THE BOY WHO LIVED UNDERGROUND
I'm basically going to leave it to Omar to tell the story of Nazir. George Orwell once upon a time advised wannabe writers never to use a long word when a short word will do. Well, I am reaching for a similar playbook. I met up with Omar in Edinburgh a couple of months ago and he helped me out with all kinds of stuff, most of which will appear in the pages to come. I took my recorder and taped our time together. Well, I just played the recording back and I can see no great reason to add much. So you can hear most of Nazir's story care of Omar. I'll merely add in a few bits and bats for colour.
Fair enough? I guess it will have to be. Like I said, I'm in charge here after all.
I landed in Edinburgh on a morning train. The city was sparkling in the crisp winter light. There were still some traces of frost on the grass and everyone was wearing scarves and walking just that little bit faster than normal.
Omar was waiting for me in an agreed cafe and when he saw me he stood with old school manners. We drank coffee and made nice. He asked after Wendell and I asked after the guys. His clothes were bland and his voice was soft. He should have been unobtrusive. He should have been the kind of guy nobody would find a second glance for.
He wasn't of course.
There is something about Omar. He has a presence that attracted every eye. He isn't dramatically handsome and his nose is much too long and beak-like for him to get anywhere near a boy band. He is just one of those guys who carry an aura about them. Maybe it is the coal black eyes. Maybe it is the utter stillness he holds when there is no requirement to move. It is just the way he is.
We paid up and left and Omar suggested a walk. Some air. A chance to clear the cobwebs. We small talked our way to the Parliament and onto the path up Arthur's Seat. I was soon blowing hard whilst he seemed to glide. He hadn't been a mountain man for nigh on twenty years, but he still ate up the steep gradient with the ease of a goat.
When we reached the top we sat and took in the city below. Omar lit a cigarette and I saw how his eyes were drawn to the mountains on the far horizon.
“Can I ask you about Nazir?”
“Of course. What do you want me to tell?”
“Oh, I don't know. How did you meet? His story? Whatever you think."
He nodded and took another draw.
“We met Nazir three weeks after Moses joined us. In Calais. In the jungle. When I look back I am a little ashamed. We were not good. I think maybe we should have been better.”
“I don't understand.”
“This is what you must remember Sam. We had all been brutalised. All we had really known in life was war. We went to war as boys. Me and Faisal and Tariq. Moses too. None of us were allowed to be children. All we knew was how to fight and survive. And we had all done bad things. Very bad things.”
Another drag. His eyes locked onto the rugged distance.
“We were warriors. Killers really. Our lives had taught us how only strength mattered. Being strong meant staying alive. Surviving. Those who were weak all died. It was not right. It was just how it was. This was why we asked Moses to join us. It wasn't because he was a young boy who was all alone. A boy with no family and no home. This was not why we called him over to our fire. We called him because we saw he was the same as we were. A warrior. Those Albanians were very frightening men. Very dangerous men. But Moses frightened them away with his eyes. We saw he was like we were. And he saw the same.
'I think you can have no idea how hard it was to make the journey to Calais. It was hard for us and we were three. We had to win many fights. But this was OK. We knew how to fight. There were bad men all the way from Afghanistan to France. Very bad men. The kind of men who would cut your throat when you were sleeping and think nothing of it. And when we arrived in the Jungle, there were many more bad men. Bad men like the Albanians. We were not afraid because we were three. And we knew how to fight. How to kill. We too were bad men. You understand?”
Did I? Not really. I half nodded, half shrugged.
“We knew Moses was the same. He was very big. Very strong. But it wasn't about his size. It was about his eyes. The look on his face as he stared out the Albanians. We could see he was like us. We knew he had done bad things. Just like we had done bad things. We knew.”
Another cigarette. By now we had three buzzards high above us whilst far below traffic moved in complete silence.
“When I look back now at the time we spent in the Jungle, I am not proud. There were so many on their own. Children. I could see the fear in their eyes. I could feel the grief they tried to hide. The worst sadness any human being can ever know. It is a terrible thing to lose your family as a child. I have known this sadness myself. When my father was killed by the bomb, I must have looked like the children of the Jungle. Lost. Frightened. Broken. There were many of them in that place. Hundreds really. But we did nothing to help them. Instead, we kept to ourselves. We guarded each other. We let everyone know how things would be if anyone tried to harm us. We should have done more to protect the lost children from the bad men. We didn't. And it makes me feel ashamed."
A whole bunch of inane words of sympathy fluttered through my head but I didn't speak a single one of them. Wendell had taught me well.
