it was not her fault, but he didn’t give her a chance. He walked away and she followed him in silence to the warehouse. On the way she saw women gathered around a water pump washing their clothes, in the streetlight. Laundry hung on ropes to dry in every window. Loud music blared from a kiosk that sold cigarettes and juice. Stray cats gathered around the garbage in front of the buildings and hissed at each other.
Some kids played soccer, others chased goats and chickens, rolled car tires and ran after them, and straddled wooden sticks and trotted around. Naomi was appalled to see her son Hazma run after a chicken. She called his name, but he ignored her and ran away with the kids. She hurried after him and grabbed him by the arm. “Where do you think you’re going?” She scolded.
The little boy looked up at her. She stared at him in disbelief and felt a lump in her throat as she realized that he was not her son. Haunting images from her village flashed in front of her eyes. She witnessed the Janjaweed Militia on horse backs raiding the village in Darfur. She envisioned them shooting at her little boy in front of her eyes, and she glimpsed herself weeping and wailing as he died between her arms. She saw them burning down the village, stealing the cattle and raping the women.
Naomi’s eyes brimmed with burning tears and her vision got blurry. Mousa noticed what had just happened, but didn’t say a word. He took Zahara from her and entered the warehouse. Naomi followed them. Inside the warehouse, other refugees were waiting impatiently. A young boy had crossed his arms on a table, rested his head on them and slept. His pregnant mother slept in a chair and her head tilted on her chest. Her husband was glancing at a black and white television screen that played an American action movie. He held a rosary in his hand and twirled its beads around his fingers.
A red truck was parked on the other side of the warehouse. Two men sat in the corner and smoked water-pipes. The smoke swirling from the burnt tobacco flooded the air with apple scent. Hay stacks covered the grounds and the walls of the warehouse. The whirling fan in the ceiling blew the loose hay around the old car tires that crammed the place. Three young Sudanese men rested their backs against the tires and sat in silence.
At the sight of Naomi, the husband woke up his wife and his boy, and the three young men jumped off the ground. They all grabbed their meager belongings and waited as the Egyptian men whispered among themselves. One man walked to the car and started the engine while the other waved at the Sudanese. “Let’s go. Get on.”
The husband climbed on the truck’s back and helped his pregnant wife and his son to get on. Mousa helped Naomi and Zahara. The three young men climbed in last.
“We are driving for three hours to the check point. When we arrive, none of you are to make a sound under any condition or else we’re in trouble,” the driver said in a firm commanding voice and then looked at the women. “And make sure the kids don’t make any noise.”
The pregnant woman nodded. Naomi cleared her throat. “My little girl needs some medication in an hour.”
“I don’t care. Give it to her now. We are not stopping for any reason.”
Naomi opened the bottle of antibiotic and gave her daughter a spoonful of the red sweet syrup.
“Now you all lay down.”
They lay flat in the back of the truck that was covered with hay, old blankets and burlap sacks. The two men buried them under heaps of straw, got into the car, started the engine and drove out of the warehouse. The heat, noise, the hustle and bustle, and road pits made the ride uncomfortable. After some time that felt like eternity because the bodies of the people at the back of the truck were tossed back and forth, the noise and light of the city faded, the car gained speed and the road felt smoother. Zahara was getting restless in her mother’s arms.
The truck drove to the border city of Rafaah. The hay protected the refugees from the night chills, but its odor was unpleasant to inhale. After two and a half hours on the road, the driver slowed down as he approached the police check point and the bodies of the refugees were temporarily relieved from the bouncing and shaking in their uncomfortable positions. At the check point, soldiers with machine guns sat in two police trucks parked on each side of the road, which was blocked with old rusty metal barrels.
An officer inspected the papers of a truck loaded with vegetable and fruit boxes. Another officer sat behind a small table on the side of the road, sipped tea from a glass and watched. The vegetable truck driver got out and opened the back and a soldier climbed on, opened a box, checked its contents and with a long stick he poked the bottom under the fruit and vegetable boxes. The soldier gave the officer thumbs up and jumped off. The driver got back behind the wheel. The officer handed him back his papers and banged on the truck’s roof. “Move it. Get going.”
The soldier removed the two rusty barrels off the road, allowed the vegetable truck to pass through and then blocked the road with the barrels again.The driver of the red truck inhaled deeply from the cigarette he held between his fingers and pulled over behind the barrels. The officer peeked through the car window to inspect the driver who kept his composure, but avoided looking the officer in the eyes. The other man in the passenger’s seat looked out of his window.
The driver opened the glove compartment and handed the officer the car registration papers and offered him a cigarette from the box on the dashboard. The officer declined by ignoring the driver and thoroughly inspected the papers, in the silver beam reflecting from the street light. He frowned as he read and then looked at the driver who was already fidgeting in his seat. They exchanged a long glance.
“Where are you going?”
The officer handed him back the papers and then stuck his head deep inside the car and eyed a stack of hundred pound bills in the glove compartment and gestured at them with his chin. Quickly the driver got the money out and tucked it into the officer’s shirt pocket. The officer backed his head out of the truck’s window and banged on its roof.
