Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Afghan Cricket Teams Destroyed By Drone Attack

Rueters, 15th November

By Feikniuz Rashiabot in Kandahar and Lee Bar el Hip-Okrait in Washington

The Afghan government claimed today that a provincial cricket match was hit by missiles fired from an MQ-9 Reaper drone, killing all the members of one team and two of the other, as well as an umpire.

A USAF MQ-9 Reaper drone, of the kind alleged to have carried out the attack.

Cricket is a game popular in Afghanistan, which recently acquired Test match status from the International Cricket Council. The match, between the Kandahar Mujahideen and the Herat Poppy Farmers, was for the local championship, and was underway at the new Hekmuddin Gulbedyar stadium, built with US assistance. The drone, Afghan officials say, fired two Hellfire missiles at the playing field just as one of the batsmen had struck a six, incinerating five of the players – the two batsmen, the bowler, the wicket keeper, and a  fielder – and one of the umpires. As the remaining players rushed to help the dead and injured, the drone fired its two remaining Hellfire missiles at them in a so-called “double tap” strike, killing all of them with the sole exception of the surviving umpire, who was badly injured. He was taken to hospital, but it was discovered that the hospital did not exist, though it had been under construction for fifteen years.

An earlier cricket match in progress at the new Hekmuddin Gulbedyar stadium

“This is a war crime of the highest order,” former Afghan president Hamid Karzai said in a message to the media. “While I was in office, this might have been justified, but now that I am not, it certainly cannot be allowed.”

The current Afghan government was forced reluctantly to agree. “This unfortunate incident might possibly be a breach of regulations on the part of our masters...I mean our allies in the ISAF,” a spokesman for President Ashraf Ghani mumbled at a press briefing in Kabul. ISAF is the acronym for the US led International Security Assistance Force which protects Afghanistan from the Taliban. “We will conduct an investigation, and if the reports are confirmed, we will demand a payment of $1 million to each of the deceased. Since they are deceased, the money will be of no use to them, but I’m sure we’ll find alternative uses for it,” he added, licking his lips hungrily.

The drone operator responsible, identified as Captain George W McCain, contacted at his station at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, denied any wrongdoing. “Ah saw these here military aged brown males with what looked clearly like rifles in mah scope,” he said. “Ah also saw them throw a grenade up at mah drone, so ah knew for sure that they were terrorists.” He further justified the double tap strike. “Evah since the invasion of Iraq, we’ve been killin’ evildoers where we find them,” he said. “If that means blowin’ ‘em up before they can do the same to us, that’s fine an’ dandy. After all, in mah book the only good Afghan is a dead Afghan, after what they did to 9/11 and makin’ WMDs for Saddam Hussein.”

Officers who had served in Britain and had a nodding acquaintance with the laws of cricket, were quick to rush to Captain McCain’s defence. “Captain McCain has never been outside the United States,” his immediate superior, Colonel Hillary Obama, said. “He quite understandably mistook the cricket bats carried by two of the players for rifles, and the ball that one had struck into the air, really, looked exactly like a grenade.” She further suggested changes to the laws of cricket to prevent the repeat of such episodes in future. “Whoever makes the rules for this sport,” she told Rueters, “should immediately change the shape of the bats to make them look less like rifles to our drone operators. I’d suggest making them look like golf clubs. None of our drone operators would mistake a golf club for anything else. And, yes, the ball too should be made to look less like a grenade. Perhaps it should be like a basketball.”

Other voices suggested a darker side to the drone strike. “It must be (Russian President Vladimir) Putin who is to blame,” a joint bipartisan statement from members of the US Congress declared. “He must have hacked the drone’s sensor systems to make it look to the operator as though the men were carrying guns.”

The New York Times echoed the sentiment in an emergency editorial on its website. “If President Trump does not impose more sanctions on Russia immediately in retaliation, it will be further proof that he is controlled by Putin,” it stated. “That the Russian hacking campaign has extended to our drone sensors is a deeply worrying phenomenon. What will happen if Russia next hacks our police forces’ guns and prevents them from shooting suspects?”  

President Trump responded to the crisis on Twitter. “Our magnificent drone warriors blew up terrorists before they could sneak into the US and blow us up,” he tweeted. “And yet people are attacking me about it with #fakenews. Sad! Covfefe!”

Meanwhile, interviewed at an undisclosed location, a Taliban commander named Rahimatullah gave thanks to the US Air Force. “The more the Americans commit crimes like this against the people,” he said, laughing maniacally, “the more recruits we get. Inshallah, we shall soon be at the gates of Ghani’s palace in Kabul. See you soon.”

Taliban commander Rahimatullah (right) with his men


An attempt was made to contact the Afghans attacked for their comments, but they were all too dead to respond.

Monday, 13 November 2017

A Note To Readers

From now on, unless I use my cartoons to illustrate an article or story I'm writing, I will no longer be posting said cartoons on this site. They will be posted on my cartoon site, Raghead the Fiendly Neighbourhood Terrorist, only. This is to make sure my writing is visible to visitors to this site who click on the front page only, which is the vast majority of visitors.

This need not dismay readers who come here to see the cartoons. Look on the left of this page. See the list of links called "If you're not going to read me, read them"? You'll see the link to Raghead there, and it will be updated each time anything is posted on that site.

Meanwhile, thanks for reading, and I love you all.

Allegedly.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

The Abode Of Shaytan

The sun was a red orb over the worn hills to the west when Abu Fahd came to me.

“Abu Salman,” he said. “Come quickly. There is something you must see.”

I was at my command post, a map table and several chairs under a frame of wood covered with sand-coloured tarpaulin. I’d been busy planning the defences. In this desert of eroded bedrock, there was little enough we could do, but the enemy was closing fast, and our orders were to hold out as long as we lived. This would not be long; I had only eight brothers left, including myself. This morning I'd had eleven.

“What’s wrong, Abu Fahd?” I looked up from my map, where I’d been marking out possible defensive positions. The more I’d stared at the map the more hopeless the situation looked. This isolated ruin was surrounded by desert on all sides, and our only road out had already been cut.

Even if it hadn’t, it would have done us no good. Russian planes, blue specks in the burnished sky, had bombed us today, destroying our two remaining vehicles. Three of the brothers lay martyred in the smouldering wrecks of twisted metal.

There had been only one thing I could do, so I’d done it. We had been sent here to make sure that the ancient ruined fortress complex we were defending should not fall to the enemy. Clearly, we could not save it from falling to the enemy. Therefore the only thing left to do was to blow it all up, and that was what I’d ordered. The detonations had been shaking the ground for hours now.

“What is it, Abu Fahd?” I repeated. “They’ll be here by tomorrow morning at the very latest. We don’t have time to waste.”

“That’s just why you need to come.” In the light of the lowering sun, Abu Fahd’s face shone with sweat. I’d put him in charge of the demolitions, and suddenly I noticed that they’d stopped as well. “We’ve found something.”

“Where?” I abandoned my map with relief. I had been staring at it for so long that its symbols were dancing in my brain. “What have you found that’s worth stopping the work? By tomorrow whatever you’ve found will all be destroyed anyway.”

“Not this.” Abu Fahd rubbed dust from his beard, the yellow brick dust of the dynamited ruins. “This won’t be gone by tomorrow. And you have to see it.”

“All right, I’m coming.” Before coming out of the command post, I took a quick look at the sky. It was a habit that had saved my life more than once, revealing the glitter of sunlight on the long wings and whirling propeller of a waiting drone. But today there was nothing.

