December 4, 2020

Bhujangan

(c) J. Singh, 2016

Dayal Kaur adjusted the scarf around her face as she hurriedly walked through the city streets. She was surrounded by thick, billowing smoke from the burning vehicles. Bursts of gunfire erupted every few minutes. She caught glimpses of people running. But otherwise, the streets were deserted. Dayal clutched her mobile phone tightly in her hand as she navigated the debris on the road. Broken glass, trash, and empty shell casings from fired rounds. There was relative quiet on this side street, but she knew that the crowds were not far away. And the gunfire seemed to be getting closer. She slipped her phone into her inside jacket pocket as she reached the intersection, and peeked around the corner.

Through the clouds of smoke, she could see crowds of people gathered and milling about. Some were chanting slogans, others held up banners and signs. Before them was a police barricade, and beyond, a line of heavily armed police in riot gear, with shields and batons at the ready. The crowd was vocal and loud, but they were unarmed and defenseless. People were chanting and shouting. This was a volatile situation. Dayal had seen what had happened just a few miles away in the city center. She turned in the other direction and walked as close to the buildings as she could. She was nearing the rendezvous point, but because of the protesters, she would have to go the long way around.

She quickly checked her phone. The signal was still gone, ever since it had mysteriously vanished several hours ago, just when all the violence had erupted after the first police action on the peacefully protesting civilians. There were no journalists, no media, and no news reporting to the outside world what was happening. Only a few images had been leaked to social media, and then the Government had swiftly moved to clamp down on all communications, including cell phone service and Internet connectivity. The entire country was isolated from the rest of the world, and nobody knew what was happening to the people. The last several hours had been witness to the massacre of scores of the local population by the authoritarian regime. Even aid workers and doctors were not immune. Independent journalists had also been rounded up and then had mysteriously disappeared, with no explanation from the Government.

A few minutes later, an explosion resounded behind her. Followed by long bursts of rapid gunfire. Screaming and shouting. More loud explosions. Commotion. Dayal knew that the police had opened fire on the crowd she had just seen. The commotion might reach her within minutes. She broke into a run, and turned the corner into another side street. She was so close now, she just had to make it to the rendezvous point.

Evening had set in, and the unbearable heat mixed with the thick smoke made it difficult to breathe. Visibility was severely limited. Everything seemed to be enveloped in a foggy haze, punctuated by the red glow of the flames from burning vehicles on the side of the road. Dayal had to stop several times to catch her breath and get her bearings. It was not clear which road she was on anymore.

When she reached the intersection, she saw a figure lying on the ground. As she approached, he raised his arms to cover his face, trembling in fear. She squatted beside him. She could see that he was hurt. He had a thin, frail body. It was an old man. His clothes were torn. Blood was oozing from a wound on his head. His face was covered in sweat, blood and grime. His eyes were frightened.

"It's ok," she said, "I won't hurt you."

She took off her scarf and tied it around his head, forming a makeshift bandage for his wound.

"Can you walk?" she asked. He looked down at his leg, but nodded. He was obviously hurt but he wanted to get to safety. She helped him up, and then put his arm over her shoulder and helped him walk. Their pace was painfully slow while the sounds of commotion behind them were growing louder and closer.

Eventually, she saw the truck. It was on the other side of the main highway, four lanes across from her. The engine was running and the driver was leaning out of the window, waving to people urgently. Behind the truck, another man was helping people get inside. He saw Dayal and immediately motioned for her to come. She paused, unsure if this was the right truck. There was so much smoke, and it was dark now. That made it very difficult to tell. But she had to make a decision. So she started walking across the lanes of the highway with the old man. A few people saw her and came running to help. They helped the old man into the back of the truck, and then Dayal got on as well. The man who had motioned to her shouted a few words to the driver and then hopped on, just as the truck began to amble forward. Slowly, it gained momentum, and in a few minutes they were moving steadily.

The man sat across from Dayal, regarding her carefully. He was short, with a heavy-set build and wide shoulders. He had closely cropped hair and a neatly trimmed beard. She had met him several days ago, his name was Lukas. The truck's engine was loud, and the smell of diesel fuel was overwhelming. People were huddled together in silence.

"You were in the city center?" Lukas inquired. She could barely hear him over the din of the engines. "You saw what happened? You saw the tanks?"

