“Khadija! Where have you been?” her father bellowed as he saw her stealthily enter the house. “It’s that rascal Salim, right?” he demanded and slapped her hard before she could even open her mouth to defend herself. “Don’t bring shame on our family. I am planning to marry you off the day I return from war,” he said and stormed into his room. 20 year old Khadija could not understand why it was wrong to love a boy; irrespective of how much of a gentleman he was, just because he was not her father’s choice. Was love really a shameful emotion in the first place?
Even then, she dutifully packed his bag as he was to leave to fight for the Syrian army. “Don’t tarnish the name of the family,” was the last thing he said to her. She wondered if that mattered more than the food shortage that this futile war had brought on them. As soon as he left, Khadija guiltily heaved a sigh of relief.
Her relief, though was short lived as she hid behind the window that evening to avoid being noticed by some militants who stormed into her neighbour Nafisa’s house. Minutes later, an explosion was heard. A few minutes after they left, Khadija ran towards Nafisa’s house, half of which was now a pile of rubble. Inside, Nafisa’s sister lay dead and all Nafisa managed to say was, “They violated my modesty,” before she breathed her last.
The next morning, Khadija’s family was ready with their bags packed. Last evening, Nafisa’s death forced them to make up their minds to leave the place. They had heard of Zaatari, the largest refugee camp in the world, which was in Jordan. She helped her mother and brother gather some essential belongings and keep them outside the house and went inside to collect her own as they waited outside for her. And then… she heard gunshots outside her house. She froze and managed to crouch behind her bed. She didn’t know how much time passed before she mustered the courage to crawl behind her bedroom door that gave a direct view of the main door, hoping that her mother and brother would walk in the house, alive and well. They didn’t.
She stayed rooted at that spot till evening before she heard footsteps. She closed her eyes, expecting the worst but when nothing happened, she slowly opened them to see her Salim standing in front of her. “We’re leaving,” he commanded.
They left their hometown of Hama, a village in Syria. Khadija tried not to look at the corpses of her mother and brother lying outside their house. She did not wish to have her last memories of them with their brains blown out. She had no idea if she would survive this quest but she had nothing to lose either. They kept walking with no money, little food and water, only driven by the will to survive. Transport was a luxury, which they could get only twice, that too for miniscule distances. Bombed buildings became their shelter. As they passed Damascus, Khadija’s eyes welled up with tears seeing the once glorious city in ruins. They carefully evaded public spaces and once, nearly missed getting spotted by the Taliban. Every time Salim covered her with his own coat to protect her from the cold or gave up his share of food for her, she realised how wrong her father had been about him. After 5 arduous days of fighting hunger and cheating death, they reached Zaatari. Khadija looked around her to see tiny tents with people filled choc-o-block in each one of them. A little girl cried for her parents. A young widow sat nursing the youngest of her eight children. Two children shared a packet of food that the volunteers were distributing. The world had progressed but progress seemed to have evaded this part of the world. But despite all the misery, they were all united with the hope of seeing another day. The camp housed about 80000 of them. She knew it was time to start afresh. She could finally live without fear. She began to spend her days sewing or helping new refugees settle or caring for the kids of young widows. She prayed for world peace at every session of namaz.
A month later, she spotted a familiar face. “Abu chacha!” she called out. Abu was her father’s friend in the army. He saw Khadija and his eyes welled up with tears. “By the grace of Allah! Your father’s last wish came true! When he learnt that I was quitting the Syrian army and running away, he gave me this letter to give you, with the hope that we would meet sometime in life.” Khadija took the folded paper from him and took a minute to let it sink in that her family had been completely wiped out now, before opening the letter. And reading the letter broke her heart. Because it did not contain her dead father’s blessings. It did not contain pleasantries. It did not contain any traces of paternal love. It said, “Khadija, I whether I come back alive or not, you are going to marry Sulaiman, our neighbour’s son. You marry Salim and you shall get a dying man’s curse.” And as she read the last word, a tear fell from her eye blurring the ink of the letter as it dawned upon her that she lived in a world where it was honourable to hate and die in war, but a disgrace to love and live in peace.