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ESCAPE FROM ZAATARI

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Summary

Mike Raleigh set out - reluctantly - to do a favour for Abdel, the concierge of his condo building in Toronto. . Before he was finished being a 'nice guy', Mike had tracked Abdel's missing sister, Rami, a former Syrian refugee, to a toney townhouse in London's Eton Square and followed her back and forth across Europe and the Middle East to and from Al Zaatari. Rami had been kidnapped by a Russian oligarch because she was the only person who might remember the details of a secret route leading from the huge refugee camp in Jordan to freedom in the United Kingdom. That route would be worth a fortune to smugglers and terrorists. To the private eye, Raleigh, and the former Syrian ambulance driver, the route was a highway to Hell. Join Mike, Rami, MI5 and MI6 agents and a veteran Russian spy in the thrilling Escape from Zaatari.

Genre:
Thriller
Author:
Gdan
Status:
Complete
Chapters:
32
Rating:
n/a
Age Rating:
13+

PROLOGUE

The explosion threw up a huge cloud of dust and debris. The ambulance driver had no choice but to drive into the blast zone. The ambulance rocked as a series of shockwaves swept through the area. The vehicle swerved around a cascade of bricks that marked the demise of another building. None of this was unusual.

The Battle of Aleppo had been going on for four years, since 2012. The siege caused the destruction of more than 30,000 buildings and killed more than 30,000 people. There had been a stalemate for much of the past three years but life had not been easy in Syria’s largest city with its supply lines cut and daily skirmishes being fought. The uncounted number of injured civilians and fighters were treated, if at all, in a diminishing number of hospitals served by a steadily shrinking number of ambulances.

Even trying to figure out the competing forces was difficult. The Free Syrian Army was allied with other groups made up, largely, of Sunnis, including the so-called terrorist al-Qaeda. The FSA was fighting Syrian government troops supported by Hezbollah, Shia militias and Russia. Then there were the Kurdish People’s Protection Units. All-in, the various sides were part of the Syrian Civil War.

At the moment, in 2016, the city was being wracked by Russian air strikes focused on closing the supply lines of the rebel FSA and its supporters. The rebels were countering but failing to break the Siege of Aleppo. In the end, in December, 2016, government forces would recapture what was left of Aleppo. This was November and the last run of the ambulance and its driver, Rami Hamid.

Until today, Rami had been able to pilot her battered ambulance through streets littered with piles of rubble. There were two patients on the gurneys in the rear of the vehicle and another two lying on the floor. The ones on the floor were children, each younger than ten. There was only one attendant trying to tend to the four bombing victims in the pitching and yawing ambulance. Her name was Amira Alwan.

Amira was a ‘White Helmet’, a member of the Syria Civil Defence organization, an incredibly brave group of volunteers working in evacuation and search and rescue teams to rescue civilians from bombed and other dangerous parts of Syria. While fans of the White Helmets credited them with saving well over 100,000 lives between 2014 and 2018, the Syrian government, Russians and Iranians considered the White Helmets a terrorist organization. Rami and Amira were friends as well as co-workers.

Rami would, on most days, have another attendant sitting beside her in the cab of the ambulance. The man who rode with her for the past two weeks was not there today. He died in the bombing of their base hospital the day before. Rami had drawn her ambulance up to the emergency entrance of the hospital and was helping Amira unload the last of five patients from the rear. Mahdi was pushing a gurney into the building when the bomb hit. The entrance of the hospital collapsed, crushing Mahdi, his patient and the medical team that had come to help bring in Rami’s load. Rami and Amira were bruised and scratched but not enough to stop them from taking their surviving patient to another door of the still-standing facility. It wasn’t enough to stop them from going back for another long day on the streets of the besieged city.

“Ahh.” Rami shouted as she saw the bricks raining down in front of her ambulance. She avoided the last mound of new debris but she could not get around this new obstacle. The bricks hit the front of the ambulance, denting its short, slanted hood. They hit the large windscreen of the red and white van. Several of the bricks cracked the glass directly in front of Rami and one of the largest slammed right through the glass on the passenger’s side. It bounced off the empty seat and could have killed anyone sitting there. Rami instinctively threw her body away from the block now in the next seat and pulled the wheel so the ambulance drove directly into the side of another structure.

At 30 kilometres per hour, the collision threw Rami against her seat belt bruising her ribcage. In the back of the ambulance, Amira was tossed from near the back of the van to the front dividing wall behind the driver’s cab. She flew over the children and, as she went, caromed off the gurneys like a ball in a pinball machine. She was left in a sprawl with a broken arm and a large gash on her forehead. Mercifully, she was unconscious.