The soldier removed the two barrels and the truck passed through. It drove away on the asphalt road and by night fall they reached a dirt road surrounded by barren sand and craggy mountains. The truck bumped and straw fell off. The driver saw light at a distance and drove towards it. He approached a wooden hut in the middle of nowhere with a light bulb dangling on the outside wall and two Land Cruisers parked in front. One of the Land Cruisers was packed with more Sudanese refugees. Four Bedouin men with scarves covering their heads and most of their faces sat crossed legged on the ground in front of a fire pit and drank tea. The driver of the red truck stopped the engine and got out. The Bedouins got off the ground, helped him remove the hay from over the refugees, and directed them into the back of the other Land Cruiser. Two Bedouins got into each car and they drove away leaving the red truck behind.
Naomi lost track of time and dozed off in the back of the car with Zahara and her stuffed bunny in her arms. When she woke up the sun was already crawling back in the sky announcing the birth of a new day. The engines of the Land Cruisers roared in the arid desert that was surrounded by a sea of sand where nothing was visible but the horizon.
Suddenly a sandstorm blustered. The wailing wind hissed and howled as it stirred clouds with fine grains of sand that covered the sun. Visibility was diminishing by the second and in no time, a thick curtain of dust descended from the sky, covered the horizon and visibility totally vanished. Trapped in this desolate desert, the concerned refugees huddled in the back of the Cruisers. The eyes in their tired faces were filled with fear. The women hugged the scared children and the older couples cuddled under blankets. As they waited in anticipation for the dust storm to settle, darkness dropped over the sand. The delay was unexpected, but in this sand storm the drivers could not challenge their fate.
The following morning the sandstorm died as suddenly as it had started and the visibility allowed the drivers to resume the trip. The drivers and their partners dug the Cruisers out from under the sand where they were almost buried and drove away. They drove among endless sand dunes with head lights on and kept a short distance between them. They crossed high sand ridges that led to sharp descents. The driver of the leading Cruiser scanned the desert with hawk eyes while the second one tailgated him in silence. Their two partners next to them pointed their machine guns out of the windows in anticipation of any sudden raid from the border patrol.
After endless hours of driving across the vast sea of sand, the cars stopped in the middle of nowhere. The sun was already setting and the Bedouins asked the refugees to get off and to wait until it got dark. When darkness fell they resumed their journey, this time in darkness. Not to be spotted by the border police, the two Cruisers drove with no headlights on, and stopped a mile and a half away from the border. The fatigued, hungry and thirsty refugees got out of the cars and walked in the darkness with two of the Bedouin men who were armed with their machine guns. The drivers waited behind for their partners to return. There was no moon in the sky, but it had cleared after the sandstorm and millions of stars sparkled above their heads.
One guide pointed straight ahead. “You are going to cross at border marker number six across from Beer Sheva.”
They looked to where he had pointed and at a distance they saw light in the window of a rusted Egyptian watchtower that was resting on top of a ridge on the high edge along the mountain.
The refugees looked at each other and then at the guide in confusion. He had pointed to the border checkpoint.
“You can’t just cross from anywhere you want. Yes it dangerous to go over there, but you have to cross where there are people on the other side. You want to make sure to be found by the Israelis or else you will die in the desert.” The impatient guide explained.
It was a decisive moment for the refugees, but they had paid their sweat and blood to get to this point and there was no going back. They walked in silence with the guides towards a crack in the ridge. From below, they saw the border on top of the ridge covered with rocks and a stretch of wire fence, in front of barbwire. Through a dirty window they saw the shadows of the border guards moving inside the watchtower.
The guide looked at his watch. “Wait until they change shift at midnight. That’s about half an hour from now. And make sure not to make any sound. They are all armed and ready to shoot at anything that they see moving.”
The guides turned and walked away and soon their silhouettes disappeared in the darkness of the night like ghosts. The refugees walked in silence toward the border and nothing was heard but the sound of their breaths. Even Zahara was quiet.
Mousa gazed at the sparkling stars above. His mind wandered back to his childhood when he spent the summers in his grandparents’ village in Darfur and slept in the yard under the stars listening to the crickets. This peaceful image of stars inspired him to become a writer. He wrote about everything his government didn’t like to hear about. He was arrested and his legs were broken in torture chambers. They threatened to break his fingers too if he didn’t stop writing. And when he couldn’t write anymore, he fled the country seeking a better life, but he ended up jobless with no future. However, he was thrilled by the thought that in less than a mile he would be inside the Promised Land where his future would definitely be brighter.
Finally, they were at the border. One at a time, they crawled through a small opening between the barbwire and the ground. The men crawled in and the women handed them the children. Mousa, Naomi and Zahara were at the end of the line. Mousa crawled through the barbwire, crossed under the fence and entered the other side of the border. He looked at the sky and sighed in relief. He waited for Naomi to hand him Zahara, but a sudden cry from the little girl pierced the night. The Sudanese who were already inside the fence ran deep into Israel. Then, they heard the Egyptian border guards shout and flood lights illuminated the darkness. From the watchtower, Mousa saw them raising their weapons.
A border guard shouted in a loud speaker, “Stop. Don’t move.”
