She just wanted to stop moving. They had been moving for so long. She rubbed her eyes tiredly, still sleepy after being grabbed from her bed and told to run without any warning. They hadn’t stopped moving since.
That was hours ago – she knows this because while she started off stumbling in pitch darkness, clutching her mother’s hand so that she wouldn’t fall, she could now dimly see her way as the night gave way to a grim, cloudy morning.
It was hot. Her dress stuck to her, wet with sweat and her bladder was getting uncomfortably full. She looked around at the crowd surrounding her family and desperately tried to stave off the feeling. No toilets here. There were scattered bushes she could have ducked behind, but she sensed now was not the time to stop moving, although she so badly wanted to. Besides, who knew what was behind those bushes, watching, waiting. She felt a mosquito bite into the flesh of her thigh and paused to slap it. She looked at her hand to flick off the dead insect and found it covered in blood. Hers.
Her parents were walking a little way behind her, making sure they knew where she was. They were scared. She could tell from the way they were breathing – hurried, gasp-like pants they were fighting to control. The crowd had stopped fleeing and slowed down to a hurried walk so there was no reason to pant, but her parents’ breath was audible, irregular and too fast. She looked around and realized many of the adults around her were breathing in the same way, their eyes darting around nervously as they walked onwards. They had all done this before. And every time it just got worse.
She remembers how afraid she was when she first heard the deceptive sounds of the shelling – it could have been happening hours away but sounded strangely as if it was at your doorstep, seconds away from destroying you. She had almost vomited with panic then, having to fight to keep her dinner in as she cried, terrified against her mother’s chest. Her mother had been calm, running long fingers through her hair, soothing her, telling her not to be afraid, that it was all too far away to hurt them, telling her to imagine it was fireworks. She had squeezed her eyes shut and tried to imagine beautiful sparks instead of what she knew was really happening, but the panic kept squeezing her chest, making her wheeze with fear.
Today her mother was silent. No soothing words came from her, no comforting touch – just a merciless hand at her back, pushing her forward and shushing her sharply whenever she opened her mouth to complain or ask for water.
They had been walking for so long. Sometimes hiding, sometimes running, sometimes slowing down to a deceptive stroll. Although she didn’t know how convincing they could be, carrying everything they owned. Or at least whatever they could get their hands on before they ran. She herself was carrying a bundle of clothes that her mother had thrust into her arms as she was shepherded out of the house in the dead of night. She hadn’t been able to take anything else.
Her nose became runny with tears when she remembered her favourite dolls back in her room – she would never see them again. She couldn’t imagine playing without them. They were her friends when it was too dangerous to go to school and she had to stay at home and amuse herself. Now they were all gone – her dolls and her friends – she didn’t know where they were. She scanned the crowd for them in the early light of morning but couldn’t spot them anywhere in the throng.
She was so busy looking around her that for a moment, she lost her family. Her distracted search for friends was interrupted by her mother’s cry for her. Just her name – ripping through the air; phrased like a question, thick with desperation and fear. Someone pushed past her and the unexpected shove made her little bundle of clothes fall to the ground. So intent on finding her family again, she barely noticed. “Mama” she cried back in reply and ran towards the sound of the voice, hearing annoyed grunts as she bumped into people on her way. She saw the familiar pattern of her mother’s dress and ran to hug her but got a sharp slap instead which made her stumble back in surprise and hurt. “Don’t ever disappear again” her mother said between clenched teeth. She had a runny nose too.
Suddenly overwhelmed with tiredness and guilt over the incident, she started to cry and her father took her hand and walked ahead, his strong fingers gently kneading her own, calming her down. He told her that this was going to be a difficult time, that they were in danger but that they were going someplace new. New and safe, where there would be no more running from either side, where they would live quiet, uninterrupted lives, where she would be able to go to school every single day and have all the friends she wanted to play with.
He was lying.
He had probably forgotten but he had told her this the last time they ran as well. She had believed it then but she was older now – she would be thirteen in a few months. She knew better now. She watched her father as he scanned the surroundings through tired, narrowed eyes. Sweet nothings fell from his lips to soothe her but that’s all they were – nothings: robotic sentiments of hope and comfort in a world where those things did not exist. Sentiments he was also expressing to calm himself, as much as her. It helped to talk, to pretend there was something to believe in.
Still, in a strange way, his words helped. She wiped her eyes, and realized she was acting like a child and that it was time to stop.
