Marks in the Sand. . .by Grahame Wilson


The battered Toyota audibly groaned as Ali jammed the last of their few possessions into the heavily laden back seat.

"Jubai, you drive. We may need a quick mind today."
Jubai smiled as he climbed in. "Yes, father. Your mind is going, just like your body."

Despite the terrible strain of the last few months, Ali managed to laugh. He was fitter than most men. Even his powerful son had never equalled him.

"If only your mother could see what a terrible son she left me."

Father and son were always playing this game. However, on this particular day, there was a feeling of menace in the air. The game was not easy to play.

Today they were quitting Kuwait. As Palestinians who had lived there all their lives, they were priviliged. But for any Palestinian, priviliges never amounted to much, in that wealthy country. Alis' skills as a highway engineer had merely earned him the old Toyota, and a small but comfortable flat. They could never become Kuwaiti citizens.

"Where's Shaza ? She can't afford to be late. Not today. "

As Ali spoke an attractive young girl climbed in and quickly kissed his cheek.

" Those Iraqi soldiers are searching everyone." she said, livid with anger.

" Some of them are pigs. We could hardly get out." Shaza was not in the mood for preliminary pleasantries, not today. The jokes were over. Both Ali and Jubai could well imagine the indignities she had just been through.

Ali immediately motioned to his son to start and they quickly joined the stream of traffic. "The news is bad then father?" she continued, pushing her scarf back and trying to put the last half-hour out of her mind.

"Probably bad for us Shaza. The UN have finally given the Americans the support they wanted. Apparently this morning the Americans told Saddam to get out of Al-Kuwayt or there'll be war. I've seen some leaving but I think most Iraqi's are still here."

They were finally underway, and they knew that todays journey was going to be both dangerous and unpredictable.

It was the first time they had ventured out of the city since the Iraqi occupation. The road was choked.There was a crunch as Jubai changed gear.
"Father, the Americans won't come in from the North will they?"

"It's a long way round for them. "replied Ali." In any case the UN have not given them permission to attack Iraq. They'll probably come in from the Gulf, or from the Saudi side." he said. "We should be safe up North, once we cross the border."

Many vehicles carried Iraqi soldiers, their military equipment and their loot, but most were filled with fleeing civilians. They were all heading for the border at Safwan, 70kms away. It took them three tense hours to weave their way through the noise and dust to get there.

Ali spotted a little group of dispirited soldiers squatting on the ground. They seemed to completely ignore the flood of vehicles streaming past unchecked.

"Thank God! They're not even bothering to guard the border!"

There was a sense of relief as they left Kuwait, and passed the last few clusters of abandoned houses. They raced into the emptiness of the Iraqi desert, nothing to be seen except, the narrow river of bitumen ahead with its endless flow of trucks, cars, buses and military vehicles, and far to the east, the flickering yellow flames from oil wells.

"Once we reach Basra, we should be safe enough. Until then, well . . .Keep a watch out. It's a good road, I remember working on this one."

There was little conversation, and it took all of Jubais' reflexes to avoid trucks and cars which lurched all over the road trying to pass, and rarely succeeding. Every few minutes there was a squeal or a crunch and someone would be off the bitumen and shuddering to a halt in a cloud of dust and obscenities. Fortunately this retired some of the worst drivers from the mulititude. No-one could even consider stopping to help in that chaos.

It was half an hour before the havoc started to abate. Gradually the traffic began to calm and show signs of normality.

It was then that Shaza whispered. "Father!"

Two black dots appeared over the horizon to their left. Whatever they were, they were flying low. Low enough to drop below some of the larger dunes.

They reappeared, and Ali turned to watch them as they drifted away behind them.

"Helicopters - Probably American." was all he said.

Seconds later there was a load roar. The two machines had turned North and were flying parallel to the road. They were still just a few feet above the desert. Shaza had a glimpse of two black spider-like machines laden with weapons. Inside the crewmen were watching them, through the insect-eyes of their dark visors. The two continued on towards the head of the column, gradually melting into the distance.
Not long after, they reappeared as two dots climbing high. Then tiny bright flashes. A burst of flame, then dust and smoke began to spread into the distant sky. A few seconds later, the deep thud of detonations.

"They're attacking!" shouted Jubai.

"There's a few old slit trenches up ahead." shouted Ali. " We might make it. It's the only cover."