“Nazir was on his own. Like so many. He was only small. I thought he could have been no more than twelve years old. In fact, he was fourteen. I could see the hunger in him. His clothes were very loose. He had built a fire but it didn't stop him from shivering. I saw him and then I turned away. He wasn't my business. He was just another boy.
'Then the Albanians came. Three of them. Big ugly men with shaved heads and tattoos. They stood over him and told him to get to his feet. He just ignored them. He just sat still with his arms wrapped around his knees for warmth. Again they told him to get up and again he ignored them. One of them kicked him in the back. Not very hard. Hard enough to hurt. The man kicked again and still, Nazir ignored him. The man reached down and grabbed Nazir by his hair and started to drag him away from the fire."
And now a small smile. Such a rare thing for Omar.
“Have you ever seen a big man try to pick up a fierce cat. A wild cat. You know. The kind of cat who lives on the streets and kills rats. You have seen this? Well. The man is so much bigger than the cat, yes? But the cat is very fierce. It writhes and hisses and scratches. Not many men can hold onto a cat like this. They drop the cat and rub at where they have been scratched and they curse the cat. That is how it was when the Albanian tried to drag Nazir by his hair. It was like the boy exploded. He was like a maniac. He screamed and punched and kicked out. The three Albanians backed off and tried to laugh. But their laughing was not real laughing. They were nervous. The small boy had made the three big men nervous."
A small shake of the head to go with the fleeting smile.
“It was enough. We got up. We told the Albanians to leave. We asked if Nazir would like to join us by our fire. He came. And he became one of us.”
Omar lit up another cigarette.
“At first he was like Moses. Very quiet. Only 'yes' and 'no'. But slowly he started to trust us. Then he told us about what had happened to him. He was from Syria. A town called Idlib near the border with Turkey. I think we must have passed quite close by when we made our journey. But that is not important.
'Nazir had a very different childhood to the rest of us. I think he must have been happy. His father was an officer in the army. A Major. And his mother was a teacher. He had no brothers and sisters. They had a nice house with orange trees in the garden. A car. A satellite dish. A good school. Holidays. It was all very nice I think. But then everything changed of course.
'At first, he didn't really notice all the demonstrations. Why would he have? In 2011 he was only 12 years old. And there was nothing on the TV of course. He saw something was troubling his father. Then it was impossible not to notice when the demonstrations came to the streets of his town. And now his father had to make a choice. Would he take his family away to safety and continue as an officer for the Assads? Or would he desert and join other men from Idlib in the Free Syrian Army? The Major had secretly hated the Assads for many years. Almost everyone in Idlib hated the Assads. So he deserted and did his best to get the local resistance fighters ready for the day the Government forces arrived. He did his best, but it was impossible for it to be enough.
'So one day the army arrived. They came with fifty tanks which surrounded the town. And then they opened fire. They didn't care where they aimed. They simply fired hundreds and hundreds of rounds into the streets. A shell hit Nazir's house in the late afternoon and his mother was crushed to death when the ceiling collapsed. Nazir only survived because of luck: he was using the bathroom at the back of the house when the shell came in.
'Nazir hid for the rest of the day and all of the night and the shells never stopped. His father made it back a little after dawn and he and his men frantically ripped at the rubble until they found his wife's broken body.
'His father wanted to get his son out of the country straight away. But Nazir argued to stay. He wanted revenge. He wanted to fight. He said it didn't matter he was only 12 years old. Lots of boys were fighting Assad. In the end, his father said he could stay. And fight.
'Nazir's war was the same as the war we knew. The Free Syrian Army faced impossible odds. Assad had planes and helicopters and artillery and tanks and many, many more men. More ammunition. More food. More everything. The government was sure they could take Idlib in less than a week.
And now the smile was back. Maybe even a little wider.
'They were wrong. When the Americans hunted me and Faisal and Tariq, we hid in the mountains. When the Ugandan army hunted Moses, he hid in the jungle. For Nazir, there were no jungles or mountains to hide in. But Idlib is a very old city. A very ancient city. Under the city, there are many, many tunnels which had been there for 3000 years. So the Free Syrian Army said goodbye to the sun and went underground. At first Nazir's job was to carry food and water and ammunition. Being small was suddenly a big advantage. He could squeeze through the smallest gaps. He could get anywhere. Like a rat. Soon they learned how to surprise the Government soldiers. They would appear from nowhere and attack and then disappear back into the tunnels. Assad tried everything to drive them out. He tried fire and explosives and poison, but nothing worked.
