I was born in Mongolia, a landlocked country in East Asia.
When they came for me – my kidnappers – I was eight years old. It was supposed to be a quiet day as usual with the clear blue sky beaming with brightness while my family and I rested within the thin walls of our small country home on the steeps.
I could remember Father then. His name was Yeke. I felt he was the tallest man there was in the entire world. He had eyes with unmistakable glints of both sadness and hope, and didn’t speak much. Despite his constant silence, it was obvious how often he was unsatisfied with the situation at home. With the little that he earned, he had to cater for me, my mother and my little sister, Saran. It seemed like much to do for him and he was too emotional to hide this from everyone. His constant sighs and loose shoulders every evening was enough to give him out.
That afternoon, Father and I had taken a walk as we seldom did and returned home, a bit exhausted. Saran should be four at the time and being the youngest, she got most of Mother’s attention. Mother sat on a wooden chair in the sitting room, a smiling Saran on her thigh, and only acknowledged our presence with a brief smile. She nodded slowly as Father poured himself a cup of water, gulped down half of it and gave the rest to me. I thought she was going to call for me, but her gaze dropped to Saran once more, giving her all the attention.
Like most first child, I didn’t like that Mother always wanted to please Marian. Father had fallen into one of the chairs and had closed his eyes, dozing off immediately. Seeing that I wasn’t getting the least attention from either of them, I finished my water and slipped out of the house, preferring the vast view of the grassland outside to the brooding silence inside.
I was a quiet child then too, just like Father, but this was because I always thought I could keep to myself and make myself happy by playing with the grasses or butterflies during the summer.
Keeping to myself was why my kidnappers successfully separated me from my family and country home for more than twelve years now.
Enjoying the view a few feet from our home, at first, I heard the twigs of sticks, the rustling of leaves and then steady footsteps, but I was too young to sense danger – as imminent as it was. Even when two men suddenly grabbed me by both arms and placed a palm over my lips, I couldn’t struggle much. I was only baffled, and a bit shaken with the revelation that I was being dragged further and further away from what I knew to be home.
Both men were too careful to let go of me. They held on strongly to my arms and feet, their fingers digging deep and already causing bruises to my skin.
“Father!” I was able to mutter eventually, my shaking voice doing no justice to the cry for help that I wanted.
There weren’t just two men anymore. There was a third on a horseback a mile away from home, waiting for them with two other horses. The two men pushed me atop one of the horses immediately, one of them climbing behind me and holding me strongly in place. He smelled of urine and alcohol. I watched, disoriented, as the second man hopped on his horse too and strongly rode ahead, urging the rest to do the same.
They rode north, farther away from home and leaving only dust behind.
“Ride faster.” I heard the man in front yell. “Her family could notice her gone anytime!”
I wanted to glance back at the family I knew but a strong arm still held me in place. I could imagine now, my parents heading out of the house, terrified and troubled by my absence. Mother would probably wail my name, searching everywhere while father tried to calm her down. Eventually, staring north into the distant horizon, they would notice the specks of dust from the hooves of horses – the only proof that I was once a little girl that lived in their home.
To me, the dust felt like a thick wall between that which I knew and the destiny that waited for me after my kidnap.
If only I was old enough to know I would never be happy again.
Mongolia, as I knew it then, was located between Russia to the North and China to the south. It had vast grassland steeps, forested areas, very little arable lands, harsh regional climate and over two million, five hundred people, amongst which majority were Buddhists.
As hours passed by and as the men on horsebacks rode on, I was leaving all these behind. Tears dropped down my cheeks, but my captors were least concerned about it. We hadn’t ridden six hours farther from my home, the sky totally dark except for the glinting dots of stars, when we were joined by trains of riders with guns strapped to their thighs and boots. There were more men on horses and additional wagons fastened to a few horses. The wagons had cages with iron bars and some children, probably the same age that I was or a few years older, were locked in them.