“The brothers are digging,” Abu Fahd said as I walked with him along the broken pathway under one of the half-tumbled walls. The flat yellow brick was ruddy in the evening light, the sinking sun painting the desert red.

“What are they digging?” The wreckage of one of the Toyota pickups bombed by the Russians looked as though it was bleeding. The charred corpse of the driver was still sitting behind the wheel. I forced myself to look away. “Where is it?”

“Under the old temple.” The temple was near the centre of the fortress. It wasn’t much more than a box of stone and broken brick now, open to the sky. We had never found out what deity had been worshipped within its crumbling walls; the few idols that still remained were so worn that they were almost featureless, and had not seemed worth the smashing. “You’ll see.”

“Under the temple?” I repeated. “What do you mean, under the temple?” I had only been inside the place once or twice, but remembered that the floor was of stone. “How can there be anything under the temple?”

“You’ll see in a minute.” We turned a corner, and Abu Fahd pointed. “It happened when we placed charges to blow up the temple.”

The ancient stone box of the temple looked as though someone had ripped it open with a gigantic can opener. One entire side of it lay in a tumbled pile of shattered yellow brick and pulverised stone. Inside, two of Abu Fahd’s men were shovelling rubble, clearing a space. They straightened up when they saw me.

“Abu Salman,” one of them said. “When we set off the demolition charge, part of the floor collapsed.”

“Collapsed?”

“Yes, look.” Abu Fahd pointed. “There’s something underneath.”

I looked. The shadows had grown long and were clotted around the remnants of the walls, but I could see a patch of deeper darkness among the rubble. “There’s a hole down there,” I said. “A chamber? Have you brought me here just for a chamber?”

“It’s more than a chamber,” Abu Fahd said. “I stuck my head down there and shone a torch around.”

“And?” I was irritated. This was pointless. “What about it?”

“See for yourself.” Abu Fahd handed me a long silver torch with a big head and gestured. The two who were digging stepped back, opening up a space for me. Feeling like a fool, I knelt, turned on the torch, and shone its beam into the hole. About three metres below, I saw a stone floor.

“What...” I began.

“You need to bend further, Abu Salman,” Abu Fahd said. “You can’t see it unless you put your head into the hole and look around.”

Feeling more like a fool than ever – was this their idea of a joke, to make their commander grovel? – I crouched down until my head and shoulders were through the hole. It was a tight squeeze, but big enough for me to be able to turn the torch around.

For a very long time, it felt, I did not say anything. Then I carefully pulled myself out and sat back on my heels.

“A passage,” I said at last.

Abu Fahd nodded eagerly. “And it’s a good, long one, too.”

“You realise what this means, of course.” I paused briefly, the implications whirling round my head.

“Yes,” Abu Fahd said, still nodding. “We can move into it and wait them out. They can’t stay indefinitely. They’ll move on again.”

“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” I said. “Let’s first see how far it goes.”

“That’s why we’re enlarging the opening.” Abu Fahd nodded to the two with the shovels. “What about the others, Abu Salman?”

I considered the four other brothers, whom I’d ordered to dig firing pits and whatever trenches they could scrape in the stony ground. “Tell them to come,” I said. “There’s little enough they can do outside once it’s dark, anyway. Make sure they bring their tools.”

While Abu Fahd went to fetch the men, I leant against part of the wall which was still standing and closed my eyes. I had had virtually no sleep for days now, and my eyes felt inflamed and gritty behind my eyelids. The scrape of shovel on stone was almost soothing.

Eyes closed, I fell into a waking doze. The blood red light of the sinking sun on my eyelids merged into the memory of blood, spilt blood painting yellow stone. The surroundings faded away. What was then became indistinguishable from what was now.

I was standing, once more, on the slick stone of the steps above the well. The pit below was already half-filled with corpses, the water that sloshed over them scarlet with the blood. The sun overhead beat down like a hammer, my face under my balaclava streaming with sweat. My right arm ached, the fingers weary with the weight of the heavy pistol they had been gripping for over an hour.

We did not need the water in the well any longer, since we were about to pull out. Nor did we need prisoners. We were, accordingly, both getting rid of the prisoners and making sure the enemy could not use the well.

Blinking at the burning salt sweat trickling into my eyes, I watched as yet another man was pushed down the steps by one of the brothers. It was Abu Adam, who had been later martyred by a murtadd sniper. The man was a little older than the others, perhaps thirty. He was quite pudgy, his lime green T shirt bulging over his belly, the black cloth tied over his eyes digging into his cheeks. He balked, trying to turn and go back up the steps, and Abu Adam cuffed him hard across the back of the head.

“You want water, don’t you?” Abu Adam asked. “You were asking for water, weren’t you? So go down and drink your fill.”

The man couldn’t see anything through the blindfold, but he couldn’t have failed to hear the shots from my pistol, and the reek of blood was so heavy in the air that it was difficult to breathe. He struggled, and Abu Adam struck him again, so hard that he stumbled down the stairs and fell to his knees at my feet. My hand rose in a movement that I’d already repeated so many times that by now it had become a reflex, the pistol barrel pointing directly down at the crown of his head, my finger squeezing the trigger. It should have been a clean kill, but at the last moment he jerked his head back, and the bullet slashed down his face, ripping skin and flesh and fat from bone, and went into his upper chest. He began to fall backwards on to my legs, but Abu Adam lashed out with his boot just in time, sending him tumbling forwards into the well. He was still alive, thrashing in the water so that he turned over on his back, his face turned up towards me. The bullet had ripped the blindfold from his face, and his one remaining eye seemed to glare at me accusingly, as though he could still see me. And then the bloodstained water closed over him.

“Stupid bugger,” Abu Adam said. “Made it hard on himself.”

“Yes,” I agreed. My shoes and trousers were splattered with blood and tissue. “How many more?”

“No more.” Abu Adam had wiped his hands on a handkerchief and thrown it down into the well, to float on the blood and water and corpses. “That’s the lot, Abu Salman.”

“Abu Salman?” Someone touched me on the shoulder. “They’re here, Abu Salman.”

My eyes snapped open. It was Abu Fahd. “They’re all here.”

I nodded, blinking. What had made me remember that execution of all things? It had only been a little episode, which I’d long since forgotten. “Oh, right. Help enlarge that hole. And look for something to cover it up when we get down there, so nobody else finds it.”

“Right. Shine the light here, Abu Jandal. Give me that mattock.”

Four of them, including Abu Fahd, began clearing and enlarging the hole. I split the remaining brothers into two teams of two, to get all the water, batteries, food and ammunition we had over to the temple so we could carry it down into the passage. The sun had set and night had fallen like a slamming door, dark and already chill. The sky on the northern horizon flickered and flashed. I could not decide if it was heat lightning or enemy artillery.

“Abu Salman,” the brother who was with me said, as we were carrying over one of the last loads of our provisions to the temple. “I’m scared.”

He was very young, only fifteen, the youngest of the unit. We’d conscripted him from a village in Raqqa. “It’ll be all right, Abu Yahya.” I didn’t know if it would be all right. “We’ll be safe down there.”

“It’s not that,” Abu Yahya said. In the reflected light of the torches I saw he was trembling. “I don’t want to be...down there. I’m scared of tight spaces.”

“It’ll be all right,” I repeated. It would not be all right, not if he began panicking down in the passage. “You’ll see.”

