The truth was lying right there in the soldier’s icy cold eyes. For him, I wasn’t a defenseless woman. I wasn’t a girl who had just lost her mother. I wasn’t even a human being. I was simply the enemy—a target he needed to get rid of.
There was neither time nor space to escape his cruel intent because he jumped on me like an animal, forcing air out of my lungs and suffocating me with his weight. Despite myself, I didn’t make a sound when he pushed me against the wall, nor did I cry out when he pressed the knife against my throat and began undoing his belt. It was as if I had left my physical body and observed the scene of horror from somewhere above. It was like watching a sad movie that wasn’t happening to me, but to someone else.
The greedy touch of his hands spread over my body like vicious cancer, and I shut my eyes as tightly as I could, sinking further and further into the dark oblivion. Not to think and not to feel was all that mattered.
I don’t know how long the touch of that monster lingered on my skin. I wasn’t aware of anything until the moment when he was about to make his possession complete. Under building realization, his eyes glowed with triumph, and mine widened in an all-consuming panic and terror.
Suddenly, there was a loud piercing noise, but it didn’t come from me or the soldier. I remember thinking I must have lost my mind and fabricated the commotion out of approaching madness. But before I could give credit to this thought, the soldier’s weight was lifted off me with abrupt violence, and I watched as the broad dark figure kicked my tormentor, crushing him to the ground.
“What do you think you are doing, private?” The voice of my savior grunted at the soldier that now lay crumbled on the floor, twisting and hugging his waist as though he was in a lot of pain.
For a moment, I thought one of our neighbors had come to my aid, but the words private and the sight of the man’s black uniform told me I was dealing with another Nyrman soldier, the one who seemed to hold a higher rank. But it didn’t make any sense. Why did he stop him?
Taking over control, he observed the space around him. When he spotted my mother’s paralyzed body lying sprawled on the bed, he exhaled, shook his head and glanced at me with anger.
“You have exactly two minutes to put some clothes on,” he ordered in a cold voice.
Still dumbstruck by the turn of events, I stared at his dark frame, and he yelled, “Move!”
Making sense of the situation suddenly held no importance, and I ran toward the suitcases, wanting to get away from there as soon as possible. In my haste, I stepped over the soldier who was trying to stand up. He cussed at me, but I paid him no heed and hurried into the hallway.
As I reached for the first clothing items I could get my hands on, I contemplated the possibility of escape. I kept glancing toward the stairs, ready to make a move, when the menacing voice coming from the room stopped me dead in my tracks.
“Do you realize what kind of trouble you are in? We were given simple, clear orders and you went against them! If your partner didn’t have enough wits to leave this house, both of you would be facing the firing squad!” The soldier who came in last screamed at my attacker. ”He will be furious if he hears about this and I am not going to die because of your stupidity. You better destroy all the evidence. Get rid of everything. I don’t want a single trace left,” he spat out the command.
The next thing I knew, his huge frame hovered above me, ushering me toward the front door.
Briefly, I wondered about this mysterious he figure the soldier had mentioned, but the moment we stepped outside, all thought and reason abandoned my mind.
Everywhere around me were fire, destruction and chaos.
The soldier grabbed my arm and nudged me to walk further. Slowly and in utter confusion, I moved, trying to convince myself I had to have been trapped in the middle of a terrible nightmare.
Many houses were burning, flames and tarred smoke rising up to the sky. In only a few of them, both the residents and their belongings were still being thrown out. My heart cringed because the destiny of my home would be no different. People who dared to scream or cry were immediately silenced by gunshots and blows. None of the soldiers showed mercy. Instead, they seemed to be oblivious to the horrors around them. Once, I had attempted to imagine how hell would look like, but the image in my mind was much less frightening than this sight.
All sorts of items—from clothes and bags to books, toys and other personal possessions—were scattered on the ground underneath my feet. I stumbled over them as I fought to keep up with the soldier’s quick pace. The thought I stamped on the last remains of people’s lives left me breathless with realization.
Up until that night, the war was a distant reality that was happening to someone else. Now, it was an almost tangible thing—a monster raging in a tornado of anger and blood, leaving nothing but ruins filled with pain and devastation.
