Jonathan Yom-Tov was born in Israel, but raised on four continents. A few years ago he decided to stow his backpack, get a laptop and become a Serious Person. It’s unclear how long this phase will last. In his spare time he likes to box and write.
Yesterday’s snow had covered the whole city but the spire of the Clock of Freedom seemed unbowed by its burden. It still stood tall and black, the four clocks it carried each facing a different direction and covered with a thin hood of snow. The clocks did not agree. Each had given up at a different time. Tracks pressed into the snow led from the Clock to a burnt out bus at the edge of the square. A plume of soot covered its dirty white and blue flank, issuing from the front wheel and stretching all the way to the back. The bus had collided with one of the old stone buildings which stood on the square and almost collapsed the arch that held it up. One side of the arch now rested on top of the bus and the stones of the abutment lay scattered below it.
Nizar and Maher eyed the roofs of the buildings. There were many hiding places. Water tanks, satellite dishes, mounds of debris. Any one of those could hide a sniper. The wan light of winter made concealment easy. Finally, Maher gave the signal and they sprinted to the bus. They rolled smoothly below it and waited. It was quiet, a light rain had started to fall. Soon it would wash away the snow. The garbage would remain. It stuck to the streets, defying the wind and the rain. Nothing seemed to move it.
Nizar looked at Maher, waiting for the signal to continue. Maher’s hands, grimy with weeks of dirt, oil and gunpowder were wrapped tightly around his rifle. He scratched his short cropped beard, a gesture Nizar had learned meant Maher was nervous. He pointed at an arch fifty meters away and they both sprang up from their hiding place and ran to it. Just before reaching the arch Maher ducked down an alley and Nizar followed him. Maher slowed down, stopped and looked back.
“You OK?” he asked. Nizar nodded.
“Good man,” he patted Nizar’s cheek. “Don’t worry, we’re almost there.”
It was quiet. That special quiet that comes after a hard rain. The clouds ran swiftly before the wind. In the narrow spaces between them the sky was turning to dusk. A small drop of rain, a last remnant of the storm, landed on Nizar’s eyeball. He blinked and brought his gaze down.
The alley had been dusty before. Now the rain had washed most of the dust away and turned the rest to gray mud. Some of it ran in little streams along the alley, some floated in turbid puddles and some still clung to the walls of the tall buildings, slowly dribbling down to the ground. At least the air smelled clean. Clean and cold. The rain had washed away the stink of dust, gunpowder and rotting garbage, as if offering the city a new beginning.
It was a futile gesture. The shattered structures would not disappear so easily. The alley was lined on both sides by bombed out buildings. Up ahead three floors had slid down to rest in a pile of rubble which blocked the alley. Twisted bars of steel raised themselves from among the mound of shattered concrete.
The rain soaked through Nizar’s clothes and he clenched his muscles, willing himself not to tremble with the cold. He looked up at a building on the opposite side of the alley. The façade had been completely blown off by a recent bombing. Inside the tottering concrete skeleton blankets, furniture, cutlery, broken sinks and TVs jostled against each other in a chaotic jumble. An ornate wooden table had fallen from one of the floors and now stood in the middle of the alley.
They had been walking for hours with little rest. Maher was saving the remnants of his small militia, moving from hideout to hideout and ordering them away from the city. Nizar remembered the beginning of the battle. His parents had fled as soon as the regime’s tanks had moved in and though they had pleaded with him to go with them he had felt enough of a man to join the rebels, to stay and fight. The first few days were exhilarating. With the rifle in his hand he’d never felt more invincible. But now the regime had the upper hand and they were forced to retreat.
Nizar had been proud when Maher chose him to accompany him on this last mission but now he was miserable. Cold, wet, tired and fearful. He longed for reprieve. He imagined his parents waiting for him in Jordan at the refugee camp. He would be joining them soon with Maher’s father. For him the war was over.
Maher looked back at Nizar. His normally fierce expression turned soft. “You’re tired. Here, sit down, rest, drink some water.”
Nizar sat on the table and Maher handed him his canteen. He took a swig.