He lasted till the last trip we made, to retrieve the final load of rifle ammunition. I’d decided to abandon our light mortar and the Dushka machine gun; down underground they’d be useless and just a burden. I’d picked up a bag of bullets and turned to go back, when I heard a scrabbling noise behind me. I turned quickly, in time to see Abu Yahya scrambling away across the desert, stumbling over his own feet in his clumsiness.

There was no question of mercy. If he fell into the hands of the enemy he wouldn’t last thirty seconds’ interrogation before telling them exactly where we were to be found. The bag thumped on the ground, my AK was off my shoulder, and Abu Yahya rolled over and over as bullets crashed into him, until his blood was black on the light sand and the rifle was clicking on empty.

The brothers had paused in their work and were staring when I returned. “What was that shooting?” Abu Fahd asked.

“It was just me,” I said, dropping the bag of bullets on the pile. “Are you finished?”

“Where’s Abu Yahya?” Abu Fahd may have seen something in my face, because he nodded. “Yes, we’re almost done.”

The pile of supplies was already diminished, and I watched Abu Jandal handing down a package into the hole, which was much larger now. “Did you get something to cover it?”

Abu Fahd gestured at a cracked slab of stone, which I recognised as part of one of the walls blown up this morning. “That’s the best we can do.”

It would have to do. I helped pass the remaining supplies down into the passageway. “It goes a long way,” Abu Bahram said from down below.

“How far?”

“I don’t know, Abu Salman. We haven’t found any end to it. We didn’t go far.”

“All right.” I was about to say something more when I heard something. I glanced at the others. “Tank engines.”

“Yes.” In the light of the torch Abu Fahd’s face looked pale. “They’re coming.”

“At least they gave us some time,” I said. “Help us get that slab pulled over, Abu Jandal.”  

It was heavier than I’d imagined, and by the time we’d pulled it partially over the hole the squeak and clatter of tank treads had grown so loud that it was obviously only a matter of minutes before the enemy reached the ruins. I hastily scattered some debris over the drag marks as Abu Jandal and Abu Fahd squeezed through the small space that was left. Last of all I got down as well. Using a thick plank, Abu Jandal pushed and prodded at the slab until it crashed roughly into place.

“What will they do when they don’t find anyone?” Abu Bahram asked. “Do you think they’ll just assume we’ve withdrawn and go away?”

“No,” I said, picking up one of the large cans of water. “Not when they find Abu Yahya.”

The awkward pause was broken by Abu Fahd. “There’s a bend in the passage up ahead, Abu Salman. Once we’re past it they won’t be able to see our lights, or hear us.”

“Unless they come down here.”

Without delaying further, we carried the things down the passage. The air was cold but not too musty, the ancient stones of the wall butter-coloured in the wavering light of the torches. It was a narrow passage, only about broad enough for two men to walk side by side.

Time passed. The noise of tank treads had long since ceased.

“If they do come down here,” Abu Jandal said at last, “we can defend ourselves well enough. It’s too narrow to rush us.”

“That’s true,” I agreed, “but there might be other entrances they could use to take us from behind. We haven’t found them, but they might.”

“What can we do about that, then?” Abu Fahd’s frown, in the light of the torch, made his eyes vanish into pools of shadow.

“You and I will go and look for other ways in,” I said. “If we do find any, we can distribute our forces. We need to find out where this passage leads, anyway.”

“Right. Abu Jandal, you’re in charge until we get back.”

Taking a torch each, Abu Fahd and I began down the corridor. It turned again, at a right angle, and began sloping gently downwards.

“The air is still fresh,” Abu Fahd observed.

“Yes. There must be some opening or other for ventilation.”

The slope steepened, the corridor turning once more, and suddenly we found ourselves with a blank wall ahead and our torches shining down a flight of stairs.

Abu Fahd turned to me questioningly. “Well?”

“We go down, of course,” I said.

“I don’t know, Abu Salman. There’s been nothing happening for a while. Perhaps they’ve gone away, and...”

The blast of sound was so loud I was stunned. A second later a pressure wave smashed into me, knocking me flat. The air was filled with dust, and for a long minute I could not see.

“Abu Fahd?” I shouted, pushing myself up on my elbows. I could barely hear myself. “Abu Fahd, where are you?”

“Abu Salman.” I felt his hand on my shoulder, helping me up on to my feet. “Are you hurt?”

“I can’t feel anything wrong,” I mumbled. “What happened?”

“Something blew up.”

“Abu Jandal and the others.” The air was beginning to clear, and in the light of the torch, Abu Fahd looked like a ghost. “What happened to them?”

We turned back, but not for long. Just past the second turning the passage ended in a mass of shattered stone and rubble. Sandy soil dribbled between them, promising more collapse to come.

“The bastards knew we were in here,” I said. “Instead of sending soldiers in, they blasted the passage down.”

“What can we do now, Abu Salman?” Abu Fahd said. “What can we do?

There was an edge of panic in his voice, and I wasn’t far from it myself. “Shut up!” I snapped. “We still have the stairs. There may be other ways out. We aren’t finished yet.”

Dimly, I felt more than saw him reach out to try and pull at the rubble. “But...”

“Don’t touch that! The roof may come down at any moment.”

We retreated quickly towards the stairs. I could feel Abu Fahd shaking, like Abu Yahya earlier. “The air is still fresh,” I said. “There must be another way out.” This was of course not necessarily true, air might be filtering through cracks and fissures far too small to let anyone out. But I needed Abu Fahd to calm down. “We can’t stay here anyway.”

We started down the stairs, Abu Fahd in front. They were even narrower than the passage, and quite steep. The stone was darker here, the yellow giving way to a deeper brown-black. When I touched the wall, it felt cold as ice, but completely dry.

That was another problem – what were we to do about water? All of it lay under tons of rubble up in the passage. I shook my head, trying to push away the thought for the time being.

As we descended the stairs, the air grew colder, the silence total except for the soft tread of our boots and  Abu Fahd’s harsh breathing.

Under other circumstances, I’d have been intensely interested in who had built these stairs and where they were taking us. Once upon a time, before all this, I’d been interested in archaeology. I hadn’t then been taught that only that which was sanctioned by the Caliphate was halal and that all other construction, no matter how ancient, was fit only to be destroyed.

Now, perhaps, if only to myself, I could have freed my mind enough to wonder – if not for the imperative of survival.

All of a sudden Abu Fahd stopped, so abruptly that I bumped into him. “What...” I began, and then saw what he was staring at.

The stairs had ended in a flat, low platform. Before us was a forest of columns and walls, growing up from the stone floor and vanishing up into the darkness. Pushing past Abu Fahd, I tilted my torch upwards. The ceiling overhead seemed immensely far away.

“Abu Salman,” Abu Fahd said. “What is this? Is this hell? The abode of Shaytan?”

“Don’t be ridiculous. It’s an underground temple of some sort. You can see for yourself that it’s dead and abandoned.” I stepped off the platform, Abu Fahd following reluctantly. “We’re probably the first people to be here in three thousand years.”

“I don’t care if we are. I want to get out of here.”

“So do I.” I could hear his teeth chattering, though whether through fear or the intense cold I couldn’t tell. “We have to look. There may be a way out somewhere.”

The columns were all around us now. They were as thick as date palm trunks, smooth and round except where they were carved at the base. I would have liked to examine some of these carvings, which were intricate, but couldn’t spare any time. Between the columns were walls, all of the same dark stone, which divided the space into large and small rooms.

