Somewhere in the Middle East...
I don’t remember much of my childhood. I don’t even know where I am from or who my parents are. All I remember is growing up in one shit hole orphanage or another. I knew from a young age that I was different, I could hear things that others couldn’t. I could run faster and jump higher than anyone and I never really got sick. When I was around 14 or so, the school I was attending was bombed. I was sitting in history class when the world around me exploded. Everything for the next few weeks is fuzzy.
When I woke up, I was in a cave with a bunch of other kids. I recognized a few from school but most I didn’t. I didn’t have any friends and stayed to myself as much as possible. I tried to find out where we were, but no one seemed to know much of anything. I finally pieced together that the school had been bombed but no one knew by whom and the survivors were brought here, wherever here is.
Soon a man with a gun came in and started shouting in Arabic, lucky for me I did well in school and I speak seven languages. He was telling us that we now belong to the al-Qaeda army and would begin training to be soldiers for their cause. Since I have lived here in the desert my entire life I knew who al-Qaeda and the Taliban are, I also knew the Americans and foreign troops were here to help the people of the region despite what the Taliban wants us to believe. The man said his name was Ahmed and he was the leader of this group. He went on to say that it was the Americans who bombed the school and they rescued us from the carnage before they could take us captive. This made me laugh because that is exactly what Ahmed and his people were doing, making us prisoners and forcing us to fight in something we don’t believe in. Well, at least I don’t. Also, why would the Americans bomb a school full of kids?
Even though I had lived in the desert my entire life, I knew deep down I didn’t belong here. I don’t know where I belong or came from, but I knew it wasn’t here. I didn’t look like everyone else; I was lighter skinned than most and although I had dark hair it wasn’t as dark as everyone else's and I had bright blue eyes, which barely anyone else had. I was good at school and picked up languages easily. I enjoyed talking to the soldiers about the world outside the desert and hoped one day I would be able to visit all the places they talked about.
Even though I was young, I was old enough to know the things they were telling us were not true. I did well in school and listened around town and enjoyed talking to the soldiers from America stationed at the nearby base. They would often give me stuff to read about the outside world, knowing that I one day wanted to get out of this shit hole of a desert. There was even this one soldier, his name patch said Blake, he told me he had a sister around my age and he would occasionally have her send me books that they were reading in school so that I could learn things other than what I was being taught in school. It was because of this that I questioned everything they were trying to tell me. I couldn’t believe all the horrible things they were saying about not only Americans but the entire world. The only thing that managed to get me was several types of punishment. Eventually, I decided it would just be better to let them think they had broken me and that I was now buying into their distorted vision of the world. I just kept my head down, spoke only when spoken to and concentrated on learning how to survive with the hopes of one day getting out of here.
I’m not sure how long I had been here because the days ran together, but the training was difficult. There was a lot of hand to hand combat training as well as firearm training. I found that I enjoyed the hand to hand combat and was surprisingly good at it. The firearm training was ok, but I didn’t like the idea of having to shoot anyone. It seemed like the training lasted forever. It was the same thing every day, up at the crack of dawn and drills all day until I was so exhausted, I fell into bed most nights still in my clothes. They kept us in the caves most of the time only going outside for firearms training at first. Eventually, we started going on simulated missions and the like where we were expected to work as a team.
Then one day they loaded up what had become my squad into a vehicle and took us to the nearest town and told us to blend in and try to get as much information on the enemy as we could and report back to the truck at midnight. We were told this was the final test of our loyalty and it would decide what came next for us. I was fairly sure if we failed nothing good would happen. We were all dressed in civilian clothes so that we could blend in. I wasn’t sure where we were because nothing looked familiar.
