Nujeen, p.6
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       Nujeen, p.6

           Nujeen Mustafa
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  Afterwards I would wish I had left some mark of me that someone might find in years to come, maybe like a list of my top-ten favourite geniuses (number one, Leonardo da Vinci), so people could know that once there had been a girl who couldn’t walk but knew a lot.

  Mustafa had arranged a mini-bus to take me, Bland, Nasrine and my parents. There wasn’t much room and we were pretending it was just temporary, so we took only some clothes, the laptop, a few photos and important documents, and of course the TV. As we drove out of the city we saw buildings half collapsed into rubble, almost as if they had crumbled. The roads were packed with hundreds of people leaving. It looked like the whole city of Aleppo was terrified and fleeing to the countryside, literally leaving their breakfast on their tables.

  We had to travel through several checkpoints, first those of the regime at the edge of the city, then those of the rebels. At the regime ones I held my breath, worried that they would find Bland, discover he hadn’t done his military service and take him away. Because of the checkpoints and all the other vehicles, the 56-mile journey took us three hours instead of the usual one and a half. But we had got out just in time. My aunt and uncle who left a day later took seven and a half hours.

  We didn’t know what Manbij would be like under control of the FSA. It was kind of like an experiment for Syria. As we drove into the town we saw some banners proclaiming Freedom and a man in a Che Guevara T-shirt, but otherwise nothing looked very different.

  Our house looked just the same, and I was not happy to be back there with the family of evil white and orange cats on the roof and the scary black tree. The cat gang had multiplied and the biggest one had a sort of growth on its throat and was even scarier. It was summer and terribly hot in the house, so we slept on the roof. I cried a lot that first night and prayed to God he would stop the fighting and we could go home. The only good thing was to see the stars again. The stars and the beauty of silence. Even Assad couldn’t mess with those.

  As the Ramadan moon got bigger, you could make out dark and light patches that were its seas and mountains. I remembered all the documentaries I had watched about space and astronauts. ‘I wonder what Neil Armstrong would have seen and felt up there on the moon,’ I said to Ayee. ‘Just sleep,’ she grumbled. It was hard to sleep as I was being plagued by mosquitoes which seemed to think I had the sweetest skin. Glad someone likes me! I was covered in bites the next morning and couldn’t stop scratching as I watched the opening of the Olympics on TV from London. I was excited to see the Queen. There was even a video with the Queen meeting James Bond. I would be so nervous if I met the Queen.

  I was still cross to be in Manbij. But actually we were lucky. The week after we left, the regime started using barrel bombs on Aleppo. These are literally barrels filled with shrapnel or chemicals dropped from a big height by helicopters, that exploded and caused appalling injuries for miles around quite indiscriminately. A lot of the fighting was round the Old City. After hundreds of years of peace and tourists, the citadel was turned into a working fortress again by the regime forces. They used the medieval walls as barriers and the old arrow slits for gun placements and set up snipers’ nests in the towers and gun placements.

  The souk and covered bazaar had become a front line. My sisters used to love going there and had told me about its miles and miles of magical lanes where you could buy anything from its famous soap to the finest silks, linger in its baths or sip tea and swap stories in its tiled caravanserai. Once I gave Nasrine all the money I had saved from Eid festivals and birthdays and she bought me a gold chain there which was the most precious thing I owned. Now it had become a place where rival snipers trained their rifles and shells fell almost every afternoon. In September we saw on TV that the ancient souk had been set on fire. Hundreds of years of history burnt down.

  By the end of 2012 it seemed like the Battle of Aleppo would never end. It was a full-scale war where on one side there was Assad and Hezbollah and on the other all sorts of rebel groups including criminal gangs and Jabhat al-Nusra (also known as the al-Nusra Front), which is the al-Qaeda branch in Syria. Every neighbourhood had become a fiefdom controlled by a different rebel group. The regime was obliterating entire districts while the opposition had cut off nearly all supply routes into the city.

