A tanned eight year old boy raced across the torrid sand with only his worn thin sandals as insufficient protection. In front of him a frayed football glided like an astronaut over the surface of the moon, almost as if the desert surrounding the boy was free from the pull of gravity. It bounced intermittingly, high into the unprotected sky; open and bright for a future as yet unwritten for the boy, his generation and for everyone who called that scorching desert wasteland their home. His carefree, innocent smile reflected the searing sunshine around him, yet he was oblivious to the thousands of children, miles apart, under the same sun, who played the same game and would through all of time.
Ten minutes later, it came over the hill; a racket in the distance as the parched ground was hungrily crunched under its metal tracks, like a reel of thread that never unwound. As he watched his excitement grew. He stared transfixed upon this Martian army, from a distant, mystical country. They had come to save them; to heal their country.
The tank came closer and he could see three tiny helmeted heads peering down, only their eyes were visible, as beetles through a crack in a pavement. At either side of the tank emerged soldiers on foot, each brandishing some sort of rifle, loaded and waiting. To him they looked like giant versions of the figurines he and his friends played with, except they wore a different colour of uniform. But what did that matter when they did the same job? It may be another flag that adorned the side of their vehicles but it was for his people they were fighting. They were friends not enemies!
Some of the boy’s friends came out of their houses and together they lay down like a pride of lion cubs, on the dirt mound they called their kingdom, a tiny part of the country they had never left. No one talked; a rule stringently adhered to, to avoid ostracism from the kingdom. The army continued to advance in no particular hurry, more came into view; another tank and a 4×4.
“Wow!” One boy whispered in a long extended breath, while the others looked on their chocolate eyes widening while their heads rested precariously in their hands as if they might detach themselves from their bodies with excitement. Although they had never seen these people before, they had overheard adults saying they were going to get rid of the bad man who ran their country and his supporters, who killed people and fed them to the alligators in the river Tigris.
No one noticed the boy’s older sister materialize from the house to watch him from the doorway. Her dark hair trailed down her back like a viper, while her narrowed eyes surveyed charily the approaching beige coloured mass. Faces emanated from the haze but she refused to look too closely; it was far easier to hate a faceless, impersonal enemy. It was far easier if you forgot they had emotions, families, people who loved them and they could experience pain just like anyone else. It was far easier when you stopped seeing them as people at all, but then what did that make you? She knew they had come only to kill, plunder and annihilate. They saw the land: her home as nothing more than an economic opportunity. Iraq had the elusive black gold. The West wanted to have supreme control over it and that made them no more morally right than the dictator who suppressed their nation!
The boy’s interest in the army waned as a discarded cardboard box, with the potential to be a vehicle to transport him and his friend across the sand, lay in wait at the edge of the road, on the other side. He ran towards it, homing in on it with hawk like precision, as if it was the Ark of the Covenant and God would be concealed inside. His sister watched him curiously from her vantage point. His hand reached out hastily for the box…
I marched alongside the tank, simultaneously scanning the horizon and keeping an eye on my comrade and friend since childhood: Jane, who walked in front, cradling her SA-80 like an infant in her arms. It was just another day in blistering Iraq! It was then I saw the box, sprawled out flat like a tiger, by the side of the road. I saw the young boy moving towards it. I saw the little hand reach out for it. It could have been empty, harmless but at that moment I knew that wouldn’t be the case; I had seen it happen too many times before! In that split second I saw what was about to happen but I knew there was nothing I could do; no matter how fast I ran I would never have been able to get there in time. I wanted to call out to stop him but it was too late. What I hadn’t foreseen was Jane to be swallowed into the blast’s vortex of death too. Only seconds before she had been metres away from me and we were just doing our job. When had she vanished from me? The ground seemed to hum under the pressure of the impeding tank. That was all it took!
It was if the seconds slipped past like years; everything played out in slow motion, its sole purpose to torture the witnesses who were powerless. The initial dim blast of the explosion was felt more than heard, denoting the two lives sustained by just one last breath. It was a ruse of fading power but it only got louder. There was nothing else in the world like that sound! The land around us started to tremble frantically as if some other-worldly force was tearing the land from its frame. Suddenly, an invisible hand reached down from the sky and seized a fistful of the road as an immense dust cloud enfolded several soldiers in its paper thin embrace. It took only seconds to obliterate the land it had taken thousands of years to shape and it only took seconds to finish two lives only just begun.
