The small caravan, traveling across the dry and arid desert, consisted of eight people-seven of whom were desperate people who, at the moment, were living in fear and despair. They were all riding on four mules, headed by the horseman or the dealer who was leading them towards the border. They each had paid him a hefty amount of money to be taken across the desert and then be transferred across it to the neighboring country. They were leaving their lives, families, memories, but most importantly, their homeland behind in search of freedom and a more emancipated life-something that was scarce in their own homeland after the revolution.
In front of the procession, there was the man who had promised the crew that he would take them to freedom, the dealer. He went by the name of Khan. He had charged each person several thousand dollars for this trip. Most of this people had tremendous difficulties to gather the money. The economy of the nation was bad and in disarray. They had used their life savings, or had to borrow from friends and relatives with the promise of returning the favor soon. They were just desperate to leave-leave their home and homeland, where they had been born and grown to love, in the dust. Now the time had come for them to leave.
Behind Khan, there was a couple. They were both in their sixties. They were hoping to make it across the border and then fly to Vienna. Their son was living in Austria and they were planning to join him there. The next mule was hauling a young girl. Her parents wanted to ship her out of the country because her life was in danger due to her political activities. The third mule was boarded by a young woman and her newborn baby. The baby boy could not be more than a few months old. She had just left her abusive and drug-addicted husband. She wanted to leave and find a new life for her baby. The last of the caravan consisted of two brothers on one mule. They were fleeing the country because they had dodged the draft. They did not want to join the army and fight in the war.
On the faces of all there did not seem to exist a sense of calmness or security. They all seemed worried, anxious, exasperated, and uncertain. They all had heard the stories of hardship of such a journey. They knew about the danger that was looming ahead. They were fully aware of the grand risk that they were taking. Many before them had taken upon this dangerous journey and had been raped, robbed or even killed. Some had been captured and returned to face grave consequences. But they believed that it was worth the risk. They wanted to leave the repression and live their lives in freedom.
Khan had told them that the journey would take about two days and one night. There was a desert of unknown nature and adventures and a great deal of uncertainty ahead of them. They all had to give up their passports to the man with the promise of receiving them back upon their arrival in the neighboring country. It was past the noontime and they were riding in the middle of the desert under the sizzling sun.
They had food and water with them. Khan had warned them to be cautious and ration their supplies. They endured the deep and hard steep mountain terrain. The older couple was exhausted and tired. The young girl was feeling the heat and the hardship of the desert weather. The single mother was worried about her newborn. She had him wrapped in a sheet and had his face covered with a tiny, damp cloth. Every now and then, they stopped and took refuge under the shade of a mountain edge or a cliff.
Soon the night came and they had to stop. Khan made a bonfire and everyone gathered around it. They shared and ate their foods. They barely spoke. Although they shared the same pain, goal and destination, they did not find much commonality to share their thoughts with one another. Soon they all went to asleep with Khan watching over the camp.
It was in the early hours of the morning that they all woke up at the hollering of the Khan the commander. They quickly gathered their belongings and began to proceed with the rest of their journey. They hardly ever spoke to one another. The older couple seemed too tired to engage themselves in any conversation. The young girl was sad for the separation from her family. The two brothers spoke with one another, sporadically. The young mother was too occupied caring for her baby.
For the second day, they were tolerating a great deal of suffering due to the desert heat and the harsh weather condition. The nature was very cruel to the desert and its passersby. Hour after hour passed and the crew displayed its resilience and continued the journey.
The journey was becoming harsher as they were reaching closer to the border. The terrain was showing more hardness and fierceness in nature. They had to climb up and down the mountain. Khan was watching over the female travelers until they approached the last phase of the trip. The baby had become extra restless. The hardship of the cruel journey was taking its toll on his soft skin. He was crying.
Khan cautioned them about the last few kilometers of the journey. They had to pass through a passage that was narrowed between two extended cliffs. He warned them that they had to be extra quiet and exercise extreme silence due to the possible presence of the government agents and the tribal people in the surroundings. Khan led the group through a tiny road beneath the heavy presence of the mountains.
“Be quiet. We have a short distance before we reach the border. Be very quiet,” he ordered. Everyone was quiet. Their hearts were beating hundred times per minute. The baby was crying. Khan was annoyed, “Keep that damn baby quiet. He is going to endanger the lives of the others.” The mother was working diligently to follow his order. The baby was crying. It was hot. His face resembled a piece of boiled beetroot.
They were going through the passage. The mules were walking slowly and obediently as if they had done this many times before. In the middle of the passageway, the baby began crying again. One of the brothers turned to the mother, “What is the matter with him now?”
“I do not know. He just is not feeling well. It must be the heat,” The mother replied. The young girl with much agitation asked, “Can I help? Is there anything we can do to quiet him?”
“I do not know. I am doing the best I can. He is sick and feeling restless. I do not know what else to do.” The other brother angrily looked at the young mother. The mother offered the baby her breast milk. The baby refused and continued to cry loudly. He was restless and irritable. They were reaching their destination-their “promised land.” After some intense moments, Khan told them to keep on moving, “Look at that direction. We are very close to our destination, but we have to be very quiet.”