“Nizar, sometimes even the Faithful suffer defeat. It’s the way of war. But the war is long, there are many battles and in the end we always win. We won in Afghanistan and we’ll win in Syria. God willing, we will gather strength and come back, just as Muhammad came back from Yathrib. Then God will grant us victory and we shall sweep the kuffar from Homs, Chaleb and Damascus.
I remember the battle at Zhawar, years before you were born. The Russians and their allies drove us from our base. It was a bloody affair. Our commander, Haqqani, was killed. We fought the kuffar, killed his soldiers, brought down his helicopters. But in the end we could not withstand the aerial bombardment and had to retreat. It was a bitter day. But the enemy’s victory was short lived. We came back a few days later and they never took Zhawar from us again.”
Maher smiled at Nizar.
“Come on, we’ve rested enough, let’s go.”
They both stood up, Nizar straightened his shoulders and led the way to the other end of the alley, the crackling and screeching complaints of the debris beneath his feet disturbing the silence. He could see the main street that the alley connected to. Before the war he used to go shopping for fruits and vegetables there. Now it was empty. Maher was only a few steps behind him, scanning the buildings. Nizar stepped out of the alley and immediately a shot rang out. He heard the bullet hitting the wall behind him and fragments raining down on the street.
He turned back and ran into the alley, but before he could go very far Maher took hold of his sleeve and stopped him. Nizar heard his heart hammering in his skull. Dry air scraped his throat as it rushed into his lungs. He saw Maher’s face twisted in a savage grin.
“Don’t be afraid. You’re safe. God is merciful. Is this the first time someone’s shot at you?”
Nizar nodded, not trusting himself to speak.
“You’ll learn to enjoy it. But we must continue. The enemy knows we’re here but we don’t know where he is. So here’s what we’re going to do. I’ll run out and draw his fire, you’ll kill him. Understood?”
“Maher, it should be the other way around. You’re the better shot. I should go.” Nizar immediately regretted his words. He didn’t want to die. Not so soon. Not before seeing his parents again.
“Nizar, do as I say. God will grant us victory. Remember what I taught you. Kneel down, sight carefully, let your breath out and squeeze the trigger slowly. There’s no hurry, I’ll be OK. Just don’t take too long.” Maher winked.
Nizar nodded weakly and brought up his rifle. He knelt down at the corner of the alley’s last building and waited. Maher burst into the street running and bellowed “Allahu Akbar!”. Nizar emerged into the alley just as two shots were fired in quick succession. He tried to spot the shooter. Time slowed down. There were so many windows, so many hiding places. He couldn’t hear anything except the roar of blood and the booming of his heart. Time was running out, soon the shooter would fire again and find his mark. There was Ahmed’s furniture shop, the windows all broken. He’d played there with Ghassan, years ago. He squeezed his cheek to his rifle’s cool stock, just as Maher had shown him.
He saw Maher zigzagging his way across the street and paused to track him for a long moment. Maher’s hand jerked back in a spray of blood. He screamed silently, mouthing Nizar’s name. Nizar fired without aiming, feeling guilty at losing track of his task. Once, twice, three times the stock slammed into his teeth with the recoil. Maher fell on his back and fired a long burst from his rifle. Nizar turned to watch his target and saw a soldier fall from one of the roofs. The heavy thud at the end told Nizar he had regained his hearing.
He ran to Maher. Blood had darkened a stain on his jacket near his elbow. He looked pale but ferocious. He dropped his rifle and reached inside his jacket with his good arm, then tossed Nizar a bandage.
“Here, help me with that.”
Nizar caught the bandage.
“I’m sorry Maher, I don’t know what I was doing.”
“Nizar, the enemy is dead. You did exactly as you should have had. Now quickly, wrap the bandage around my arm, don’t bother with the sleeve.”
Nizar opened the bandage’s wrapping and shook the bandage loose. He put it on the wound and wrapped the gauzy cotton strips around Maher’s arm. When he was done Maher picked up his rifle and sprang to his feet.
“It’s not safe here. Come on. Our brothers our waiting close by.”
This time Maher led the way. They continued their cautious advance through the streets, scurrying from shelter to shelter, eyes constantly scanning, ears alert for any sound. They rounded a corner and stepped into a small square. Maher appeared to relax.
“Brother, we are here!”
