The dusty terrain became more and more beige as the sun rose higher across the vast landscape of sand and scanty acacia. They were here. Ahmed sat up straighter, his aching back cracking in relief. They drove past the first of many white tents that stretched on either side of the bus windows. Dadaab.
Ahmed squinted as the white triangles increased and expanded and with the bus going so fast, he begun feeling dizzy so he sat back and took a deep breath. This was his destination for the second time round. He didn’t like to remember the first time. This second time however, he had everything planned to the last minute detail because there was no room for a slip.
And now here he was; executing what he had been planning for years! He should be thrilled but he felt sick. Now that he was here, the reality of what he was about to do sunk in his tummy like a blob of excess green bile.
Ahmed cracked his knuckles. They didn’t snap anymore. He had been doing that too frequently.
“They can’t snap anymore you know,” Chris, his best friend, workmate and partner in this crime, stated. Ahmed smiled a little and looked away. All will be well. All will be well. The more he said it to himself, the more he felt sicker and sicker at the pit of his stomach.
Outside, women clad in buibui and dheras walked from inside their makeshift tents to stare at the passing bus. Most waved at the visitors. The other volunteers in the bus waved back and others snapped away eagerly at the faces of the refugees. Who knows; maybe they could win the next photographers’ award and go on to become famous.
Ahmed tried cracking his knuckles again. They did not snap. A white woman walked down the bus aisle towards the backseat, to join the line of volunteers snapping away at the children who ran after the bus.
“Shit! These people make me sick!” Chris said under his breath and unleashed his own camera. He snapped at the backs of the backseat congregation. A woman, one seat across them, was already applying sunscreen. She looked red and baked. Snap! Snap!
It was probably the heat but the nearer the bus got to the heart of the camp, the sweatier Ahmed’s palms became and the faster his heart beat. It was getting a little hard to breathe too. The window was open already but there was not much relief from the wind. Ahmed bent forward and took his bottle of water from the seat pocket in front of him. He took a large swig and savored it, sitting back. His bottle rested on his lap. Sighing, he looked to his right and noticed Chris staring at him with his perfected are-you-sure-about-this look.
“I’m okay. Nervous but okay,” Ahmed admitted.
Chris’ gaze moved to the bottle on Ahmed’s lap. It was shaking- along with his hand. Ahmed quickly put the bottle back in its place. He sat back and blew air out of his mouth. His neck ached. He felt like crap and could not wait to get out of the bus.
Sweet relief came a few minutes later when the bus slowed down amidst a large crowd of women, children, and a few men all following the bus occupants with curious and hopeful eyes. A distance away, behind the gathering crowd, Ahmed could make out a few modest concrete buildings that he assumed were their offices and some of the rooms that the volunteers would be accommodated in for the duration of their stay. They were here for three weeks.
Three weeks only.
“Is that her?” Chris pointed out to a tall, pretty sloe-eyed girl staring at them when the bus stopped. She looked Ethiopian or maybe Eritrean. The girl looked back at him- eyes forlorn and a little pleading. Ahmed looked away and shook his head. Fatima would never plead like that. She was too proud.
The rest of the bus occupants had begun alighting but he was in no hurry to get out. Through the window, he scanned more of the faces in the crowd and caught the fleeting glimpse of a girl in a black hijab turning away from him. He turned quickly and stared towards her direction. She fixed her hijab and started to walk away. She had Fatima’s height and complexion. It could be her…
Ahmed got up quickly; ready to go after her, even with the other volunteers filling the aisle as they retrieved their backpacks and what not. He kept his eye on her as a surprised Chris moved aside to let him pass. Outside, the girl’s other hand came over her right one and Ahmed’s shoulders sank back – in relief?
Fatima didn’t have a scar on the back of her left hand. It wasn’t her. He sat back down then winced when Chris snapped the camera’s flash at his face.
“This sounds bad, I know, but if all this goes well, I will treasure these photos of your worried face forever!” he snorted and looked at the photos he had snapped so far. He showed one of Ahmed looking pale and drowsy after waking up from sleep about an hour ago. “Mr. Cool, eh? What would people at work say if they saw you like this?” Chris feigned shock then shook his head and put his camera back in its bag with smug satisfaction.
Ahmed leaned towards his friend, “If you weren’t that crucial on this thing, I would have thrown you out the window when we were still in Nai,” Ahmed said and Chris grinned like the devil himself then stopped suddenly as he stared outside.
“Whoa!” he said and when Ahmed followed his gaze, it landed on a big-breasted Somali girl who was receiving a suitcase from one of the volunteers. She smiled at the visitor, helped carrying her luggage and as they walked away, the Somali girl’s bum wobbled with every step underneath her flimsy dhera. Chris whistled and asked Ahmed in a confidential voice, “It’s okay to tap that right? I mean- it’s not like I’ll be taking advantage or anything…?”
Ahmed hit his friend’s arm but managed a small smile all the same. The two were the last in the bus and Chris, rubbing his arm in good stride, stood up to take his back pack from the compartment above him.
Ahmed followed suit and walked behind Chris as they headed towards the bus entrance.
The moment he descended the three stairs at the door that’s when it hit him- the little major detail he had assumed. Sure he had planned everything perfectly but what if Fatima would have none of it. Suddenly, his whole anxiety attack on the bus made sense.
There had been three worst case scenarios he and Chris had discussed. He had brushed aside the possibility that Fatima might refuse to take part in his plan because since they had been kids, Ahmed had known how badly she wanted to leave the camp- at any cost.
But what if things had changed? Here he was- seven years after he was supposed to have come for her. What if things had changed?
Looking into the faces of the crowd before him, he felt suddenly overwhelmed. The miles and miles of the white tents stretched on and on and on. She was here somewhere. And he had come for her- very late yes- but he had come like he promised. Surely that should count!
The sick feeling begun once again and so did the fear that all this might have been for nothing. Chris had told him to brace himself for disappointment even if Fatima agreed to his plan. Ahmed was not delusional. He knew people got caught and arrested and sent to jail for years and years. But more horrifying than jail-time, was the possibility that she might not make it through the whole journey.
And that was the one unthinkable possibility that Chris had tried hammering into him as he constantly asked if he really wanted to do this. Just like the twelve Ethiopians last week, she too could die on the journey.
Ahmed’s heart shrank.
He will not think about it. He could not think about it.
Chris knocked his back and jolted him into reality. A smiling male refugee was carrying one of his bags and they were being led to the reception area.
Three weeks was all he had. He will have to contact Isam this very day.