  It was better to be in the western part, which was under control of the regime. We heard from friends and relatives still there that in the east there was no fuel to cook with and that the trees in the parks had been stripped of their bark and branches. To get food they had to wait in long bread queues which sometimes got bombed, and families were even scouring rubbish dumps for scraps like you see in poor African countries.

  Some people thought Doomsday was coming as forewarned by our Prophet.


  A War of Our Own

  Manbij, Summer 2012

  I was watching a programme about the bombing of Dresden and Ayee was getting annoyed. ‘Why do you keep watching those old war movies?’ she asked. ‘We are in a war of our own.’

  ‘One day, in fifty or a hundred years, everyone will read about our war,’ I replied.

  I liked learning about the First and Second World Wars. I couldn’t believe that Gavrilo Princip who shot dead Archduke Franz Ferdinand and so started the First World War was a Serbian teenager aged just seventeen. Thanks, Gavrilo, for ruining the world!

  Then the power went off. This was annoying as it was almost time for Masterchef, the American version, which had become very exciting as one of the contestants was a blind girl from Vietnam called Christine Ha and I wanted her to win. How could she cook like that blind? It made me think that people need to be in the right place at the right time to shine. Like Lionel Messi was this tiny boy everyone made fun of because of his growth hormones, and now he is the best footballer in the world. I wasn’t sure I was in the right place.

  Maybe if I was somewhere else, I could be like that fifteen-year-old American boy who invented a way to detect pancreatic cancer, after a close friend died of it. I want to be useful – feeling you are doing nothing is awful. But I do believe everyone is in this world for a purpose. I just hadn’t found mine.

  Since the war started we were always having power-cuts. Manbij was not as bad as some places as we had the dam near by. But we had rationing and some days there was no power, some days no water. We got used to filling everything with water when we had it. At night the street was completely dark because there were no streetlamps. Every house was full of candles and torches. When there was no power and no TV, there was nothing to do but listen to the war. I could hear everything, the thrum-thrum-thrum of the aircraft then the tuk-tuk-tuk of the guns.

  ‘Why did you bring us here?’ I complained almost every day. We had fled Aleppo to escape the war but it had come to Manbij as the regime tried to oust the FSA by bombing them. A high school near us was used as an FSA headquarters, so they bombed the area a lot. It made no sense to me what we had done. The silhouettes of the jets in the sky looked like Second World War dive-bombers from the old movies, and attacked in the same way, the pilots diving steeply before reaching their target, dropping their bombs then pulling up sharply. Afterwards there would be nothing about these raids on Syrian state TV.

  During our first week back, one of our stupid neighbours got his rifle out and stood on the roof trying to shoot down the planes. ‘Are you mad?’ my mum screamed at him. ‘If the regime see your gun they will think there are FSA here and kill us all.’ She could be scary.

  We became experts on weapons. From their sound we could tell the difference between MiG-21 or MiG-23 fighters and helicopter gunships, and between bombs and cluster bombs and missiles. Bland would always go outside or on to the roof to watch and Yaba would be shouting at him to come in.

  One day around midday, Nasrine had gone to visit Jamila when the bombing started. I had been watching a fascinating documentary called Getting to the Moon, so when I heard the hum of the helicopter overhead, I couldn’t believe it. It was like, Assad, a
re you challenging me? I wanted to keep watching but it became louder and louder. It was a missile bombardment. Every time one struck we felt the room vibrating. Ayee and I hid in the bathroom because it had the strongest ceiling with a layer of cement over the mud roof. Our other refuge was under the concrete step at the front of the house, but that was hard for me to get into.

  We were in that bathroom for four hours. If we were all going to die, I wanted it to be me. The rest of my family each had a definite use but I couldn’t see I had a use for anybody. Ramadan and Eid had come and gone and we had not gone back to Aleppo as promised. ‘You deceived me!’ I shouted at Ayee after that. ‘We’re never going back, are we?’