Maher and Nizar turned to face the sound. A bearded man in fatigue pants and a faded black sweater was standing beside the blasted remains of a tree. He dangled his rifle from one hand and motioned them over with the other. Behind him a door hung from its hinges, guarding the entrance to the crumbling shell of a three storey building.
“Ali, it’s good to see you again,” said Maher as he hugged the man and slapped him on the back. “How goes the battle?”
“Here, very well. We downed a regime helicopter yesterday and captured the pilots. I’ll show you.”
He motioned them to the entrance. Nizar looked at a balcony overhead which clung to the building’s façade. After a moment’s hesitation he followed Maher and Ali inside. The smell of wet concrete dust and piss was strong. Two men slouched in one corner of the room, their heads drooping over their chests, their feet bound at the ankles. They wore Syrian army uniforms. One was a captain. On one side of them was a plush red sofa, the only piece of furniture in the room. A man wearing fatigues and a black bandana sat on it, a rifle in his lap. Above him a glaring emergency light hung from the ceiling.
“There they are,” said Ali.
“How did you catch them?” Maher asked.
“They were dropping barrel bombs on Bab al-Sebaa. Martyred Yussef Hayani and his whole family. Twelve people. We shot their helicopter when they overflew us and they crashed onto a football field shortly after. Four were killed, but we got the pilots.”
“Praise God. The Nusarites are inhumanly cruel, but it will avail them nothing, our victory grows closer every day.”
Ali grabbed hold of the captain’s hair and raised his head. “This one used to live here in Homs, or so he says.”
One of the captain’s eyes was swollen shut. There was a cut on his cheek and a trail of fresh blood that reached down to his chin. His good eye focused on Maher.
Maher bent down and looked at him closely. “I know him.”
“Maher,” the captain croaked. “Water.”
“Get him some water,” Maher barked over his shoulder at the guard.
The guard picked up a plastic bottle from beside the couch and poured some water into the captain’s mouth.
“Maher. I never thought I’d see you again.” The captain coughed, leaned his head back against the wall and looked up at Maher. “They call you the Lion of Afghanistan now.”
“There’s a price on your head. 10,000 dollars.”
“There have been greater. But God is merciful, I have never been caught.”
A sudden yowl echoed in the room, startling Nizar. He swiveled sharply, his heart racing. A cat had jumped onto the sofa. It was pathetically thin. Its ginger stripes heaved with every breath. Ali and the guard snickered at Nizar’s alarm. He reached out, hand still shaking, and stroked the cat’s back. It paused to purr. Nizar knelt by the sofa. Black slits on green irises looked back at him from behind half-closed eyes. He heard the captain behind his back as his attention came back to the conversation. He poured some water into his hand and let the cat slurp it up, enjoying the wet tickling of its whiskers.
“The world is a strange place Maher. I never thought we’d end up fighting on opposite sides. We were brothers.”
The captain held up his hand to Maher.
“You remember our blood oath? I still have the scar. You cut a little too deep. My father was so angry, his belt hurt much more than your knife.”
Maher smiled. “I know, I also felt your father’s belt that day.”
“I’m a father now too. Taufik is seven years old, Reem is four. My wife…you know my wife. Aisha. We used to play together when we were kids.”
“You were a good man, Abdul. Always. So why do you fight now with the regime?”
“Maher, I’m not guilty of any crime. I serve my government, obey its orders. Yes, we’ve killed your men. Sometimes civilians were caught in the crossfire. In war that can’t be avoided. But what about your men? Have you not killed many soldiers? Civilians too? My brother died near Idlib, killed by the mujaheedin for refusing to give them money.”
Maher stared at the captain for a moment.
“For the kuffar there can be no forgiveness,” he straightened and turned his back on the pilot.
“Ali, you must leave the city now. Meet us at the old factory tonight. Give my friend a quick death. The other…”
“Maher…” the captain whispered.
“Nizar, let’s go. This is no place for you,” Maher said.
On an impulse Nizar grabbed the cat by the back of its neck and put it into his bag, leaving its head poking out the top. Maher took him by the arm and guided him out.
“Maher, please!” The captain tried to get up but tripped and fell on his face.
