They called it the Safe Zone.
We’d been told to go there when the village was evacuated, Mama pulling the trailer packed with bottles of water, what food we had left, blankets. She’d tied a blue nylon rope around the towbar then looped it around her chest to take some of the weight off her arms. As we walked it carved a dip in her shoulder deep as my finger.
After a few hours we passed a man going back the way we’d come. His eyes were dark, hollowed, his face creased like folded paper. He had no shoes, only strips of stained fabric wrapped round his feet. He and Mama talked in whispers, the man shaking his head, sad eyes flicking to me then away. Mama’s head dipped and the man squeezed her arm. Then he shuffled over to me, laid a knobbly hand on my head. His breath smelled bad, like pigs or cows in a barn for winter. Then he was gone, hobbling along the road.
I said, ‘Who was that man? What did he say?’
Mama just kept her head down, eyes on the path. ‘Have to get there before nightfall. Bandits out here.’
As we crested the hill, saw the makeshift town of tents and metal sheet huts laid out like toys on the sun baked dirt, Mama stopped. The trailer bumped to the ground as she lifted the rope free.
‘Sit,’ she said, giving me a handful of dates. She bent over the trailer as I ate, pulled free a bag, an old shirt and her scissors.
‘Aren’t we going down?’ I said. ‘There must be water, maybe showers. I’d like a shower.’
A shot rang out across the valley, the sound bouncing until I couldn’t tell where it had come from. Mama tried to smile I think, but her face stayed stiff.
‘We’re going to play a game while we’re in the Safe Zone, yes?’ She began to cut the shirt into strips until it looked like bandages. ‘And we need to cut your hair.’
At the guard post the man looked at Mama, looked down at me. ‘Names,’ he said, pen resting on his clipboard.
‘Yana,’ she said. ‘And my boy’s name is Ali.’
The shirt bandages felt hot and itchy round my chest, but I made myself not scratch as the man nodded us through.