Naomi froze, took Zahara between her arms and ducked down. Mousa limped back to the barbwire and yelled at her. “Come on, get in.”
The border guards opened fire at him and he fell to the ground. His blood splattered around and smudged his backpack.
Border guards approached Naomi, grabbed her by the arm and dragged her to the Border Patrol truck. With no resistance, she walked along in shock as Zahara’s screams echoed around. Two guards with machine guns escorted her to the truck. She climbed into its back and vanished in its darkness. The two armed guards followed her in. She sat between them in total disbelief. She clutched to her daughter and hummed a sad melody in a low voice. The truck drove away from the barbwire. Naomi looked back and saw the stuffed bunny on the ground before the flood lights went off.
She was lost in her thoughts until the rusty creaking sound of a metal door brought her back to reality. The officer forcefully pushed her inside the dark empty cell. She lost her balance and almost tumbled to the ground with Zahara, but her body hit the dirty wall and that stopped her from falling down. The officer closed the cell door after them. She inhaled the damp air that smelled of mold and held tighter to her daughter. She rested her back against the wall, squatted and then sat on the floor. In her blurry mind she remembered hearing the officer mentioning something about transporting her back to Cairo for trial.
She bit her lips and closed her eyes. She sighed in anguish as she thought about her son. She wished that in her sleep she would dream about him just one more time. She couldn’t salvage a photo of him when her village was burned down and she was fearful that she would eventually forget how he looked like. She wanted to hold him, to touch him, to tell him how much she missed him and how much she loved him. All she wished for was just a dream, but even sleep was unattainable. Tears rolled down her eyes and she brushed them off with her hand.
Naomi was wide awake when the sun crept lazily into the cell from a small window in the ceiling. Zahara was sound asleep when the cell door opened and a guard yelled at her. She walked out and guards with machine guns escorted her and three other handcuffed prisoners to a police truck parked in the courtyard. Naomi carried Zahara in one hand and in the other hand she had Mousa’s backpack that the officer gave her. It was stained with blood and had a bullet hole in it.
The truck wobbled on the road to Cairo. Naomi opened Mousa’s backpack and looked inside it. In the dim light that came through a small slit covered with metal bars at the back of the truck she saw Mousa’s English-Arabic dictionary. She pulled it out. It had a bullet hole in it. She flipped through the pages and a photograph fell out. She picked it up and lifted it towards a ray of light. It was their photograph that was taken in the church courtyard the first day they met at the Christmas market. She remembered that both of them had a grim expression on their faces and the photographer had asked them to smile to the camera. They both forced a smile. She gazed at the photograph and bit her lips. Her vision got blurry and her eyes were filled with tears. She put back the photograph between the pages of the dictionary and tucked it back inside the backpack. She couldn’t believe that Mousa had feelings for her, but kept them from her.
The prison truck rattled and bounced on its way back to Cairo. Its metal body was absorbing the hot sun rays and it raised the temperature inside it. The prisoners were getting uncomfortable and Zahara moaned in pain as her medications were wearing out. In her despair, Naomi sang her a soft melody to calm her down, but the girl wouldn’t stop fidgeting or whining. Naomi didn’t blame her; she was just sorry for bringing her into a world of pain and injustice. For Naomi, it seemed that she had accomplished nothing but cross the African Sahara from one end to the other, always running away in hope of finding a place she can settle and call home, but to no avail. She didn’t care anymore about herself or her life, but she knew that the next battle would be for her daughter. No matter what would happen, she wouldn’t allow them to take her away from her. She had to find a way to send Zahara to her brother in America to raise her up and give her an education and a hope to live for.
The truck stopped and as the latch clanked, Naomi’s heart fell to the ground. That was the end of her journey. The door opened and she followed the other prisoners out. She squinted in the glaring sunlight, held to the rail with one hand and stepped down the truck while carrying Zahara over her shoulder. A woman approached her and tried to take Zahara off her shoulder, but Naomi pushed her away forcefully.
“Hey. Naomi. It’s me. I am here to help you.”
Naomi opened her eyes wide and saw Marylyn Baroln from the HCR office that was helping her with her refugee’s status. Standing next to her was a middle aged man in a suit and tie. Marylyn tried to carry Zahara off Naomi’s shoulder, but Naomi growled at her.“No one is taking my daughter away.”
“No one is taking her away from you. Relax.” Reluctantly Naomi handed Zahara to Marylyn.
“Oh dear!! The girl is boiling with fever.”
Naomi looked at the man in suite and tie as if she had just noticed him. Marylyn introduced him as a lawyer.
“What were you thinking? Trying to run away and crossing the border.”
“I had to. Now it is all over.”
“My dear girl, nothing is over. You have your whole life ahead of you. Yes, you will be convicted with other charges, but murder is not one of them. Luckily, the man you stabbed didn’t die. The primary investigator concluded that it was self-defense. Our lawyer will make sure that you will stay the minimum amount of time in custody. Meanwhile, Zahara will stay with a good family, until we can get permission to bring your brother over here to get her. You know this is very hard, but we will do our best.”
Naomi’s heart swelled with happiness and relief. If this was not a miracle, she didn’t know what else could be…