Warning: potential trigger
There were three of us. One was from Kinshasa, Congo, like me, but we just met in that city of sand. The other was from Sudan, but don’t ask me whether it was the North or the South, I doubt even he knew which part.
It took me twelve weeks to get enough money to pay for the car – sometimes begging, sometimes selling refilled water bottles to the few tourists. One of them even came back, shouting at me. I think he wanted me to give his money back. Maybe there was some sand in the water or something of that sort. He gave up after a while, when I shrugged and shook my head.
Twelve weeks and I had enough. I suddenly felt as if everything was possible. It took me nearly a year to get to Egypt. I had never even heard that name before I reached the border, all I had been told was to keep going North.
North is safety. North is wealth. You can live there, that’s what we were told. We saw those pictures, in the magazines and on big posters and drawings on the walls. People in pools. We knew they had water, but how did they get their water blue? I never understood. All I knew is that I wanted to go there; that I couldn’t watch anymore while my own mother kept ploughing the hard, red soil with a plough even more broken than her back.
Maybe it would have been easier if we had had enough water for the fields, but there never was enough. We saw the water leaking from the pump, but that company that always advertised with pictures from a place called Switzerland, charged more than we could afford. Not just more than we could afford for the fields – more than we could afford for us.
After those twelve weeks I had enough and I was happy. Too happy.
The first thing you learn is never to trust anyone. Even those that want to go with you; even those that sleep next to you at night. He was from somewhere in the south and we had sat together for at least a week, dreaming about the countries with blue pools. I shouldn’t have told him that I had enough.
For more than a week my father hadn’t been home. Maybe he would have tried to stop me.
He must have been working one of those endless jobs – jobs that brought money at least, better than to just live off the few grains from the plot behind our house.
I always thought he paid more with his body than his labor. After the mines his hands and legs were blistered and bleeding for days. But the tobacco plantations were worse. The leaves don’t just cut your hands; they slowly dissolve them. Your hands will burn for weeks, sometimes months, but the real price you pay for the money is the constant sickness. The tobacco doesn’t just burn you. The one time my father saw a doctor, when the small finger on his left hand had turned big and gray, the doctor said that it was the tobacco. He said the tobacco goes in your blood and it poisons your blood and that’s why you feel sick for so many weeks.
I didn’t say goodbye. I was fifteen and I waved to my mother while she was grinding wheat and I walked past my brother who sat down the street with his hand in the bowl of wheat that he was trying to sell.
I was robbed twice on that way North. The first one, about four weeks after I left and just after I crossed the first border, caught me while I was asleep. He held a machete to my throat and clicked his tongue.
“Give it to me,” he said.
He didn’t say what. He just expected me to know.
He made me take my clothes off and he only left me the shirt.
Walking like that, with just the shirt around my waist, I would have been killed. Still, I’m not proud of how I got trousers again. At least I didn’t hurt anybody; just took them and ran until my lungs were burning worse than after a day of tobacco curing.
I begged sometimes, but in most places there was no one rich enough to beg from. Some farmers gave me food, like my mother had done a few times and I had never understood why she gave when we had not enough for ourselves. But when those with children even thinner than me gave food to me I began to understand. In those faces my mother didn’t see strangers, she saw people like us – my father, my cousins, me.
The second time I was robbed was just before Egypt. Getting into Egypt was hard. Fences and men in jeeps with big guns. And on the side where I was there were many like me; all desperate to make money.
I was lucky that I knew how to fix sandals, but I had to go from one shop to the next, all day, until I finally found one that could use my help. For a week he only paid me with meals but finally, when his wife begged him to be a good muslim, he paid me a bit.
“He’s good,” he said. “If I pay him he’ll leave.”
It wasn’t much. There were cheap offers, but I didn’t take them. I had heard of others being kicked out of the car in the middle of the desert. There were only a few truck drivers known to be trustable. I tried to become friends with them to get a lower price. They took the beer but the price stayed the same.