  Another night we were in the house, Yaba praying and Ayee and me just sitting because there was a power-cut and the windows were all open because we couldn’t use the fans. Suddenly a warplane came and bombed the street just behind our house. Everything shook and bits of cement and mud flew off the wall, and the gates and windows were all smashed.

  ‘Cluster bombs,’ said Ayee. I was so scared I lay on my back with mouth open and looked as if I was dead, so she lay down next to me with her arms around me. Then another plane started roaming around, passing and repassing. I couldn’t bear it. ‘Go away, plane!’ I shouted. ‘Away, away, away!’ Ayee’s phone started ringing. Nasrine was watching from the roof of Jamila’s home and could see the bombs landing right by our house. She was terrified.

  Finally the planes flew away. When the power came back I turned up the TV and watched a Turkish drama series called Samar while Ayee got a broom and swept up the broken glass and rubble.

  Next day we discovered they had bombed a funeral on the street behind, killing five people and injuring dozens. The blast was so powerful that a woman’s leg was blown off into the tree. Our neighbours told us that a local spy had called the regime and said there were important people at the funeral. They weren’t – they were just ordinary people like us trying to live their lives. Now the funeral had turned into five more funerals.

  After a while we got so used to the bombing that one day I realized I couldn’t remember normal any more. Unlike Nasrine and Bland who rushed to the roof, I didn’t want to watch the bombing because I knew it would leave a scar on my psyche. I had seen programmes about psychology and I didn’t want to be turned into a sociopath or a serial killer. My siblings didn’t seem to worry about such things.

  Nasrine even tried to keep up her studies and insisted on going back to the university in early 2013 for a physics paper. We were really worried as the university had been bombed on the first day of exams in January. She prayed the traveller’s prayer the night before and it took her seventeen hours to get there as she had to do a huge circle to avoid the front lines. The mini-bus that took her was driven by a volunteer who called ahead to find out which places to avoid, and when they got into Aleppo from the east on Tariq al-Bab Street they then had to go south and from there to the west to circle the Old City where the main fighting was. Even so she had to cross a line at the end, passing first an FSA checkpoint then one from the regime with a sniper alley in between. As she ran across she saw four bodies lying there which no one could pick up because of the snipers, so they were being eaten by dogs. After that she never talked about going back to Aleppo again. And, by the way, she never got the result of her test.

  Nobody really knew who was in charge in Manbij. In the centre of town was a building called the Serai where the courts had been and where the mayor and police all had offices. Those regime officials and police had either gone or defected to the rebels, and now there was a Revolutionary Council made up of engineers, clerics, a pharmacist, a chain-smoking former intelligence officer, a lawyer, a tile manufacturer and a poet who had been in jail for fifteen years.

  Some things were good. The shops were open, even the gold merchants, and two independent newspapers had been started, one of which was called the Streets of Freedom. It was full of anti-Assad news and a cartoon strip which called him ‘Beesho’ or ‘baby Bashar’. We had never seen such a thing.

  What wasn’t good were all the armed militants who drove around town. Bland said there were forty-seven different brigades. The main one was led by a commander who called himself Prince and drove around in a white Toyota Hilux pickup full of armed men. He was a short man with a thick neck who before the war had been a petty criminal and had become powerful in the revolutionary chaos by kidnapping rich people, taking their money, then using it to buy cars and weapons for his followers. Mustafa told us that he had gone to the owner of a petrol station who used to hoard fuel and stolen 20 million Turkish lire from him.

  All the brigades painted their names on the sides of their pickups but then covered them with mud for camouflage so as not to be bombed by the regime jets. Sometimes they would fight among themselves, and one day there was a big gun-battle between two tribes after men from one tribe kidnapped people from the other. At night local people formed groups to protect their own blocks.