I decided to keep my head down and try to find out as much as I could and hopefully, I could come up with an escape plan. I wandered around for awhile just to get my bearings when I noticed I was being followed by one of the trainers from camp. I guess they didn’t trust us enough not to run. Whatever, I just head to the market, where there were plenty of people and I could blend in and hopefully overhear some information that would be useful. As I walked the streets, I overheard plenty of things about the resistance and the presence of the foreign troops but the biggest discovery for me was the fact that it had been three years since the school bombing. I couldn’t believe it! There wasn’t really any troop presence here as far as I could tell so I tried to find the local medical clinic. We were taught that they often had foreign doctors that sometimes-had useful information. So far, most people here were speaking either Arabic or Kurdish but once inside the clinic the doctors were speaking English. Luckily, I spoke all three and then some. I realized at an early age it was easy for me to pick up languages and it had helped me more than a few times.
I wasn’t sure, but I didn’t think anyone else in the camp spoke English so I thought I might find out something no one else could and maybe they would trust me more. Even though I hadn’t caused any more trouble after the first few months the officers, as they called themselves, were still leery of me and my commitment to their cause. I walked in and checked in with the desk. The girl asked me what I was there for and I told her I needed a vaccination. What I didn’t think about was that there would be more than one kind, so when she asked which one, I froze up. She realized I was confused, but she just thought I didn’t understand her, so it gave me time to think. All I could think of was yellow fever because it was the last thing we had studied in science class.
Apparently, it worked because she told me to have a seat and the doctor would see me shortly. There were quite a few people in the waiting area, speaking many different languages most of which I could understand. I sat there for hours, waiting, and listening before it was my turn. When I was shown to the room, there were two armed guards at the door. They looked to be American. I went in and waited for the doctor. When she came in, she said her name was Abby. She also looked American and had a funny accent and beautiful green eyes. I introduced myself as Zander and told her I needed a yellow fever shot. She seemed surprised that I spoke English and asked where I was from and how old I was. I told her I grew up in an orphanage so I didn’t really know where I was from but that I had lived here, as long as I could remember. I also told her that I was 18. She told me that she had a daughter that was about my age back home in the States and rambled on about how she was here to help the locals and wished the war would finally end.
Soon one of the men from the door told the doctor to wrap it up and that they needed to leave soon to get back to their base. Abby wasn’t happy about this because the waiting room was still full, and she said they wouldn't be back to town for a few weeks. She also said that she would be glad when they finished the new FOB (forward operating base) because it would be much closer. She turned back to me and asked if I had ever had the yellow fever vaccine. I told her that I wasn’t sure, I just knew I didn’t want to catch it. She laughed at that and said she couldn’t give it to me without knowing for sure if I had already been vaccinated, but she could do a blood draw and run some tests, then next time they were back I could find out what I needed and go from there. I agreed and once she was finished, I thanked her for her help.
Afterwards, I headed out to the market to just enjoy being outside of those caves and on my own, well sort of, I was still being followed. At midnight, we all piled back into the truck and headed back to what I call hell. On the ride back we were instructed not to talk to one another and that once back at camp we would be put in different rooms and be debriefed one at a time. This lasted through the night and once we had all been “debriefed” they stood us all together and ranked us from one to ten. We had no idea what the rankings were for, but then they explained that the one with the most useful information was number one and would be moved on to what they called spy training. The rest would be split into various other occupations. I couldn't believe that I was ranked first!
Ahmed, the leader of the camp was impressed when he found out that I could speak English and was able to get the information about the new FOB and when the doctors and troops would be back to town. He even called it genius that I let them take blood so that I would have a reason to return and get more information. I guess he didn’t realize that was pure luck but hey, now they trusted me, at least a little. The next few weeks I underwent long hours of “spy” training. I learned so many new things, including how not to break under extreme torture, which I was already skilled at after the first few months. I also learned to be proficient in knife throwing and using a sword. I also continued my mixed martial arts (MMA) training. One of the guys in my squad, Jose, knew capoeira which was a type of fighting based on dance. He taught me this in our off time. I really liked the MMA training. After a month of training, Ahmed received intel that the doctor was back in town so he had a few of his officers take me back into town to see what else I could find out.
