Shatila

Bassima shook her brother’s shoulder, her head bent close to his ear.

‘Nasur! Wake up. It’s too early to sleep.’ The boy groaned and rolled onto his back, opening one eye. His skin had a grey cast and the other eye was sealed closed with an infection.

‘What is it? I was dreaming of Homs. Lima was licking my face.’ Lima was their tiger-striped cat, left behind in the rush to get out. A memory flooded Bassima’s mind – their mother’s horror when Lima brought a bloodied mouse inside. She had scooped it up with a pan and brush and wrinkled her nose, careful to hold it away from her crisp blue trousers.

‘I want to go into town. I’m hungry. Remember what we found last time? A fresh loaf in a bin.’

Nasur sat up and scrubbed his face with his hands.

‘Do you want me to wash it again?’ she asked.

‘No, it hurts. Maybe later. Let’s go.’

Bassima had noticed her brother spent more time asleep than awake. She understood his desire to escape the camp and dream of their parents.

No one manned the exit as they left. The sky was awash with mauve and magenta streaks above a sea of green nylon tents. Their feet made clouds of dirt as they walked to the shops.

The vegetable stall was still open and they hid around the corner, their gaze fixed on the apples.

‘You first,’ said Bassima and gave him a small shove.

Nasur scurried forward, his skinny legs fast and agile as he squatted and reached up for a red apple. He returned and took a famished bite before passing it to her. They took turns until the core showed.

A shadow fell on the ground and they stared up. A thickset man stood over them, a grin on his pockmarked face.

‘Hello there. You kids hungry? Come with me, my wife will make some dinner. Do you like roast chicken?’

Bassima salivated. Roast chicken was her favourite food. She gave her brother a furtive glance and he nodded. They rose in tandem and followed the man, noticing coarse hair sprouting above the band of his trousers.

Nasur whispered to her. ‘Any funny business and we make for the forest. Okay?’

She mouthed her assent. They turned the corner into a narrow alley. Chickens squawked from behind a wall and there was the reek of sewage and overcooked chickpeas.

The man opened a door and a gaunt youth in a white tunic conferred with him. Their eyes flitted to the children, their low voices agitated.

As the younger man approached, Bassima spotted a glint of metal behind his back. She seized her brother’s hand and ran. Their footfalls echoed in the dust as they sprinted to the main street and up a hill to the forest, the men in pursuit.

A metal sign marked the beginning of the forest and they ducked behind, holding in their ragged breaths. The rapid-fire steps of the men came to a halt. They swore and kicked the ground. The children heard them searching, their hearts as loud as gunshots in their chests. Then the faint murmur of conversation as they departed.

Bassima and Nasur stayed motionless for a while before they peeked over the edge of the sign. All was clear. They crept into the lush safety of the trees, enclosed by birdsong and the deepest green. Night fell as they curled beneath the monolithic trunk of a cedar, their arms interlaced.

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