Strapped down in the ambulance the patients made it through the crash with no more injuries than they sustained in the bombing. The children were screaming in terror while the two adult patients groaned and cried in shock.

Rami had to ram her shoulder against her door several times before it opened and spilled her body onto the ground. The vehicle’s front was crushed, its axle broken; the ambulance was obviously out of commission. She limped around to the back doors and opened them expecting to find dead bodies. Instead, she was met with the noise of screaming children, crying adults and a view of her friend crumpled at the front of the compartment.

There was also noise behind Rami. People were coming out of the rubble from every direction. Some of them were bruised and covered in dust but some were unhurt and coming to help. One drove slowly through the cluttered street in an old pickup truck. With help from men and women, Rami’s patients were transferred to the back of the pickup and driven away, lying on the wooden planks in the bed of the truck. Amira was the last to be loaded in the truck. The driver said he would take them to Rami’s hospital but added, “... if it’s still there.”

Rami was left in the street with a small crowd around her. She had been astonished at the resilience of the people who had come from nowhere to give comfort to her patients. Now, she felt guilty and lost, even with others standing around her waiting patiently for her to speak.

“Thank you. Thank you so much,” Rami said in Arabic to a woman who stood nearest. The woman nodded.

“Are you well?” The woman was studying Rami for signs of injury. “Your ambulance is dead.” There was a sympathetic smile on the woman’s face.

“Yes.” Rami turned to look at the van. Several men were already in the back, going through the contents to find anything still usable. They passed bandages, medications and other discoveries to other men and women waiting outside. When they climbed out, the men pulled the two gurneys from the disabled ambulance and wheeled them across the pavement.

“Someone will sleep better tonight,” said the woman near Rami. She gave a short laugh as she turned away to following the crowd that was breaking up. In a moment, Rami was left standing by herself next to her ambulance. She went to the open door of the cab and went through its contents, left untouched by the scavengers. She found her purse, spare shoes, a few small tools and, hidden under her driver’s seat, a small pistol that she had taken from a patient some months ago. The patient had been a 12-year-old child who died on the way to the hospital.

***

Rami walked through the streets of Aleppo, often detouring around impassable ruins, until she arrived at a station for White Helmets. It was simply a gathering spot where the White Helmets went every morning to receive their assignments from a few leaders who maintained a communications network. Hospitals, ambulance services, clinics and other medical facilities would call in with their needs and White Helmets would be dispatched. The system worked to get the volunteers where they were needed most that day. Some of the time, a leader or volunteer would not be at the station in the morning. They would be sick, injured or dead. Others would take their places.

“There are no more ambulances, Rami.” One of the leaders she knew at this station put down his radio handset to speak to Rami Hamid. “If you were a doctor, I’d send you out but we’re being told to warn everyone else. It’s time to leave.”

“Leave Aleppo?” More than puzzled, Rami was shocked. Again, she had a sudden surge of loneliness even though she was surrounded by White Helmets and professional healthcare workers. “I can’t leave...”

“Yes, you can,” said the man with the radio. “It’s time, Rami. We are being told the government will take over within a month or two. You know what that bastard Bashar Hafez al-Assad thinks of us. We’ll be shot at dawn or worse. I’m getting out with my family tomorrow. While we can.”

“Where can I go?” Rami.

Rami’s plaintive question led to a long discussion with the White Helmet leader and those waiting at the station for their final assignments before they too would try to escape from Aleppo.

Rami returned to her small apartment in a surviving building to prepare a backpack with all she would take on her long trek. On foot, she joined a long line of refugees on the road away from the city. The outgoing cavalcade was passed by government troops in Russian vehicles joining the push into the heart of the defeated city. The migrants moved off the road into the ditches and beyond when the conveys came by. Those that didn’t move were pushed aside or run over.

What came next and for the following months was a blur of walking, resting in a comatose state, and walking again. The refugees shared food when they had it and, when they ran out of food and water, they begged for sustenance from the people still living in the countryside. When those people tired of handing out their own supplies or ran through food and water, the refugees went hungry and thirsty or died. Rami, somehow, reached Jordan and the Al Zaatari Refugee Camp.

***

At the largest Syrian refugee camp in the world, Rami applied to diplomatic missions from countries that had set up immigration centres at the camp. The chances of emigrating to any of the countries was remote for most of the refugees in the camps. Countries, like the U.S., U.K. France, Germany and Canada, wanted refugees with skills or with relatives already living in those nations. Few immigration officers would want the Syrians and others who had limited or no skills or had no relatives to support them while they assimilated into foreign populations. She waited in limbo,

Rami volunteered with an outfit formed by doctors from many places who called themselves Doctors Without Borders or Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). The camp had a few ambulances and Rami was hired, as an unpaid volunteer, to drive one of them. She would live on the charitable dole.

