It was late night. It was hauntingly silent too. Maria and her family had taken dinner and everybody was off to bed. Maria couldn’t sleep. She was staring at the old, damped and severely damaged ceiling of the basement. Her little sister Sofia was sleeping beside her. Sofia was a year younger than Maria. Maria was in the ninth standard when the struggle started. It has been three years since she has met her friends or even seen the rising sun. She is not allowed to walk on the streets alone or with anyone else also most of the time. The school they went to was now a pile of rubble and those rubbles were witness of changing time and degrading humanity. The fields where little children used to laugh blissfully and play games were now the battleground for one of the bloodiest struggles in the world. However, her father used to teach her Arabic, so that she can read the Holy Quran. Maria liked reading the Quran, it was very interesting. It was her only companion in this time of solitude and hardness. She was planning on learning Persian and Painting. She had everything planned out for next year. Abba, her father, had assured that the war will be over by then. When Salim was in the house, the brother and the sisters used to play games in the house. But after he was taken, the house had been sad and lonely. The army took Salim forcefully for the service in the name of the Government. Several young boys were taken from our locality. They left Abba because of his legs. He was then made to do derogatory work for the army in their camps. They used to throw bread or two for the service. Abba was a school teacher before. But since the start of the struggle he has been jobless. When the rebels got the news that army had recruited boys from our locality. They came for the remaining male in the vicinity. They also took several women and girls as slave. At that time the family shifted to the basement for good. Many of Maria’s relatives and neighbors have fled the country. When they were leaving they asked Abba to come with them but he refused. He said, “This is my home. Why should I abandon my home? Where will Salim find us when he comes back?” Maria heard from one of her neighbors who had stayed back that many people died trying to get on the boat. She said that the bodies were washed up against the coast.
There was fierce battle going on in and around the city. When Maria first heard an air strike, he was terrified and could not sleep for days. But now it has been a routine. It does not sound odd or horrifying or loud anymore. There was heavy shelling from both sides and civilians used to die from fire from both sides. But both sides claimed that they are doing all this for the people, the civilians. No one dared to go to the street any more. There were dead bodies everywhere on the streets. It seemed like a graveyard, human bodies rotting in the middle of streets. Maria had read about hell. She used to think, “It must not be any different from this. How can any place be worse than this?” But still they were too helpless to not live there.
Nobody talked to each other in the house anymore. Few months back Abba got a call from the Army Headquarters. Salim was dead. We didn’t even have his body. Salim was gone forever and we couldn’t even see him for one last time, not even a final good bye. Ammi stopped talking from that day and there has been minimum conversation in the basement since then. Salim wanted to be a teacher just like Abba. He recited the Quran five times a day and had it memorized. He was too good for this hell.
Food was scarce. The only line of supply for food was the occasional van of United Nations and a local smuggler. During these past few years all the savings of Abba was drained to keep our stomach warm. We were out of valuables also and the house was almost empty except a bare minimum. Now we were eating off Ammi’s jewelers that she meant to give to Sofia and Maria in their weddings. All the dreams were shattering like piece of glass. It had been a long time since a proper lunch or dinner in the basement. Those things which seem so simple in day to day life, to even give a thought were now fantasy. A simple meal without the fear of bullets or bombs or death or rape was too much to ask. The rebels and the army both used to kill and rape the civilians for their alleged alliance to the other.
Everyday Maria saw people being shot or raped in the middle of the street in broad day light. She saw their bodies being dumped like animals. Small babies thrown in the pits and the footpaths. The house of the people were turned into their graves just because some people stop minding their own business and began promoting their ideology for the welfare of same people that were being killed daily in this wrestling for power. Maria could remember the lady on the footpath by her house where a child died of starvation because the mother had no milk in her for she had not eaten for weeks. It seemed that someone has recreated Satan imagination on earth. But where was God?
Maria was no more afraid of ghosts or even death. There were many occasions when she prayed for death, not only hers but of all trapped in this cursed time and place. She remembered when a couple of months ago, the public came to the roads during cease fire; it seemed like a parade of skeleton. Sometimes she wished that it was all a bad dream and she would wake up again to her normal life. But a normal life had become a dream to Maria and millions like her. But for her this ugly reality had become normal. She always used to think aren’t people who do all this ashamed and aren’t those who can do something to stop this and not doing anything ashamed. She then remembered some writings on the walls of the city that were visible from her window. There was a line written on the demolished mosque building across the street “We have failed as humans”. She thought it was true. We have failed as humans in every aspect of life.
The morning was approaching and the darkness was fading. Still Maria had no sleep in her eyes. She wanted to cry. She wanted to cry her hearts out and scream but could not do so because someone will hear her and kill her entire family. She just kept staring at the ceiling of the basement with tears rolling down her cheeks and just kept saying some words from her clenched lips. She kept repeating, “Why us? Why this?”