“All this must have been carved from the living rock, like Petra,” I said, but I might as well have been talking to myself. Abu Fahd was trudging along beside me, his head sunk between his shoulders. He seemed not to hear.

The columns went on and on. This place was gigantic, and it was impossible to go on in a straight line. As we passed one of the rooms I shone my torch inside. The face of a carved stone woman gazed sightlessly back at me.

I never knew precisely when or how it happened. All of a sudden I realised that I was alone.

I didn’t panic. Abu Fahd had been at my heels all the time. He’d switched off his torch, at my orders, so that only one set of batteries would be depleted. He couldn’t possibly be far away, and he couldn’t fail to see the light of my torch.

“Abu Fahd!” I called. My voice echoed and re-echoed from the stone walls, filtered through the columns, bouncing off stone carvings and the roof overhead. “Abu Fahd!”

Nothing. I switched off my torch, to see if I could see anything of his. Pure, liquid blackness flooded in. I hastily turned the torch on again.

“Abu Fahd!” My voice was harsh, my throat dry. Except for the echoes of my voice, I heard nothing.

Perhaps he had fallen into a pit I hadn’t noticed, and was lying there, too badly injured to call out. I had to go and see. I remembered Abu Fahd when I’d first met him, friendly and jolly, far from the gaunt man he’d become in the last weeks. We had been through a lot together.

I turned back, and knew at once that I was lost.

It was impossible. The forest of columns seemed the same in every direction, the walls all looked identical, and the stone floor, unmarked and smooth, bore no footprints.

“Abu Fahd!” I called.

Nothing.


*****************************************************

I don’t know how much time has passed since I came down here.

Long ago, I stopped trying to keep track of where I’m going. It’s perfectly possible that I’m going round and round in circles. It’s impossible to tell. I’ve even stopped thinking about the thirst that is gnawing at my throat. The only reason I don’t sit down at the bottom of a pillar and give up is that it’s easier now to go on than to stop.

My torch’s batteries have begun to drain, the beam weakening. I’m afraid to turn it off, because it might not come on again. And, of course, if I turn it off, I might miss a way out. When I think of that I want to laugh. A way out!

It is when I feel I can go on no longer that I suddenly come out into an open space.

It’s so sudden that I almost stumble. The space can’t be very large, but after the forest of columns it seems gigantic. The centre of it is a dark square, and as I come closer I see it’s a sunken tank, like a small swimming pool. My torch lights up steps leading down into it, and when I look down, I see there’s water.

Water.

“Abu Fahd!” Is this voice mine? It sounds like whispering dust in the wind. “Abu Fahd! I’ve found water!”

I walk down the steps, to the water, the water reflecting my torch, closer and closer, the yellow light of the torch on the red water...

Red water?

It’s not water. It’s blood, blood filling the tank and washing over the steps, like blood filled a well, long ago.

I gasp, jerking back so quickly that I almost fall, catching myself just in time before I tumble into the blood. But there’s no blood and no water. How can there be water after so many thousands of years?

The torch shines on dry stone.

*****************************************************

Time has lost all meaning.

Twice I have come to the tank of blood, or maybe there are many tanks of blood, and perhaps there is really blood. The torch is almost gone. I have already thrown my rifle away, and my ammunition vest. Soon I will throw the torch away too, and then I can find a way out, maybe.

Maybe in the dark I can find my way out. The voices will tell me which way to go.

I have been hearing the voices for some time now. At first I thought it was the voices of the brothers, Abu Jandal and the others, who have managed to get out somehow from the demolished passage and found their way down here. Then I realised these were different voices, voices that belong to this place. They call to me, but I do not understand them. But I will understand.

Here, I will sit down here now, next to the tank of blood, which I have found for the third time. The voices may find me here when they come.

Someone is coming. I see movement from the other side of the tank. The torch is too weak to reach that far. Perhaps it is Abu Fahd. I wish I could still call to him. But he will see the light and will come to me.

It is not Abu Fahd. And it is not one person. There are others behind him. Many others. I hear them laughing.

The last instant of the light of the torch shows me the lime green T shirt, the ripped black blindfold, the shattered face, the single staring eye.

Sitting in the dark beside the tank of blood, I listen to the laughter close in.



Copyright B Purkayastha 2017


Sunday, 5 November 2017

Bugsplat


Brown people in a brown land
Aren't really human,
They're the targets in a video game
That vanish when they die -

Faceless enemies on a screen
Rushing at you, and destroyed
By a movement of your finger.

They're insects, bugsplat. Not human
They do not bleed and do not cry
It's fun to crush them and make them fry.

What is an insect's anger? What can an insect do?
When you sit on the other side of the world
Sending down thunderbolts from the sky
You decide who'll live and who's going to die.

They are bugsplat

And you are god.
And you're god.


Copyright B Purkayastha 2017


The Revolution Calls

The Revolution Calls
Material : Acrylic on Wood
Copyright : B Purkayastha 2017, but free to share.




[To those good Russians who oppose the Revolution: too bad, ladies and gentlemen, it's not your Revolution any longer. It belongs to the world now.]

Saturday, 4 November 2017

Bigmouth And The Midges

Once upon a time, as they say, there was an ugly insect who lived in a pond.

He was really a very ugly insect. He was so ugly that even the midges that gathered in clouds above the water mocked him, and the tadpoles that cruised among the weeds laughed at him before swimming away. And, perhaps, they were right to laugh, because he was such an ugly insect.

He was fat and slow, his eyes were huge and bulging, and he didn’t even have a single patch of vivid colour to liven up his dull tones. But the worst of it was his mouth.

He had a huge and ugly mouth. It was so big that he had to keep it folded up, and it expanded almost like a trumpet when he opened it. That’s why all those who made fun of him called him Bigmouth.

The tadpoles were bad, and the little fishes worse, but the worst of all were the midges. “Look at Bigmouth,” they jeered, flocking over the water and dancing with contempt. “He’s the fattest, ugliest insect we ever saw. Why, even the caterpillars on the trees look good compared to him!”

“Why can’t you leave me alone?” Bigmouth asked, his huge jaws opening and closing as he spoke.  “I’m not bothering you.”

“Hey, Bigmouth’s upset,” the midges jeered. “Bigmouth’s going to eat us all up.” And they danced and laughed and flew away.

All this made Bigmouth so sad that in the end he decided to go away. Crawling slowly over the weeds and pebbles at the bottom of the pond, he only found more tadpoles and fish all eager to laugh at him. At last he could bear it no longer.

“I’ll crawl up the stem of this weed,” he said to himself. “Then I’ll just keep climbing up it until I can’t climb any more, and then I’ll stay up there until I die of old age. At least neither the tadpoles nor the midges can make fun of me then.”

But the climb up the weed was difficult and exhausting for a fat and slow insect like Bigmouth, and after a while he began to feel sleepy. At first it was only a little sleepy, and then a lot, and finally he simply could not go on any further.

“I’ll just sleep a while,” Bigmouth said to himself. “Then I’ll go on again.” And so he fell asleep, clutching the weed stem.

And while he was sleeping he had a terrible dream. He dreamt that he was surrounded by thousands and thousands of midges, who had all come to laugh and jeer at him. “Bigmouth,” they all shouted, “look at Bigmouth. How fat and stupid and ugly he is!”