One of the ambulance attendants working often with Rami quickly became a friend of the woman from Aleppo. This was a trifle strange because the attendant was Oleg Dubov, a Russian man. It was peculiar for Oleg to be at the Al Zaatari Refugee Camp at all because Russians were seldom refugees, rarely volunteers and almost never friends.

Oleg told Rami he was tired of telling his story over and over to doubting listeners. He was, he said, the son of a Russian father and a Syrian mother. In fact, he hadn’t known his father who was a soldier working with the Syrian army of the time. The soldier had sired him and, shortly after, moved back to his homeland leaving his mother destitute in Damascus. She had remarried, to a minor Sunni politician who had fallen out with the government of Bashar al-Assad, an easy thing to do. The stepfather, mother and son were forced to run for their lives. Oleg ended up, in his early 20s, all by himself at the sprawling camp and, now, he said, he was sitting next to a beautiful fellow refugee in an ambulance. What a world.’

Rami parked her ambulance at the end of a busy shift and stepped out onto the packed sand of the parking lot. She would have a supper of rice and peppers and go to sleep in her small, boxlike unit in the huge camp city. One of the MSF doctors yelled across the lot to Rami. He waved and she went across the lot to him. He waved a sheet of paper at her as she approached.

The paper was a note from the Canadian refugee processing centre in Amman, Jordan. Her application to emigrate to Canada had been tentatively approved. Rami was dumbfounded. She had forgotten applying to Canada, the last country on her list of those that might accept her. She knew little about the place except that it bordered on the United States and was a big, big nation with not that many people. Oh, she also knew it was cold. Anything would be better than living in this hellhole, she thought.

It took three more tedious months for Rami to be cleared through the camp’s Canadian office, issued a permit to leave the camp and to travel to the processing centre in Amman. She spent much of that time with Oleg, sitting outside her tiny box of a home reading borrowed books about Canada and working on an application for him as well. They mused about getting together in Canada, working in a hospital and living a good life.

“Maybe we’ll get married, have kids,” Oleg said with a grin. They were together the day before Rami was to go to Amman.

“Uh,” Rami said. “I have another man in my life.”

Oleg’s face fell. “What?”

Rami grinned and turned to rummage in her purse. “My brother. I heard from him last week after two years of not knowing what happened to him. He was in Homs with a wife and son. But he was accepted too for immigration...” She glanced at Oleg. “Guess where?” She waited but Oleg didn’t answer. “Canada. He is already in Toronto and he has a job. The Canadians here in the camp checked the relatives I named in my application. They found him. He has been looking for me everywhere too. Isn’t that a miracle?” Rami held out a picture of her brother Abdel and her mother, taken when they lived in Aleppo years ago. “I might live with them for a time.”

Oleg’s voice was full of anger and resentment. “You didn’t tell me you had family. I thought... I thought you and me...”

“Look, Oleg, I’m sorry. You are a friend. My best friend. But there is no ‘you and me’. I don’t want a husband or a boyfriend. I want a life. Somewhere other than this...” she looked around in disgust, “...horrible place.”

Oleg stood and loomed over her. His fists were clenched. “You...” He raised his hand.

Rami quickly reached back into her pack again. Her hand came out wrapped around the small pistol she had since her days on the dangerous streets of Aleppo. She pointed it up at the raging man she thought she knew. In this camp, one didn’t think when attacked; one reacted.

Oleg’s face was red. He was about to club his fist into her head before he saw the gun levelled at him. He knew this woman had no fear. She would shoot him if she had to. Violence was common in the camp and many women learned how to defend themselves against vicious men. He dropped his arm to his side and stepped away from Rami. He gave her one more hateful stare before turning and stamping away through the dense collection of homemade houses to his own shack.

***

Rami was shaken by Oleg’s reaction to her news of finding a lost brother, but she forgot about Dubov when she arrived in Amman and the Canadian refugee processing centre. She had all her meagre belongings in her hands and on her back. She was ready to board a plane for a big, unknown nation thousands of kilometres away.

“How would you like to make two thousand pounds sterling,” the woman asked.

Rami had been ushered into a room in the building that housed the Canadian refugee centre in Amman. She had been worried when she was taken out of a lineup of people and escorted by a man to the room. Her escort hadn’t said a word to her after asking her to come with him. Rami thought she might have her application denied. The offer of a chance to make that much money left her reeling.

“I don’t understand...” Rami told the woman who was waiting for her in the room. Rami was waved to a seat on one side of a table across from the blonde woman.

