JACK OF ALL TRADES
“Man is a wolf to man.”
The Roman Playwright Plautus
THE SYRIAN – LEBANESE BORDER
February 28, 2012
The sudden rattle of gunfire startled Harper, forcing her to stumble on the steep, muddy incline. Catching herself, she drew a few ragged breaths as she leaned over, her hands on her thighs. She glanced up at their guide, Amir, who had crouched down at the edge of the trail. He motioned with his hands for everyone to stop and get down. She squatted in the mud and cursed under her breath as she again questioned the wisdom of what she was doing; her dilemma being – did it really matter whether she died here in these mountains or in some bombed out cellar in Homs? She stared down at her muddy boots and shivered as she realized she could no longer feel her feet. Her fatigue pants and thin windbreaker had long since become soaked through. Even the heavy cotton hijab swaddled around her head offered little protection against the damp cold.
A woman whose home they had shared the previous night had forced her to take the head covering and windbreaker. The woman offered no name, and Harper never asked. It hadn’t been one of those kind of nights she had rationalized; there had been too many other intimacies to share beyond polite social discourse. Still, this breach of etiquette of failing to ask the woman’s name grated on Harper’s Southern upbringing.
They had been climbing in the near darkness for almost two hours from the long valley below into a wide, rock strewn cirque, the rim of which never seemed to draw closer. At times, the meager trail forced them to detour up along the steep ridges, a course made more tedious by the fact a half moon served as their only illumination. Here and there, depressions in the crude path had filled with snow and slushy rainwater, turning the thin alluvial soil into a morass of half-frozen muck. When they first started out in the predawn darkness, Amir had advised them to keep one hand on the back of the person in front of them. Now as the dawn approached, and the trail became visible, Amir had hurried them back down through the muddy wallows to avoid the ridgeline and any chance of detection.
Amir rose back to his feet and craned his neck to peer up at the footpath ahead. The gunfire sounded as if it came from the next valley over, but the thin mountain air and steep hillsides made it difficult to judge the distance much less the direction.
Harper turned and glanced back at the others. The two women trudging behind her had also paused; their ragged breaths the only sound in the stillness. The older of the two was Amir’s sister in law, the younger one their cousin. The cousin took the opportunity to allow her young son to slide off her back where she had been carrying him for the better part of the journey. He made a rustling sound as he slipped to the ground due to the newspaper his mother had stuffed inside his clothes to ward off the cold. Amir had told Harper the boy was two years old but he seemed small for his age.
Harper’s companion, Fontenot, a Canadian journalist, and the other Syrian guide, a young man barely out of his teens, brought up the rear. Fontenot leaned forward, his hands on his knees, his breaths coming in strangled heaves, his face noticeably purple even in the gray dawn. He was a good fifty pounds overweight and a chain smoker; the last person to be attempting a forced march through the mountains. Not that they had much choice. Staying in Homs was dangerous at best, suicidal at the worst, the bombardment worsening by the day. Most of their fellow correspondents had already fled, evacuated and smuggled out in much the same manner they were attempting.
Harper began to reach for Amir’s outstretched hand when a short report of gunfire shattered the silence, this time much nearer. She suddenly and inexplicably thought of her mother and the morning she had died in the cramped, smoky bedroom of her small Georgia farmhouse. With her usual wry wit, her mother confessed that she was plumb out of deals to offer up to the Lord, and might it be time that Harper considered doing the same. Those were her last words. In retrospect, probably good advice Harper thought as she glanced up at Amir to gauge his reaction to the shots. The dim light allowed no immediate appraisal other than the fact that the Syrian’s hunched, rigid posture suggested that he also was startled by the rifle fire.
The previous night Fontenot had revealed to Harper that Amir had once been a policeman in Aleppo before being sacked for political incorrectness. Until now, nothing seemed to unnerve him. Not gunfire, not deprivation, not the hubris of his countrymen. Acerbic to the point of being irritating, Harper nevertheless felt confident in Amir’s abilities. She liked to think that by now she could recognize who deserved her trust in situations such as this.
“We must hurry,” Amir muttered, his voice breaking the stillness. “Once it is daylight it will be very dangerous.”
“You really think we have enough time?” she asked, looking up at him.
Amir made a small grunting sound but didn’t say anything. Harper felt a hand on her shoulder and stepped aside to allow the other Syrian to join them. The two men conversed quietly in Arabic for a moment before Amir motioned for Fontenot to join them. The Canadian lumbered up to their position and leaned heavily against a nearby tree, still too out of breath to speak.
“The road is not far. Just over the ridge,” Amir said. “Maybe twenty…thirty minutes. No more. I think it best…”
Another prolonged burst of gunfire interrupted him, followed by the baleful howling of a dog from somewhere to their right. One of the women murmured something that elicited a harsh response from Amir’s young companion. He spoke no English, and Amir had never volunteered his name. The youth wore a faded Dixie Chicks hooded sweatshirt and jeans and carried what appeared to be an antiquated military carbine he continually slipped from one shoulder to the other.
