Escape from Aleppo
October 9, 2013 4:37 a.m.
It was neither the explosions, the clatter of running feet, nor the shouting that woke her. Because, as on most nights, Nadia was oblivious to the world, huddled beneath her bed, barricaded under a mound of blankets. Curled up beside her lay Mishmish, his purr in her ear, along with a cold, wet nose. It was her cousin Razan who finally roused her, by dragging her out from under the bed by her stockinged foot.
“Nadia, you oaf, wake up,” she hissed, voice tight with fear. In her other hand, she held a sputtering candle. The warm light bobbed in the cold, dark room, illuminating Razan’s pale, delicate features, making her appear younger than her twenty-four years.
“What?” mumbled Nadia, gazing bleary-eyed at the window, boarded up with wooden planks. Around the edges she could see nothing but inky darkness. They
were supposed to wake as the call for fajr prayers rang out in melodious Arabic, before the first light of dawn.
“Get your things, we have to go,” ordered Razan, placing the candle on the desk.
“But we don’t leave till the morning,” grumbled Nadia. Then she heard it. A deep boom in the distance. She froze. That was no familiar call to prayer. “No, no, no! Make it go away,” she breathed, eyes squeezed shut.
Fear curled through her belly. Her ears homed in on the echoes, imagining them as waves that rippled from a stone thrown into a pond. With lightning speed, her mind calculated the vibrations back to the point of the bomb’s impact, a skill she’d perfected since the war began. She imagined a narrow, thin-lipped face peering at her with a raised eyebrow. Ms. Darwish. How her algebra teacher would smirk if she found out that Nadia could now solve complex math problems in her head. Less than two years ago, her teacher had written in her report card that although Nadia was a bright student, she didn’t apply herself.
The report card had horrified Nadia’s mother, who, it turned out, had been a childhood friend of Ms. Darwish’s. They’d attended the same school growing
up, but had lost track of one another after graduation. Nadia had flippantly replied that she wasn’t interested in algebra nor most of her other subjects—which were boring—except music, drama, and sometimes history: not the tedious dates, of course, but the fascinating, swashbuckling stories of kings and pirates. Her mother had ended up making an appointment with Ms. Darwish to address Nadia’s surly attitude and lackluster performance.
Nadia pulled the blanket over her head, wanting to burrow back in time and magically emerge at school, even if it was algebra class. Huddled in the back row with her best friends, they could joke about the rumors of how Ms. Darwish had spurned marriage in order to dedicate her life to teaching her beloved algebra. The passion for her subject, they firmly believed, extended to the man who’d invented it, Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi, whose soulful portrait hung in the classroom.
“Don’t lie there, you harebrained hamster,” Razan yelled, giving her a well-placed kick in the backside.
Nadia grunted, the pain bringing her back to reality. The explosion was from a barmeela, a merciless barrel bomb packed with shrapnel, dumped from helicopters
onto the rebel-held areas. It was a favorite of the Syrian army. This one had detonated nearly a mile away, Nadia had calculated, likely reducing its target to rubble. Her mouth ran dry as the memory of a similar bomb rose within her, the one that had left the deep scar from her knee to her hip. I can’t go out there, she thought. She crawled back toward the security under her bed.
“Oh no you don’t,” growled Razan, grabbing her leg. “This is not the time for you to play ostrich.”
“But . . . ,” cried Nadia, heart-racing panic building in her chest.
Razan grabbed her face and held it close to hers. “I know you’re scared, but you have to focus,” she said fiercely. “We’ve practiced this and all you need to do is exit the front door. I’ll drag you the rest of the way!”
Reluctantly, Nadia nodded, teeth clenched. Razan hurried toward the heavy wooden armoire. “Get your things—we don’t have time to waste.”
Nadia crawled toward the corner of her room where she’d put her backpack, filled days before, and double-checked to make sure her little pink case was inside. She pulled on her threadbare winter coat, running her finger across the silver pin, shaped like a fallen-over 8,
fixed near the collar, then slipped on thick woolen mittens. She grabbed the special burlap case she’d spent weeks sewing, with the help of Nana, who was always there to find a solution to her problems.