"I was there," she replied, nodding.

"Do you have it?" he asked.

Dayal nodded.

He seemed to be visibly relieved. "You are brave," he said, eyeing her incredulously.

The truck continued rumbling through the city for several minutes. The air cleared up a little bit as they reached the outskirts of the city, and they eventually picked up speed on the main highway, which was free of obstacles. The rush of wind was a welcome relief. Most of the passengers huddled together and attempted to sleep. A few sat wide-eyed with vacant stares. Dayal gazed out of the back of the truck, wondering what was to become of the unarmed civilians in the city center.

It was several more miles distance before they reached the border. Lukas and Dayal both sat in silence, alert and awake as the truck sped down the highway.

Several minutes later, the truck slowed and turned off the main road onto a narrow gravel road. Eventually, it turned again, this time onto a dirt road. Clouds of dust kicked up into the air, obscuring their view. Now, they were very close. Dayal buttoned up her jacket and folded her arms.

Suddenly, the truck came to an abrupt stop. She heard shouting from the front. Lukas leaned forward and said, "We have reached the border checkpoint." His face was tight with tension.

The shouting continued. Apparently the truck driver was attempting to allow the Border Police to let him pass without an inspection. But, a minute later, the trucks engines turned off. Lukas gave Dayal a worried look. If they discovered her and what she was doing, it would likely mean excruciating torture and a painful death.

Several uniformed policemen walked around to the back of the truck and casually looked inside. Speaking in the vernacular, one of the policemen asked where they were heading.

Lukas answered that they were leaving the city because of the protests and violence. The policemen smirked, a few of them laughing in ridicule. They demanded papers, and everyone handed over their passports. Dayal was carrying two passports with her, she gave the one forged one. Lukas sat quietly, fists clenched, knuckles white. Dayal kept her head down and eyes lowered. She was hoping that it was dark enough that they may not get a good look at her.

One of the policemen motioned to her. Why was she traveling without an escort, he inquired. Lukas replied that she was with him. They inquired further. What was the nature of their relationship? Lukas replied that she was his family, his daughter. Their interest in her rapidly dissipated upon hearing Lukas's reply.

They shone a flashlight into the back of the truck, looking at each of the passengers, and briefly squabbled about whether they should have everyone come outside to line up for an inspection. Finally they decided that it was too much work to be bothered, and waved them on.

Dayal breathed a sigh of relief as the truck's engines started up again and they rolled through the police checkpoint. Now, it was not only a matter of a few more miles before she reached her destination.

"Thank you," she said to Lukas, when the truck had picked up speed and they could feel the rush of wind in their faces again.

"No, I should thank you," he replied, "you are risking your life for my people, although I don't know why. But, I am grateful to you for what you're doing."

Eventually, the truck slowed to a crawl. They had almost reached the destination. It was time to go.

Lukas stood up next to Dayal and pointed into the darkness. Her destination lay that way.

"You have the gratitude and blessing of my people," he said, "we are forever in your debt."

The truck stopped momentarily, allowing Dayal to hop off. She immediately made her way to the side of the road, into the cover of darkness and trees. The sound of the rumbling truck slowly faded away into the distance, the red lights growing smaller and smaller until they were gone. Now, she was on her own.

She stood for a moment beside a tree trunk to let her eyes adjust to the darkness. Once she had her bearings, she began sprinting. She still had a lot of ground to cover, and she was not out of danger yet.

The trees provided great cover. She had been running for almost twenty minutes when she finally reached the encampment. As she crossed into the perimeter, several people came running out of their tents to meet her. Among them was a tall, thin man wearing a black jacket and blue jeans. He worked for the Coalition forces.

"You made it!" he said, visibly relieved. She nodded.

"I got it," she said to him, and handed him her phone. "Photos, videos, everything that happened, all the human rights abuses, the police attacks on the peaceful protesters, the shootings, the killings, all of it."

"They've enforced a media blackout," the man replied, "and they stalled all wireless communications. Nothing was getting out, not even on social media"

"Yeah, I figured," said Dayal.

"We couldn't tell what was happening. We had our suspicions, of course, but no proof. Until now.  You've done great! This is exactly the proof we needed.  Now the world will know what's happening."

The small crowd began to cheer. Dayal smiled and felt waves of relief wash over her.

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