And in his dream, for the first time in his life, Bigmouth got angry. “I am not fat or stupid,” he raged, “but even if I were, what about it? I didn’t choose to be like this, any more than you chose to be small and noxious and annoying!”

“Oh, Bigmouth is angry,” the midges hooted. “Bigmouth thinks he’s beautiful and slim. Maybe Bigmouth thinks he has wings and can fly up here and eat us all.” And they laughed all the harder.

In his dream, poor Bigmouth began to feel extremely uncomfortable. He felt as though with each jeer he was getting fatter and uglier and slower, until he was so fat that he thought his body was going to burst. And then there was a cracking noise as though he was really bursting, and all the midges shouted with laughter.

With a start, Bigmouth woke up.

He woke up, and he was no longer fat and ugly. He spread his four new gauzy wings, and he jumped into the air, the sun gleaming on his iridescent blue and green body, the world bright and new to his enormous eyes. He flew up high with joy, and came down again, swooping along the surface of the pond, his body light as gossamer in the air. He flew along, and he saw the midges in the distance, darting and buzzing over the water. And, strange to relate, he no longer hated or feared them at all, and had no desire to flee from them again.

No. Flying fast above the water on his huge new wings, he reached the midges, who were dancing and darting, but now he didn’t have to struggle in the water, slow and fat and clumsy. Now he could dance and dart with them.

And then he ate them.


Bon app├ętit. 

Thursday, 2 November 2017

Once Upon A Time In Bunglistan


Pintu,” Pintu’s mother said, “you come here and sit down and study this instant, or the ghosts will come and wring your neck.”

Pintu, who had been playing with the shadow his hand threw on the wall, came reluctantly over to the mat spread on the floor and picked up his squeaky slate and chalk. “And mind you make your letters properly!” his mother warned, shaking her hand at him. “Or the ghost will...”

“Mum,” Pintu asked desperately, “will the ghost really wring my neck?”

“Of course he will,” Pintu’s mother said, sensing victory. “Everyone knows that ghosts wring the necks of boys who don’t make their letters properly. Ask your school-master if you don’t believe me.”

“Where is the ghost?” Pintu challenged.

For a moment his mother thought her victory was slipping away from her, and then smiled craftily. “Don’t you know?” she asked, pointing up to the cross-beam below the thatched roof of the hut. “There’s one, a bhoot, right there, watching you right now. He’s ready to jump down on you and wring your neck if you don’t do your lessons.”

“Is that so?” Pintu stared up at the cross-beam, but the lantern’s flickering light did not reach up that far. “What’s he like?”

“What do you mean what’s he like? He’s – he’s black as midnight, and has eyes like burning coals and teeth like spikes, and he has long knobbly fingers to wring necks with. What else would a bhoot be like?”

Pintu turned as white as his mud-coloured complexion permitted, and got down to making his letters on the slate with his squeaking chalk. His mother, happy to have frightened her son into obedience, retreated to the kitchen.

Now, of course, she should never have said such a thing, because this was Bunglistan, and there was a ghost on the top of the crossbeam, who had been listening to all this. What was more, it was a bhoot, and he was black as midnight and had eyes like burning coals and teeth like spikes, and his fingers...

“Well, I never!” the bhoot said to himself. “This is a canard! I’ve never wrung anyone’s neck, or had the remotest desire to wring anyone’s neck, and these humans are accusing me of plotting it. And, more than that, they’re accusing all bhoots of wanting to wring necks. I must go to the Ghost Council and ask for justice!”

So, like one of the puffs of sooty smoke from the lantern, the bhoot slipped up to the thatched roof, oozed through it, and climbed down outside the hut. Then, running with the speed of the wind, he ran to the Ghost Council, which was meeting in the giant banyan tree next to the ruined temple on the far side of the scummy pond beyond the tamarind grove on the far side of the village.

At this time of night, of course, no human – not even a bandit – in his right mind would venture near a Bunglistani tamarind grove, let alone a banyan tree or a ruined temple. And tonight being the new moon, when even the reclusive Brohmodottyi ghosts came out of their lairs and the Mamdo bhoots crawled out of their graves, the night was full of spirits.

“Ouch!” said a pret, rubbing his shoulder angrily, where the hurrying bhoot had collided with him. “Why don’t you watch where you’re going, Roktolochon Goshshami? Or do you want me to butt you with my horns?”

The bhoot, Roktolochon Goshshami, looked apprehensively at the enormous curving horns that adorned the head of the pret. “I’m sorry, Porolokchondro Shutrodhor, but I have an urgent complaint to make to the Ghost Council. Humans have accused us, in my hearing, of plotting to wring kids’ necks!”

“You too?” The pret blinked. “I was just on my way there. I was passing the hut of Nimai the Drunkard, and his wife was screaming her throat out at him telling him that if he had another drop of mohua liquor ever again she’d lock him out and the ghosts would wring his neck.”

This was clearly a very serious situation. Ghosts had nothing but their reputations, and they were proud of their reputations. If they inflicted violence on humans, they’d do it for some actual and pressing cause, not because some delinquent child forgot his letters or a drunkard had a spat with his wife. “Let us go and lay the case before the Council,” the two ghosts decided.

The Ghost Council listened to the two ghosts with concern. “Clearly,” the Chief of the Council, a petni – ghosts do not discriminate by gender, unlike humans – said, “this canard has to be torn out by the roots.”

Her chief opponent on the Council, a shakchunni, objected vigorously. “Why should we oppose this?” she asked. “Isn’t it a good thing if the humans fear us?”

“If they fear us for every little thing,” the petni explained, “then each time they do something they think they should fear us for – like not doing their letters, or fighting with their wives – and get away with it, they’re going to start thinking they can get away with anything. And then soon they won’t fear us at all.”

“Or else,” another of the Council members, a fishing ghost said, poking out his immensely long limbs to get them into a more comfortable position, “we’d have to wring their necks each time they do anything, and that would never do. We’d have time for nothing else.”

“Right,” the Council Chief said. She turned her fearsome glowing eyes on the bhoot. “You, Roktolochon Goshshami – you’re the one who brought this to our attention first, so you’re the one who will do something about it.”

“It’s a great honour,” the fishing ghost said quickly, with a sigh of relief that he wasn’t being included in the mission.

“So that’s decided,” the Council Chief said. “Go right now and begin.”

“But what can I do?” the poor bhoot howled, as loudly as though he was still alive and had a toothache. “How can I make the humans understand that we’re only going to wring their necks if they really do something to deserve it?”

“Don’t bother me with questions,” the petni said, correctly guessing that her rival the shakchunni would start poking holes in any suggestion she made. “You’ll figure something out. But maybe you should have help.” She glared at the pret, who had been trying to ooze silently away. “You go with him, Porolokchondro Shutrodhor.”

And, ignoring the pret’s despairing bleating, she returned to the other matters before the Ghost Council. There was only the rest of eternity, and far too much work to be done.

*********************************************************

Thrown out of the presence of the Ghost Council, the bhoot and the pret retired to the ruined temple to plan their next move.

 “Maybe,” the bhoot suggested, “we should go to the market place and tell everyone that we don’t wring people’s necks for small things. Do you suppose that will work?”

“Have you gone insane, Roktolochon Goshshami?” the pret snorted. “I’ve never heard such a stupid idea in my unlife. Do you think all those people in the market will sit still to listen to us? What do you suppose they’ll do when we jump down among the fish stalls?”

