Short Story by Ilwaad Yusuf
I lay under the hard rubble, waiting patiently for Malak Al-Mawt to come and take what had never belonged to me in the first place. I was taught as a child that my life was a gift from God, and on a specific day, at a specific hour, when it was my time to exit this world, there would be nothing stopping him from taking what Allah had commanded.
The light was bright as it broke through the crevice of stone that shielded me from any more falling debris. I tried to raise a hand to block the sun’s rays. The sheer agony that followed my sudden movement led me to believe my arm was most-likely broken. The light continued to grow, the sound of stone hitting concrete got louder. It wasn’t long before I saw the hood of the car begin to lift. It made a deafening screeching sound as it moved inches into the air. As soon as there was enough room, I felt two hands feel around in the darkness and then grab either of my shoulders. I shrieked in pain as they hoisted me out of the ditch I had assumed was my grave.
His voice sounded familiar. It was panicked. I let him say my name a few more times before I responded.
“Ayah, where does it hurt? Can you stand?”
I decided to open my eyes after I felt his breath on my face. Clearly I wasn’t dead, and clearly Mohamed hadn’t brushed his teeth this morning.
“My left arm is broken,” I said through gritted teeth. “Let go.”
Mohamed immediately dropped his hands. My eyes left his for a moment, and turned to the melee in front of me. It took me a moment to comprehend what I was witnessing. Shell casings lay scattered on the streets of Mogadishu. Cars were on fire, trucks were left on their sides and shops had their windows blown in.
“What the…” I began.
Mohamed’s gaze followed mine. He then took hold of my right arm and hauled me into a dark alleyway, out of the open streets, and out of open fire.
“The president no longer holds office. They ousted him.” he said.
I could feel my blood run cold. “When?”
“Three hours ago. The qabil leaders have declared war. They all want someone from their tribe to become president.”
I felt my back move against the concrete wall. I slowly slid down as Mohamed watched me. It all started when I had been walking home after my final exam and I heard the screams. People were running down the central street, right next to parliament. A young boy, no older than six, had blood streaming from his face. His mother clutched onto him as she ran as fast as her feet would allow.
That’s when the bomb exploded.
It shook the ground around me. In the moments I was airborne a sense of crippling fear overcame me. When I hit the broken concrete of the street it wasn’t long before the debris came. The second bomb, one that was much closer to me, detonated as I was crawling to the nearest shelter. I hid under the hood of a demolished car, forcing my way into a makeshift ditch as the shards of glass and chunks of concrete and metal flew in every direction. I didn’t know how long I had passed out from the shock, but I guess it had been long enough for the city to turn into an all-out war zone.
“How did you find me?” I asked Mohamed.
“I wasn’t even looking at first. Everyone has been seeking shelter for the past three hours since the bombings and gunfire began. I was running past parliament when I saw your stupid-looking book bag with your rainbow pins all across it, lying in the middle of the street. I panicked and just started digging. I didn’t think I’d find you alive.”
I stared at nothing for a long time.
Mohamed ripped off one sleeve of his white button-down shirt and used it as a sling for my broken arm. He then grabbed my right hand and we began to move through the streets.
We hid for cover every time we heard gunfire on our way back to my family’s estate. I tried to focus on something other than the feeling of broken bones. It had never occurred to me that civil war would actually break out because of the tribal conflict, or that it would go on for more than three years. The tribes that made up Somalia hadn’t always disputed, there was a time of peace and co-existence in this country that pre-dated any civil unrest. Even with the power-struggle among politicians, I always believed our united heritage would be what would keep this country together past its history of colonization or the individual greed of any one man.
If it weren’t for the adrenaline rushing through me, I was certain Mohamed would have had to carry me home. He and I had been jogging for almost two hours when another bomb exploded. This time, the Humvee was a block away from us. Luckily, we were inside an alleyway in-between two buildings. The wreckage blew right past us; our cover was more or less untouched.
“You good?” Mohamed asked.
“We need to run. Now.”
“Why?” His voice sounded even more alarmed that it had previously been.
I pointed up above. His eyes followed my finger just in time for him to see the black silhouette against the darkening sky, move to find refuge behind a concrete wall on the roof of an unoccupied home. I knew the home was unoccupied because more men dressed like him moved in and out of the house. It was being used as a base.
For a few moments we watched the men grab passersby on the street and question them. One man used the butt of his gun to knock his hostage unconscious for resisting to comply with his questions.
His voice was but a mere whisper. “They’re profiling specific sections of the city that they know belong to different qabils than their own.”
