by Holly Ferres
Azhar sat on the beach looking at the shimmering sea. She liked to listen to the waves rolling gently in. She picked up a handful of sand and let it trickle through her fingers. The setting sun cast a rosy glow in the sky. A family a few feet away from her were chatting and laughing. The man kicked a ball for his little boy. Like many other tourists on the Italian island of Lampedusa, they were enjoying their holiday.
Azhar looked the other way to hide her tears. Not for her a fully equipped apartment and plenty of food, she and her sister, her uncle Dhakir and her cousin Ahmed shared a tent in a refugee camp along with people from Eritrea, Somalia, Mali, Syria and Libya. A wave of nausea welled up in her stomach, she wretched, thinking about the baby who might never see his or her father. What was he doing now? She hoped he was safe. He was assisting the Free Syrian Army against Assad’s forces.
Fariq was a motor mechanic and had been running a successful business until his garage was bombed burying his apprentice. He scrabbled through the rubble with neighbours to rescue him but he was buried too deep to survive. When the bomb hit Azhar’s parents’ home in Damascus, flattening it and killing them both just after Azhar had visited them, this was too much for him to endure. Fariq joined the resistance forces. The local brigade wanted a driver who could also keep vehicles in running order. He loved his country and was prepared to help to defend innocent people caught up in this terrible situation. He wanted his beautiful wife and her sister Hawa to have the chance of a new life in Europe where they could be safe. He planned to join them.
Azhar thought about their wedding. Both families celebrated the match. The photos showed a radiantly happy couple. Her heart ached that she couldn’t tell Fariq that he might become a father if she and the baby survived. She had kept her mobile phone hidden on the terrible journey. She managed to speak to Fariq to tell him she and Hawa, her uncle and cousin had reached Lampedusa Island. Since then she had been unable to reach him.
Three months earlier, in a residential area of Damascus, her uncle had to peel Azhar away from Fariq as the car was about to depart. She turned her head to get a last look at his anguished face as he waved, tears in his eyes. The car jolted as her uncle Dhakir negotiated the rubble on the road. They heard more explosions as they made their way out of the city. Hawa put her arms around her distraught sister and cried. It had all happened so quickly, she couldn’t believe their parents were dead and now they were leaving their home country for the unknown. The journey to Lebanon had been exhausting. Uncle Dhakir and her cousin Ahmed shared the driving. Often they drove through the night to reach safer territory. At the border their passports were checked and the car searched. In Lebanon they sold the car and boarded a flight to Tunisia. Uncle Dhakir advised them not to question how they had obtained their visas for entry into Tunisia.
Azhar couldn’t imagine things getting worse, but once they were in the hands of the people traffickers in Tunisia, she was terrified. They were picked up in a minibus and squashed in with other refugees. The organisers were rough and pointed guns at them. They travelled for hours in the windowless, stuffy, cramped vehicle until they reached the port. It was dark when the vehicle door was opened and they were ordered to follow the leading trafficker along a slippery quayside and were virtually pushed on-board a dilapidated fishing boat which was already crowded with desperate people. The passengers were all forced at gunpoint into the hold of the boat and a hatch battened down above their heads. The hold stank of stale fish. People were squashed together on the rough floor and when the boat pitched and rolled in rough sea, they were thrown against each other. The only toilet facilities were a few buckets and some passengers were seasick in the stifling atmosphere. If this boat sinks, we’ve no chance trapped in here, thought Azhar.
Eventually the boat stopped rolling. Azhar could no longer hear the thump of the engine. She had lost track of time. She heard sirens, shouting and bumping on the hull. The hatch was opened and the passengers blinked as sunshine streamed into the stinking hold. Italian coastguards carefully escorted them off the boat and into inflatable ribs to take them to Lampedusa Island. Azhar thought these people looked careworn. The week before, several people were drowned making the same journey in a flimsy inflatable boat.
The Italian authorities treated them with kindness, checking their passports and registering their entry into Europe. Azhar and Hawa met a compassionate Red Crescent volunteer who bought donated clothes and toiletries for them. Uncle Dhakir told Azhar, Hawa and Ahmed that every cent of the family savings had been spent on their journey, most of it on the people traffickers’ fee. In a month’s time they would have to leave the island and travel to a refugee camp near Rome.
As she got up from the beach Azhar tried to console herself with the thought that when they moved, the Italian authorities would register them at the next camp. Uncle Dhakir had found a charger for her phone and purchased credit for it. Fariq should be able to find them. She wanted to be in his arms, to tell him about the baby. She walked back to the camp to find her little sister and hug her as they cried for their mother and father.
Holly Ferres lives in Belfast where she attended creative writing courses. She enjoys being a member of the Belfast Writers’ Group and has contributed short stories to three anthologies. She hopes to write a novel based on the dynamics of family generations. She enjoys choral singing and trying to learn the Russian language.
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