In the horizon, they could spot the border. They were less than a kilometer from it. The newborn was still crying and his cry was getting louder by the second. It was like he knew he was leaving his homeland, where he had been born. It was as if he did not want to leave his fate in the hands of others.
Perhaps he wanted to stay.
The old man said: “Would you please do something about that brat? We are going to get caught.” His wife asked him to be more compassionate.
“How? We each have paid five thousand dollars to get out of this damn place. Now this little thing is going to ruin it for us.”
“Man, it is not his fault. He is just a baby.” Then she turned to the mother and asked her to do something.
“I am doing the best I can.”
The young girl said to the young mother, “If we get caught here, we all will die.” The little boy did not stop his crying. He was throwing a tantrum.
One brother shouted at the mother, “If I get caught here, I will have to face the firing squad. Do you want to have my blood on your hands?” The mother was desperately trying to quiet her son. The moments were intense. The caravan kept on moving towards the border. Now the “gates of freedom” were within their reach. Khan, once more, turned to the mother and harshly ordered her to quiet the baby, “They can hear a lizard jumping off the cliff here. His noise will alarm the guards. Shut him up.”
The old man looked at her, angrily. The young girl was biting her lips in anger. One brother was pointing his finger at the mother and, in silence, warning her. The other brother mumbled, “Stifle him. Shut him up.” The caravan was reaching the dividing line. As they proceeded, the anxiety of the moment captured everyone’s attention and perpetuated the silence. It was quiet now. The mules were gingerly walking towards the area where they were supposed to cross and give safety and immunity to their masters. It was very quiet. You could hear a pebble dropping on the harsh surface of the earth.
They crossed the border and successfully made it to the other side. “We are safe now. We have made it through the border. Here are your passports,” Khan said and then threw the passports on the gravel, turned around and began departing, “You are on your own now. Good luck to all.” The group spread their exhausted bodies on the ground. Now they could see the city over the bumps and the mounds. Their bodies and minds were overtaken by joy and a sense of victory.
One of the brothers took a small bottle of vodka out of his pocket, “Here is to you the old land, the land of sorrow, repression, sadness and death.” He waved back at his old homeland. The two brothers began dancing. The young girl, lying on the ground, was laughing hysterically out of joy. The old couple was embracing each other and congratulating one another. They no longer were feeling any tiredness. One brother offered the vodka to everyone.
“Here, let us drink to our successful journey and a bright future for all of us.” The other brother grabbed the bottle and took a huge sip. The young girl too grabbed the bottle and took a sip. “You must have had some experience in drinking, sister,” one brother sarcastically remarked. The girl replied, “You have seen nothing yet,” and then offered the bottle to the old couple. The old man drank some. It tasted so good. They were finally liberated. He gave the bottle back to one of the brothers and winked, insinuating that it be passed on to the young mother.
The brother walked to the mother and extended his arm, offering the alcohol to her, “Here you are, sister. Have a sip. Sorry we were a little too harsh on you and your son about the crying and stuff. You know, we did not mean anything bad. It was that the situation was too dangerous and critical. It was a very crucial moment we were caught in. We were so close and the noise could have spoiled everything. Here, have a sip and let’s forget about it.”
The young mother’s head was slouched over the baby that was being rocked gently on her knees from side to side. She was looking at the baby. Her knees were shaking uncontrollably. Her fingers were cringed. Her entire body was trembling. The shaky knees were rattling the baby. The brother got closer, “Now, do not pout. We said we were sorry. You know what? This journey has cost us a lot of money and we all paid it to be free, to get out of that hellhole called our homeland. You know yourself that we had to pay a lot of money for this trip. We paid a hefty price for our freedom and you did not want to deny us of our freedom, did you? So you forgive us if we were a bit harsh on… ”
Suddenly, the young man aborted his speech. He stepped back and sighed.
Tears were running down the mother’s face and dropping on the innocent face of her little boy. She was sobbing and mumbling incoherently like a crazy woman. Her body was vigorously and uncontrollably shaking. She was whispering and saying a prayer and blowing the words into the ear of her little, lifeless baby boy as she was asking him and her God for forgiveness. The prints of her fingers-the ones that had just horridly and tightly pressed the baby’s tiny throat to suffocate and silence him to death for the sake of the liberation of the others-were still clearly visible on the little boy’s tiny neck. The mother was moving back and forth tenaciously rocking the baby on her knees like how she always helped him to asleep, but now sobbing and praying, asking for forgiveness.
It was as the baby boy was sleeping peacefully. But he was not only sleeping. His spirit and life were floating in the clear air of the desert’s and flying back home-to a land where tyranny, repression, injustice, sorrow and sadness had persisted for centuries.
The words of the young man, “We paid a hefty price for our freedom and you did not want to deny us of our freedom,” were still ringing in the empty and cruel desert, and then there was a deadly silence ensuing across both borders.
The desert seemed so lifeless.
Freedom seemed so worthless.
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