“Maybe we should go back and wait. Hide out for a while,” Fontenot offered between gasps.
“There is no time. It will be daylight soon and there is very little cover here or on the other side,” Amir replied even though he made no effort to move. “We go there,” he said, casually pointing in the opposite direction of the dog’s mournful baying.
“Who are they shooting at?” Harper asked.
“There are surely others trying to find their way to the border.” He looked up at the ridgeline above them and shrugged. “Perhaps it is better we hear them shooting than not.”
“I guess we really don’t have much choice,” Fontenot said, the tension obvious in his voice.
“There’s no way I’m going back to Baba Amr. There can’t be much left of it by now anyway. Not after all that artillery last night.”
They had left Baba Amr two nights ago, shuttled by various escorts from one safe house to the next in an effort to dodge the army patrols and the random rocket and mortar fire bracketing the suburbs of Homs. The first night they had rested for several hours in a cellar in which a French surgeon had set up a crude triage station to minister as best he could to the scores of wounded civilians crammed into a room the size of a large living room. Harper had used up most of her camera’s last remaining memory documenting the drama.
It was on that night that she first met Fontenot. He had been the one to tell her about Marie Colvin’s death. Colvin had been more than just an acquaintance. She and Harper had shared dinner and drinks on more than one occasion. The report of her fellow correspondent’s death had shaken Harper sufficiently that she accepted Fontenot’s offer to accompany him on his evacuation. He had hired a guide, and his employer, a Montreal newspaper, had arranged an exit at the border. Better than staying here, he told her, nodding at the chaos around them.
She thought again of the several hundred photos she had stored on the memory cards secreted away in the lining of the soiled MaxiPad she wore inside her underwear. She felt confident it would be the last place she would be searched. Still, she had witnessed enough incidents in the past week to know neither her gender nor the hijab would guarantee she wouldn’t be searched and possibly even molested. The few phrases she knew in Arabic gave her even less hope she wouldn’t be challenged if they were intercepted.
Amir motioned for them to follow, and they struck off through the tangled waist high undergrowth towards the dim ridge line. As they struggled up the rocky incline, the smell of wood smoke mingled with that of the damp pine. To the east, the faint hem of orange in the dim sky announced that any cover of darkness would soon evaporate along with the thin fog. Seemingly responding to the same thought, Amir quickened his pace. His companion had stepped aside to allow the others to pass. It gave Harper little reassurance to see that the young man had retrieved a pistol from his waistband. She noticed Amir had slipped his AK-47 from his shoulder and now held it loosely in both hands.
“You’re sure there’s going to be someone waiting on the other side?” she said over her shoulder to Fontenot.
He paused to catch his breath before replying. “My people just said a lot of cash had changed hands. What can I say? I just have to trust them that they paid off the right guys. You still have your passport, don’t you?”
“Just don’t be flashing it to anybody unless it’s absolutely necessary. I hear there’s a bounty on journalists. You should’ve gotten rid of your camera. There’s no way they’ll ever take us for refugees.” He clicked his tongue as he reached over and tucked an errant strand of her hair into the fold of her hajib. “Especially with that red hair. In case you never noticed, there weren’t that many redheads around Damascus,” he muttered, pushing past her.
When she had accepted the assignment to slip into Syria, the conflict had seemed less risky. But over the past three weeks, as the bombardment had escalated, she had been torn between the need to document the conflict and her own fragile psyche. Her recent misadventure in Central America in which she had been almost killed had traumatized her to the point she questioned not only her resolve but also her motivations for taking on such assignments. Cumulative psychic toll, her therapist labeled it. She had gone to Nicaragua partly in search of a story and partly because of some misguided attraction to Sonny, someone with probably fewer allegiances than herself. That disappointment along with her reticence to finish a story that had no real denouement, had marked more a dead end rather than the mere closure of another of life’s chapters. The unexpected death of her mother shortly afterwards sent her spiraling into detachment bordering on depression.
And so in yet another misguided delusion, she sought out this assignment in the hope it would prove a cure for her moribund existence. Her agent had implored her not to go. She had placated him by promising this would be the last war she would cover, but she sensed he didn’t believe her any more than she believed herself.
Her problem had always been deciding when enough was enough – enough photographs, enough risks, enough men, enough therapy. Nor obviously enough acclaim to fulfill whatever engine it was that drove her. A friend had once darkly suggested that ‘Never Enough’ might be an apt epitaph for Harper’s headstone. Upon hearing of Marie Colvin’s death Harper wondered if Marie had ever questioned herself. Some years back, Colvin had lost an eye and was almost killed in Sri Lanka doing this very thing. Maybe if she would have doubted herself more she might still be alive.