Rows of trucks were scattered on the street. People were forced to get inside them without feeling or care, as though they were cattle. When we stopped in front of one of those trucks, the soldier wrapped his hand around my neck and raised my head. His eyes were cruel and unmoving. Once again, I wondered why he had saved me from rape when his gaze emanated nothing but hatred.
“If you ever tell anyone about what you saw happen tonight, I will find you and I will kill you. Do you understand?”
The calmness of his voice—contrasted by the hard determination in his glare—made me shiver and I nodded, thinking I couldn’t tell anyone even if I wanted to. How could I even begin to find the words to describe the tragic demise of everything I had ever known in my life?
“Good,” he spat out the word, opened the door and pushed me in the back of that truck.
The moment I was inside, the door was slammed shut. The endless exterior of suffering was replaced by that stuffy, dark and utterly crowded space. There were so many of us that we were almost piled up on each other, and everyone gasped for air. Fighting to breathe, I searched for a familiar face among the quiet shadows, but I couldn’t recognize anyone. I thought about Mina, and cringed at the possibility she had met the same fate as our parents. I swallowed in sudden fright, but all I could do was wait and hope she hadn’t been taken away from me as well.
Suddenly, the engine of the truck roared into life, startling everyone into sharp wakefulness. Nobody knew what would happen or where they were taking us. In all probability, survival could have been worse than death. There was nothing but silence as we were being taken away from Kalghary, the city that had been our home for decades. I closed my eyes, burning the image of the beautiful landscape in my memory because I didn’t believe I would ever see it again.
In the secluded space of that truck, some people burst out crying, letting out their sorrow now that the soldiers weren’t there to deprive them of their right to mourn what they had lost. As their suffering rang in my ears, I kept thinking about my own home and my mother’s motionless body that was left there to be swallowed up in flames. I would never get a chance to bury her. I would never be able to pay my respect. Deep inside I grieved, but for me, there was no relief. Bitter tears burned my eyes like acid, but I couldn’t cry even though my heart was being torn into pieces. I never knew one could experience such immense grief that leaves you unable to breathe—that causes the actual physical pain in your chest.
The torment seemed to have gone on forever. My body swung from the vibrations of the fast moving vehicle and the bumpy road. There was no telling of the time that had passed, but it seemed to have been hours. I tried to be vigilant and memorize everything that might give me any clue of where they were taking us, but I became so tired and drained of energy that reality started fading away and dissolving in front of my eyes...
“It’s time to wake up, sweetheart.” My mother’s voice woke me up from a terrible nightmare.
My whole body quivered and I was sweating, devoured by some strange fear of the unknown. I had this horrible, instinctive feeling in my gut that told me we were in danger and we should run. But I couldn’t remember what it was we should run away from. Every trace of that dream had evaporated from my memory. The aroma of fresh coffee and cinnamon invaded my senses, and I calmed down a little when I heard my mother humming in the kitchen. The sound was soothing and familiar. I got out of bed, and ambled to the window, wondering why I was surprised everything should look so normal and intact.
“Breakfast is ready,” Mama called, and I hurried to the table.
She waited for me, smiling, and I concluded all my worrying had been for nothing. Everything appeared to be fine. I hugged her, and sat down at the table while she strode to the sink.
I poured myself a cup of coffee, and turned around to ask her something, only to realize she wasn’t there anymore. I called her one more time, but received no reply. All I heard were the muffled sounds of mocking laughter that became louder until they exploded everywhere around me. I stood up quickly and searched for her, but the entire house was filled with thick white fog, and I couldn’t see where I was stepping.
Completely disoriented, I just kept exploring the misty labyrinth of rooms, calling for my mother until my throat gave out, and I could no longer shout.
“Elena!” I heard my mother’s scream, and fought to get to the source of noise as soon as possible. I entered a room filled with the sounds of her sobbing, but I still couldn’t see her.
Then, I finally spotted her. Her back was turned to me, her body bent. She was holding onto her stomach, twisting like she was in unbearable pain.
“Mama?” I whispered and quickly approached her, turning her toward me.
“Elena,” she murmured through her pale lips. I covered my mouth at the sight of blood that was smeared all over her clothes and her hands which were reaching out to me, as though she begged for deliverance. “Please, help me, Elena.”
