I heard them in the distance. The consistent rattling of machine guns and explosion of cannons filled my heart with trepidation, but I knew I had no other choice. I took the earthen jar in the kitchen and started on my way, knowing that this day could be my last.
I heard an explosion from afar. The suicide bombers must have struck again. I whispered a prayer to Allah. Guide me. Don’t let me die. I continued to tread the dusty path, every second anticipating a sudden explosion or rainfall of bullets. Thankfully, there was none. For the time being, at least.
My hand was getting weary from carrying the enormous jar. I set it on the ground, eager to get some rest. Sweat was collecting on my eyebrow, and my forehead was drenched. I knew it would be hours before I could return home. My son was surely already thirsty, and I hoped my sister had arrived so he wouldn’t be alone. I decided it would be best if I continued on my way already so I could get back home soonest.
Just as I was about to pick up the jar, I heard the rattling of a machine gun. It wasn’t from afar–I swear it was around the bend. Out of what had become instinct over the past few years, I dived for the ground. I didn’t care if I got dust in my mouth, or if my clothes got dirty; all I wanted to do was to keep alive. The Americans had instructed us to immediately dive for the ground and look for cover the moment we heard gunshots. I decided that the tree to the left was my best bet. I left the jar out there on the path–all I could do now was pray that it would still be there after the gunfight.
The tears began to fall. You’d think I’d get used to the anarchy around here after five years, but I haven’t. It was still agonizing to be caught in the middle of a gunfight. The simple fact that I’m still alive is miraculous, seeing as how I’ve lost count of how many crossfires I’ve been caught in the middle of. I ducked for cover, not at all confident in this tree’s capacity to protect me.
I sent another prayer to Allah. Guide me. Don’t let me die.
After what was actually five minutes but seemed like an eternity, the gunfire stopped, and the small band of Allied soldiers were on their way. Looked like an ambush. Gathering myself, I headed for where I’d left the jar. I prayed for it to be still there–if it was pelted with bullets during the ambush, I would have had to go home and get another jar.
The jar was still there, but several pockmarks had been made around it. It looked like an orange cheesecake now, and I was doubtful whether it would hold any water at all. But now, as I looked at the scene surrounding me, the jar was irrelevant.
At least thirty lifeless bodies, scattered around me, their rigid hands still clutching the guns they used to fight a war they considered sacred. One was shot in the stomach, blood still flowing out of the puncture. Another one with two or three bullets into his left forearm. I could’ve sworn he’d blinked once or twice before finally expiring.
A teenager, who’d died in an especially grisly death—two bullets had drilled right into his head, the blood still oozing out, parts of his brain spattered on his forehead. I wanted to look away, I really did. But somehow, my gaze was glued onto this body. Suddenly, the desert heat lost the agony it inflicted on me. The dryness of my mouth did not matter anymore. I stared at this dead soldier’s face.
Dear God. This was my nephew.
My sister had told me about her eldest child, a charismatic 17-year-old, becoming a rebel. He wanted to fight the invading Americans, she’d told me. I told her it was not a good idea, but he’d already left.
The last time I saw him was two years ago.
And now, we were reunited in the most unlikely of places. On a lonely desert trail. Under the heat of the noontime sun. I was on my way to fetch a jar of water, and he was fighting the fight of his life.
My heart was palpitating madly; his beat no more. I could not bare the sight. I took my towel and covered his face as my tears started pouring in torrents.
I started on my way back home, not bothering to take the pockmarked jar with me. As I walked, I whispered a prayer to Allah.
Guide me. Don’t let me die.
As I walked, I felt the journey would never end. If not for the dehydration that was slowly but surely setting in, I would have run home. How would I tell my sister about this? I couldn’t just spit it out. “Your son’s dead. I saw his body on the way to the well. I saw him die. I put a towel on his face and returned here to tell you about it.” No, I couldn’t even say that to myself. But how else could I relay the news?
Finally, I reached my house. I had never seen it the way I saw it now. After five years, I now really felt how it was to be caught in the crossfire. An innocent life, who had nothing to do with the war being fought, was now forced to endure this day-to-day hellhole. And now, she had to relay the hardest news of all: the death of a son.
I entered the home, and found my son and sister sitting down, expressionless. But then again, this was how things always were. Forever wrapped in the tension, the possibility of all hell breaking lose at any second. I told to my sister, “please come outside. I have to tell you something.”
She looked at me quizzically. “What’s wrong? Where’s the jar?”
I knew no other way to convey the news. The harshness of the war had drilled into my soul. We cried and cried, not even thinking about going inside. We did not care if an Allied tank came and tore our house down—the pain had become so excruciating that it had made us numb.
It was now more painful than ever to be caught in the crossfire. It was now more painful to recognize the fact that we live today to live another day. This was not the life we were used to; I guess we now have no other choice.
This is how it feels to be caught in the crossfire.
[Photo credits: http://www.flickr.com/photos/lukepoplin/%5D