During the rest of the journey, I learnt that the children immediately thrown into the wagons were obviously the children that gave the men tough times. Most of us were females, so we were easily subdued but some wanted to go back home and sometimes took a run for it. They were easily caught, beaten and thrown into the cages without food for days.
When we met the new riders and their train, it became obvious that the men that took me were part a vicious kidnapping group. They took us from our parents and neither of us knew what was in store for us. They said nothing to me or to the rest of the children. As we rode the first day, they offered nothing except water and sordid scorns. I was later put into the wagon cages with the rest of the children and silently did everyone ride on, the tears in our eyes being the only connection I felt with everyone else.
There are vast desert lands in Mongolia and our captors seemed to know which route exactly to take to avoid encountering people or rousing suspicion to the kind of train they led. I didn’t know what town we turned to or the borders that were crossed as we rode for two days. Our captors kept moving fast. They only stopped twice a day to do a head count of everyone as well as to feed us with as little as possible. I could remember that at some point, I guessed that they only fed us that little to make us too weak to escape or fight them – as if we could.
The second day, while we stopped over during midday in the middle of a dessert, one of us spoke to the rest for the first time. I never knew his real name, but I knew he had curly black hair and a pointy nose like Italians in soap operas. He looked older than the rest of us too – probably eleven or twelve. I had noticed him earlier in the cage, always having his eyes focused on the route that the horses took; the other wagons with cages and on the men as they changed direction and took turns to feed us.
“Hey.” He called out softly to the rest of us in the cage. Apart from him and I, there were six other girls and a boy.
None of us gave him our attention at first but he whispered again and got half of our attention.
“I think we can make a run for it again.” He whispered, his eyes glaring into each of our eyes.
He had all our attention now. Some of the girls shook their heads in fright while the other boy looked on indifferently. For me, I wondered briefly what he meant by make a run for it, again. Had they done it before? Was that why they were fed far lesser than I was fed and had been in the cage longer than I have?
“I didn’t take note of what they did before. We just ran as soon as we saw the chance. It was why we were caught. I am smarter now. We are.”
The boy was still speaking and although, the rest said nothing, it was obvious they were listening to him and either agreeing or disagreeing with him with their silence.
“What do you think, Newcomer? You think we should escape if I have got a new plan?”
It took a while before I realized the attention in the cage had shifted to me. At that moment, I also realized that it seemed that the rest of the children were already familiar with each other. The older one obviously led their small group since their kidnap and I was the last entry – the last to join the train of captives. He was also asking me a question that I had no reasonable response to. It had been two days and I was still shaken that we went farther and farther from my home.
“I…I…I don’t know.” I finally responded when no one would do anything but stare at me. “Have you done this before…I mean, escape?” I also asked.
I felt as if I asked him a stupid question, despite how obvious the answer was. He didn’t mind though. His eyes scanned our surrounding again to be sure no one was listening to us before he edged closer and offered his hand for a handshake.
“We have had a few tough days.” I heard him whisper as I slowly shook his hand. “We all haven’t had time to get to know each other. Beside you are Altantsetseg, Chinua, Erhi and Khulan. That is Jullian, the only boy apart from me.”
I let my eyes trail his eyes to the faces of everyone he introduced. I nodded to each person too, having no idea if I was to say anything to them. When he was through, he pointed to his own chest and said, “You can just call me Od. What’s your name?”
“Yuna.” I replied, already gaining a little composure.
“Okay, Yuna. To answer your previous question, we tried to escape once….”
“But we were caught.” Altantsetseg, one of the girls interrupted suddenly. “We should stay where we are.”
Altantsetseg had a tiny voice. She had her face to the floor as she spoke, thereby having her wavy black hair cover most of her face. I noticed for the first time that her fingers clutched the fingers of another girl – the one Od had introduced as Chinua. They both had wavy black hair and looked alike, although Chinua’s hair was a bit shorter than Altantsetseg’s.
