You never forget the feeling of awe, struck into you by the raw power of military machines suddenly looming up before your eyes, all matted camouflage greens or greys, noisy, mechanical, super-efficient killing machines, faceless and reckless in the elimination of defenceless warm blooded civilians. It occurred to me how I would feel if all these people gathered here, all these wonderful warm children, full of gaiety and life, were in fact Syrians sitting in Aleppo or Mosul being targeted by one army or t’other.
They came over the hills, a death squadron, led by a Russian Mi-28ne attack helicopter, nicknamed Havoc, probably the most effective strike helicopter in the world In close battle formation. Behind the havoc, appeared three Mi-17 Gunships each capable of carrying up to 30 troops, or vehicles, with a further Havoc bringing up the rear. They thundered towards us indescribably immense, overpowering and growing as they approached.
The noise was incredible, an increasing crescendo, a massive wall of pure heart-wrenching sound. As if in a movie with special effects, one of the Mi.17´s peeled off as the squadron reached the built up area, and commandos started spewing out of her, rappelling down at great speed, three at a time as she hovered at a low level, presumably to secure the outer limits of the town. The second M-17 moved in to sit directly above the free area in front of the police building, sand was whisked crazily into the air like in a sandstorm whilst helmeted, visored commando´s, armed to the teeth started landing directly in front of us, and moving out to take up their positions. All the while one of the two havocs had sat above guarding the landing of troops, and the third Mi-17 which presumably was carrying the mysterious General. The second havoc was constantly circling the whole area from much higher up in the sky. A single rocket fired by any lunatic within the town, seeking to hoist his own futile flag of protest would have provoked the total annihilation of the town and all of us standing there, something the American Government calls collateral damage, as long as it doesn’t happen in the US homeland. The true word for it should be wholesale murder.
Troops checked out the police building and took control of it, and effectively of the whole town, martial law had arrived.
Then the third Mi-17 landed Just outside the police courtyard and a vehicular ramp was lowered allowing more troops to emerge this time shielding a giant of a man with a long black beard who marched in their midst.
“A cave, a hole to hide in,” he keeps muttering, he carries a gun a gun belt and grenades, all the paraphernalia of a warrior, reaching the outcrop he pulls himself up to a ledge of sorts where he collapses, just falls forward onto his face like a new born baby would. The camouflage colouring of his combat uniform makes his inert body less obvious than it would otherwise even though evening and dusk are soon to set in, nearly winter and the higher altitudes of the Ouarsenis range are beginning to receive gentle falls of early snow so that the morning may find him completely interred . But he has already been spotted. The goats have driven the berber dwellers of these altitudes to develop an ethnic bent for dominating the heights, many an injured animal or a ewe dropping her foal at the top of a ridge or on some lonely outcrop that only she and her kind were able to access, would drag the herder to the most remote and volatile of mountain spots. They have seen him and within minutes there are three armed men covering him with their rifles while a third shakes him out of his intense deathlike slumber. They force him to abandon the outcrop on which he has been lying and take him to a safer place where they bind his wrists and ankles.
As she cooked in her minuscular kitchen with just one burner on a historic gas stove, and the baby swinging from her head, she spoke incessantly in her own brand of pidgin Spanish. The man ignored her, it was probably the baby she was speaking to. He didn´t understand anything she said sometimes, she would communicate with him when necessary with gestures and pushing or pulling him. She had been his friend for years, ever since he scared off the man who was hassling her in Tangiers and took her to his flat. She had been carrying a small battered case so he knew instinctively that she had nowhere to go. Her name was Latifa and she became his willing slave, in his flat, for the several months that he had lived there. From sunrise to dusk she´d cook, clean, prepare and follow him around the house. He would leave dirhams on the kitchen table, and after lunch the change and receipts would be there waiting for him to check. He never did, he didn´t care. Then one day he left, leaving her with some money and amongst friends. She was broken, he had never had her, never wanted her, and she had never been anything to him but a girl needing a friend.
“What is her name?” He pointed to the child.
“Malak” she replied,” her mother works, so she and her sister are on the streets all day.
“So what´s the problem with school?”
“No money, “She said something about him to the child who turned and looked at Pete. Her teeth were white and perfect and her smile totally unexpected in a face who´s total lack of expression must have been the child´s only weapon against the evil and negligence which was happening around her, and which she instinctively knew was so, so wrong.
“Give her Couscous.”
“No, she will have what we leave.”
So he went to the other room and found a plate and a fork. He stacked the big plate high with semolina and placed it before her, she fell on it like a wolf cub, and using her hands devoured it ravenously, He gave her bread and coca cola.
“Malak! “ He said loudly and she looked up but continued eating. ” Tell her to stop eating,” Latifa his friend, spoke sharply to her and the girl stopped and looked at him. “She says she is sorry. “
“She has nothing to be sorry for, just tell her she will make me happy if she uses the fork.” Latifa spoke to her and she listened attentively, humbly. Then, she laughed, a peal of heartfelt mirth, looking at him, and Pete, caught unawares grinned back in spite of himself, as she ate the rest of the food with the implement, experiencing some difficulty. As she ate she kept looking into his face and gently laughing. The man was smitten with the child her beauty wisdom charm and pride were amazing for a little girl living in abject poverty. And of course he realised that the child somehow knew of her own power, as a woman to be, of her beauty and charm and knew how to use it given the right opportunity. She knew instinctively, intuitively, he thought, that he was the type of man who would love children and hold sacred their right to be children. Of course there was also the possibility that she just believed that foreigners were the greener side of her own particular river.