Imagine a teenage girl who lives with her brother and her parents in the top floor of a house, in a relatively nice area. She’ll be glad there’s no school, until the tension started building and smoke appeared on the horizon. Her brother should be sitting exams, only they’ve been cancelled.
Their father’s friend will turn up with blood on his face – “They’ve got the voter’s lists!” – and still, their parents will tell them it’s okay. They don’t own the house – their names aren’t on the list. No one will know what ethnicity they are, or what language they speak. They’ll stay inside and shut the doors.
That’s what they do, when the mob starts up the end of the street with their torches and knives and sticks and the stuff they’d already looted. Her mother will start packing her jewellery, just in case.
But that guy they’d been living next to for the last seven years? The one who’d bought the children sweets, who came over for cups of tea? He will find himself a big stick too, and go out to join the mob. Our girl might see him as she peers through the window - as he points at their house.
She’ll never see her mother run so fast as when they race down the inside staircase – the one they never use – and out the back. She won’t get a chance to see her house again, because there won’t be time to turn around. Two streets over, they will find the family who takes them in – five hours huddled underneath furniture when the place is searched, and then out because the family has small children and they’re scared too.
Somehow, she’ll lose her family as she wanders around on the streets, looking for refuge. Someone will ask her father a question - she won’t understand that they’re asking where the dogs are. He knows their language, but he can’t fake the accent, and she runs when she sees the sticks come down on his back. Maybe she won’t get a chance to see her family again, either.
Maybe she’ll be lucky enough to find a quiet moment, a new hiding place. A street that hasn’t been ravaged, that doesn’t have charcoal for houses and corpses across the road. She’ll wonder if that makes it any safer. She’s not street-savvy, like her brother or even her parents.
Somehow, she’ll end up at a school. There are priests. They can’t give her food. But her heartbeat will slacken a little. She can wipe the sweat from her face and sit. There must be hundreds of people in the school – people she knows, too. None of them will have seen her family, and she won’t have seen theirs. She can be relieved, hearing their stories, that she hasn’t recognised any of the bodies. She didn’t linger long enough to look. A friend’s mother will find her a corner to sleep in.
In two days, they’ll be put on a bus, then an overcrowded cargo ship. It’ll be another three days without food before they reach the north.
This is where the government sends them, to be safe with their own people. She will never have been here before – many of her friends haven’t. They’ll put her in an orphanage, before she finds a distant aunt. Days without school are most days here. She’ll get used to the sound of explosions and gunfire - used to the feeling of terror every time an aircraft passes overhead. The checkpoints. The soldiers.
This is the land they’re fighting over.
The riots have happened before. They’ll happen several more times in her life, assuming she gets another decade or so. She’ll see fighting on the streets, and three armies battling for control. She’ll plead for her life at a checkpoint because a soldier didn’t – or did – like the look of her.
She’ll lose another family to the war.
Maybe she’ll call herself lucky to leave the country, and raise her children to speak a different language.
Maybe she’ll never leave the country. Sometime within the next twenty-six years, she will end up standing behind a barbed wire fence in a plain full of sewage and sickness and starvation. More corpses, but they won’t bother her any more. Her teeth will number sixteen and she’ll be half the weight she was as a teenage girl. She may not call herself lucky then, but she’ll still be luckier than some.
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