Hollowed and furious eyes from behind wrought-iron cage doors followed Yasmeen as she walked down the dimly lit hallway that reeked of urine, excreta, and vomit, her fearful eyes fixated on the bleach stain on the back of the guard’s uniform. She was one of them, the savage stateless, but she did not belong; she knew it and they knew it. Her initial shock of not having her name included in the List-3 of Legitimate Citizens or L3LC had worn off, but she was terrified of those with whom she was to share the rest of her days until the appeal which she was sure she would win. And her terror was not because of the obvious hatred the inmates had for her; she had always been terrified of them.
The guard swung open a cell door and poked Yasmeen in the ribs with a steel baton. “Get in,” she barked.
Five women were already in the ten feet by eight feet cell wearing the same grey uniform she was forced into after an invasive public shower in front of the sniggering guards, only theirs old and faded. One of them stood, leaning on the dirty wall and watching the dust swirl in the rays of the evening sun from the small square window a few feet above her head. The others, sitting on a torn rug, glared at Yasmeen. In the corner, was a rusty commode and its dripping bidet with a faded note in marker ink on its flush tank that said ‘for emergency use only’.
Yasmeen stepped in, shaking, and the guard slammed the door shut behind her, startling a tiny squeal and a gasp out of her which prompted dry laughter from her cellmates and the guard. Once the guard walked away whilst swinging the large ring of keys off her forefinger, the smallest woman in the cell who incidentally was the stoutest and also appeared to be the oldest judging by her salt and pepper hair spoke in a gruff voice. “Rug for savage,” she said, pointing at herself. “Floor for you,” she scowled, pointing at Yasmeen.
The next morning, Yasmeen discovered that the inmates of the Kalamari Detention Centre had a name for her — filthy traitor bitch. A group of women surrounded her after breakfast, cutting off any potential escape while she sat quietly on the floor at the edge of the dining hall as she had been feeling rather queasy because she had never eaten half-boiled beans in cold salty water passed off as soup, with a piece of thick and dry flatbread. “Filthy traitor bitch,” said one woman. Another squatted before Yasmeen and asked, “You want to know what I feel?”
This was rhetoric to Yasmeen’s argument at the National Television of the Republic of Durand Coi or the NTRDC Talk Show from eleven months ago — “To those who are on the streets, blocking roads and waving slogans, you know you are either one of the savages who have entered this nation without legitimate authorisation or a citizen of this great nation with misplaced sentiments, and to you, to both of you, I ask, what would you feel if your homes were robbed and your possessions stolen, if your daughters, your sisters, your wives, and your mothers were harassed by savages intruding upon your lands?”
The women spit on Yasmeen, punched her in the face until she bled from her nose and her lip split open, pulled her hair till there were tufts of it on the floor, kicked her in the gut until she vomited the breakfast and urinated, and ripped her clothes until she was half-naked and in rags. As she lay on the cold floor, shivering and writhing in pain, gagging on the stench of her own vomit and urine, she cursed President Hinzel and all of his forefathers. Yasmeen had served in the army for three years following which she worked tirelessly in political circles till she rose to become a household name, and she still wasn’t qualified to be a legitimate citizen? She wept, her tears pooling on the floor tread on by women among whom she didn’t belong.
*** Jamila, after a week of watching Yasmeen’s bruises go from black and blue to a greenish-yellow while she laid in her own stench and filth on her side of the floor, whispering in delirium when awake, and sleeping with lips parted, oblivious to the flies hovering over her face, and the line of black ants climbing her limp torso to feed on the dried blood on her lip, decided to take matters in her own hands. She managed to get a helping of warm soup with more beans than usual, two flatbreads, a fresh set of uniforms, an old rug, and a bowl of water. Jamila swatted away the flies, chased away the ants by beating the floor around them, and cleaned Yasmeen who slept through it all.
When a corpse-like Yasmeen was stronger after two days of nursing which Jamila continued much to the dismay of the other cellmates, she whispered to her a faint ‘thank you’ to which Jamila did not respond. On the fifth day, when Yasmeen was able to sit on her own, she asked, “Did they just give you all these things?”
“The world don’t give free things, you pay. I pay,” she answered.
“How much did you pay?” Even as Yasmeen spoke the words, she dreaded that perhaps, money was not involved at all.
“You will see. They come for you also. I clean you, send you. You cry, you die.”
Yasmeen stared at Jamila, horrified that a woman cursed with such dark fate would speak of cleaning another woman and sending her to meet the same fate as if it were a matter of simple semantics in a business affair.
“In detention, there is rule,” said Jamila, unmoved by Yasmeen’s horror. “Women, special rule. Or die.” She leaned forward and uttered one word — ‘survive’ — before going back to massaging dirt off her ankle.
‘Survive.’ The word flooded Yasmeen with memories that had been kept at bay by a fragile dam. Her mother used to say that word. “When I was little, your uncles and I learned to survive at the refugee camp.”
