A Deafening Silence
They arrive at the border, tired and hungry, then pile onto buses for a four-hour drive from Turkey into Iraqi Kurdistan. Back in Syria, they had homes, relatives, friends and livelihoods. Now they have nothing.
It is around 8 p.m. as we wait for the convoy to arrive at Qushtapa camp in northern Iraq. As the first bus full of Syrian refugees pulls up, I feel my anxiety level rise. The last time I felt this on edge was when my own family and I fled the civil war in Sierra Leone.
Now I'm an aid worker and a storyteller. I've got my camera and notepad ready. I approach one of the buses and try to talk to one of the women from the window, but she can barely keep her eyes open. Her face is pale and her eyes look sunken.
In her arms, she holds a baby in a loose embrace, as if she doesn't have the strength to hold him tight. I later learn that her name is Nawrooz. She and her family have been travelling for two days straight, from Syria to Turkey to northern Iraq. I crane my neck to peer further into the bus and see it is the same picture everywhere. Only a few children are moving, curiously looking around.
Stunned, I step back from the bus and watch from a distance as weary passengers disembark and queue up for mattresses. They will spend the first night in a communal tent, before each family is allocated its own tent the next morning.
A tent full of people should be loud and chaotic. Instead, it is haunted by silence.
I snap the lens cap onto my camera and slip the notepad into my pocket. Quietly, I try to take it all in, to make sense of it, but I just can't find the right words. I can't take any pictures. I don't feel it is very moral. You might disagree. But, in a moment like this, it feels wrong.
Eventually, I make my way into the communal tent. A tent full of people should be loud and chaotic. Instead, it is haunted by silence.
I wish that people would shout, say something – anything. But all they do is sit in silence, staring into space. They look defeated. Children glance around, inquisitive but wary. Some tackle each other on their new mattresses, and others just play with the pebbles on the ground.
I catch the eye of a few people. They are distant and vacant. Then I head over to where a family of three are resting: a husband, his wife and his elderly mother.
Eventually, the man shakes his head and says simply, "We are happy to be alive." After this, we all sit in silence.
"Hamdullah al saleme tkon," I greet them, thanking God for their safety. But they just nod. "How are you feeling?" I continue.
They just stare through me. Eventually, the man – Mohamed – shakes his head and says simply: "We are happy to be alive."
After this, we all sit in silence.
The children soon get used to me and, as kids do, they approach me and want their picture taken. They are intrigued. So I snap a photo and show it to them. They are so happy.
One kid starts crying. "Please feed me," he begs. "I am hungry."
Soon a truck arrives with food for the families in the tents. Realizing this, children run over and climb the sides to look at the food inside. One kid starts crying. "Please feed me," he begs. "I am hungry." It is heartbreaking.
I make my way over to where a young man is helping to organize his youngest family members so they can eat together. I watch as they sit in a circle and put the food in the middle between them. They are not eating. I ask why and the young man points to a woman being tended to by a doctor. "That's my aunt," he replies. "We are waiting for her." She has been having chest pains throughout the journey.
"We were not going to wait until they got to us," she says. "We had to run."
"Why did you leave your home? What happened?" I ask.
"We left because of ISIS," he tells me. "We were defeated. There was nothing we could do but run."
Fatimah, his aunt, adds that they did not see anyone from ISIS. "But we knew what they were doing to people in the neighbourhoods they were in. We were not going to wait until they got to us. We had to run."
As she speaks, her disabled uncle swipes a hand across his neck, as if to suggest beheading. It is chilling.
It becomes clear that people are fleeing from the idea of ISIS. The thought of ISIS being anywhere near where they are was enough to make them up and leave. This is different to what I have heard before. At the height of the conflict, when I would speak with refugees in Lebanon, they would always say they left because their house was destroyed, or a family member was taken or murdered – it was always because they were in some way directly affected by it. This time, the threat of ISIS was enough to make people flee. I feels to me like a new kind of terror.
I watch a man walk back and forth, following the same line for almost 15 minutes straight. I can feel the despair.
I stay in the tent for some time, sitting with various families in silence. No one says anything. Occasionally, someone smiles to acknowledge my presence and then they walk away, like zombies. They move almost in slow motion, visibly confused and disoriented. I watch a man walk back and forth, following the same line for almost 15 minutes straight. People just sit atop the piles of mattresses and stare into space. I can feel the despair.
I feel saddened to watch people who are slowly realizing what has happened to them. During flight, you are preoccupied with fleeing. You are concerned with making it out alive. Now that you are safe and the dust begins to settle, you start to understand what this means. Reality starts to sink in. You are now a refugee. I can see it in people's eyes as they look around them, looking for something that isn't there. I see it in one man as he sits on a pile of mattresses and covers his face with his hands. Around him, his children sit in silence.
Now that you are safe, you start to understand what this means. Reality starts to sink in. You are now a refugee.
Later, when a friend asks about my visit to the camp, all I can think of is the deafening silence.
I just remember standing there, paralysed, as I watched human suffering unfold before my very eyes. Watching, as people got off a bus to the unknown. I watched as exhausted family members carried the disabled and the elderly into the night. I watched as people flung themselves over the mattresses they had just received, drained and hanging onto their last breath.
But the worst part was how quiet it was.