“Mohamed…” I said, louder this time.
But I didn’t have to tell him what to do next because the man on the roof made circular motions in the sky with his rifle and began shooting at the people running on the ground. That’s when our feet began to move, and they didn’t stop until they took us all the way home.
Mariam was the first to greet us at the gate. She screamed my name as her body collided with mine. Mohamed and I collapsed onto the ground inside, and watched my face grow in pain before he attempted to drag my eight-year-old sister off me. I held her head against my chest as she sobbed.
“Mariam, love, you need to go shut the gate and lock it now,” I said.
It took her a moment to listen to my instructions, but eventually she did as she was told. My heartbeat began to slow when I heard the familiar click of the deadbolts. Mariam left for a few moments, and then returned with two glasses of water.
“Where is everyone?” I asked her.
“They’re all in the living room” she said. “hooyo and aabo were calling the school asking where you were. Hooyo hasn’t stopped worrying, she’s been calling everyone in the neighborhood, asking if anyone has seen you.”
I sat back against the iron bars of the front gate and tried to regain my composure before I stood and made my way to the living room.
I turned to Mohamed. “You coming?”
He shook his head. “In a minute.”
As I made my way through the courtyard I saw suitcases half-filled and scattered across the stone walkway. The maids were slowly filling them up as they prepared meals in the cookhouse. The living room, which sat directly opposite the courtyard, was crowded with my entire family. My parents and five of my siblings stood in a circle, arguing over God knows what.
“How long have they been at this?” I asked Mariam, who stood poised at my side.
“Hours,” she said, and moved forward, taking me with her.
Fathiya’s voice ripped through the room and sent Layla into a fit of tears. “I don’t understand why we can’t all just go to one place? Why do we have to separate?”
“Because,” my mother said, slowly caressing Layla’s head as she sniffled in the corner, “it would attract too much attention for you all to travel in a herd. They would target you. If one fell, you would all fall trying to protect that one. And then I’d have no children left.”
No one had noticed my entry. My father sat calmly in the background, his hands were folded across his abdomen. He was a big man with a long black beard that was greying at the roots. His calool stood as a place holder for his hands. He wore a kofi and his macwiis flowed to just above his ankles.
“It’s easier this way,” she continued. “If you all separate before your journey, each of you in pairs, going off in different directions, they won’t be able to target all of you at once. As soon as you make your way to Yemen you will be free. Claim refugee status, and continue on until you find someplace with a stable government and economy. Go back to school or find work, but just live.”
I’d never heard my mother speak so militaristic; her words became indicative of the thirty-plus years she’d spent with my general father. She had no tears, just patience and a calm I could never quite understand.
“You all are grown,” she said. “I’ve raised you all the best I can, now it’s time for you to raise yourselves.”
“What about me?” Mariam’s voice was soft in comparison to the rest of us. She was ten years my junior. I had been the youngest of six, until one day I wasn’t anymore.
“You, my love, are staying with me.” My mom gave her a hug and then finally registered my presence.
“Ayah!” She screamed my name, making her way towards me with a so much force I wasn’t sure if she was going to hug or hit me. “Where have you been? Are you trying to kill me?” I let out a yelp as she pulled me into her. She quickly retracted, took one look at my arm, and broke into tears. Shit.
“Hooyo I’m fine, don’t worry.”
“Close your mouth! I told you never to lie to me.” She turned to Fathiya. “Come take a look at your sister, see how bad it is.”
She came and sat next to me. I watched anxiously as she demonstrated her three years of medical school knowledge on what was left of my arm.
“Shit!” I said, as she turned my forearm in an awkward position.
“Oh stop bitching and let me look,” she said.
“Be gentle with your sister,” my mother warned.
After a moment, Fathiya placed my arm gently at my side. “It’s broken just below the elbow,” she said. “You’re going to need a cast.”
I shook my head. “There’s no way for me to get to the hospital. Besides, it’s probably backed up with much worse patients anyway.”
“Then I’m going to need to splint it for you. You won’t be able to move it, but that’s the only way the bone will heal.”
Fathiya got up and left. She came back within a few minutes and beckoned Isaac to follow her. I began to relax, but it wasn’t long before the throbbing began. I bit down on the sleeve of my shirt to stop from groaning. After twenty minutes Fathiya and Isaac returned with two pieces of sanded wood the size and width of my forearm, rolls of gauze, tape and antiseptic. Before my sister began to bandage me up, she handed me two pills.
“What are these?” I asked her.
I almost kissed her.
