The watery Sun slunk slowly over the vast dunes and crumbling ruins, bringing with it a pale twilight and a sharp drop in temperature.
Hamid let his rifle sling loose as he cupped his hands and lit a cigarette, the flame from the match illuminating alert yet blood-shot eyes; he hadn't slept in three days. Just as he began savouring the coarse graininess of the smoke from the burning tobacco, a gnarled hand deftly snatched the treat from his lips.
“You do not want to give away our position to the Americans… and especially not after what happened a week back!” barked a low voice. The speaker then took a quick puff and then flicked it downwards. The second the cigarette hit the ground, it was covered in a shower of sand kicked by the old man. Khaleef glared lividly at Hamid, his eyes looking as dangerous as the AK-47 he cradled in his wiry arms.
A scathing, nasal voice came out of the crumbling mud hut the two guards stood in front of: “Yeah, kid. Saddam Hussein will be incarcerated, held in trial and then… who knows what. However, even those Capitalist dogs need testimonies despite what he's done. Information about the subversive militant groups is also a bonus for them. I'm a man with both. So feel free to light a beacon for the Americans.” The man finished with a nasty laugh.
It was soon after Saddam Hussein's shocking capture that Hamid and his fellow militants were mobilised. They had to abscond with and protect a man who possessed much sensitive information. Hamid didn't quite understand why the man deserved to be kept at bay from the Americans; after all, whatever happened to their once-omnipotent dictator wouldn't be anything he didn't deserve. When Khaleef quietly pointed out how the man's information could reveal essential facts regarding the resistance groups to the invading forces, Hamid slowly began to appreciate the true weight of the onus upon him. Most of his friends were part of such groups, and having them captured or killed without a fair fight was a thought that greatly angered the proud young man.
With the knowledge that their risky mission would be ended the next day and the tempting coolness of the desert night beckoning him, Hamid found himself slumping lazily against the wall of the hut.
“Hamid get up you fool, we have company!” Khaleef's vice-like grip on his shoulder jerked Hamid awake.
With a sudden gasp and a violent surge of anger at himself, Hamid's eyelids flew open. He quickly bore the rifle to a firing position and made to surge forward, his heart hammering and head pounding. Khaleef had not let go and he forcibly shoved the lad back onto the ground.
“We're not supposed to have any contact with anyone yet. It's the American hounds sniffing for Yasser!” spat Khaleef into Hamid's ear.
Hamid focused his eyes towards the expanse of desert in front of him. Sure enough, there were five hazy figures cautiously making their way towards the hut. Battle lust slowly creeping into every fibre of his body, Hamid fought the urge to burst forward. He looked at Khaleef for orders. The old gaffer had puffed his cheeks and started rocking his body back and forth, his eyes glassy and distracted. He suddenly blew out the air, nodded at Hamid and quickly whispered: “Stay low and hold until I open fire. I informed Yasser and the other two of the situation while you were sleeping.” Hamid bit his lower lip at the words.
Hamid slowly crawled towards the heaped pile of sandbags in front of him and followed the stealthy progress of the soldiers with immense distaste. The tension was slowly mounting to maddening heights; Hamid's hands grew numb with his increasingly tight grip on the rifle. Despite the chill of the desert night, he was sweating profusely in anticipation.
Mere thoughts turned into reality.
Hamid awoke to find a pale light growing in the eastern sky. He made to rub his bleary eyes but found out that he couldn't move his left arm. He pushed himself to a sitting position and saw that his arm had been clumsily bandaged in a blood-sodden old rag. The events of the night came flooding back to him and as the nausea overtook him, Hamid found himself staring at a pool of his own vomit.
A dull scratching noise came from behind the hut and Hamid slowly stood up and made his way towards the source of the sound. Old Khaleef and a whipcord thin man in black were digging the ground behind the hut. Hamid trudged drunkenly towards the duo and as he reached them, they quickly whipped around. The thin man had a serrated knife in his hands which he hastily stowed away as Hamid approached; however, the young man still caught a glimpse of the dry blood on the blade.
He looked at the freshly dug ground and saw a body in military fatigues being buried in the sand. He couldn't help noticing how the pants did not match with the jacket, but the sudden question put that observation out of his head.
“You're making graves for the American dogs?” spat Hamid.
There was congealed blood on the chain which looked like it had snapped; there was also a deep gash on the tasbih itself. Squinting back tears, Hamid slowly stood up. As he did so, a glitter caught his eyes. There was a shiny metallic object protruding from the balaclava-clad American's neck.
“Is… is that a tasbih?” Hamid exclaimed, his brows furrowed and his face contorted.
The thin man, Yasser, turned around and as he did so, blocked Hamid's view of the corpse. He bent down and seemed to be examining the object. His head gave the briefest of flicks towards Khaleef's face.
“The bastard was probably keeping it as a battle token after killing an Iraqi brother.” he said slowly, looking at Khaleef as he did. Hamid thought his face looked quite strained, even from the side. Yasser's eyes briefly glanced at Hamid and for that fraction of time, there seemed to be an impalpably oppressive feeling of uneasiness in the air.
Khaleef turned towards Hamid and gave him a wan smile.
Hamid's dreams were increasingly punctuated by a dull, rhythmic noise that slowly melded into the events of last night. In his sleep, Hamid watched as Khaleef unloaded his AK-47 on the enemies; the repetitive report of gunfire growing ever louder. In the midst of this deafening din, he heard someone shout behind the hut. It wasn't Ali, it wasn't Omar and it wasn't Yasser - it was one of the Americans. Except he wasn't yelling in English, he was yelling in Arabic. Hamid had caught one word before he passed out: traitor.
With a violent jerk, he sat awake. A dull beating noise reverberated around him, interspersed with intense whirring; the ground seemed to be rumbling slightly. A sudden fear of the unknown gripping him, Hamid looked for his rifle. Not finding it near him, he quickly crawled to the door and peered out a crack near the bottom. It was a sight beyond his wildest nightmares.
It was Yasser and Khaleef shaking hands in turn with what looked like an American soldier. Behind them was a large black helicopter with formidable looking machine gun on the left side of the cockpit. Hamid barely managed to catch the American's heavily accented English of which he understood a little.
“The President of the United States and I'm sure, the people of your country, are grateful for your hard work in order to help us bring about peace. I personally extend the hands of the White House by thanking you and your men for protecting Mr Yasser for us. He will be invaluable in leading the coalition to help secure the country for you, the people.”
Already stunned, Hamid craned his ears to hear Khaleef's lilting English: “Yaas. It was pleasure to help. Unfortunately, men from our village accidentally found out. They attack us in American army uniform. Two of my men realised it. Sadly, we had to sacrifice - sadly, brothers' blood was spilt. And…”
“Of course. You will be compensated provided you hold onto the agreement. We were never here and this never happened. Your fellow men died valiantly in a skirmish with some of our soldiers. They killed five before they died.” It was an order, not a suggestion. The man quickly called over two soldiers and whispered something urgently to them. The soldiers grasped inside their shirts and took out shiny pieces of metal and handed it over to their commander. The commander handed these dogtags to Khaleef. “There's some proof of their jee-haad!” The commander sharply saluted and barked an order to everyone. Yasser followed two of the soldiers and boarded the helicopter, a sly smile playing around his lips. The commander saluted to Khaleef once more and climbed into the cockpit. The pilot nodded and the vehicle lifted off, showering everything with a small sandstorm.
Slowly, the swirling sands settled and then there was silence.
By Le Chupacabra
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