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  • Writer's pictureBarry Hampshire

Syrian Rebirth - Book II - Chapter 1

With a knife at his throat, Ahmed struggled to hold the blade away from him as he weighed his options. A tall young man, in a flat woolen hat and dirty Afghani loose-fitting shirt and pants, held the knife close to Ahmed’s jugular. The knife may have looked rusty, but Ahmed suspected it had a keen edge. The man’s shorter companion, who had a pistol stuffed in the top of his pants, rifled through Ahmed’s bag. Ahmed squinted to watch him as mid-morning sun glistened off the snowfields on the mountain ridge that lay across the main valley.

Will I die at these scoundrels’ hands, here in the wilds of Afghanistan? … Not a chance in hell. ..,. My brother, Rashid, is expecting me. … He’s in Pakistan.

Ahmed, a retired Syrian army major, bide his time as he watched a delighted expression cross the shorter man’s face as he cried out and pulled most items out of the bag. Ahmed felt sure he had found Ahmed’s best friend, his machine pistol. Hearing his associate’s exclamation momentarily distracted the man holding the knife. Ahmed forced the knife away from his throat at the same time as a bullet caught the man in the shoulder. He screamed, dropping the knife. The bandit with Ahmed’s bag looked up, instantly grabbing for his pistol. A second bullet took off his trigger finger. He howled as he stuffed his bleeding hand into his armpit. He then froze.

As Ahmed brushed dust off his jacket’s sleeve, his companion Nasir stepped out from behind a rock that lay eight feet from Ahmed. He held the gun steady as he approached the bandit with the pistol still hanging in the top of his pants.  Nasir pulled the pistol free and checked it. As it had no bullets, he stuffed it back in the bandit’s pants with a chuckle. Ahmed squatted down to pack his belongings back in his bag before he pushed the man with a missing finger over to help his young companion who sobbed and wailed at times. Nasir, a younger man in his thirties, put his own gun back in his belt. “I needed that natural pit stop at an appropriate moment. If I had been standing with you when those rogues drove up, we may have been in a different situation.”

Scratching his graying thick dark hair, Ahmed raised his eyebrows. “Allah does have strange ways of protecting us.” He stroked his beard flatter. “Rogues indeed, trying to rob innocent travelers like us. I suppose you could claim you just saved my life. I hadn’t determined how to deal with that knife at my throat, but you had your gun and dealt with the problem.”

“You’re welcome.”

“I’ve always thought, if you treat others well then life will treat you well, too. If you live like a thug, you’ll probably suffer like one, too. And there you see the proof of my words.”

Just then an old rusting truck pulled up. Nasir hid his gun behind him as the driver rolled out of the truck. Ahmed wasn’t sure if the rolling exit was due to the driver’s excessive girth or because he was laughing so hard. He stopped laughing and launched into a lecture that had the already hurting couple of men quaking in fear. Ahmed suspected the driver knew the two rather well. The driver shouted a command at the pair who stood uneasily. The driver waddled towards them before spitting on both their feet. He pulled the gun out of the belt of the one. He looked at the gun briefly and then at the man’s face. He let out a derisive, taunting jeer before clearing his throat and sending a stream of cigarette tar tinged phlegm flying down the road. Without a thought, he hurled the gun down a nearby ravine. He pointed to the back of the truck, into which the two men clambered. The driver looked over at Ahmed and Nasir, then nodded at the car the men had driven with a questioning expression. Both of them shook their heads as they knew nothing about it. He turned to the men in his truck. After they stammered a reply, he appeared to cuss at them before turning back to Ahmed and Nasir. Ahmed thought he understood the driver to say “stolen” several times before gesturing that they could take the car. The truck driver demonstrated surprising nimbleness as he returned to the driver’s seat. He waved and drove away.

Nasir checked in the car. “Looks like we have ourselves a car. They left the keys in the ignition.”

Ahmed drove a couple of miles before they reached Khost. He parked in a back street as he didn’t want to explain why they had a stolen vehicle. They walked into the center of town where a couple of huge old trees shaded some of the surrounding square. Several cafes and restaurants spilled out onto the pavement. They chose one as it was close to noon and they were hungry.

They sat at an outdoor table and waited for a waiter to bring menus. They recognized a few items and ordered a quick meal. As they ate, they talked in quiet tones about the situation in Damascus in their homeland, Syria. Ahmed looked over his shoulder several times when he sensed a man at the next table take an apparent interest in their conversation. When he leaned in closer to Nasir to whisper to him, he heard the man’s chair scrape on the pavement.