'After a few months, Nazir was allowed to fight with the other men. He became a boy soldier. Like me. Like Faisal and Tariq and Moses. He saw things no boy should ever see. He learned how to kill.
'Nazir fought from the tunnels for nearly a year. And then his father was killed. Instructions had been left and this time he knew there was no point in trying to argue. His uncle took him away from the city and across the border into Turkey. In all, they were six. Nazir. His aunt and uncle. His three cousins. They went to the coast and bought passage to Greece. Their boat was overcrowded and worthless. It sank. All the others drowned, but Nazir managed to survive through the night and he was rescued in the morning.
'And then he was alone. Completely alone. He was fourteen years old and he had no family and no home. All he had was grief and hate and $500 wrapped in polythene and hidden in his shoes.
'He was fourteen years old but he was no boy. He was a warrior. He knew how to survive. On the long journey through Europe, he faced many challenges. But he overcame. He found his way to the Jungle. And he met us. Joined us. Became one of us.
Another cigarette and a long silence. A long and very still silence. After a while, I wondered if he was done speaking. Not quite.
“You know, I am really a man of science. I like mechanics and electronics. I can understand this world. It makes sense. It is real. Impossible to deny. One and one can only ever be two, no matter what any man says. But I think I also believe in destiny. Yes. Destiny. There we were. Five boys from very different worlds. And yet we found each other. Can something like that merely be pure luck? I think not. I think it was destiny. Our destiny."
It was my turn to smile. “And not just for you.”
He gave me a quizzical look.
“I think it was destiny for all of us. It is why I am writing my book after all. Come on Omar, you know what I mean. It was also destiny for Scotland.”
Another small smile and once again his eyes were drawn to the magnificent horizon.
“Yes. I suppose so. For Scotland.”
When Davie Fisher made the decision to turn himself into a freelance reporter in the summer of 2006, a friend advised him to climb on board with the big new online craze. It went by the name of 'Twitter' and Davie thought the whole thing was a little ridiculous. But he did it anyway. What was there to lose when all was said and done? The instructions made tough demands. He was expected to say who he was in 140 characters or less. After giving the thing a few minutes’ worth of thought he used many less.
And his handle remained unchanged for the next quarter century as his page grew all the way to over fifty thousand followers.
When Davie became properly famous, many feature articles pondered on the word 'maverick'. Was it really the case or was it all show? The journalists tasked with telling the public all about Davie Fisher did the usual thing and delved back into his childhood.
A first glance revealed nothing out of the ordinary. Davie was born in a Glasgow hospital in the midst of the long hot summer of 1976. He learned to crawl, toddle and walk in a rather fine old house in the city's leafy West End. The Fishers were comfortably well off thanks to a flourishing haulage business which Davie's grandfather had established in the 1950's. He was the third of three children and the only boy. His older sisters tried valiantly to keep him in line and mostly failed. Dusty old school reports told the story of an intelligent, wilful boy who excelled at sport whilst being caned more or less every week. High school brought more of the same. Old school pals painted a picture of popularity, mischief, and prowess on the football pitch.
By the time he hit 16 he was already drifting from the kind of sensible path his sisters and parents would have hoped he might follow. He made the wrong kind of friends and on several occasions he found himself locked up whilst desk sergeants made calls to his enraged father. By the early nineties, his life was teetering on the edge. He leaped into the rave scene and for a while he made a handsome living selling ecstasy. The family frantically tried to talk sense into him and failed miserably time and time again.
In 1994 his grandfather fell gravely ill with cancer which might have been spotted years earlier had he gone to the doctor. By the time they ran all the tests it was far too late for anything to be done. Davie went to see him and allowed the dying man to give some life advice. This granddad saw what others couldn't. He saw how Davie lived for the buzz. How he craved a life on the edge. How he would never be like his sensible sisters.
“You want to roll the dice, Davie? You want to know how it feels to have everything on the line? Of course, you do. I know the feeling. Always have. All this shite with the drugs is just nickel and dime. If you want to live in the fair ground, then why not find the balls to go on the big ride."
Davie frowned and tried to understand the cracked words from the fading man in the bed.
“I don't get you, Grandpa."
“I took the big ride Davie. Took it back in 1944 all the way to fucking Berlin. It's the biggest ride in the park Davie. Better than the shite you're involved in.”
Davie was wide eyed. He had never heard his Granddad swear before. He had never seen this glinting hardness before.
“You think I should join the army?”
“Too fucking right. And I want to see an acceptance letter before I pop my clogs. They say I've got three months so you best get your skates on.”
