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The Citizen Journalist

by Rebecca Smith 9 months ago in fact or fiction

For all the lost voices

The Citizen Journalist
Photo by Valentin Salja on Unsplash

For Nour, technology was critical, but there was only power for a few hours a day at most, and online she was hunted and traceable. She frowned wondering how much they knew - she wasn’t a big fish, but she wasn’t small fry either, people had been killed for less. Right now the roads out were kill zones, bombed alleys of death, then there was Aleppo city, now home, being pummelled by the Syrian regime, with it’s Russia Hezbollah ‘Axis’, fighting rebel and religious factions, the civilians, forever in the crossfire, now huddled together at night, with the eerie advantage of understanding exactly what lingered in the skies above. Barrel bombs - oil drums and fuel tanks filled with explosives and metal fragments fell from helicopters with indiscriminate targets. Cluster munitions with their baby bomblet cargos and white phosphorous, rained down, targeted hits on hospitals and aid convoys, all apparently illegal internationally, it was 2016, after five years of war the whole world knew what was happening in Syria - Nour could never understand why nobody made it stop.

Still she played her part, even as bombs were lighting up the sky with their incandescent searing rage, turning the ground inside out, dropping on a city already existing on the last sinews of life, a microcosm of hell on earth, where the people were now stretching to survive hour by hour, where the dust from the bombs never seemed to settle and where families howled in grief as much for the disappeared as the dead. A four year siege was slowly strangling the life out of war weary citizens, her Father with his dark irony would have called this intensified bombing the ‘icing on the cake’ he liked to pepper his conversation with idioms from other languages. Nour looked down at the ruled lines on the first page of her last little black book, comforting and familiar, her refuge since she first put pen to paper as a child, where she laid her truths, smiling briefly, she let herself reminisce upon a different time.

She had almost 20 of these books, her Father Ahmed had been a businessman before the war, a frequent traveller from their farm outside Aleppo to Italy, he’d traded in animal skins that would be processed in the vast tanneries of Italy, where Syrian hides would later grace the interior of supercars, designer handbags and expensive shoes - knowing that luxury still existed somewhere on the plan seemed ludicrous to her now. Each time he went to Italy his gift to her would be one single fresh journal and a fridge magnet for a little collection she had. The last time he went in 2012 he came back with 10 journals all the same, plain, black, innocuous. Nour knew now, that when he gave her those books he knew his business would like collapse with the weight of war and sanctions, that was four years ago now. Nour was sixteen then, she smiled at the thought of her naive younger self, receiving the journals, remembering how pleased it had made her to know that she had a supply of her favourite notebooks, such a simple thing.

The tradition started in 2008, happier times, on a rare, glorious two week Italian holiday with Baba and Mama, her twin little brothers Rami and Hassan, two years younger at age nine were identical in every respect. Baba had a few meetings, but mostly they spent the trip together, ate too much pizza, pasta and gelato, played in the piazza every evening with the local children who never quite managed to decipher one twin from the other. From the first night they were there Nour decided that she wanted to document every moment and memory, when she told Baba, he said well such an important project deserves a book - the next morning Father and Daughter walked past a stationers and Nour chose a simple black book, a Moleskine - because apparently it was the one the painters and thinkers used and it seemed apt for the task at hand. There was no question of needing something colourful from the outside, for inside the pages would be filled with colourful notes, sketches, doodles, postcards. Today it’s contents would get her killed.

Nour looked across at her mother Fatima and recalled how she had learned 'a few phrases' of Italian for the trip, bright, warm and highly educated Fatima delighted everyone with her efforts which went far beyond basic, Nour remembered her Mama, sat on an ornate pale stone bench, multicoloured houses and the sparkling calm deep blue sea behind her, if she closed her eyes Nour could see her mother belly laughing, with local mothers her brown eyes twinkling, her heart shaped face with full cheeks and a dripping mint chocolate gelato cone in her hands. The thought of food switched her train of thought, landing her in the present, the memory faded, food was scarce and if the advancing army and airstrikes continued she and Fatima could be in trouble again.

Nour closed her notebook and retired to her bedroom, she walked over and kissed her mother on the head as she did every night, she inhaled a vague smell of vomit again, Fatima was weaker lately, unable to keep down the little food that she had eaten, but then again who had strength these days. Her mother looked up, smiling faintly, she reached up and curled Nour’s hair around her fingers and said a gentle goodnight, Nour closed her eyes for a brief moment said “goodnight precious mama” and walked to her room. They both knew what happened that day, they spoke at length of the plan if they had to move again, they were were packed. Though they no longer talked about what might happen if, the catastrophes being worse than the castrophising. Besides, they could hear the sirens and the screams, they were used to holding their breath, did anyone breath properly anymore?