The man approached them with his right hand over his heart. He nodded and said, “Salaam Alaikum.”

Ahmed sat up straighter as the man had addressed them in Arabic. “Wa Alaikum Salaam.”

“I am very sorry. I hope I did not make you uncomfortable. It is a while since I listened to the Arabic language spoken so perfectly. I studied it years ago at university and rarely have the chance to practice it nowadays.”

“It made me wonder why you seemed to be listening,” replied Ahmed.

“May I pay for your lunch to compensate for my rudeness? I feel so bad.”

“Thank you, but no. We may look a little disheveled, but we have been traveling for a while. We left Damascus over a month ago.”

“Does it take that long to reach here?” The stranger frowned and looked surprised.

“No. We had to fight our way around a couple units of al-Assad’s forces. One grenade slowed me down for a while.”

“Al-Assad, such a problem. Hopefully you are recovered from your wounds now.”

Ahmed nodded and turned to Nasir. “Mainly due my companion, here.”

The man stepped back. “I need to go. I have an appointment at the government offices, excuse me. I hope your travels will continue smoothly.” He left money on his table before waving good-bye to Ahmed and Nasir.

Nasir said,  “I wonder how many others around here speak such good Arabic.”

“Not sure. But he seemed to be well educated. Let’s get back to the car.”

They were about to cross the square when three men got out of a black Mercedes on the other side. Ahmed froze for a moment before he grabbed Nasir and pushed him down behind a nearby truck. Ahmed almost landed on him in his attempt to hide.

Nasir asked, “What the hell just happened?”

“Have you ever heard of Vazeer al-Zein?”

“No. Who is he?”

“When al-Assad’s Secret Police want something dirty done, he’s their man. What’s he doing in Afghanistan?” Ahmed looked under the truck and saw three pairs of black polished shoes sauntering across the road toward the restaurant. He pushed Nasir around to the front of the truck. Ahmed stole a quick look at the men as they waited for a table. He breathed a sigh when they were shown an empty table inside. He stood up keeping a wary eye on the restaurant entrance.

They snuck further down the road before they crossed. They left the main road and wandered through back streets for a few minutes before they found the car.

As Ahmed started the engine, he muttered, “Vazeer, what are you up to? Where are you heading? I hope we don’t land up in the same place.” He put the car in gear and let out the clutch. He felt very unsettled. Unexpectedly, painful memories of when the doctor had pulled grenade shards out of his buttock and upper leg flashed through his mind. With no anesthetic, the doctor told Ahmed it was going to hurt. Reliving the memory in that moment confirmed he had been correct.

“I’ve heard others say when they thought of Vazeer, they couldn’t help but focus on something that caused them pain.” Ahmed grimaced. “He seems to have that effect on people. That man was Vazeer, I definitely know it.”

Ahmed drove up the road for a few miles before it wound into a valley where it started to climb. The road gained height as it crossed mountainsides that looked unstable. The right side of the road had no shoulder, it simply ended at the top of a huge drop. In parts, boulders lined the edge, but most stretches just dropped off.

At one point, Ahmed stopped, turned off the engine, and took a short walk up the road. When Nasir joined him, they looked up the road and scanned the valley. Ahmed turned up his collar as wind blew sandy dust down from a nearby ridge. “This transportation feels most welcome, but these drops make me nervous. I’m used to driving in the open flat desert around Damascus. I’ve never been in rugged mountainous country like this. Did you ever imagine southern Afghanistan would be like this?”

“I didn’t know anything about Afghanistan. You told me we can get to Pakistan this way. That was good enough for me. Where did you say Rashid lives now?” Nasir pulled his collar higher. “His family is with him. Right?”

“Yes. They’re in Karachi, on the coast. Hopefully, we’ll be there in another day or so.”

“I was glad he got a job with the Free Syria Council.” Nasir squinted as another dust cloud hit them. “Maybe we can find work around there, too.”

“Perhaps. You have technical skills, so you can probably find work easily enough. I’m not so sure what I’ll be able to do.”

“Ahmed, you were a great leader of men. I was just a delivery boy until I met you and Rashid. I never thought I’d join your militia and replace him making homemade bombs. Now, you have me traveling the world with you.”


Barry D. Hampshire

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