“If we stay right here, we would be sold like slaves or worse maimed while our parts are sold.”
Od dropped the probability of our fates unexpectedly that we all gasped at the same time. I hadn’t thought of that the entire time. The others probably had…or not. How come Od was the one with all the ideas?
“How do you know they will do that to us?”
Jullian had read my mind. He hadn’t said a word since Od began the conversation about our escape, but he was staring at Od with fright now.
“I heard one of the men talk about the prices for selling us according to our age.” Od explained with a grimace. “They talk loudly mostly in the night after a few drinks. The other idea of selling our parts came from a movie I once saw on television.”
“What movie?” Jullian asked.
“Does it matter?” Od groaned. His eyes had flown to the terrain outside the cage again and he seemed to be worried suddenly. “Tonight, is when we escape.” He whispered. “One of the men said we might be crossing over to a nearby town by sundown. The town is where we run to. I am running, with or without you guys.”
I was about to ask how he planned to get all seven of us to escape for example, without getting caught almost immediately but footsteps suddenly resounded around us. We heard the neighing of horses too, signaling that we were about to move again.
Once again, they were taking each one of us towards a totally unknown destination and farther away from our families.
The entire afternoon, none of us said anything in our cages. I sometimes stared through the iron bars at the other wagons, wondering if the children in the cages were also as anxious as we were in ours.
There weren’t any firm decisions yet, but it was obvious that some of us were really considering running as soon as there was an opportunity at sundown. Sundown was when our captors would stop to feed us. The cage would be opened to allow us to step down and sit round at a spot to eat our dinner. We were always watched, and I was still confounded how any sane person would want to use the hour to escape. The men had guns. They could fire at us if we were too much of a trouble or worse, if we were to get away and tell anyone about their vicious business.
“Are you thinking about it?”
Julian’s whisper was faint, but I caught on that he was talking to me when I noticed the sad smile on his face as he stared at me.
“Thinking about what?” I whispered back.
“Tonight.” He simply whispered.
“Yes.” There was no point lying about it. “Are you?” I asked.
“Yes.” He whispered too.
That was all. Neither of us said anything else. We, like the rest, were lost in various thoughts about the possibility of freeing ourselves and what could happen next.
I spent the next hour thinking about my mother and my sister, Saran, to distract myself. I could remember how fond of my mother Saran was. Mother loved her too. She loved me too. She held each of our hands whenever she went to the grocery store and would have us hold on to each other’s hands like a lovely family. Father played with us sometimes too. He would come home with fruits sometimes and share them equally.
I missed all that since I had been taken. I missed even having to hate Saran for having all of Mother’s attention. Imagining Mother’s, Father’s and Saran’s smiling faces in my head; I rested my head on one of the cage’s iron, closed my eyes and slept.
I dreamt briefly of the day I was kidnapped. This time around, I could hear Mother’s wailings in the distance. Father was yelling my name while Saran cried in fear. Everything was happening too fast; I was being taken away and I couldn’t tell what was going to happen to me. Eventually, feeling helpless as if I was falling into a deep dark hole, I let a loud yell fill my throat.
I woke up then, feeling sweat dripping from my entire body. My head wasn’t resting on the iron of the cage anymore. I cuddled on the floor, noticing at first how I had managed to squeeze myself in between everyone. By the looks of the cloud above me, I had been asleep for more than an hour too. The clouds were dark with rays of the descending sun giving its edges a glint of orange.
When I stared around me, I noticed that Altantsetseg and Chinua were also asleep, with their fingers clutched as usual. The rest had their backs to the cage irons, lost in thought. Across where I laid, Od was staring down at me, frowning.
“You had a bad dream.” He didn’t ask. He simply muttered quietly as if he had been in my head the entire time, seeing the pain I could imagine my family was going through.
I didn’t mutter any word back. I only nodded and raised myself to a sitting position.