Her parents had cared for her enough – before, it had been she who was afraid and they who had to comfort her amidst all their larger worries. But something was different this time – their ragged breaths did not match her own. She was tired but she was also oddly unafraid. The distant shelling now made her parents jump and clutch onto her tighter, but she walked on without missing a beat, letting go of their hands, letting them move to hold each other. She walked alone now, in front of them, calmly, protectively.
She did not feel brave exactly; just tired of the way things were and determined that she would do something, somehow, some way to make things better for her parents and others like them. God would give her a sign, she had prayed to Him every day for as long as she could remember. Even when their church was shelled, even after the blood seeped from under the fallen doors, she continued to pray…
Gunfire. It was so rapid, so threatening, so terribly, terribly close.
The crowd panicked and scattered, filling her ears with frightened shouting, filling her vision with frantic blurs of movement. For a few moments, she couldn’t move, boxed in from people running in all directions. If someone pushed her forward, someone else pushed her back again. She hugged her arms to her chest, half afraid they would get ripped off by accident. Babies howled as their mothers clutched them and ran. People tripped and fell at her feet but were up and running like lightening, heedless of bleeding legs and arms. She closed her eyes, shutting herself away until she was finally still and alone.
When she opened her eyes, all she could see was a small black hole inches away from her face. Her brow furrowed, trying to focus, trying to concentrate on identifying what it was and why she was suddenly so scared. Then it clicked. So that’s what the barrel of a gun looked like. Nervously, she shifted her eyes to the holder of the gun. A young boy, probably around the age of the older boys at school, stared back at her with a slightly perplexed expression on his face. She watched him struggle to rearrange his features to seem angry and determined, but he was just about as convincing as her father had been earlier.
The gun was steady in his hands, his finger was decisively hooked around the trigger, ready to pull at any sign of movement from her. She was completely still. Another mosquito dug into her neck. She resisted the urge to kill it and focussed on the boy in front of her.
He opened his mouth to say something and then closed it again, almost guiltily. Then straightened and took and even firmer hold of his gun, having concluded some brief internal battle in his head. He advanced, his arm stretched out toward her and she took an involuntary step back. He paused when she opened her mouth to say something – she didn’t really know what – but her words were cut off by a shot from behind her. A bullet grazed her arm on its way past, making her cry out in pain, and burrowed angrily into the boy’s chest. Eyes wide with surprise, he fell and his body spasmed horribly until at last, he was still. She just stood there and stared, unable to look away, one hand holding the arm where the bullet had burned her. Some detached part of her wondered at how sneakily the blood seeped first into the dark uniform and then into the soil, becoming almost invisible. As if nothing had happened. But the boy’s contorted face left little doubt that something awful just had.
A hand suddenly grabbed hers, making her gasp in fear. She turned to face a girl in another uniform, probably close to her age. “I saved you” said the girl triumphantly, smirking at her and nodding towards the still body in front of them both. “Come I’ll take you to your parents. I’ve been watching you”. The words gave her a strange chill but also made her feel a little less lost.
Silently, the two girls set off, one falling back slightly so that she could follow the other. The one with the gun, in a moment of childish comradeship, slipped her free hand into the other’s who looked at her with surprise, gratitude and a sudden stab of absolute clarity. She looked at the streaked uniform and imagined how it would look on her, instead of her dirty dress, lined with dust and sweat after days of walking.
Suddenly they stopped, and again the uniformed girl nodded in a particular direction, expecting the other to follow with her eyes. There was a clearing in the distance where a group of people were huddled together, looking lost and afraid.
“Your parents” she said, taking her hand away and using it to hold her gun again, ready to run back into the the cover of shadows.
“Thank you” the other stammered, suddenly aware of how incredibly useless a word that was to convey any of what she was feeling. The girl nodded, expressionless. They stood facing each other awkwardly, looking at one another. “Nice hair” the girl with the gun told her – motioning towards her own which was crudely cropped very short. The other shyly put up a hand to touch her long braid, but said nothing. The uniformed girl seemed to shake herself out of some reverie. Suddenly, all brisk, she abruptly said “Go”, and with that, turned and walked away.
Just before the girl disappeared, the one left behind blurted three words in a loud, impulsive whisper: “I’ll find you”.
The girl cocked her gun, ready for battle, but looked back at her and smiled genuinely for the first time.