Just then Mohamed walked in. He greeted my parents, then my siblings before taking his seat next to my brothers. Ismael, Isaac and Adam all had solemn looks on their faces. I looked directly at Adam and he caught my eye and nodded. I got along better with Adam than I did with the rest of them. They were all in their early to mid twenties. My mother, having had two sets of twins back-to-back, ones set fraternal and the other identical, now believed it had worked in her favor. I could see now why she was so hell-bent on dividing us equally into pairs. She could separate us amongst each other. My sisters and I would each have a mahram to travel with. If border patrol asked either of my sisters or myself to provide a male guardian for our eligibility to travel, to obtain a visa or to even find a job, we could easily supply our brother as our guardian before marriage.
The pain had subsided to a dim lull. I turned to look at my father once Fathiya was done. His face showed no emotion. He seemed focused on the sound of the shots heard beyond the stone walls that enclosed us.
“I don’t see why we can’t just wait it out.” Isaac said. “Why can’t we just wait to see if the leaders of each qabil will settle this?”
“Because,” Fathiya interjected, “we Somalis are stubborn, and each qabil believes the right of the land and its authority to be theirs; they’ll never stop until they obtain its ownership. They’ll destroy this country one day at a time with their pride, and soon every chance we had of leaving will be gone.”
Layla broke out into tears again.
“Aabo, where is your suitcase?” I asked.
He remained silent. I looked at my mother and she turned her head quickly.
Realization hit me and I jumped up. “You are not staying here!” I shouted. My siblings stopped packing for a moment and stared.
Fathiya put a hand over mine and forced me to take a seat. “Ayah, calm down. Of course they’re not staying here. They’ll be joining us later on, when they settle everything with the house.” She turned to my mother, waiting for confirmation.
“I’m not leaving,” I said.
My mother looked at me and saw the defiance in my eyes. “You are. You are getting on a boat and crossing the narrow sea if it’s the last thing I do, Ayah. I promise you.”
My heartbeat quickened when I realized she wasn’t bluffing. My mother spoke softly, but her words cut deeper than any wound I’d ever felt. “This war will not end anytime soon, my love. You and everyone we know will all die before this land will ever know peace again.”
Adam came to my side. He put a hand to my back as my mother began to open a suitcase for me.
I didn’t stop her.
It was nightfall by the time everyone had gotten their things packed. We each had a small travel suitcase and a backpack, nothing more. It carried the essentials: two clean outfits, another pair of shoes, photo album, toiletries, and most of all, cash. My father emptied out his safe and gave each of us enough to live on for the next three months. After that we’d be on our own.
I didn’t cry as I said goodbye to five of my six siblings. Not even when Mohamed took my hand and whispered in my ear to stay safe. It wasn’t until I got to Mariam that I felt the prick of tears in my eyes. She wiped them away for me and I almost laughed at how she was the adult in this situation.
“Remember,” she said, “when we played on the hill last week, and you told me if I rolled down it I would get hurt at the bottom, so I should just stay at the top where it’s safer?”
I nodded. She leaned forward and I brought my ear to her mouth. “I think the bottom is safer than the top, but you have to roll down it first to get there.”
She smiled at me and asked if I understood her. I told her I did.
Then I made her promise me she wouldn’t roll down any hills until the war was over, and I could join her.
When it came time to say goodbye to my parents, my father kept his cool. His hard demeanor wouldn’t allow him to shed tears, but he did hold onto my hand for a while, the feeling of his palm forever imprinted in mine. For my mother, the water works came with my siblings, but with me she didn’t cry, she just pulled me in close and asked me what I wanted for breakfast when I saw her next. I told her I wanted canjeero and malawaax with shaax and she said she would have it waiting for me when I walked through the door.
I held onto that hope as Adam and I trekked through the city to the shoreline where we bought a ticket on a ship to cross the Gulf of Aden. Hordes of people attempted to do the same thing, as there were at least fifty ships leaving the docks. Every so often, a gunfight would break out, but the military was keeping the insurgents away, allowing more and more refugees to escape by the hour. My siblings all left on different ships going to different ports across the Middle East. Adam climbed aboard the ship and offered me his hand. I hesitated. His hand still extended, his eyes pleading me to take them in a way I’d never seen before. I grasped onto him, and in a few moments the ship made its way out into the water. It wasn’t long before I heard my mother’s voice sing to me in the night.
I could hear her voice over and over again as the people along the docks disappeared one by one into the darkness, as the lights turned to mere blobs in the distance, and as the shoreline of my homeland faded to black.