The bhoot was reluctantly compelled to acknowledge that the pret had a point. “You’re right. Besides, the market is closed at this time of night. Perhaps...” He had a sudden idea. “Perhaps we should go to the zamindar and tell him. His word is law in this village, so if he announces what we told him, everyone will listen.”

The pret looked as though he was, with difficulty, holding back from goring the bhoot with his curling horns. “Roktolochon Goshshami,” he said finally, “this zamindar is the worst tyrant among all the zamindars in Bunglistan. He takes pride in the fact and goes out of his way to refine his cruelty. If we tell him that we won’t wring necks for small offences, what do you think he’ll do?”

The poor bhoot scratched his head. “I see what you mean. He’s more likely to tell them that we told him that we’ll wring necks for even the tiniest offence, especially against the zamindar’s own word. So what is to be done? If only...” he was struck by another idea. “if only,” he said, “there was someone whose word the zamindar would obey. Is there someone he’s scared of?”

“Well...” The pret rubbed his horns in thought. “Maybe we could go to the zamindar’s mansion and spy on him. Let’s go.”

“Yes, let’s,” the bhoot said. “We’d better hurry, or he’ll have gone to sleep. There’s no time to lose.”

So the two of them ran and leapt through the village, jostling aside other ghosts they met on the way, until at last they came to the zamindar’s mansion. Its walls were thick and the windows set with heavy iron bars, but of course these were no obstacle to a pair of ghosts. They crawled in through one of the windows, found themselves in a passage, and at once heard an immense shouting from behind a door opposite.

“How dare you eat all the fish?” a feminine voice was shrieking. At least, it was probably a feminine voice, but neither ghost had heard even a shakchunni with laryngitis produce quite those tones. If they’d been alive they’d have turned white. “You know I like fish, you know I was waiting to eat the fish, and now it’s all gone!”

“I only ate one, dear,” mumbled a male voice. The two ghosts could hardly recognise it as the voice of the zamindar. His usual booming had faded to a meek murmur. “There were ten fish, I ate one, and you ate the other nine.”

“Just nine fish,” the female voice screeched. “Aren’t you ashamed of yourself, leaving only nine fish for your wife? Go right now and get me more fish, do you hear?”

“But...but...” the zamindar stammered. “The fish market is closed at this hour, my dear. Can’t you wait till morning?”

“I don’t care if the fish market is closed. Go and fish in one of the ponds if you have to, but get me fish. Or I’ll tear your ears out by the roots.”

This was evidently not an idle threat. The door opened, and the zamindar, shaking like a tree in a gale, his moustache drooping and sweat rolling down his face, emerged. “I’ll go and see...” he began, wiping his face with one plump hand, the fingers of which twinkled with jewelled rings.

“No go and see about it,” his helpmeet squalled. The ghosts got ready to flee, in case she should follow her husband out through the door, but fortunately she didn’t. “Either you come back with a fish, or you stay out the night, and if the ghosts wring your neck, see if I care.”

“Again this wringing neck business,” the pret whispered to the bhoot. “We didn’t wring his neck despite him oppressing the entire village all these years, so why should we wring his neck now?”

The bhoot clutched his arm so tight that his claws dug into the pret’s ghostly skin. “Don’t be a fool, Porolokchondro Shutrodhor. This is our golden chance!”

Without giving the pret a chance to protest, he dragged him out through the window and back down the wall. By the time the zamindar, shaking with fear, had emerged from his mansion, they were waiting for him.

“Hey, zamindar,” the bhoot said, quite quietly, but the zamindar jumped as though he’d been stabbed. “No, don’t turn around, you don’t want to see what we look like.”

“That’s right,” the pret said, anxious to get a word in. “Trust us, you don’t.”

“Now don’t gibber in terror,” the bhoot advised, kindly. “We’ve been listening to your wife – ”

“We didn’t mean to eavesdrop,” the pret said anxiously. “We couldn’t help overhearing. Her voice – ”

“Never mind her voice,” the bhoot said firmly. “You want a fish, zamindar. We will get you a fish.”

“As many fish as you want,” the pret said, finally catching on. “You just need to name a number.”

“And in return,” the bhoot said, “we want you to tell the whole village that they aren’t to threaten each other with having their necks wrung by ghosts for every little thing. Agreed?”

The zamindar, who had been standing frozen in terror, finally found the strength to nod. “Excellent!” the bhoot said. “I’ll go and get your fish. My colleague here will keep you company, so that you don’t wander off and come to harm. Wait.”

Leaving the pret to keep an eye on the zamindar, the bhoot raced off through the village, until he arrived at the scummy pond near the Ghost Council’s meeting tree. The Council was still in session, but many of the younger fisher ghosts had grown bored of the proceedings and wandered back to the water. The bhoot approached one of them.

“Shombhuchoron Majhi,” the bhoot said, grabbing hold of one of these fisher ghosts by the arm. The arm was so long and thin that his hand slid down as though on a wet rod, until it came to one of the fisher ghost’s knobby joints. “I want a fish. You will get me a fish.”

“Is that so?” the fisher ghost asked. “And what will you give me in return?”

The bhoot blinked, and then remembered the sight of the zamindar’s hand wiping off his sweat. “I’ll get you a ring off the zamindar’s finger,” he said. “Now get me a fish.”

“All right. A thick ring, remember, with a stone.” The fisher ghost waded into the pond, fumbled around with his hands, and soon returned with a large carp. “I’ll be waiting for the ring,” he began. “What kind of stone...” But the bhoot had already departed, the carp clutched to his bosom. In a few moments he was back at the zamindar’s door.

“I’ve got the fish,” he said. “But before I give it to you, I want one of your rings.”

“My rings? But...”

“Or else you don’t get the fish, and your wife...”

The zamindar quailed at the thought of his wife. “You can have a ring,” he said. “Give me the fish.”

“All right. Put the ring down on the ground, and I’ll throw the fish where you can see it.” As the zamindar rushed to pick up the fish, the bhoot picked up the ring. “Now, here is the other thing we want you to do, in return for this service.”

“Or we’ll wring your neck,” the pret said helpfully.

The bhoot darted a baleful glare in his direction. “We will wring nobody’s neck as long as you do as you’re told,” he said. And, in a few short words, he informed the zamindar what he was to do.

“Yes, yes, of course,” the zamindar said in joyful relief, for he had feared that he would be ordered to stop oppressing the village. “I’ll tell them that.” He felt such an outpouring of happiness that he almost forgot himself and turned to the ghosts. “Maybe you could come to dinner? My wife cooks fish quite perfectly, fried with mustard oil...”

At the mention of the dreaded stuff the two ghosts quailed. “No, no,” the bhoot said. “Don’t bother. We’ll be fine.”

“We’re going now,” the pret added. “Don’t forget your promise. Or we’ll come and wring your neck.”

“I will,” the zamindar said. “I will.” And he went back home, the huge carp in his hands. 

His wife glared at him. “Back already? What could you have got in only a few minutes, a tadpole?” And then she saw the fish.

“Not bad,” she said grudgingly. “But if you could get such a big fish in such a short time, you can certainly get more. Go and get more right now, or I’ll tear your ears out by the roots.”

The zamindar came out of the mansion and looked around. “Ghosts?” he called. “Ghosts? I need your help again, urgently. Ghosts?”

But the bhoot and pret were long gone. At that moment they were reporting success to the Ghost Council.

