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The last night



By Nivin Al-Hotari.


As the working day came to an end, we agreed to meet the following day to brainstorm for our next programming schedule. My job at the news network involved meeting with the different departments to discuss their future projects. I’ll let you know that I had a soft spot for our meetings with the media department, when we’d discuss programmes that broadcasted our reality in the bubble of northern Syria to the wider public.


“Shall we start?”


“Please do,” said my colleague, “We’re ready.”


“Okay, bismillah… Let’s see, what ideas do you have?”


And with that, the meeting started. I was excited to see which projects we’d agree on that would one day see the light.


“What about a podcast on the events before the event?”


I can’t remember who made this suggestion, but it doesn’t matter. What matters is that we were all on board.


The brainstorming continued. There was a lot to discuss: the concept, the script, the direction, potential guests. By the end of our meeting, a new podcast was born: “The Last Night”, about the night before having to flee, before being forcibly displaced, before being arrested.


The producer suggested some questions to ask the guests: “Tell us about yourself; when did you leave your home or hometown and why; what happened on your last night; what will you never forget about that night; what you would go back to take with you if you could; what’s preventing you from returning; how did you feel?... That should paint a clear enough picture for the listeners and provide us an authentic witness statement about how people’s rights are being violated.”


“I think we should start with your last night,” someone said.

“Mine?”


“Yes. The siege on Eastern Ghouta, all those people forced to leave after seven years of resisting. It needs to be recorded properly and shared with the world. So we don’t forget and neither do they.”


Lest we forget… I paused for a moment as I was writing that. No, I don’t want to forget the tyranny. I intend to write down every last detail of what I lived through so that I don’t forget anything when the time for justice comes. But at the same time, I do want to forget. These painful memories are weighing me down. I want to live in peace.


Some relief has come with the following realisation: If writing helps to heal wounds, then I will write:


Location: A basement in Zamalka, Eastern Ghouta

Date: 23rd March, 2018

Just over a month since the regime bombed Eastern Ghouta in an invasion attempt.

Five years since the citizens began living under siege.

Seven years since the revolution began.


Our last days in Ghouta were a battle between life and death: endless ground and air strikes, the siege, illness, fear. We fought back hard, certain that if we’d already resisted for seven years then we could keep at it and Ghouta would remain out of the aggressor’s control. But the regime was advancing fast, and the bombing was worsening by the second. There were talks of reconciliation and “safe” passages, but as the situation continued to unfold, the world abandoned us. I remember giving a testimony to the UN Security Council over the internet from the heart of Ghouta. I described how we’d been living for the past seven years; I told them about our peaceful demands for justice, about the bombs and the death. I shared all this while in deep darkness, a darkness that forced the audience on the other side of the world to turn off the lights in their meeting room so they could see my face. I told them we were simply asking for freedom, that we’d committed no crime that could justify being forced from our homes. With an audacity to my words—despite the danger of this—I pointed them all towards their responsibility. But they were only listeners and never became anything more.


Inevitably, our only remaining choice was to give in to forced displacement—if you can even dignify it as a choice. We were made to choose between allowing the regime to invade so that it can arrest, kidnap or torture whoever it pleases; and being uprooted to a “safe” area, under false legal pretences veiling what actually constitutes "forced displacement"; that was no doubt not a real choice. That was our backs were against the wall.


On our last night, a missile landed next to the house. Shrapnel, smoke and dust flew in all directions. The electricity cut off and the house was plunged into darkness.


By some miracle, we survived. I still remember how I ran to a wall to protect myself, shrapnel racing ahead of me. I can still hear everyone’s voices, “I’m okay… Are you all okay? Say something if you’re okay, for God’s sake, say something…”


That night was the beginning of a torturous journey through a series of basements, beginning with one in the town of Saqba and ending with one in Zamlaka, with others in Hizza and Ayn Tarma in between. The last night in the Zamlaka basement was as quiet as death. All the nights before had carried the stench of dying and the screeching of missiles, but once the displacement agreement had been made to move us, the bombs went silent.


The lights were out in the basement. We’d always turn them off so that the missiles wouldn’t target us, but that day, it was because we couldn’t bear to look at each other. We didn’t want to see the pain and disappointment on each others’ faces. We decided to sleep in preparation for our forced displacement the following morning, but all night long, I heard the sighs. I’m almost certain none of us could sleep.


My children’s questions still haunt me. At the time I couldn’t escape them; now I can’t forget them. My daughter would ask about the doll she’d had to leave behind in the house. The doll’s name was Osama, like her father. “What’s going to happen to Osama? We can’t leave him all alone. What if the house falls on top of him?” So many questions, and all I could do was repeatedly promise that when we arrived at our unknown destination I’d buy her lots of dolls, “and a new bedroom, and we’ll paint the walls… Well, what colour would you like?”


“Red,” she would say.


Then I’d relax a little because I’d successfully diverted her attention to something else.


Qusay would always ask where we were going. He was upset because he couldn’t go back to his first house, the one in Hawsh al-Dawahira, which we’d left for a house in Saqba two years before our displacement.


If only I could go back, I’d bring everything with me. Everything in my home is dear to me, everything is precious, it all holds memories. Why else would I have bought and kept it?


But if I had to choose only a few things, I’d take Osama the doll, and my diary, where I wrote down everything I didn’t want to forget.


Whenever I think back to that time, I’m seized by a splitting headache. My breathing constricts like I’m back in the dusty basement, or surrounded by rubble.


Who claimed that writing kills our pains? We remain as living epitaphs, until further notice...


By Nivin Al-Hotari.



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