The airstrike rattled the city, everything shook. Dust rattled down from the rafters and somewhere in the basement below an infant cried. Mo sat as still as he could amidst the crush of strangers and tried to focus on breathing. The air was thin, too many lungs sucking oxygen and not enough ventilation. The earth shook again beneath the roar of planes overhead, and the thunder of bombs; aggravating the ringing in his ears.
He had ended up here by sheer good luck, if you could call it that. The university had closed months ago because of the protests and never re-opened. When the military had opened fire on protests in the capital the shock waves went right across the country. Many of the students had joined militias, others fled. Mo headed for the border, he couldn’t muster enough faith to believe in a revolution and the fundamentalists were even worse than the soldiers. On foot it was a long journey and the war overtook him.
He had sheltered in a hospital – volunteering in exchange for a dry place to sleep and food – thinking that he might be safe. All three sides would have wounded, right? Who would bomb the hospital that their forces might soon need? But the planes had headed right for it. Fortunately he had been near a window and seen them coming, in the time it took to run 30 yards to the door they had already delivered their cargo.
The explosion had lifted him off his feet and hurled him against the wall of the building opposite. It also saved his life – the hospital collapsed like a deck of cards and buried everyone inside alive. The gunships finished off the survivors as they struggled to get free of the wreckage. Mo had managed to crawl into the open door of a grocery store nearby and someone had helped him into the basement as he struggled to stay conscious. He felt lucky to be alive. A young woman took pity on him and helped him find a place to sit. Her name was Minnah.
“Thank you.” He winced from the pain of speaking and trying to maintain pressure on the gash in his cheek.
“Hold still and stop talking”, she scolded him. She turned to a young girl sitting nearby, probably a daughter. “Luban, go fetch some water!” The girl sped off.
Laying in the dark he took a slow inventory, two of his ribs were either cracked or badly bruised and he could barely move his shoulder. The gash in his cheek was bleeding profusely but seemed to slow down as long as he maintained pressure. Minnah washed out the wound as best she could and used a strip of rag to bandage it. He joked that normally he would go to the doctor for something like that but the hospital seemed to be closed. She gave him a look and walked away without replying, shaking her head. He tried to stay awake, clawing desperately at consciousness. Minnah returned and slapped his hand to wake him..
“What do you think you are doing? You have lost far too much blood to be taking a nap right now. If you fall asleep, you may not wake up! I am sure a strong young man like you has people who depend upon him. Where is your mother?” She poured some water into his mouth and he sat up a little to keep from choking.
He held up his hand and she stopped pouring water. “She’s dead.” Minnah’s gaze softened and she started to apologize but he waved it aside. “Both my parents died many years ago. No brothers and sisters. I’m alone. No need to feel sorry for me though, I’m used to it.”
Minnah thought for a moment and nodded. Well then, let’s keep you awake and talking then. Your family, god rest them, are counting on you to carry on without them.
And so, there in the darkness with the planes roaring overhead, shaking the world around them like the wind in dry leaves, they talked. He told her about his family farm and his studies at the university, she talked about the village where she had grown up. Finally, the conversation turned to the war.
Minnah had been married but her husband, Imad, had been killed in the first wave of protests. The day he died she had begged him not to go because she was scared for him. He had embraced her and said
“I must do this thing, though I am frightened to death. What kind of father would I be to Luban or husband to you if I let fear of evil men keep me from doing what is right? I do this for you, my love.”
She recited the speech without emotion, deadpan, eyes closed, and with the air of someone reciting a speech they have rehearsed a thousand times. She turned to him and asked, almost as an accusation
So, Mo who is alone, were you at the protests? I know there were many students there, did you see the soldiers when they killed my husband?
He shook his head.
Then you are either a coward or a wise man. I wonder which?
When he did not reply she turned her head a little to one side, and looked at him carefully.
Well, at least your wound has stopped bleeding. Here drink some more water and go to sleep. I suppose that is a question you will have to answer for yourself.
She turned her back on him and rolled over to sleep next to her daughter. He discreetly checked the pouch he had sewn into the inside of his pants where he kept his visa papers, breathing a sigh of relief to find them intact. He laid awake thinking for some time, haunted by her words.
Mo was up before the sun, a habit learned from growing up on a farm. The city was quiet as he slowly made his way out onto the street. He found an old truck a couple blocks away with the keys still in it – the owner seemed to have run away or been taken. He stopped, thinking to himself and holding the key in his hands before turning back to the wreckage of the grocery store basement and waking Minnah and Luban. He might not be a hero and he might even be a coward, but he was a coward who paid his debts. They didn’t have much gear and everything he had owned was still buried in the wreckage of the hospital. They threw what supplies they could find in the back of the truck and headed for the border. On foot it would have taken weeks but they made good time.
That night they took refuge in the bombed out remnants of a shopping mall, not daring to light a fire for fear of attracting unwanted attention. The place had been thoroughly looted and there wasn’t much of value left, but once daylight returned Mo was able to make a crude siphon from hose they found in one of the shops. He refilled their tank from the fuel left in one of the wrecks parked outside. As the sun rose they set off toward the border, desolation behind and nothing but hope ahead. Lucky again.