I wanted to wrap my arms around her and offer her comfort. As I tried to reach her, both the room and her agonizing cries melted into the fog, and I woke up screaming her name.
Slowly, the reality began clearing before my eyes, like the rising of the sun. I was still in that truck, sucked right back into the nightmare. Somebody squeezed my hand and told me everything was going to be all right. The gesture was done in mere seconds, but I was grateful for the act of kindness. Nobody else paid attention to my outburst, and I couldn’t blame them. Every soul around me was burdened by its own misery.
We drove for a while longer before the truck slowed and then stopped. For a few moments, I was surrounded by complete stillness. It was so quiet I could have sworn I heard the very loud thumping of our hearts. The anticipation spread through the stale air like a contagious disease, raising awareness of panic and havoc.
The door opened abruptly, and we were instantly bathed in sunshine. Since we were locked in the darkness for so long, many of us attempted to shelter our eyes from the bright light. A wind of fresh air stormed inside, making it easy to breathe again, but I didn’t get the chance to savor its sweetness.
The aggression of the soldiers in black uniforms was immediate and unavoidable. Instantly upon arrival, we were ordered to get out of the truck. Everybody was determined to promptly please their every demand, but that didn’t help us. The moment our feet touched the ground we were beaten, pushed around, humiliated and laughed at for no apparent reason, other than being Sariyan.
Without any explanation, we were formed into a single group and told to follow one soldier’s lead while the others walked at our sides, keeping an eye on our every movement. Several similar groups of Sariyans were behind us. I glanced at them to see if I would recognize Mina, but I was shoved, and ordered to look away. There was no cause for them to mistreat us, but by now, we had learned they didn’t need any reason to exercise their cruelty. Their treatment could only be portrayed as rough, merciless and inhuman. They kept threatening they would unleash their savage dogs at us if we so much as looked at them the wrong way. They yelled we needed to hurry up and walk faster. If someone couldn’t walk fast enough, they beat them, sometimes to the very death.
As we marched, I took in the sight of the secluded area around us. Everywhere I looked, there were hills and endless forest. Large, tall buildings rose like a hidden city that seemed absurdly erect and unbefitting in its surroundings. The barbed wire that caught my attention hinted we were about to enter a place that was vile, dangerous and filled with darkness. In the middle of the fence there was a massive iron gate marked by a huge sign. I lifted my head, and read the single word that stretched across the iron board—Obsidian.
A shiver coursed down my body as we crossed the gate. Fear, so intuitive and genuine licked at my insides, making every hair on the back of my neck stand up. If only there was someone familiar, someone close to me—someone who would hold my hand and help me get over the initial shock. Guilt made me suppress those thoughts because nobody should ever want for their loved ones to end up in such a place.
Those buildings I had seen from afar offered a much needed distraction, and I found myself gazing at them. Curiosity suppressed the fear and, for a moment, I wondered what was hiding behind those thick walls. A few of the buildings were still in the process of construction. Hundreds of people, both men and women, were scattered all around them, carrying bricks, digging inside the ground or doing some other heavy physical work. They wore white prison-like suits, and not one of them dared to raise their head and make eye-contact. I remember thinking they resembled robots—programmed only to listen to the orders of those bloodthirsty soldiers. When I saw one of them was being whipped for taking a small break, I thought it was no wonder they didn’t dare to lift their heads or give us any other sign of acknowledgment.
Our journey through that place didn’t last for long because we were led inside one of the buildings. The hallway was indefinitely long and filled with darkness since there were no windows. For a while, we moved by instinct, resisting the sadistic urges of the soldiers that laughed and still demanded us to quicken our step. Then, the big door at the end of the hallway was opened, and there was light that led us into a huge room filled with possibly hundreds of people. It was like watching a small sample of a dying nation. Even though I didn’t know where we were exactly, the very location told me enough about the purpose of that place.
Once again, I scanned the faces around me, hoping I would see someone familiar because I didn’t want to be left so desperately alone. I noticed a girl with long, black hair falling down her back. She was about the same height as Mina, and my heart filled with hope. When she turned around, I realized I had been mistaken and the hope vanished.