  The Assad regime were of course angry to have lost Manbij and if they couldn’t have it, it seemed like they wanted to make sure the rebels couldn’t either, like children destroying each other’s toys. So they bombed our water pipelines, grain silos and administrative buildings. We are people, remember, not toys! The rebels had nothing to fight back with against airstrikes. Also they had no money to run the town. I suppose it was officially chaos because there was no government, so if you were divorcing, getting married, having a child, there were no papers, nothing got registered. And there were no schools working.

  People complained that they had no water and weren’t getting their pensions any more. Also the regime had cut off our internet, which was very annoying for people like me looking for information. The only reason we had electricity was because we were near the dam, which provides power to a large part of Syria and if our supply was cut, then the rebels might bomb the whole thing.

  Fuel was smuggled in but it was very expensive. There were lots of clothes and appliances in the bazaar which people said had been looted from all the homes people had fled in Aleppo, so we never bought any, even though we were kind of camping in our house as we had left almost everything behind. What if our own belongings appeared there? What we did need was bread, and there were long lines of people at the bakeries.

  The other problem with war is you had no idea what might happen to you. One day Nasrine and Ayee had gone to the bazaar, heading for their favourite clothes shop to buy something for a wedding. On the way they passed another shop where a long jacket in the window caught Nasrine’s eye. Ayee wanted to get on but Nasrine can be stubborn, so they stopped for her to try it on. She had just put it on when they heard the planes followed by an explosion. The place they had been heading towards had been bombed and three people killed, including the owner of that shop. ‘That jacket saved our lives,’ said Nasrine afterwards. Later she found out that an old schoolfriend of hers, Evelin, had been shopping there and both her legs were blown off and her husband killed.

  It wasn’t just the bombing that was a problem. Mustafa drives maybe 1,300 miles a week bringing in his trucks, and he said before the revolution that you could sleep in the desert and nobody would touch or steal anything. Now he said that had changed. The FSA checkpoints had all started demanding money – sometimes thousands of dollars – for him and his driver to come through. He started travelling at night and on small roads rather than highways to avoid the checkpoints, but that wasn’t always enough.

  Not long after we moved back to Manbij, Mustafa was robbed of $21,000 by some members of Jabhat al-Nusra. He had bought some cars from Homs and driven them across the country to Kobane with his driver to sell them. That night when they stopped at a place to sleep, he noticed the driver talking on the phone a lot. The next day the driver said he had heard there was fighting on their planned route, so they should go a different way through a village near Deir al-Zour in eastern Syria. When they got there, they were ambushed by four cars of armed men who
started shooting at them and accused Mustafa of working for the PKK, the Kurdish militia. They took all the money he had made selling the cars. After that he sacked that driver as he was sure he had colluded with the gang.

  Another time, a few months later, he was robbed by some other militants when he drove into a place called al-Hasakah where there was fighting going on between two villages. Some armed men stopped him and demanded, ‘Are you Kurdish?’ They told him he must wait for their ‘emir’, then took him and his driver to a school building where they were holding some other Kurdish people. There, they took his vehicles – two Mercedes-Benz trucks – and stripped him of all his cash – which was about three or four hundred dollars – and his mobile phones before eventually releasing him.

  Mustafa didn’t tell our father any of this at the time because Yaba would have stopped him working and we relied on Mustafa for money. Mustafa always said war was good for business because the breakdown of order meant you didn’t need import licences and because there was more demand for vehicles from all the militias. But his driver used to carry a box of beer with him as he was afraid. Yaba was always warning him, ‘You mustn’t be too greedy because it will harm you.’

  We did have some big family news. Maybe to keep my parents quiet about the dangers of his driving around, at the age of thirty-seven Mustafa suddenly agreed to get married after ten years of saying no to every girl Ayee proposed. The lucky girl was a cousin of ours called Dozgeen living in the village near Kobane. Why he agreed on her and not the others, who knows. I just thanked God I wouldn’t have to cover my ears any more as they argued about it. The only annoying thing was that there would be another wedding and crowds of people in the house, which I didn’t like.

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