A fragment from Chapter 1 of my new novel 'First Steps. Struggle. Love. Cry. Hope.'
“Have mercy, please!” cried with a washed up voice Azade. “Why are you tormenting us so much?”
One year before, Azade was happy to finish her residency at Universitätsspital Zürich. Her father, a Professor at University of Duhok, insisted for her to go to Europe to receive the best education and to become a top specialist. Medicine was her choice.
“I want to help people,” Azade told her father. “I want to reduce their sufferance and to make their life better, as much as I can.”
Her father was proud of her, as he had always been, although this time he did not show it, when she contradicted him:
“You must stay in Europe!” he told her.
“Father, mein lieber Vater, with all due respect, I will not do this. I cannot do it–”
“But you know how things are at home–”
“I know. But I also know that there is a great need of doctors! I cannot stay quiet here, in comfortable Switzerland, when at home people are fighting and dying for freedom, actually for our freedom!”
“I understand what you are saying, but I cannot accept this... I cannot stay and watch how you endanger your life. You are my only child–”
“Please, Dad, don’t be sad. You know too that I have to do it, and you know very well that I will do it, no matter the consequences and no matter what you will say or do to stop me.”
Her father shed a few tears, sighed and although he was so worried for her, his soul was filled with pride, honored to have such a girl. Eventually he hugged her warmly and she was very happy.
“Thank you Father!”
“Oh, my dear Ishtar!”
Azade smiled. Her father gave her a kiss on the forehead. Then they both flew back to Hewlêr.
Hewlêr, or according to its better known name Erbil, is the capital city of Iraqi Kurdistan, and also the country’s biggest town. Azade, born and raised in Duhok, surely preferred her home town to the capital city, but, on the other side, she always had a liking for the latter. The way how its traditions would intertwine with modern times fascinated her childhood. Sawaf Mosque was among Azade’s favorites, even though she was not Muslim, but a member of the Assyrian Church of the East. In fact, more likely she had been, because lately, especially after she moved to Europe, she didn’t really go to church anymore. Although there was one quite close to Zürich, 12 miles away, in Baden. The truth is that Azade was never too religious. Her living in a multi-religious community opened her way to tolerance, for any sort of religious or spiritual manifestation and belief. Also, the democratic education she received at home, from her parents, Raamiz and Awat, played quite an important role. Moreover, Azade was always more drown to science, not religion, she preferred to dedicate her studies to anatomy and human medicine, not to religious books. And when she took the Hippocratic Oath, she vowed to help all people, for they are human beings and not religious beings.
Human equality, despite religion or origin was a central guiding principle to her family. Her father used to joke:
“You are fair, like me, and beautiful, like your mother!”
And indeed she was! With her long silky hair, whose deep color could only be surpassed by her piercing black eyes, with her eyebrows rising in balanced curves, long eyelashes, burning lips, always smiling and a body that could have made jealous even the most famous photo models, this was Azade who would spend most of her free time in the library.
There weren’t just a few colleagues and doctors who had a crush on her, and whom had tried one after another to sweep her of her feet, but she friendly turned down all their advances.
“I’m here to learn,” she used to kindly tell them, smiling, “but we can be friends.”
Nobody could resist her charming manner of inviting them to be friends, instead of lovers. Therefore Azade had countless friends. But, seemingly, no lover, although at one point there was a rumor “Did you hear? Azade has a boyfriend!” and the inevitable surprise-answer “Really?!” If she had or not, it was a well-kept secret.
Now her thoughts mostly reached to her people who were in sufferance, to her countrymen whom were fighting at the borders of the country hard pressed by war, to protect it against extreme Salafi jihadist groups. Nothing could stop her now from helping. She was a doctor, therefore, the first thing she wished to do after landing was to enroll in the International Federation of Red Cross or Iraqi Red Crescent Society, maybe both.
This is how Azade’s first meeting with the horrors of war occurred, in the refugee camp near her home town, Duhok. Reality, impassible and brutal, stroked her directly, in her mind and in her heart. At first she cried silently, hiding it as much as possible, for several full minutes. As far as one could see there were tents crammed, hovelling hundreds, maybe thousands of people, from small children who hadn’t started to walk yet, to old people who could barely move, hundreds of families who had to leave their homes due to wrath war, to violence and terror, images that covered Azade in a bitterness close to despair.