“Ghosts?” the zamindar bleated plaintively. “I need more fish, or I won’t survive the night, and then I can’t do what you ordered me to. Ghosts?”

He was perfectly right. He didn’t survive the night.

A fisher ghost, trying to help him catch a fish, accidentally drowned him.



Copyright B Purkayastha 2017        


Sunday, 29 October 2017

Forsaken

This morning, when I had gone to find water, Umm Maryam informed me that she had seen my son.

“He was at the Salahuddin Market,” Umm Maryam said. “He was with some others.”

I looked down at her where she crouched next to the broken pipe opposite the hardware shop, a bottle held under it to catch the trickle. I felt fear rise, metallic, in my mouth. Salahuddin Market was only three streets from where the front line was, from what we’d heard.

My mouth moved, as though by itself. “When did you see him?” I asked. “What did he say?”

“Yesterday.” Umm Maryam tilted the old cola bottle to catch a few more drops, carefully set it down, and picked up another. I felt like screaming at her but fought down the impulse with an effort. Screaming would not help. Maybe she was waiting for me to scream. “Yesterday, at noon,” she said slowly and deliberately. “I’d gone to see if there was any food going. There were rumours.”

I had heard the rumours, and dismissed them. I’d have thought Umm Maryam would have, too. It didn’t matter, anyway. “What was he doing, my son? You saw him? You’re sure?”

“Of course I’m sure.” Umm Maryam glanced up at me, a slight frown on her face. She was a widow, like me, and the same age as me. But she was very beautiful, and had left her veil off because there were no men around, something I had not dared. At that moment I hated her for her beauty and her boldness, like all the other women who waited for water did. But she said she had seen my son. “It was Farid, sure enough. It’s not as though I don’t remember what he looks like.”

Her words hit me like a blow as I remembered the last time I’d seen Farid. That had been the night the men had come for him.

“We want him,” they had said. “The Movement needs him.”

I’d tried to stop them. I’d begged and then I’d cried on my knees. They’d stared at me and then they’d laughed. “When the Movement had been protecting you, and feeding you, you didn’t refuse its aid. But now when you’re asked to give back what you owe, you’re crying? You should be ashamed of yourself.” And they’d kicked me till I fell on the floor, looking up at them, those big bearded men with guns who looked much larger from ground level.

“I’ll go,” Farid had said then, in a whisper. His eyes had been huge, holes of darkness and fear in his white bloodless face. The first wisps of fluff on his cheeks had merely shown how absurdly young he was. “I’ll go, Ummi.”

One of the men with guns had helped me up. He had a broad scarred face, and was one of those who hadn’t cursed and kicked me. “It won’t be that bad,” he’d said. “You’ll be a martyr’s mother, and that means you’ll have a place reserved for you in Jannat when the time comes.”

I’d said nothing more. Farid had said nothing more. They had taken him out. From the window, which I hadn’t boarded up yet then like everyone else, I’d watched him pushed into line with a few other boys in the street. They’d been marched off into the night.

That had been long ago. How long? Weeks? Two months? Somehow I was horrified that I couldn’t remember. I must try to remember, but not now, not here, standing over Umm Maryam and waiting for my turn. “Did you talk to him? What did he say?”

Umm Maryam shrugged and finally finished filling her last bottle of water. “Talk to him? He wasn’t alone. You think I could talk to him?”

“But he was all right?” I had to restrain myself from clutching her arm as she got to her feet. “He didn’t seem hurt or anything?”

“No,” Umm Maryam said. “He looked all right. He was...”

Someone shoved me in the back. “If you’re going to get water,” the woman, whoever it was, snapped, “get it. We’re waiting our turn.”

I crouched to fill the bottle. The water had slowed from a trickle to a drip. By the time I’d filled half the bottle, to the increasingly impatient shouts of the waiting women, Umm Maryam was long gone.

****************************************

I woke that night to the sound of thunder.

I’d spent hours looking for Umm Maryam, but found her nowhere. Her house was abandoned, the door missing, the roof fallen in. I’d not been able to find anyone who had seen her either. She must be somewhere in the warren of buildings around – perhaps behind the wall I was passing at that moment – but there was no way of telling.

Would she be there tomorrow at the water pipe? Could I wait that long?

By noon I’d decided to go to Salahuddin Market to see for myself. But where in the market? It was huge, a maze of buildings and stalls around a maze of alleys, tangled in knots around each other. A woman could look for her son for days there and not find him, and that was in peacetime, and  assuming he wanted to be found.

The thought had brought another terrifying one in its wake. Did Farid even want to be found? Could he really, if he’d been in the city all this time, not have found a way to come to me even for a brief visit?

I’d fought down the fear, and decided that I would go to Salahuddin Market and see for myself. I’d have to walk, of course, since the remnants of public transport had broken down long ago. But it wasn’t that far. I could get there in a couple of hours, if I hurried.

I’d only gone two streets before I’d been stopped by a roadblock.

“Where are you going?” the picket leader had asked. “This road is closed.”

I’d looked past him at the roadblock. It had filled the street to chest level, concrete slabs ripped up from pavements, chunks of smashed walls, and polythene sacks overflowing with rubble. On top two boys were gingerly stringing barbed wire.

“Well?” the picket leader had demanded. “I asked you a question.”

I’d peered up at the boys, hoping that one of them was Farid, but one was surely too young, and the other was far too tall. Besides, he was obviously left handed, unlike my son. Still, I’d tried to get a look at their faces, until the picket leader had waved his hand in my face.

“I live in the next street,” I’d replied. “I need to go home.”

The picket leader had been very young too, and strikingly handsome. Or, rather, he might have been strikingly handsome without the mottled brown uniform and the ugly ammunition vest draped over his chest and shoulders. A boy that age should be romancing girls and worrying about exams, not interrogating women twice his age beside a pile of stones.

“Can’t do that, Auntie,” he’d replied. “This district is a combat zone now. The enemy are getting closer.” Something enormous had blown up then, the explosion so violent that I had felt the street vibrate through the worn soles of my shoes. The boys on the roadblock had both flinched, and one had come sliding off. “See?” the young man had said. “Go away, Auntie, this isn’t the place for you.”  He’d hesitated a moment, this boy, and then leaned close to murmur in my ear. “You’re lucky you can’t go through, Auntie, believe me. The people living that side, they aren’t allowed to leave. They’re going to be martyred along with the brothers fighting there.”

I’d tried another street, but there had been a roadblock there too, and men with machine guns who had waved me away before I’d got close. And as I’d turned back homewards I’d seen more of them, hammering holes in the walls of houses to use as sniper nests and observation points, and stretching plastic sheets and tarpaulin overhead to hide the streets from drones and aeroplanes. They threw the streets into shadow, as though it was twilight even at high noon.

And now, in the middle of the night, I’d been woken by the thunderstorm. The flashes of lightning seemed right outside my windows, gleaming through every chink. The walls vibrated and trembled like a child with the ague.

It was absurdly long before I realised that it was not a thunderstorm. And then I could only climb off the bed and roll under it, my arms around my head, the cold concrete against my cheek, feeling the earth heave and jolt with each shell that was falling.

Between blasts I heard screaming, impossibly loud screaming, not far away. Surely screaming like that could come from no human throat. Surely this screaming would fill the universe, echo in the ears of all the powerful men, sitting in their offices in green, peaceful countries half a world away, men who made those bombs and shells and sent them off to be dropped on us, to make a person scream and scream –

There was a terrific blast, so loud that I felt the air sucked out of my chest. The screaming stopped abruptly. Silence fell for a while, followed by the distant noises of rushing feet and cries.