And what did that say about her? She had been beaten, raped, almost killed on more than one occasion, and still she had difficulty turning down assignments like this. And even though this recklessness had been the subject of more than one session of therapy, a true understanding of her motivations continued to elude her.
She thought about the two women trudging through the mud behind her and wondered at their impetus for setting out on something this dangerous. She glanced back at the young woman carrying her child. The risk the woman must be taking made Harper feel small. She could always go back to her flat in New York, have coffee at the café on the corner or meet her friends for dinner at some over- priced restaurant. And what were these women facing? Most likely it a fate far worse than the simple unknown. A refugee camp at best; at worst her capture by Syrian soldiers who over the past two weeks had become increasingly less burdened by any semblance of restraint. Homs had been full of rumors of summary executions of civilians, gender and age notwithstanding. Her thoughts were cut short by Fontenot suddenly drawing up to a stop in front of her.
“What is it?”
Amir had turned and put his finger to his mouth to motion for them to remain silent. He listened for a long moment before walking back towards them.
“It is not far to the road. We will go ahead and make sure it is safe. You wait here.”
Fontenot shook his head in obvious irritation before slumping down onto a nearby log. The two women joined him, their fatigue and worry etched in their faces. The young child seemed confused, and once on the ground, attempted to walk away. His mother pulled him back, offering him a small toy car she retrieved from the folds of her dress.
“You have kids?” Harper asked, slipping off her small pack and dropping down beside Fontenot.
He shook his head and smiled. “I thought you knew. I used to be a priest. A family was never part of the equation. And with this kind of life? I had a companion though once,” he said after a moment had passed. “Ex-nun. We were a sorry pair. All that overwrought, pathetic Catholic guilt and second guessing soured it. I suppose you wouldn’t have a cigarette on you?”
He nodded and removed the silver flask he wore fastened around his neck with a thin leather cord. “Arak. The good stuff,” he said, carefully unscrewing the cap and offering her the flask.
“Don’t mind if I do,” she said and took a quick swallow of the astringent anise flavored liquor. “This ex-nun. You still see her?” she said, inspecting the flask. A small Canadian flag was embossed on the side of the flask.
“In the wind somewhere,” he complained lamely. “How about you? Married?”
“I guess you could say I’m in the wind somewhere, too. Are your people paying for them, too?” she asked, nodding at the women and the young child.
“Part of the deal, I guess.” He took a long draw from the flask. “It’s pretty dreadful, isn’t it? What was happening back there in Homs. On one hand I feel guilty leaving. On the other, someone needs to get the word out. You agree?”
“If it’ll really change anything.”
“Spoken like your typical cynical journalist. I take it you’ve had your heart broken before,” he said, lifting the flask to his mouth before changing his mind.
She nodded and thought about the night with Sonny in his tent in Darfur. She took back the flask and had another swallow. “I had this guy tell me once that people watch stories like this on the nightly news and then forget it by the time the first sitcom rolls around. Something to that effect. Seems it’s always the same old wars, same refugee camps…disasters. It seems only the dateline changes.”
“From what I hear, you’ve been through worse,” he said, turning to her. “People in our line of work talk,” he said when she didn’t reply. “What happened in Bosnia must’ve been…” He shook his head. “I’m sorry. It’s insensitive of me.”
“No. It’s all right. I just don’t talk about it much,” she added after a moment.
“So, are you planning on coming back here?” he asked.
“Depends. I came in through Aleppo with a Turkish friend. I could try again. Stay in the north, maybe. Not much fighting there yet. I could get my feet wet. Make contacts. That way when it starts up again…” She shrugged.
“Me. I’m done.” He looked around and shook his head. “I don’t like this sitting here,” he said. “You don’t think they would just leave us, do you? I mean if they see a patrol or something,” he said.
“They wouldn’t leave the women behind.”
He grunted in assent. They fell again into silence as they listened to the first birdsongs of the dawn and the muted conversation of the two Syrian women. The boy made growling sounds as he plowed his small toy car through the thick carpet of pine needles. One could almost imagine a picnic in the woods if it were not for the danger looming just over the ridges behind them. She retrieved her Leica from her daypack and took a few shots of the women and the boy.
“I’m almost out of shots,” she said, removing the memory card and stuffing it into her bra.
“That’s always been a good omen. Almost out of cameras, too.”
Before Fontenot could reply a volley of gunfire erupted from just over the ridge where Amir and his companion had just ventured over. They heard yelling followed by more gunfire and then an abrupt silence.
“Jesus Christ! That didn’t sound good. We should go back down,” she said. “I saw a few places we could easily hide. Wait. What are you doing?” she said, grabbing Fontenot’s arm as he stood.
“Stay here. I’m just going to have a look.”