But, not effortlessly, she recollected herself and recovered her cold blood. At one point she discussed with two orphan sisters, not bigger than 8 and 5 years. They came from Sinjar, dressed only in a few rags, going across the mountains for three terrible days, to get to Duhok. Their lips were dry and chapped, their skin covered in scars, but they did not complain for one second. The older girl took care of the younger girl with maternal concern.
“But you are not a mother,” Azade told her. “You should never go through what you’ve gone through!”
She held her in her arms for a long time, while at the same time caressing the hair of the little one.
“I will take care of you,” she whispered to them firmly. “I promise!”
Azade talked a lot that first day, especially to the children she was seeing and caring for. She promised them all that it was all going to be alright from now on, that she will take care of them from there on. Take care of their health. And that of their parents. She came back home late at night, exhausted, but happy that she could alleviate at least a little bit of their sufferance, and that she could be helpful to so many grieving people. She fell asleep immediately after going to bed, letting her emotions go as far as wetting her pillow.
She maintained the rhythm for several weeks, but still it was not enough for her to be fully satisfied. Therefore she decided to move for good to the camp, not to lose time on the way. But, more importantly, to be there all the time, to be able to help as often as necessary.
Her parents tries to convince her to stay at home at least for the night, at least enough for her to get enough rest.
“You won’t be able to continue like this for long,” Awat told her. “You will get sick, and you won’t be able to help people.”
“I know this is a possibility. But I can get sick anywhere, even by staying at home, even on this road, tiring itself, from here to the camp and back. Please let me go on my way, on this narrow path I’ve chosen. I promise, when I will feel like it, I will come home.”
The dad sighed and nodded his head, her mother shed a lot of tears, but they both gave her their blessings and they left her leave.
“Take care!” Awat told her.
“Please!” Raamiz repeated too.
Next day Azade moved to the camp and dive into work so deep the she forgot almost everything, even her own needs, and everyone else outside, including her parents. Shortly Azade became an example of dedication for everybody. When someone needed help, she was the first one who would offer to help. When new comers would arrive, she would make time for them, to offer the support and comfort. When one cold September evening three refugees got to the camp, one slightly injured at one foot, leaning on the shoulders of the other two, saying that their group had been attacked along the way, and that there were still wounded left behind, Azade was the first to volunteer to go there. Two nurses, Saadiya and Ghadah, together with three soldiers joined her.
The scene they encountered there was difficult to imagine. Azade couldn’t uphold her tears that were dropping into the cold, careless sand. Many were dead, their twisted bodies were all over the place. Only six women were still alive, all injured, but two of them, Saadia and Dahab, were at the border of life and death. Azade gathered all her strength, energies she didn’t knew of and like a true leader she coordinated the others, while she herself was providing first aid. Thanks to her all six women survived.
After stabilizing them, they were ready to head out to the camp, when out of nowhere bullets started to ping hollow and frightening. The three soldiers fell like cut, without having the chance to defend themselves. The women were still, as if someone had frozen their blood and petrified them. In a few moments, they were surrounded by four men with black masks on their mouths, whom were running everywhere and shouting nervously into the air, loudly asking for silence. The women then started to shout and to cry at the same time, which made the men hit them with the gun stock and with their feet. The women bunched one into the other, crying dimmer and dimmer, covered in the dust that was entering their mouths, their nostrils, their eyes. The men shouted at them to stand up and to move. Between the hits, the women obeyed, crying.
One of those badly injured, Saadia, tripped and fell to her knees. Azade, with the first aid kit on her shoulder, supported her with all her strength, helped her to stand up and to step. She felt like the whole Universe was leaning on her shoulders, it was that difficult to her. The two nurses were carrying Dahab, followed roughly by the other four women. They were advancing with difficulty, in silence and fear, soughing. They walked like this for almost one hour, until they got to a truck. The men forced them to enter the small truck, crammed like sheep, guarded by two of the men. They started in haste, roaring like wild animals, shooting gunshots upwards.
Azade, pale like a ghost, tried with her last strength to strengthen the other women, without much success. She was terrified herself, and she couldn’t contain her repetitive thought: “What will happen to us?”
They got to the kidnappers’ hiding place at dawn. It was cold and the cold was amplifying the shiver of the nine women, which they would have experienced anyway, even in the middle of a torrid day.