Nour put the new notebook down on the stash of the others, if she was found, could she withstand torture and imprisonment? She knew what happened to those who were caught by the regime or by ISIS, she’d taken the evidence of war crimes and cataloged it first hand for six months now in the search for her father. But death was everywhere anyway, it's stench unyielding any moment could inadvertently be her last, all of their lasts, she reasoned with herself again, that the information she held was worth it.

Of course the shapes on the pages meant nothing to anyone but her, Rami and Hassan - the sibling cryptolect, developed from games and boredom in youth, was now a honed language, a translatable colour coded testimonial of war crimes and activity, which the citizen journalist network used to get information and evidence out of Syria. From inside Aleppo in November 2016 it was Nour’s job to reach journalists and everyday people through social media. Nobody had given her the job, it was a complete accident, that when the local village fell to regime forces, Nour became witness to a massacre that made international news, few people knew that she was the source. She said goodbye to her brothers only days after their father disappeared. Their names on a list for arrest too, the decision was made the brothers should leave. Now they waited only 60 miles away in Gaziantep across the Turkish border, for their family and the journal.

Four days before he had tried to travel to market in Atareb with Rami and Hassan, Ahmed nearly cancelled the trip, people were disappearing at checkpoints, but if he didn’t liquidate more assets he couldn’t get his family out of Syria, that was the plan. It was April, so they all agreed sell the lambs and sheep then they could leave.

The first checkpoint they crossed was to be their last of the journey anyway. Though their papers were in tact they were immediately interrogated. The twins had never been small, at 17 they were very young men. Never had time stood still more. Where did they live? What year they were born? Who were they loyal to? Were they escaping their service? Why did they carry a weapon - arbitrary because by now so many people did. Eventually they were advised to leave behind 10 of their sheep and their spare gasoline. Ahmed knew the tides of war well now after five long years, he’d paid bribes before, but never a tax like this on a load of only 50 sheep by the time they were on the road again, he grimly acknowledged to his sons that this journey might be a mistake.

20 miles later the road ended. A crater in the road from a recent bomb and that was that. There was no going forwards, only back, running out of gasoline 3 miles from the checkpoint. Ahmed set out back towards the soldiers, what choice did he have? This was no mans land, they were vulnerable around 25 minutes later, both boys phone beeped, simultaneously, like everything else in their lives. It simply read, ‘Hello my sons, all is well here, they will bring you some gasoline and we can go home, of course there is a price for this. But hopefully we will be home in time for Mama’s Gelato’. Rami and Hassan looked at each other, picked up their backpacks and weapons, in synchronicity they ran round the back of the truck, letting the sheep and lambs free, abandoning the truck for the hills and scrubland heading in their Father’s direction. Ahmed was in trouble and so were they. They lay in the scrubland as far back as they could, their truck arrived back at the checkpoint, two hours later, as the sun began to fall they watched their Father dragged away in handcuffs. Bloodied and limp Ahmed didn’t see his son’s but felt them watching. Even though Nour wasn’t there, she could relay every bit of the story verbatim as told by her devastated brothers when they called their mother that night. That was six months ago and Ahmed hadn’t been seen or heard from since.

Nour sat on her bed, everything ached. There was a knock on the door, it was midnight, she shot through to the hallway, where her Mother was already by the door ‘Fatima, Nour are you there?’ It was a man’s voice, a familiar voice but she couldn’t place it, but saw her Mother could. They opened the door, Mohammed, Mo, the hawaladar from her village, who now lived in Aleppo City too, a good friend of her Father’s Mo was part of the ancient system of money brokers who worked on trust. Fatima invited him inside, Mother and daughter both confused by his late night presence.

“Fatima - I have money here for you to the sum of $20,000 from an Italian friend of Ahmed’s, this man has been looking for you since Ahmed went missing. He handed Fatima a bag of dollars and explained he had to go, that his family were leaving for the border the next day.

Mother and daughter looked at each other, it was time to leave too, time to pack and go, they were not going to get another opportunity like this. Nour reached for her mother’s hand, “shall we go in the morning too Mama, shall we try?” Fatima nodded, slowly processing this windfall from a faraway land. She had so many questions, but right now she had to pack and organise what she could carry for life as a refugee.

As morning broke the dust from the previous night’s bombings lay thick and heavy in the streets, rescuers had been working for hours, they found the girl and her mother deep in the rubble the next day, they never saw the money, they never saw the little black book and it’s secret horrors, just two more broken and maimed women whose stories would never be told.

fact or fiction

Rebecca Smith

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Rebecca Smith
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