The boy’s sister continued to observe in terror, hoping what she saw wasn’t real and the dust would lift, like a magic trick, and her brother would run to her. The feral explosion roared like a freed caged animal; now relentless, unrestrained and merciless. Flares of yellow and crimson shot skywards amalgamating with sand and layers of road surface. The sun was temporally obscured by the dust, as if light should not illuminate the futile destruction below. She would have screamed but her throat was choked with debris. In desperation she tried to see through the opaque curtain but he was hidden from her and then she knew he was gone forever- her little brother. Her legs failed her as she tried to run to him. Her brother was dying and there was nothing she could do!
I tore tentatively across the sand, fearful of more IED’s, towards Jane. I knew before I even placed my hands on the corpse I was not going to find a pulse. It didn’t matter who had created the device; innocent blood had been split on both sides. And for what purpose; neither side would back down! Death could not be more pointless and callous. A young girl ran towards the commotion; hot tears cascading down her face like rain over the surface of a flower, a moan escaping her lips as she first caught sight of the carnage. A child as young as her should not see this, but there again neither should anyone.
Two weeks later:
I stood with my comrades, as one and for one. The sun hung modestly in the sky, emitting fragile warmth, through the button hole of a cloud. Jane’s body had touched down on her homeland for what would be the last time, but she would never know it.
My uniform drooped vacantly off my shoulders like a coat on a coat stand. Like a bird with a broken wing I clutched protectively my mutilated arm to my chest; it was the price I had paid for living but what was that life worth now I was officially rendered useless? I was no longer fit to do the job I felt I had been born to do. Now as I stood rigidly but calmly everything I had once been had died with my colleague and friend.
It was so final yet it didn’t seem real. What had Jane died for, or for whom? We had signed up together and briefly I had even thought we would die together, but then I had survived. Some would even say I had recovered but just not enough to go back. All I was now capable of was staying at home to look after the kids.
The coffin hit the ground with a reverberating thud; the concluding resting place, impervious to race, age or virtue; covered with dirt and gone. But it wasn’t my time yet- it was her’s. It could have all been so different if I had stood in her place that day. Still I would freely give up my other arm to have her back; I missed her more with each day.
Again the grave stone caught my attention like a burnt tree in a forest of living ones. The golden letters of Jane’s age were branded onto the stone like a passport stamp: twenty-six. Why did that make me feel so guilty? I looked up eventually to see her mother; her shoulders shaking feebly as her soundless tears flowed unrestrained but pointless as her daughter would never see them. If she had known two months ago she would never say another goodbye to her young daughter would she have hugged her even tighter and not let her go?
Without warning or consent that one traitorous drop, trapped proudly in the corner of my eye, suddenly became too heavy to hold anymore and trickled swiftly and unnoticed to the earth. I walked away; a broken man without the pieces to be put back together, that lay many miles apart in a coffin and over the Shamiya desert. I had searched for the meaning of the life I was now forced to endure but, like a mirage in the desert all I unearthed turned to sand before my eyes. I was empty and lost in my own life, devoid of a redeeming path.
Fragments of unidentifiable blackened material floated to the ground dejectedly. A congealing scarlet stream seeped across the road, polluted in places by dust. The unique smell of smoke, petrol and death itself clung to the surrounding air. Slowly the dust settled back to the earth to shield the unrecognisable shell of a female soldier; her two intact limbs stretched across her body in their final position, in an attempt to hold the boy close to her. But it had done no good.
The soldier hadn’t even known her brother’s name, nor did they have anything in common but when death came to take her, her last thoughts turned to the safety of the boy who was nameless to her. Suddenly, the sister’s hatred for the army faded into the background as she observed her brother, clutched protectively in the arms of a stranger. Though the sight of his tarnished body was almost more than she could bear, the maternal gesture was the white flag; she could hate them no more! No one had won!
In life they had belonged to different countries but death reached across the boundaries and irrevocably connected them for eternity. A soldier and a boy, worlds apart but who fell side by side. It no longer mattered where their loyalties had lain.