“Don’t be stupid. We should just go back,” she said, letting the thought die as she watched him pick his way through the undergrowth before disappearing from view. The young boy had started to cry and his mother hurriedly lifted her tunic and put him to her breast to silence him. The terror on both of the women’s faces heightened Harper’s own sense of foreboding. She scooted over to them and took each of their hands in hers. They all flinched at the sound of another volley of gunfire that seemed much closer than the earlier fire.
The older of the two women began a slow chant of some sort, a prayer Harper assumed. The boy struggled to pull away from his mother’s breast, but she held him fast, knowing their silence might be their only defense.
“We should go back. You understand?” Harper said, pointing to the trail below. “Titkallam inglizi? You don’t speak English? How about French? Parlez-vous franҫais?”
The two women stared at her, neither making any sign of understanding nor effort to follow her. Suddenly, the younger woman dropped her head to her chest and winced. The other woman’s eyes widened as she looked past Harper. Harper turned and looked over her shoulder. Three men in fatigues and helmets, their rifles held at the ready, emerged from the tree line into which Fontenot had just disappeared.
“La. La,” the young woman said so softly Harper thought she only imagined it. It was one of the few Arabic words she knew – the word for no. She could only guess at the meaning of the woman’s desperate pleas as the young boy began to cry.
The soldiers stared at them, their rifles still at the ready as two other figures joined them. One of them wore civilian clothes beneath a fatigue jacket, his face partially concealed by a black and white checkered wool scarf. He carried an automatic rifle of some sort in one hand and a pair of boots in the other. From the cut of the other man’s crisp camouflage uniform and bearing, she sensed he might be an officer, or at the very least their leader. The one in the uniform issued a curt command to the soldiers who started to advance on Harper and the other two women. One of the women, Amir’s sister in law, began to shout at them in obvious defiance. One of the soldiers raised his weapon as if to fire.
“Wait! Stop!” Harper yelled.
The officer swung his head sharply to look at Harper, no doubt surprised by her English. He smiled at her pleasantly as he retrieved a pack of cigarettes and a lighter from his tunic pocket. He slowly and deliberately lit his cigarette, his eyes fixed on Harper as if contemplating what he should do. Finally, he said something to one of the soldiers who hurried over to Harper, took her by the arm, and dragged her in front of the officer.
“Your passport,” he said in heavily accented English.
She hesitated for a moment before replying. “I am an American citizen.”
“Your passport,” he repeated. “It is not permitted to refuse.”
When Harper made no effort to comply, the man in civilian clothes tossed the boots to one of the soldiers and approached Harper, stopping just inches before her. She could clearly see his eyes above his scarf. They reminded her of something her mother had once said when remarking on a neighboring sharecropper’s eyes. “He looked like he stole those eyes out of some taxidermist’s this and that drawer.”
She glared at him in defiance until at last he looked past her at the women. It was only then she saw the silver flask hanging from his shoulder. She started to reach for it and he grabbed her wrist.
“You fucking… Khabeez!” she yelled, using the Arabic word for bastard, one of the few curse words she had picked up over the years.
He responded to her curse by twisting her wrist, forcing her to drop to her knees. He stepped back and started to raise his rifle but the officer pushed the rifle aside. The two of them started to argue, until finally the civilian stormed off, issuing what sounded like a torrent of curses.
The officer looked back at her and smiled. “My friend. He is shabiha. Shabiha. You understand?”
Harper staggered to her feet. Shabiha. She had heard the word used several times over the past few weeks in reference to the paramilitary force believed responsible for most of the torture and summary executions perpetrated by the Assad forces. Shadow men. That was what she had been told the word meant.
“Shabiha? I guess that’s Arabic for murderous pricks. You understand that?”
He grabbed her by the throat and pushed her back. “You wish to die here? I call him back. Yes?”
She wriggled from his grasp and stumbled back. “Assholes like him make it easy for you, don’t they? You let them do your dirty work.”
“Your passport. I will not ask again,” the officer said again, his face flushed. Harper couldn’t tell if he was angry or embarrassed.
She reached inside her blouse and retrieved her passport and flung it at him. “I am a journalist. I am protected…”
He opened her passport and bent to examine it in the light. The smoke from his cigarette made him close one eye. He studied the passport for a moment before slipping it into his pocket.
“I would like my passport back.”
“Journalist, yes?” He studied her a moment before gesturing with his hand at one of the soldiers.
The soldier came up behind Harper and ripped her pack off her shoulders. He rummaged through it for a moment before raising her camera in triumph.
“You will come with us,” he said. He barked an order to the soldiers and turned to walk away.
In response, the soldiers shouted and indicated with their rifles for the women to march ahead of them. Harper glanced at the women whose faces revealed a mixture of fear and defiance.
“I am sorry,” she said to them as one of the soldiers grabbed her by the arms and shoved her forward.