Groups of people kept coming in until there was barely enough space to move. That was when they sorted us out into five groups—people who were wounded or sick, old people, women, men and children. The scene that followed their harsh commands was one of absolute agony and chaos. Families were torn apart and children screamed in panic as they were snatched away from their parents’ arms. Husbands and wives tried to say goodbye, but even such a small sign of mercy wasn’t allowed. Some couples were literally being dragged away from each other.
A heavy lump formed in my throat as the groups of the most vulnerable ones were led outside. Only young women and men were allowed to stay. Mothers screamed for their children, but it earned them nothing but more beatings. The desperate looks on their faces conveyed the raw ugliness of war and pain.
The ones that remained were separated into two large lines—one consisting of women, the other of men. We were ordered to face each other. Even after the selection, the room was still crowded, but it was a lot easier to breathe. It was possible I had that impression because I was so very close to the door. The sight of the guards standing only inches away from me was sheer torture.
Everyone was quiet. I glanced at the girl beside me, and noticed she quivered in fear. I shared her concerns, and was as equally scared, but I urged myself to stay calm. I didn’t want to give them the satisfaction of seeing me cowered and frightened. Not yet.
One soldier moved between us, watching us like a hawk ready to strike. He was short and overweight which was, even I would admit, rare among Nyrmans. He halted in front of a random woman and snickered, staring at her with lust-filled eyes. I was overwhelmed with nausea as his hand reached out to touch her. She tried to avoid him, but he caught her and pulled her toward him in one rough move. She cried out in clear panic and desperation. One man, probably her husband, struggled to get to her. The others tried to restrain him, but he managed to break free. He was shot by the guards before he could make a single step to help her. His body fell to the ground and the woman screamed, but she wasn’t allowed to move from her place. Instead, she had to watch helplessly as they dragged away her husband’s body. Every prisoner stared at the blood-smeared floor, swallowing the shock and sadness.
The soldier’s reaction told me he wasn’t affected by the tragedy in the least. If anything, he looked as though it filled him with immense satisfaction. He shoved the now completely hysterical woman away from him, and stood in the middle of the passage, still snickering. Then, without commenting on the incident, he ordered us to strip and prepare for the examination.
This was just another way they could humiliate us. Due to our sheltered lifestyle, the women in our community were raised to be extremely modest, and they knew that all too well. Even if that wasn’t the case, demanding such a thing from anyone had to have been wrong and vile.
Stunned, I observed all the women and men who started taking off their clothes. I touched the edge of my black sweater, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. It was as if some invisible force held me spellbound and I was unable to obey, no matter the consequences. Something split inside me. A voice—strong and determined—whispered I couldn’t let them take the last remains of my dignity. It didn’t matter because then there would be nothing left.
“What are you waiting for?” the fat soldier scowled at me, but I remained silent.
It gave him enough cause to take matters into his own hands. His swollen fingers reached toward my sweater, and he was about to take it off by force. I tried to fight back, but I didn’t have enough strength to push him away. He had almost succeeded in his mission, when the crying of that hysterical woman whose husband was killed turned into uncontrolled, maddening violence. She screamed like she was possessed by a demon, then started convulsing and kicking everyone around her. The soldier’s grip on me loosened, and he turned to look as the guards marched across the room to handle the woman. It lasted for a split second, but I took advantage of the situation and rammed my knee into his groin. He fell to the ground, shocked and cussing as I hurried toward the door that was left unprotected.
In my desperation to flee, adrenaline made me run faster than ever in my life. As I entered the dark hallway, I heard gunshots and the shouting of the guards who ordered me to stop. That soldier I had hit called them idiots, and screamed at them to go after me.
Almost immediately, I was struck by the realization of my mistake. I had reacted out of sheer impulse, not thinking how stupid it was to run since I still couldn’t escape that place. The full impact of my predicament dawned on me. Even if there was a way out of there, what would be the point of running? I had no home to return to, no one who would miss my presence.
The guard who chased me was coming closer, and I knew he would kill me the moment he closed the distance between us. In the painful anticipation of death, I kept running on instinct and glancing behind my shoulder, belatedly realizing one of the doors was being opened. There was no time to avoid the shadowed figure that suddenly emerged from the darkness.
I ended up crashing, full force, into a tall, powerful man.