“Amani!” Khala Fatima bellowed out Nadia’s mother’s name. “Get the kids—we have to go!”
Nadia could imagine Khala Fatima standing at the front door of her apartment, down the hall from theirs, her face red with exertion, her stocky figure enveloped in a flowing gray dress. She’d given up her favorite oranges, pinks, and yellows when snipers had taken roost atop deserted buildings, looking for targets, which more often than not ended up being defenseless women and children. Now it was best to blend in with the drab concrete wasteland that the city had become. But what her aunt said next made her blood run cold.
“Malik thinks the helicopters are coming this way.”
Malik was her cousin and Khala Fatima’s eldest, and he and Nadia frequently butted heads, especially when he was being a bossy know-it-all. But if he’d actually seen helicopters . . . She flew into action, despite the fear dragging down her limbs. She reached beneath the bed, pulled out Mishmish, and held the comforting mass of
white-and-orange fur for a moment. Found as a newborn, the kitten had been kept alive by Razan, who’d applied her veterinary skills. In a way, Mishmish had given life back to Razan, who’d been lost in a well of grief after her husband was killed in a bombing at the university where they’d both been studying. The kitten had grown fat and sleek, and to Nadia’s consternation, because she didn’t like animals, little kids, dirt, or disruptions, the cat decided Nadia was his. He followed her around, slept on her bed, ate off her plate when she wasn’t looking, and brought her special treats of dead mice.
The cat allowed himself to be secreted away inside a burlap bag and lay curled along Nadia’s side when she slung the bag over her shoulder. She grabbed her pack and followed Razan, candle in hand, from the room. “Let’s go,” said her cousin.
You can do this . . . you can do this . . . , repeated the voice inside Nadia’s head. According to the emergency plan, her grandmother, mother, and three aunts and their children were to assemble downstairs within two minutes of an alert.
They hurried down the dark hall of the spacious apartment that had been Nadia’s home her entire life.
It was identical to the other three apartments in the building, built by her grandparents thirty-five years ago. Each son had been given the key to his own flat, while they occupied the top floor. Mostly, they’d all lived happily together in the rambling space as part of a large extended family. Overwhelmed by the thought that she was leaving the only home she’d known, she tripped on her shoelaces. Instantly a sharp pain shot up her leg and she gritted her teeth. She paused to rub her leg where the pain had flared, near her knee, a few inches from where a sliver of shrapnel still lay buried.
“Tie your shoelaces,” grumbled Razan, adjusting her bag.
“Are you girls ready?” came a breathless voice from the master bedroom. It was Nadia’s mother.
“Yes,” said Razan.
“Go on downstairs,” urged Nadia’s mother, now in the hall. “Razan, help Nadia,” she added. “And, Nadia, stay with Razan and listen to what she says—no arguments!”
Nadia grimaced. Razan’s job was to make sure she didn’t get stuck.
“Don’t worry,” said Razan, latching onto Nadia’s arm. “Aren’t you coming?”
“Just another minute,” responded Nadia’s mother. “Yusuf can’t find his shoes.”
Nadia frowned. Her younger brother was always a pain. “We’ll wait for you,” she grumbled, lips twisting downward.
“No,” said her mother, eyes stern. “You go, I’m right behind you.”
Reluctantly, Nadia let her cousin propel her toward the front door.
Her brother’s wail echoed behind them. “I don’t want the red ones,” he fussed. “They’re too tight. Where are the blue ones?”
“We can’t find them now,” came her mother’s patient voice as they exited the apartment and stepped out onto the third-floor landing.
“The helicopters are circling back!” came Malik’s bellow from above.
Nadia imagined him somewhere on the balcony, looking out over the night sky with his binoculars. Her throat tightened at the thought of leaving. She had barely stepped outside their building in over a year . . . not since the day she’d been hit by a barmeela. I can’t do this, she thought. I can’t go back out there. . . .