Six months until I had enough money and I stayed another two, just to be sure. Two extra months sleeping on straw, but it was easy with the dream of blue water in my head. I felt as if I could taste it, the sweetness and goodness and somehow even how blue it would be. I dreamed about how I would work hard and live with enough to eat and that I would be able, someday, to send money to my mother and send her enough to stop her from pulling that plough and breaking her back even more.
I was out to buy food and came home too late, the sun was already going down. The man hit me from behind with a stick and when I fell he hit me more. He hit me until I stopped screaming and just cried and begged and then he pulled my shoes off me and my trousers too and took the plastic bag with food and ran off.
I was lucky that I had hid most of the money in a small hole below the straw. Another month of work. Nine months and I had finally enough to pay the truck.
Walking towards the spot I saw the women at the side. Most young and with their faces already wrinkled. They tried to pull me to the side.
“You have money. Look, you can have this. You can have all of this. You can work again and then you can go. But now you can have this.”
I nearly ran past them.
Maybe that second thief was secretly an angel. He left a scar in my face, but he also taught me not to stay any longer; not to give in; not to risk anything.
When I reached the trucks I looked back at the women and I saw that they looked even more broken than me. I had strength and could work hard. They had to give their bodies voluntarily, or else they could work and after the cooking or cleaning their bodies would be taken against their will.
The truck driver recognized me. He asked for extra beer, additionally to the fee. He spit on the floor when I said I didn’t have any and didn’t have enough money to buy any. I fell on my knees but it wasn’t enough. He asked me to pay for a woman instead.
“It’s cheaper than beer,” he said. “You must have enough for that. Else you’ll never get through Egypt.”
After I paid for that I knew I didn’t have enough to get through Egypt. I didn’t even know what getting through meant.
There were eight of us on the truck. He drove fast and we coughed from the sand that flew in our faces and lungs.
When we stopped he told us that we had two choice. Go further North and reach the water, or go West. West means another border, but at least you can’t drown. I didn’t really know what drowning meant until he explained it and even then it didn’t sound so bad.
“If you go West you can find work,” he said. “If you’re lucky you can get work there – well paid work!”
We climbed the fence and then, as he had said, we ran quickly and threw us in the sand whenever we noticed any movement. Most just ran straight but I also ran to the side to get away from the others.
When I saw the dust clouds I threw myself to the ground.
Two trucks drove past me and on one of the trucks someone was shouting.
They stopped and there was more shouting. There was a shot and someone screaming. There were more shots and the screaming stopped.
The trucks stayed for a long time; while the sun burned on my back and the sand my chest and stomach and face. Then they left but I only dared to run further when the sun set.
That night, stumbling through the sand, I was freezing. When I was far enough from the border I dug a shallow hole and sat down inside and covered my legs with warm sand, and then even my chest and arms. I was wondering whether that felt the same as being in a grave.
The sun was high when I finally reached a city. There were people everywhere and they didn’t look at me, but when I tried to beg they spat in front of my feet.
I don’t remember how I got to that mosque. I just woke up there, with my head on a stone and a bowl of water next to me. They gave me clothes too but in the morning they made me leave.
I walked East. Follow the morning sun, that’s all that was in my head. I always somehow got water, but getting food was hard.
I was lucky, when I walked out of that city and the man, with a camel at his side, stopped me and asked me where I was going. I pointed East and he shook his head and brought me back to the city. Later I learned that there was nothing East, just sand and then a large fence with many guards and then more sand. They told me I would need to get a car to get to the fence and then, if possible, another to get further.
For a week the man gave me food, but I had to sleep behind the house because the house was small and he had daughters that he didn’t want to be close to me.
His home was an oasis for me and he was an angel. Food and water. His son taught me a few words; enough to get by.
Then they sent me off and at first I begged but then I saw another one selling water and I asked him how he did it. He ignored me at first, but when he heard that I was from Kinshasa too he smiled and hugged me and told me that he found the bottles and washed them and filled them from a well and that sometimes white people bought them.
From then it was twelve weeks. I slept behind a mosque, where I had slept before and where others were already sleeping. He had slept next to me for at least a week and we had spoken about blue pools and about having enough money to feed a wife and children and our mothers. I told him, that night, that I had enough to pay for the car, to go East, to go to the border, to go to Israel and find work. He said he was happy for me.