Dimly, I heard myself gabbling. “I’ll go and find Umm Maryam,” I kept saying. “I’ll make her tell me where in Salahuddin Market she saw Farid. I’ll make her tell me. She will. She will.”

I think I kept gabbling that for hours. Then, somehow, I fell asleep.

****************************************

Nobody would be talking to Umm Maryam ever again.

The women had come to get water during the night, and had been lined up next to the broken pipe, when the last bomb had fallen. Probably, none of them had wanted to run, because that would have meant giving up their places, and they’d all died as they’d stood, in a row. Umm Maryam’s corpse had been flung almost all the way to the hardware store’s twisted shutters, as though even in death the others had not wanted to have anything to do with her. The water pipe, incredibly, had survived intact, and people were already filling bottles and cans at it, stepping over the bodies as though they were not there. I joined them and filled my bottles as well.

What else, I thought despairingly, could I do?

There were people in the corridors of the building when I came home. Most of them had been forced out of their own homes from the barrage of the night, and they huddled in the passage, with whatever they could carry with them, not talking. Their faces were covered with white concrete dust, their clothes splattered with clotted blood, and, crouching in total silence, they looked as though they’d all sat down and died. None of them looked at me as I squeezed past and in through my door.

There was just a little food left, that I’d been keeping for weeks – a couple of handfuls of dried millets, little better than grass seeds. I put them to soak in the water I’d managed to get, and sat down on my bed. Almost immediately there was a knock on the door.

“Wait,” I called, and hid the pan under the bed. At one time I’d have offered a visitor anything I was eating. At one time I’d have invited people to lunch. That time was long gone. “Wait, I’m coming.”

It was Bushra, whom I’d known for years. She was carrying a large bag. “Can I stay here?” she said as soon as she’d come in. “I know it’s a lot to ask, but I have nowhere to go.”

“Were you bombed?” I asked stupidly. “Is that why you’re here?”

“Bombed? No.” Bushra was a large woman, with a round face that had once been fleshy. Now she was stooped and her cheeks were fallen in with near-starvation, like everyone else’s. But her voice was still booming, like the big woman she had been. “They’ve taken my house. They said they needed it for a strongpoint, and gave me fifteen minutes to get out.” I didn’t need to ask who they might be. “The last I saw, they were smashing holes in my walls and filling my old fridge and steel cupboard with earth and rubble. To stop bullets, they said.” She dropped the bag on the floor and suddenly began to cry. “You won’t tell me to go, will you? I don’t have anywhere to go. Don’t chase me away.”

I looked at her aghast, watching her dry-eyed sobbing. She had too little water in her to waste on tears, like all of us. “I won’t tell you to go,” I said. “I won’t. Please don’t think I will. But the food – I don’t have...”

“I have a little.” She scrabbled in her bag. “The men gave me some flat bread, in compensation for the house, they said. Look, here, you can have it all.”

“No, no, keep it for later.” I did not know whom to feel ashamed for, her degradation or the fact that the very mention of the bread had brought an agonised twist of hunger in my gut. She had flat bread, and I a handful of millets soaking in water, which I had no fuel to cook... “Keep it for when we really need it. Here, look, sit on the bed. Take your shoes off, rest your feet.”

“Thanks. Allah will reward...” Bushra broke off. “No, of course not. Allah has turned His back on us all.”

I didn’t reply. When you hear the absolute, unvarnished truth, there is nothing to say.

Somewhere not far away, a giant began clapping rhythmically.

I listened to it for a while and tried to tell myself that it was not the sound of mortar bombs, falling.


****************************************

The war is here. It is at the door.

The bombs have been falling outside all night and through the morning. The streets are full of shattered masonry, the air full of dust. There is no point going for water – the entire street outside the hardware store, water pipe and all, are buried under a landslide of broken bricks and concrete. Umm Maryam and the other bodies are somewhere down there, given the burial the living among us could not give them.

I am alone. The people crowding the passages have gone. Bushra has gone too, disappeared during the night. At some point, when I had been lying under the bed with my hands over my ears and the taste of blood from my bitten lips in my mouth, she had taken her bag and walked away.

I had never seen any of her bread. Somehow, that fills me with anger. I should have taken all the bread and eaten it there, before her eyes, I think. She said she had nowhere else to go!

The people are gone, but the men are here. A large black flag hangs from a window across the street. I can see a few of the men, crouched on the corner, looking at something I can’t see. One of them steps out, fires a few shots, and steps back again. Apparently he’s hit something, because they all shout the taqbir.

 I feel as though I am in a parallel universe to the one I have always known. How can anyone shout to Allah in the middle of this devastation, thinking He wills it and wants it so? How is it possible?

I want to go back indoors, but at the same time I don’t want to. Indoors I will feel trapped in a box, waiting for a bomb to send it all crashing down on my head. Here, outside, I may be disembowelled by shrapnel or ripped to pieces by bullets, but at least I can see what is going on.

This is how it will end, I think. This is how it will end, all over the world, when the tide of civilisation ebbs. Women will stand, terrified, on street corners, watching men murder each other, waiting to be killed in turn. Women will see their sons torn from their bosoms and sent –

“Ummi?”

I spin round, swaying, almost falling. Three of the men have come up behind me. Two of them I don’t know, but the third...

“Ummi,” Farid says. He’s taller than when I saw him last, surely, broader, his arms and legs thick with muscle under his jacket. The wispy beard curls around his jaw and on his cheeks. “Ummi. Are you all right?”

I can only nod. My eyes and face refuse to do what my brain screams at them to do, to cry, to smile. My mouth opens, the tongue in it thick as a log of wood. “Come in,” I say. “Come in, quickly.”

Farid shakes his head. “Sorry, Ummi, I have no time.” Something roars by overhead, setting the polythene and tarpaulin sheets flapping. We all look up, instinctively, but there’s, of course, nothing to be seen. “We have no time,” Farid says.

“Just for a minute,” I say urgently. It is suddenly vital that I get him into the house. If he’s in there I can get him to throw away that heavy green and brown jacket, that rifle, that thick, bulky ammunition vest with the wires...my eyes fall on the vest and the wires and my heart seems to stop.

Farid sees where my eyes are and smiles slightly. “Yes, Ummi,” he says gently. “I’m on an ittishadi mission – I’m going to sacrifice myself now. Don’t worry about it.”

I open and close my mouth. No words come.

“It won’t be for long, Ummi.” He reaches out and touches me. His hand is rough with callus, not like the baby soft skin of the boy I had given birth to, whom I’d brought up and held close to me for so many years. “You’ll be with me soon. That lot over there, the enemies of Allah, they kill everyone they find, man, woman, or child.”

“Abu Abdallah,” one of the other men says impatiently. “We have to go.”

“Don’t cry, Ummi,” Farid says. I had not known I was crying. “Here, give me a smile. Just one smile.”

I don’t know what my mouth does. Maybe it smiles, maybe it grimaces, but whatever it does seems to make him happy. I raise my hand to touch him, but he’s already stepping past me, turning away.

“It’ll only be a short time till we’re together, Ummi,” he calls over his shoulder.

My son walks away from me, towards the crouching men at the corner, and my heart and blood and flesh scream and scream soundlessly, come back, come back.


Copyright B Purkayastha 2017