No. There is a tightening in my chest. Something is wrong. My brother’s frail arm disappears into the dark. I step back and pin myself to the wall. Some voices are shouting from the rooftops – then a whistling sound, like a mechanical scream – it comes. The billowing dust – three streets away – and then the earsplitting boom. I cannot move. Cymbals and drums, cymbals and drums, I say to myself, echoing the sound. I am blinking. Shattering bombs. And then silence, no sirens. It is not good. Then a child’s cry, a mother’s shout. Just stay. Empty street. Wall. Me. Terror.
The street is empty. There is no petrol for cars anyway. Across the street my brother waits, his head peeking round a doorway, ushering come, come. I see the whites of his eyes but can’t tell whether he is pleased to see me, or scared, petrified. The rule is that if you leave and return you don’t expect everything to have remained the same. You never know what you will find. My brother frantically signals above. There are snipers on the roofs but we don’t know whose they are. I look left and right and step out into the road.
The food is ready: vegetables and chicken, cous cous. Mint tea. Auntie is still taking the washing down from the line and the children are playing with a ball and a stick. I am hungry too. It was an early start this morning, avoiding any trouble on my way to get sugar, just after light. I had heard there was sugar but there was not. The woman apologised, throwing her arms wide and wailing as she always does. I should have known. Now I must get back. It is the danger that makes me pause. But we still must eat.
The world is painted black and red. It runs down the walls and across the dusty floors. They came here. I tell the man. They came here, can you not see? Are you colour blind? Look at the walls. You can touch them now, go on, get it on your fingers. They have dried of course but they were hot and wet. This is my family. It was their home. Do you not see? Can you not see where it is heading? Follow the cloud of dust or this will happen again, it will, if you care, if you care…
At first it is just a haze on the horizon but then it grows: a cloud of dust, moving fast, skittering across the desert sands: and then the noise: at first a hiss, or a sucking sound, and then a clattering and a rat-a-tat-tat. Soon the noise degenerates into a succession of booms and crackles and finally, finally come the engine roars. The engine roars are worst. It means they are near. It is that minute of fear, where what was distant blasts into reality, shattering all hope and dismembering thought. I cannot think. I want to die. I might.
It is the international day for biodiversity and the ants are back in their colony; the dust mites sleep still; a shoal of mackerel flashes by; lions yawn; a lone curlew prods the shoreline with its bill; cows head towards the gate; a sheep chews dry grass on a high promontary; the bats hang till dusk; antelope twitch; a crow crosses the river; a dolphin cuts the surface with its fin; a monkey cheers; a human traverses a dusty road, enters an air-conditioned building and sips a cool water. He coughs, winks, and then he orders: let the onslaught commence.
The rains of spring have lasted a year. I hear that in some areas now there are only showers, or perhaps someone said light drizzle. It was always too optimistic to think the rains were seasonal. It would take a decade of downpours to drench this scorched earth.
But the rains come and come: wave after wave of them across from what once might have been a horizon. Now it is just a fog of tears and smoke. And endless deep.
The wet blows through the broken windows, seeps into the khaki, runs down my chest, pouring even as we sleep.
At first it happened slowly, blistering the skyline and the dusty roadside only occasionally. People turned to look, crying out. But soon, more and more little outbursts came, a ceaseless bombardment, and the city became quickly transformed. The past was forgotten.
There were little explosions of colour all across Homs, cherry blossom firing spring into consciousness. The blossom was soon lying thick on the streets and the children said it looked like snow from the movies on TV. Delicate pinks and ethereal whites were strewn across the avenues and clung to the little houses, and all, for now, was good.
It is high summer and through the oldest of urban gardens crawls the caterpillar. Which way will it turn today? It approaches a crowd of city kids, tucking into falafel and hummus. It watches them a while: a mixed, raggle-taggle bunch with hungry eyes, holding their lunch proudly, guardedly, as if it were civilisation itself that they cradled. Soon, the shouts go up, eyes are widened – wild – and the caterpillar’s monstrous shadow looms. Had they not heard the warning rattle? Had no one followed those caterpillar tracks? Flags wave. The caterpillar groans that tragic, murderous sound and the gunfire begins.