It seemed they didn’t quite trust me enough to go alone though. Ahmed sent one of his loyal spies with me to make sure I didn’t run or give up any of their information, not that I knew very much. In his defense, this was smart for him but bad for me. Luckily, Omar didn’t speak a lick of English so hopefully I would be able to get him to stay in the waiting room while I saw Abby. Luck was on my side today and Abby came to the waiting room to get me. When Omar stood to come with, I introduced him as my brother and asked Abby to make him wait in the waiting area. She simply gave me a look and said to him that he would have to wait out here. He of course didn’t understand so I had to translate, he started to argue with me, but Abby stepped in and told him it was against the rules and he would have to wait.
As we walked to the examination room Abby asked me about Omar. I told her he wasn’t actually my brother by blood just someone I grew up in the orphanage with who was a little overprotective. She just looked at me and I could tell she didn’t really believe me, but she wasn’t going to ask too many questions. Again, there were guards posted outside the examination rooms but unlike last time I recognized one of them. Before I could say anything, I heard Blake say my name and before I could say anything, I was lifted off the ground in a bear hug. Abby looked surprised but couldn’t say anything before Blake started rambling about he thought I was dead, and he spent months trying to find me after the Taliban bombed the school.
I wasn’t sure what to do, I wanted to talk but I didn’t want Omar to hear the commotion and come looking for me. I finally got him to quiet down and motioned for him to go into the room so we could talk. Blake looked at the other guard and told her to keep watch while he talked to me. Abby asked if she should leave us alone for a few minutes but for some reason, I trusted her, so I told her to join us. Once inside, Blake started asking a million questions. I told him that I didn’t have much time so I couldn’t tell him much. I instead asked him what he knew about the bombing of the school three years ago. He told me all he knew which wasn’t much except that it was bombed by the Taliban and everyone was presumed dead because they didn’t find any survivors. He said he looked for me even though once the ruble was cleared everyone else stopped looking, he said he checked every clinic and hospital for months hoping to find me. I couldn’t believe that anyone cared that much about me, it was all I could do not to cry. He started asking me questions again, but I knew I was running out of time Omar would be getting anxious soon.
I promised him I would explain everything eventually, but I had to get going or Omar would come looking for me. He asked who Omar was and Abby told him he was my brother. Blake looked at me confused. I gave him a short version basically telling him that Omar was there to make sure I didn’t try and escape. This angered him and Abby both and they told me that they could get me out of there and protect me. I tried to explain that they couldn’t, and Ahmed’s people would hunt me down no matter where I went. I tried to explain as much as I could quickly and promised I would be back soon and tell them everything but right now, I needed to go. Blake began to argue that I wasn’t leaving, and he would protect me, but I told him the only way I would really be free is to get out of the country and he couldn’t do that.
I asked him if he was stationed nearby, or if he was still at his old location. That’s when I realized that he could tell me where I was and how far from the school I was. He told me that they had finished the new base not far from here and that we were about 500 miles from the town the school was located. Abby spoke up then and said that she could take more blood samples and run some more tests so that I would have a reason to come back in a few weeks. That is when I realized she hadn’t told me the test results, which was the reason I came back. I asked her about them, and she said everything looked normal and that from what she could tell I had already had the yellow fever vaccine. She said that if it were alright with me, she would take a DNA sample and run it through the international database in hopes of finding out where I was from. She would then walk me back out and tell Omar that I needed to return in a few weeks to get the results. All she would need was my full name and date of birth. I told her my name was Alexandria Jones but everyone called me Zander, and I was born on April 29, 2002 I thought.
I allowed Abby to do the test she needed and then said goodbye to Blake. He wasn’t happy about me leaving but he knew better than to try and stop me. He told me that he would work on a plan and let me know what he figured out next time I came in. Abby walked me out and as we stood at the doorway to the waiting room, she told me to come back in two weeks and to tell whoever needed to know that they were checking me for malaria. I thanked her and walked away.
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