“Good.” Od whispered nonetheless, his eyes scanning the descending darkness around us. “Then you shouldn’t see what is about to happen as anything worse.”
About to happen? I realized at that moment that the wagon had stopped right before I woke up. Was it time for our dinner? Was it time for our escape? What was the plan? Why was the atmosphere suddenly tenser in the cage?
“Hey! Step away from the cage!”
Two men stepped in front of our wagon suddenly. The taller one pointed a finger at me as he spoke while the other withdrew a bunch of keys from his belt. I did as I was told. I edged further into the cage, squeezing myself with the rest who wouldn’t stop shivering or groaning. The man with the bunch of keys climbed the wagon a second later and unlocked the cage. He opened the door and stepped aside, expecting us to head out to eat as we have for the past few days.
“Come on now. Chop chop! We haven’t got all day.” His partner on the ground urged us out.
Od and I were the first to step out and down the wagon. We silently followed the other man as he led us a few feet away from the wagon towards a small fire that had been made in the middle of an open ground.
We were close to the fire when I felt a soft tap on my palm. Od was beside me and was muttering words so quietly and fast I almost didn’t catch on any phrase.
“Yuna. Listen, I will be fast with this – I already told the rest while you were asleep. The two men that would be watching us drink a lot.” I heard him say. “They also get distracted since they like to talk a lot while we eat. That’s when we run. Run towards where the sun sets; that’s where the nearby town is supposed to be.”
I couldn’t mutter a reply. I wasn’t even sure I caught on each word accurately. Both men had rounded us all around the fire and had begun to serve us food in a small bowl. Whatever dinner was, I had not eaten it before. It tasted like sour soup mixed with corn. We all ate it hungrily though since we haven’t been fed anything the entire day.
“You can get your own water from the jug over there. One at a time.” The shorter of the two men instructed after we had all been given food.
True to Od’s observation, both men slowly began to move away from us. They stayed a few feet from the fire with their back to us and began to share liquid from a pocket bottle. Their laughter also rented the air, showing how engrossed they were with their conversation.
I kept my eyes on Od. He was busy scanning everywhere with his eyes and eating at the same time. Behind him, another fire glowed in the distance, the silhouettes of another group of children visible around it. There were three fires made in total, each group of children being watched by selected men. Years later, I assumed that the strategy by our captors at the time was to divide us in small numbers and have us watched strictly. Also, if the train was to be chased or attacked, each group could escape through various route and confuse whosoever sought to catch them.
Eventually, Od dropped his bowl and slowly stood, watching to see if his movement would rouse any suspicion. He waited a second or two to watch again. When nothing happened, he slowly took steps towards the jug of water, also in a bid to see if he would be reprimanded. It was a smart move. As soon as he got near to the jug, one of the men glanced behind his shoulder at us and then back to his friend when he noticed that Od was only getting himself water to drink.
Staring around and confirming that we were no longer being watched, Od stared at us briefly, giving the sign that it was high time we moved.
At first, nobody moved. I froze with my bowl in my hand, wondering if it was the right thing to do. Then, the faces of Father, Mother and Saran flashed in my head and I found myself slowly dropping the bowl to the floor and rising to my feet.
Altantsetseg, Chinua and Khulan did the same too. I didn’t have the time to check if Jullian would be going through with it before heading after Od who was already running as fast and as silently as he could towards where it was apparent the sun had set.
So far, I could see Altantsetseg and Chinua behind me. Both sisters reflected the same anxiety and fear that I felt. They kept glancing behind their shoulders and despite how dark it was becoming, I could see their eyes dance nervously in their sockets.
“Run, Yuna. Run.”
Od was urging me on as much as he could. He was a few feet ahead of me and seemed to disappear into the darkness with each step. We were on a dessert land in the middle of nowhere. I could only make out the rays of orange color in the sky, boulders with various sizes around us that we had to avoid and how suddenly cold and fierce the wind had become.