Outside, night had fallen. Darkness made Maher bolder and he hurried down a side street, a silent shadow. Nizar did his best to follow but occasionally his feet tripped on a piece of rubble or plunged into a pothole, which sent him sprawling. The cat didn’t complain as he picked himself up and continued. The clouds’ swift march across the sky was interrupted by a full moon. The soft light made it easy to recall what the city looked like before the battle had begun. It had never been pretty, but it had always been a home. It didn’t deserve this.
In the shadow of an exposed brick wall Adnan was crouching by a small bonfire with his back to Nizar and Maher. He stood up quickly and turned around. His gaze flitted over Maher and settled on Nizar. Thick black eyebrows overhung eyes from which deep furrows ran the length of his cheeks. His mouth was surrounded by white stubble and his hair had retreated almost to the back of his head. Surviving tufts of gray stood in disorder on his scalp. He was very thin.
“You’re back. There were more people with you yesterday, what happened to them?”
“They’re all safe, outside the city. When the soldiers come they will find no one.”
“Who is this?”
“This is Nizar. He’s from Akrama.”
“He’s far too young to be carrying a gun. Why are you here boy?”
“I’m sending him to Jordan to join his parents. I want you to go with him.”
Adnan turned his back on them and resumed his position by the fire.
“Father,” Maher said softly. “We have to leave. I must get you to safety.”
There was a long silence, interrupted only by the crackling of the fire. The cat meowed softly from Nizar’s rucksack. He felt it digging its claws into his shoulder. He reached back and picked it up. It was cold, just as he was. He could feel the warmth of the fire, tantalizingly close and yet not near enough to offer relief. Maher sighed and sat down by his father next to the fire. Nizar joined him.
“Do you remember our vacation in Latakia?” Adnan said. “We stopped on the way and I took you on that boat to Arwad. You were so excited. You didn’t stop talking about traveling the high seas for weeks afterwards.”
“That was years ago, I was still a child.”
“I never thought you’d end up traveling for war.”
“Not for war. For jihad. To help my Muslim brothers.”
“Oh? And did you help them? How is Afghanistan now? Do the Afghans prosper? Is the food plentiful?”
“God provides for them. And besides, what would you have me do? Leave them to the Russians to get raped and murdered?”
“Maher, I’m not a fool and neither are you. The Afghanis languish under the boot of Karzai. Those that do not suffer from your Taliban. They barely have enough food, many are refugees. Daily they suffer violence, sometimes by the Taliban, sometimes by the Americans. Life is hell for them.”
“The Americans, like the Russians, will not last long in Afghanistan. The House of Islam is no place for the kuffar.”
“It was always futile arguing with you, even when you were a child.”
A long burst of machine gun fire sounded close by. Adnan and Nizar threw themselves to the ground. The cat jumped out of Nizar’s hands as he crawled frantically away from the firelight. Maher jumped to his feet, trying to locate the sound.
“Relax, they’re not so close“, Maher said. “But it’s time for us to go.”
Adnan got up. “There is nowhere to go, Maher. Your mujaheedin or the regime’s murderers, it’s all the same to me. May as well die here, where I was born.”
Small flakes of snow drifted down, silver in the moonlight. They hissed briefly as they perished in Adnan’s bonfire. In the distance a battle flared. First the rattle of small arms fire and then the booming of mortars. Two illumination rounds bloomed in the darkness high above the city and started their slow descent. Nizar got to his feet and picked up his bag. The cat perched on the wall above him and fixed him with an indifferent stare. He called to it softly.
A brief whoosh heralded the sound of an incoming artillery round. The explosion gouged chunks of asphalt, concrete and metal and hurled them into the air.
Maher climbed to his feet and shook his head. He stumbled over to Nizar who was slumped with his back against the wall. Blood gushed from his neck, his eyes were open. Maher knelt down, reached out and closed his eyes. The snow was falling faster now, shrouding Nizar in white. Adnan watched as Maher caressed Nizar’s hair and began a whispered prayer. When he was done he brushed the snow from Nizar’s face and kissed his forehead. He got up.
“Father, please, we have to go.”
Adnan turned his back on Maher and sat back down by the fire. Maher gave his father a long look. Finally he waved to him and turned away. His tracks quickly disappeared as he faded into the storm.