Yasmeen’s maternal grandparents had fled Zaraksong to cross the borders of Durand Coi after their tribe was hounded and several persecuted by a group of fanatics while their government watched and did nothing. For over half a century many fled Zaraksong, some as refugees, forced to leave for fear of swords, others as immigrants, forced to leave in search of food and shelter. The previous Presidents of Durand Coi provided asylum to all refugees and eventually, gave them citizenship, and helped legitimise the entry and stay of immigrants.
But once Zaraksong went under siege by a military coup led by religious fundamentalists four years ago, tens of thousands panicked, and climbed over and crept under the barbed wires into Durand Coi. Refugee camps overflowed and bled into the neighbouring villages and towns where thefts and robberies grew three-fold within a fortnight. And when President Hinzel came to power a couple of years ago, he did so by promising the people of Durand Coi relief from the horrors brought upon them by ‘savages’.
Yasmeen had campaigned for President Hinzel. “My grandparents are from Zaraksong,” she bellowed into the megaphone. “But they came to Durand Coi as refugees, not as intruding, thieving, and robbing savages! And I, the daughter of my mother, the child of Durand Coi and her kindness, will always fight against her downfall!”
All that seemed so incredibly distant to Yasmeen as she sat in the cell, staring at Jamila. “When did you come to Durand Coi?” She finally asked.
“After siege,” said Jamila, still massaging dirt off her foot. She then paused and looked at Yasmeen. “Savage,” she grinned.
Yasmeen let out a dry chuckle and whispered, “I’m sorry.”
“I know,” said Jamila. “You make assumption, like child. Stupid child.”
Yasmeen stared at her stretched-out feet. “I knew that my grandparents’ refugee status was elevated legitimately to that of citizens. Turns out, it doesn’t matter. Hinzel is weeding out every single person with Zaraksong roots as if catering to a twisted personal vendetta. And that includes me. I wish I knew when there was still time.”
“You assume Hinzel good man. He madman,” said Jamila and burst out laughing as if she had roasted the President at a stand-up comedy show. The other cellmates joined in, and Yasmeen followed suit.
One by one the four women introduced themselves. Nazia used to make pottery and her grandparents like Yasmeen’s were refugees from Zaraksong. Bisma used to be a school teacher and her parents were immigrants from Zaraksong. Laiba used to own a tailoring shop and her grandfather was an immigrant from Zaraksong. Faiza used to be a housewife in Zaraksong and when she escaped the siege she never found her husband and her two children. But Yasmeen did only make one friend that evening and that was Jamila, the woman who had decreed on Yasmeen’s first evening that she sleep on the floor because that’s the thing about time, an entity with a consciousness of its own; the entire universe is left to its mercy and if it so desires foes become friends and friends shed their snakeskin.
*** For Yasmeen, there was no getting used to all the Tuesdays. For Nazia, it was Thursdays; for Bisma, it was Mondays; for Laiba, it was Sundays; and for Faiza, it was Saturdays and Wednesdays. “Because I am pretty,” said Faiza every time she prepared to leave the cell with a guard. Jamila mothered them all, cleaning and sending them to their doom, and then letting them sleep it off with their heads on her lap.
“Why do they do this to us?” Yasmeen asked dejectedly as Jamila helped clean her up after a guard brought her back on a Tuesday evening, nearly six months after her first evening at Kalamari.
“To break the unbreakable,” said Jamila as if she was quoting someone.
“And to remind our kind that we’ve asked for it through the years because if not, we would have worn headscarves,” added Faiza with a look of disgust.
“And then they hand out these ridiculous pamphlets every week with rules on how we should be behaving,” said Nazia and tossed the most recent one on the floor, crumpled into a ball.
“If only I could show the people of Durand Coi what horrors Hinzel is hiding,” said Yasmeen, her voice trailing.
Jamila thought for a moment. “Nobody leave detention. Big wall. Guards. Guns.”
“I didn’t even get to call anyone when I was picked up and dragged here. They said that people in the Lists could appeal at Special Tribunals and if they lost, preparations would be made to send them back to Zaraksong. But there’s nothing except death and doom in here,” said Yasmeen, her voice breaking.
“Even so, they won’t break us by raping us, because we are together, and together we are unbreakable,” interjected Laiba.
“That doesn’t mean we should keep enduring this while the world turns a blind eye,” argued Bisma. “Yasmeen is right. She went on television many times, so she must have connections with journalists, both national and international. The World Council must see what has been going on here. The people of the world, the Prime Ministers and Presidents of other nations, they should all see. And if they care about human rights half as much as they claim to, they could pressurize Durand Coi to start behaving. Personally, I don’t mind Durand Coi wanting to keep a List of Citizens. But they have made a horrible joke out of the word ‘legitimate’.”
“I have been thinking about their definition of ‘illegitimate’ as well,” said Yasmeen. “There is no definition. I used to think Hinzel meant the ones that were committing crimes in defense of their poverty, the ones outside the refugee camps, or the ones who had never been to refugee camps.”
“Not all of us who never ended up in refugee camps are criminals, Yasmeen,” said Faiza coldly.
“And it is not like Durand Coi did not have criminals before some Zaraksongs rampaged around,” chimed in Nazia. She was right. Crime statistics of Durand Coi had been higher than most countries even before the siege in Zaraksong.