"They're coming back!" yelled Jubai. The approaching rocket and gun flashes were now clearly visible.

"They're shooting everyone," screamed Shaza.

Hundreds of drivers suddenly panicked at the sight of the slowly approaching helicopters. There were collisions. Some tried to pull off and turn back. A few found firm ground but soon ran into sand as they tried to get back onto the crowded highway. People were leaving their cars and running. They heard screams as some were run down from behind.

"Turn off when I tell you Jubai," said Ali. "There! There! See that rise way on
the left? We must get up there!"

"Hang on," yelled Jubai. He swerved past a truck desperately trying to extricate itself from a little sedan which had driven firmly under its rear.
Its' occupants' were trapped, possibly dead. He gained a few more yards before having to slow to a crawl. Ahead, the road was completely blocked with stationary vehicles.

A few drivers just sat and blew their horns. Others were getting out and running, or sheltering under the nearest large truck.

Jubai turned off and engaged all four wheels.

Ali had to shout over the din and confusion. "While we were building this section, the army put in a few defences. The trenches might still be there."

Jubai was a good driver and he needed all his skills to avoid the deep sand as they bumped around stalled vehicles and made the climb up the rise.

"All I can see are rocks !"

"Keep going," answered Ali. "There! I can see the trenches just to the right. Straddle a deep one Jubai. Soon as we stop, we crawl under and get in."

They stopped and heard the heavy thudding of the approaching helicopters. Within seconds they were all in the protection of the trench.

"Keep down out of sight," said Ali, peering out cautiously. " Those bastards have turned back! They know we're all trapped back here now. They must be making sure of everyone up there at the front. Soon they'll come and finish us all off. We've probably got a few minutes. Quick! Out of here! "

"We've still got a chance," said Ali."We must get this thing lower for protection."

Ali started the engine and rocked the old 4WD back and forth, deliberately bogged it as deep as possible in the sandy ground. "Shove sand inside. It will protect us. Leave all the doors open. I'll put the bonnet up, so it looks abandoned."
Frantically they pushed sand in, covering the floor.

"I'll get the food !" said Jubai, dragging bags out.

"They're nearly here!" whispered Shaza in disbelief.

They hid behind the Toyota as long as possible, piling more sand in. The heavy thumping of cannon fire and the chilling whine of the miniguns came closer, like a deadly drifting rain shower. The screams of the dying mingled with those who knew they were about to die.

They crawled back into the trench underneath and blocked the entrance.

The killing frenzy went on endlessly above them. Bullets and shrapnel shredded the sea of trapped vehicles. Those survivors who ran soon fell. Many vehicles carried drums of extra fuel. Fuel flowed all over the road. Then came the fire. The injured, the trapped, they had no chance.

It was the sand itself, which saved Ali and his small family. Their thin steel roof survived except for a few holes which they soon plugged. The sickening concussions from bomb blasts partly collapsed the walls of the trench and almost buried them.

An hour before dawn the firing stopped. They struggled free of the sand and slowly crawled out, battered, filthy and exhausted. Ali was bleeding from steel splinters which had driven themselves into his hand. The fuel tank had been holed, and Jubais' legs were raw from the constant dripping of petrol. The Toyota was a sieve of metal.

Hundreds of little fires glowed balefully in the predawn light. As the day approached, it gradually revealed a hellish reality. Thousands of wrecks stretching from one horizon to the other.

A choking smell. Blackened human remains. Flames crackled quietly.

"It's Hiroshima again."murmered Ali. "One Hiroshima was not enough for them."

At sunrise they spotted five American soldiers wandering among the wrecks. One of them left the group.
"He's coming up," whispered Jubai and they hid as best they could behind their shattered vehicle. After a slow climb, the soldier sat just feet away, facing the carnage. He sat for a long time. From behind, Shaza couldn't believe how young he was. Almost a child.

Then she saw his shoulders begin to shake. He was sobbing. Finally he slowly cocked his rifle and set it under his chin. Shaza could take no more.

"No! Enough! No more!" she screamed. Racing forward, she knocking the rifle away just as it went off.

Together, they rolled down the slope. Ali and Jubai ran out to stop her.

The soldiers below immediately opened fire.

"Arab fanatics," said one of them later, staring at the three battered bodies.

"You're lucky to be alive, soldier."


copyright Grahame Wilson