The burning fire we left behind was gradually becoming a dot in the distance and I thought we could make it very far before our absence was noticed. That didn’t happen. Suddenly, we heard loud groans in the distance as well as Julian’s wail. It was as if he was being beaten or tortured. He should have run too, I thought, feeling sad for him. The men were probably questioning him about the direction we were running towards.
“Just keep running. We would be there faster if we never stop.”
Od was doing his best to encourage us but I couldn’t sense through his shaking voice that he was afraid too. Apart from fear, there was something else. Uncertainty! Yes! He wasn’t even sure where we are headed or if a nearby town existed in the first place. We could be heading deep into the dessert without any possibility of ever finding our way out.
“I see them! I see them! There they are! You stop this instant!”
Voices echoed behind us. The men had seen us, despite how dark it was, and they were hot on pursuit. If we were lucky, they would be too worried about our escape, they wouldn’t think to go back and hop on a horse to get to us faster. Glancing back and seeing that they had only picked up a wood with fire, I realized we were indeed lucky.
There was already a mile distance between us and we didn’t seem like we would stop any time soon. Ahead of me, Od climbed a heap of sand and I did the same, panting hard. It was getting more and more difficult to run but I told myself I wouldn’t stop, not even to catch a breath. Altantsetseg and Chinua were slowing down behind me, each sister still holding on to each other’s hand.
“Go! Go! Go!”
At the top of the heap, Od had waited for us. He slapped his wrist against my back, urging me down the heap immediately I joined him there. I kept running downwards, seeing nothing, breathing hard. Behind me, I heard Od yelling at the sisters to run faster and head down as well. A hard breeze hit me hard across my face, but I wouldn’t stop heading down…I couldn’t. I could finally go back home. I could see Mother and Father again.
“Stop! Stop right there or we will shoot….”
The men were nearer now. They were older and faster. Not feeding us well was a good strategy after all. We couldn’t even run a few miles without them catching on fast.
I wasn’t discouraged though. I noticed the downward slope that I ran wasn’t ending soon but it was the least of my problem. I couldn’t even make out if Od, Altantsetseg or Chinua were still running behind me. I just didn’t want to go back to that cage. You don’t, Yuna. You don’t.
Suddenly, when I thought the only sound that could eventually put a string in my step was the loud beating of my heart, I heard a louder one echo around me. It sounded like…like a gunshot!
I paused for a second then, drops of sweat already rolling down my entire skin. I stared around me, shivering, lost, afraid and totally unsure of what to do. Just keep running, Yuna, I told myself; and I did. I could hear Od’s advice echo in my ears too. I would get to the town faster if I don’t stop running. It was what I was going to do – keep running.
I had taken more steps away from down the endless heap of sands when I heard another gun shot. This time around, I wasn’t affected by its deafening sound. It only got me to race down faster, without the care in the word for anything except getting to the bottom of the heap and to my freedom.
Eventually, feeling my feet hitting solid rock bottom, I grinned happily and glanced behind my shoulders one last time. It felt like a wall that reached the sky now; the heap of sand. It casted around like an enemy shadow and I knew right atop of it, were the monsters that want me right back in the cage I had escaped from.
Preparing myself, I heaved a long sigh, turned and kept running. The last thing I heard was the echo of another gunshot before my legs gave way underneath me. I felt my body tumbling down another heap of sand. It was like the dream I had earlier. I was falling…. deep into a darkness I couldn’t understand.
My head hit a rock once. I felt sand slithering into my clothing and tearing into my skin. I tasted dust in my nostrils and in my throat. Eventually, as my body slowly began to glide down the slope, the weight of sand almost pressing my body deep into the earth, I felt darkness take over my senses as my head hit another stone.
Three gunshots, I thought before I went unconscious. Perhaps, one had luckily hit me and ended my life.
It was a fate far better than being sold off.