He bought drinks for both of us. Good drinks, alcohol. He said he wanted to celebrate for me and wish me goodbye.
I slept. How could I have slept while he stole everything?
Somebody kicked me and I woke up. There was just a cloth over my shame and nothing else on my body. The man, he was dressed in all white, kicked me again, and in Arabic he said that he would kill me if I didn’t leave.
I ran through the streets and people were staring at me and once there were police after me. I hid behind a house and they ran past, but they came back and looked for me. I was lucky that no one was in the house.
I am a lucky man. Else I would never have seen the other one, the one that had taught me about the bottles, walking on the other side of the street. I called him, but he didn’t hear, and then I climbed over the small wall and ran towards him and he took his money, the money for many bottles, and bought me clothes.
We worked together, selling those bottles, and I made sure that he always ate better than me. Oudray. Without Oudray I would never have gotten that far. We slept next to each other and we never touched food or drink that anybody else gave us.
Another eight weeks. Day after day in that heat. I collected the bottles and filled them and he sold them because he didn’t have scars and he thought that some of the white people were scared of me because of my scars.
It was the Sudanese that found us, not the other way around. He had found a driver and was asking around, behind the mosque, for others that had enough to pay for the ride. We didn’t trust him, at first, but we followed him and we saw that he too worked hard, and then we agreed.
The car was silver and made loud noises while driving; noises that sounded nearly like the noises I had heard right behind the border; the noises that had started and stopped the screams.
At one point, when there was nothing around us but sand, he stopped. He asked for the money and he counted it and then nodded.
“It’s good money,” he said. “And you look strong. I will see if I have work for you.”
He pulled his phone from his pocket, a shiny, black phone, and he talked to someone in a language I didn’t understand. When he put the phone back in his pocket he smiled.
“You are lucky. I have friends that have jobs for you. They will pick you up.”
He started the car again and turned right, off the road.
We weren’t driving for very long, then the dark line appeared on the horizon. The closer it got the more excited I felt; the surer I was that it was a fence and a big one. Big fences for a big country where I could find work.
We drove far from the fence and only occasionally got closer. It must have been an hour, maybe two. We saw towers and sometimes trucks driving by, and then there was just sand and a fence without any towers.
He drove towards the fence and then along it until a car appeared on the other side. We got out and the men on the other side got out too.
They laughed and waved and we waved back. They had big metal shears that cut through the fence.
The driver told us to stay back and he went close to the fence and the men on the other side gave him something, a small package wrapped in all black. Only then he nodded and told us that we could go and we squeezed through the hole in the fence and the men quickly pulled it back up to make it look as if the fence was whole.
They had two cars. The Sudanese went in one and we went in the other.
We sat in the back and they gave us bottles with water. I was sad that it wasn’t blue, but I was thirsty and happy that I was finally there and that I would have work. The water tasted bitter.
It feels as if someone is pulling on the inside of my stomach and sometimes, when I move, he also punches my side.
They found us out of the town. Somebody saw two men lying at the far end of the landfill and when they came to check one was dead and the other was me.
They say I survived because they didn’t take so much. They took most of my liver, and a kidney. From Oudray they took both kidneys and the heart.
I can’t get out of this bed, but the doctors say that it could have been worse. They say I will need medicine for the rest of my life, but that I will live.
What worries me is that they say that I might have to go back. They say there are people on the street; people that don’t know me but that want to fight so that I can stay.
I’m okay now. I feel pain and I feel tried when I lift my arms, but I know that there are people out there, on the street, and I don’t know them but I know, I just know that they will succeed. I can’t imagine that they don’t succeed.
One of the women, I don’t think she is a doctor, but she comes often and asks me questions, she says that it happens often and that even when the people are on the street I might be sent back. But I don’t believe that. I can’t imagine that after a year of travel with hunger and thirst and pain this country would take my kidney and liver and then send me back.
Right now all I can do is to look out of that window, at the beautiful houses and the green trees and the small people walking along the street. And all I can think and dream about is that one day, soon, I will go out there and that I will jump into one of these pools and that I will soon know what blue water feels like.