“No, I… I didn’t mean it like that. I am sorry for everything I have said and done earlier. Truly, I am,” said Yasmeen.
Jamila waved her hand and dismissed her apology. “You stupid. We know. Already forgive,” she said and then laughed until she coughed. Faiza tapped on Yasmeen’s shoulder and smiled faintly.
“But I think we are forgetting to acknowledge the obvious,” said Bisma, looking out of the window at the beetroot sky. “We know what to do but there is no way to do it. It’s not rape they use to break the unbreakable, it is hopelessness. There are other detention centres like ours. One with men in them, another with children. Many women at Kalamari have families rotting away in those centres. And we all know our fates are sealed within these walls.”
That night Yasmeen did not sleep. It was a game of hopes versus walls with Hinzel as its referee, and walls were slowly winning. But Yasmeen’s mother used to say, “Hope is like a cockroach. It lives on through nuclear explosions. And it creeps up when you least expect it to and jumps at your face. You may think hope is gone, but it is merely on leave. And if you give up on it, it will simply find another home.” Yasmeen wanted to hold on to her hope despite all odds and she had to believe there were others like her. She wished she was a little girl again, so she could pretend she was a witch and blow up the walls with a flick of her wrist. And that is when it struck her — blow up. Yasmeen looked at the unbreakable wall and its window. The phrase ‘to break the unbreakable’, she thought, might find a literal interpretation after all.
*** Over the course of eight weeks, Yasmeen, Jamila, Nazia, Bisma, Laiba, and Faiza used the breakfast, lunch, and supper breaks, the fifteen minutes in the common shower area, and the gaps under the walls of the toilet cubicles to talk to the inmates of Kalamari in hushed tones, extending threads for the cockroaches of hope inside each of them to climb on to and spring to action.
The plan was simple — on the sixth day of October, a team of women with physical strength led by Yasmeen and Jamila would attack the guards during lunch with their steel trays, while the other team of women led by Nazia, Bisma, Laiba, and Faiza snatched their keys and made their way outside the building, closely followed by Yasmeen and Jamila’s team. They would target the artillery on the other side of the compound to ambush the fresh shipment of guns and ammunition that would be arriving that afternoon. And then they would break out of the detention centre, guns blazing. “Some of us may die,” Yasmeen said, “but we will be making enough visual noise for the satellites to pick up on and the world will have to watch.”
And finally, it was judgement day.
As soon as the inmates picked up their empty steel trays before a guard could serve them a dollop of that God-forsaken bean soup alongside a stale flatbread, they pounced on the unsuspecting guards, snatching their batons and striking on their heads, all the while screaming like foot soldiers on a battlefield. For a few moments, they thought they were winning but they had forgotten to account for the commotion attracting armed guards from the compound. As soon as the team that snatched the keys off the guards made it past the doors of the large break room, more guards rushed in through the main doorway of the building and cocked their rifles, pointing them at the inmates.
“Stop, or die,” yelled one of the armed guards.
Nazia, Bisma, Laiba, Faiza, and their team stopped, both fear and rage in their eyes. But before they could act, a grenade flew over their heads and landed amidst the armed guards, sending them bloody and flying in all directions. Two more grenades followed and razed the walls around the doorway. The inmates stared in horror and relief at the thick cloud of cement and brick dust and the layer of flesh, blood, and bones underneath it.
“What are you waiting for? Everyone heard the explosions! Get to the artillery! Now! All of you!”
Yasmeen noticed the bruised and battered woman, the guard who yelled those words right after hurling the three grenades at her colleagues. She looked at Yasmeen, clutching her chest and breathing heavily, “What, you thought the information about the shipment arriving today was fed to you by the Gods? We all have our secrets, filthy traitor bitch girl! Now, get out!”
On their way out, the inmates armed themselves with the guns of the dead guards at the doorway. They started running across the muddy compound, but more armed guards from every high and low point fired mercilessly. Women fell like toy soldiers but the ones that didn’t fall ran nonetheless. Not a lot of women shot their way into the artillery, and even fewer made it to the gates of the compound where they hurled random grenades and gunned down as many guards as they could find but in the end, were themselves gunned down by more guards.
*** Grim reporters yelled the breaking news through the sharp blade slaps of helicopters as they flew over the ruins and the smoke from the Kalamari Detention Centre while several ambulances blared their sirens from the compounds as the medical responders searched through the rubble and the smell of burnt gunpowder and flesh for any sign of life. Over the next few weeks, the world watched in horrified silence as the public post-mortem reports of the inmates and the accounts of surviving guards climbing into their suppressed consciences spilled ugly secrets onto their television screens and smartphones.
The women of Kalamari did break the unbreakable that afternoon — President Hinzel’s ego and his reputation, the unprepared voices of the citizens of Durand Coi, and the insufferable silence of the World Council. And all it took was a cockroach of hope with a smidge of bravery, and a sacrifice that let fathers reunite with their little boys and girls so they could bury their mothers, their sisters, and their wives under the soft winter sun.