“We have an opportunity to offer to you, Rami. We understand,” said the woman with the strange English accent, “that you are an excellent driver and that you have some medical training.”

“Not that much training,” Rami stammered in the English she had learned growing up in a multilingual society. “I have, what you say, emergency training. For patients in the ambulance.”

“Yes. Precisely.” said the woman. “Look, I know this is confusing but this is the situation. There is a man. He is a diplomat, from Britain. London, England, actually. He is quite ill with a disease I don’t quite understand. It is not contagious so don’t worry about that.”

Rami nodded but was struggling to comprehend the situation.

“Anyway, the British government wants this man brought back to England for treatment. He can’t fly because of the illness. Something to do with altitude.”

“Altitude?”

“The height at which the plane flies. If he travels in a pressurized cabin, he could die. We wouldn’t want that, would we?” The woman smiled wanly.

“If he is exposed to people with illnesses like influenza or even herpes, he could die. So that rules out a train ship or bus with other people. No, he must travel by car and even then, he won’t have the kind of medical attention he needs. So, the bottom line...” The woman hesitated as Rami frowned. “Uh, the point,” the woman smiled again as Rami nodded her comprehension.

“The point is this man must travel by ambulance all the way from Amman through Turkey, Bulgaria, Serbia and so on, all the way to London. The vehicle will be better than anything you have driven before. You will have an ambulance attendant and another person with you. You will drive and help only if there is an emergency. And, for that, you will earn two thousand British pounds which is three thousand, five hundred Canadian dollars.”

“But,” said Rami fearfully, “what about immigrating to Canada?”

“Oh, you will do that too, at the end of your drive. In London, you will get on a plane to Canada and join your brother in Toronto - with $3,500 in your pocket. It’s not a huge amount but it’s something and it’s all the cheap buggers in Britain are willing to pay. What do you say?”

The woman peered at Rami as the Syrian refugee considered the offer. “You are certain I can go to Canada after this work?”

“I can give you all your papers in five minutes if you agree. If you don’t agree to do this driving job, you will still go to Canada but it may take a little longer and you won’t have a thick envelope with money in it. This is not a trick, Rami. It’s a job. That’s all.”

In the end, the decision came easily. She would drive an ambulance for 50 hours across nine countries, including Jordan, a distance of about 3,000 miles or just under 5,000 kilometres. She would be paid $1.16 (Canadian) a mile. Not much but something to have when she arrived in Canada. It was a new life, away from the cramped box of a house in a miserable camp with terrible food, bad water and men like Oleg, who turned in an instant into a monster.

A week later, Rami Hamid completed the drive without a hitch. The ambulance attendant took care of their patient so well, Rami saw him only a few times when they parked and opened the rear doors to give him fresh air. He was a middle-aged, unassuming man bundled to the chin with blankets. The ambulance was a special model with a bolted-down cot in the back for the attendant as well as a gurney for the patient. It even had small cooking and refrigeration facilities run by propane stored in a rooftop tank.

The other person in the ambulance turned out to be a nameless bodyguard, a former British SAS soldier, who said little and who carried a submachine gun through all the nine countries, thanks to, Rami was told, a diplomatic licence. He slept in the reclined front seat of the ambulance when Rami took five-hour breaks at a series of pre-booked inns along their route. He showered in the inns after she left her room. He told Rami to call him Bob.

Bob, who remained so quiet in the passenger seat of the ambulance, was also her guide and facilitator; he got out and spoke with officers at each border they crossed. He dealt with police and inspectors at various points within countries. He seemed to know all of them and took only scant minutes to get the ambulance on its way. He also handled all expenses, paying often out of a large sports bag he kept in a locked compartment behind the two seats in the front cab. The man got out of the vehicle with his bag at a street corner when they reached London proper.

She received her papers along with her money when she dropped the ambulance, with its attendant and her ‘patient’ at a small medical clinic in central London. Rami was met by the clinic director and was allowed to book into a small hotel for several hours to clean up and change. With her overnight bag, she took a taxi, at the clinic’s expense, directly to Heathrow to travel in a pre-booked, business-class seat to Pearson International Airport in Toronto, Canada. Her brother Abel met her at the airport and took her to his home in her new city. It was a very warm April day outside in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

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Mercy: Ok wow,whoa this book is mind-blowing. Captivating and oof just please update

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kerryt1207: This was a great read would love more like this🤪

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caseyw282: Excellent read! I liked it so much, I went on the kksdarkerotica site and bought it! Thrilling, sexy, arousing...definitely a page turner! ♥️

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Good girl gone bad: It’s a great story with a great plot

The Emerald: I need an update! Please!

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