The car stopped in front of almost fifteenth bearded men, all armed. They were all shouting. They were all agitating their guns above their heads. Besides their leader, Ahad, the only one standing still with a foot backed against a log, watching silently how his men were discharging the women from the car, like sacks. He lifted one hand and they all became silent.
He slowly made a few paces and he stood in front of each of the women, studying each one, carefully, and without haste, as if he had all the time in the world.
The women were shivering eve more under his terrifying looks, under his defiant look. The first women lowered her eyes out of fear.
“Look at me woman!” he commanded. “I want to see your mug!”
He grabbed the woman by her neck, forcing her head up, so that she would look him in the eyes, for a second, then she punched her in the stomach. She curled up with pain.
“When I tell you to look at me, you do it!”
When Azade’s turn came she looked him in the eyes almost defiant, although she was shivering like in the middle of a fever crisis, so he hit her so hard that she bit the dust.
“Stand up stupid woman! What are you staring at me like that? Did I tell you to look at me? You look when I say so!” Ahad howled and hit her once again.
Azade fell again.
“Stand up, I said!”
He grabbed her by her hair and pulled her up. She groaned with pain.
Azade struggled to stand up straight in front of him. Ahad spent more time studying her from head to toe. He grabbed her breasts in his hands, clenching them in his palms, grinning. She didn’t have the courage to protest once again. She felt relieved when he turned his attention to the next woman. He took some time, he was studying them all, felt them, pinched them, spanked them. He was grinning, disdainful.
After he finished examining he stood again in front of Azade. He made a sign and two of his people, Aiman and Malik, jumped and freezed her.
“You can take them!” he pointed to the rest of the women for his people.
The he signaled the two. Aiman and Malik dragged her to Ahad’s hut. He took another look towards his men who had rushed over the other women, and then he entered into his hut as well.
Ten years before, Ahad was a boy who lived a life somewhat peaceful and even happy, as much as one could in poverty, next to his family, parents, three brothers, and two sisters. He was almost ten years old when a group of men with faces covered up to their eyes with black bandanas attacked his village, killing all the men, raping the women, before killing them too and kidnapping all children from five years up. They did not keep the younger ones, as they did not want to care for them and the ones older then twelve as well, because they could already create problems. Therefore, they killed them all. Ahad, his brothers and sisters escaped the executions, having the right age, and so they were taken prisoners. Unfortunately for them they were separated, each one taken by a different group. Ahad was taken somewhere in the mountains, in a military camp, next to the other 10 to 11 years old boys, in the middle of men whose main feature was cruelty.
He was beaten every day, he learned to say only: “Yes sir!” and “Allahu Akbar!” It was only then that he was prepared to start to be instructed.
Preparations would start at dawn, at five A.M. Accompanied by the rebels’ cries which were agitating the sky, the boys were taken to the training field, where for one hour and a half they were conducting extremely difficult body training. Only afterwards they would receive a slice of bread and a drop of water, as breakfast. Afterwards, until 2 P.M. wrestling would follow.
The boys were made to fight each other. There was no room to fudge, because the looser would then be beaten by the rebels, to fight better and to make him want, at all costs, to win the next day.
“Only the best of you will continue,” the instructors would repeat daily.
“You have to be loyal,” was another reply. “You have to constantly prove your loyalty!”
After a short lunch break when they would receive the same type of food, military training would start. Knife fighting, gun shooting and all sort of similar fighting techniques. Until evening, when they would go back to their tents, where they would receive a third slice of bread and a mug of goat milk.
They trained every day, interrupting their training only for the five mandatory Salah, which always occurred, no exception. Day after day, week after week. After five years they had all become cruel and fearless warriors, and Ahad the toughest of them all. He would kill in the name of Allah, whomever he was requested to, ruthless, no regrets, without asking questions. He had sworn and he was ready to give his life for Jihad at any point.
But the leaders did not wish for him to become a suicide bomber. They appreciated a lot his readiness, his abilities and his loyalty, therefore two years later they made him chief of one group; at the border of Iraq. Ahad together with his people managed to shortly be among the most prolific assassins in the area. Wherever they would go they would spread terror and death!
It was in the hands of this man that Azade and her company had become hostage.
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