Davie got his skates on. The interviews were a breeze and six weeks after walking through the doors of the Army Careers office he cruised through the three-day officer selection course at Westbury.
He was able to hand over his letter of acceptance to Sandhurst to his grandfather five days before the old man finally gave up on his last fight.
Davie had a few scrapes at Sandhurst but by and large, the instructors liked the cut of his jib. They tried and failed to knock the wilfulness out of him whilst never coming close to breaking him physically. He passed out in 1995 and took up a commission as a second lieutenant in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. At first, the task of leading a platoon of mainly Glaswegian street fighters was more than enough to keep his restlessness at bay. But time passed and his feet started to itch. In 2000 he completed SAS selection and was duly admitted into the Regiment just in time to be sent to Afghanistan to join the hunt for Osama Bin Laden.
He loved everything about his first deployment with the Special Forces. He took to combat like a duck to water and thrived on the easy going casual style with which the Regiment went about its business.
More importantly, everything felt right about the work they were doing. The locals were clearly happy to see them and there were no grey areas about their task. Al Qaeda had driven two planes into the Twin Towers and it was payback time. He fell hook, line and sinker for the towering mountains and the tough people who lived there. The unrelenting hardness of the landscape reached somewhere deep into him and he felt a contentment he had never known before.
Two years later in Iraq, everything felt very different. His every instinct told him he was fighting in the name of a lie. An unforgivable lie forged out of greed. They were supposed to be searching for weapons of mass destruction but they all knew it was a wild goose chase. The ghost was duly given up after a couple of months and he was redeployed to Basra City and night after night of search and destroy. The rule book was torn up and with every passing day, he felt more uneasy at what he was doing.
He completed the tour, resigned his commission and hid at the bottom of a bottle for a year. His sisters barged in on him in early 2005, dragged him into a cold shower and gave him the bollocking of his life. They took it in turns to guard him whilst the alcohol faded from his system. It took a fortnight for him to free himself from the physical hold the booze had on him. The mental hold took much longer. More or less every day would find him in a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous. For a while he found a new purpose helping out the all too numerous homeless veterans who drank away their days on the streets of Glasgow.
In 2006 his feet started to itch again and he found himself drawn back to the wild mountainscapes of Afghanistan. He cashed what was left of the money his granddad had left him and headed east under his new Twitter handle.
Free lancer. Maverick.
He spent his first couple of months in Kabul battling the desire to join his fellow hacks at the bar. He roamed the city, slowly getting his bearings and picking up bits and pieces of the lingo. When his laptop froze one day, his regular taxi driver and guide took him to a small shop where a brilliant boy and a mute father were eking out an existence. He spent more and more time with them. All the while the father who was old years before his time would fiddle and scratch at a battered old radio. After a few visits, the boy slowly opened up and quietly laid out the horror of their lives. Finally, he spoke of the day his uncle had dragged his mother from the house and ordered her to be stoned to death. Davie could tell these words had been a long time coming. He sensed a crippling weight ease itself from the boy's back. And at the same time, he felt something shift deep inside himself.
It was as if some of the boy's incredible resilience and pride seeped into his bones. His soul. For the first time since Basra, Davie didn't yearn for the oblivion of a drink. For the first time since his grandfather died he had someone to look up to. His second great role model was a quiet, skinny Kabul boy seemed to be able to fix anything. The boy with the magic in his fingers.
And then one day he returned to the small shop only to find a heap of stones. A suicide bomber who had allowed a finger to twitch. The old man dead. The boy taken in the night.
Taken by his uncle.
Taken by the legend who was Akram Kebir.
Davie stood for a long time by the rubble. He smoked cigarette after cigarette as his driver waited patiently. Passers-by stopped to stare at him. Children danced around him and begged for sweets. The steady life of the dusty street flowed around him. He thought about the scrap of paper he had given the boy. An invitation to Scotland. A thread to be pulled. A series of letters and numbers which would probably never be used. Omar was gone.
Over the coming years, Davie found his calling. He won the trust of the Taliban and they allowed him to watch them as they carried out their Jihad. He more or less went native and after five years he could pass for one of them. By now he was in gainful employment and drawing a salary from Al Jazeera. His reporting from the mountains won a couple of awards but he didn't bother to collect them. In the London office, he earned the nickname of Lawrence of Aghanistan. The reporter who had gone native.
In 2013 he tripped and fell forty feet from a goat path. He broke his leg in three places and the Taliban fighters he was with had to carry him for three days until they reached a place where Al Jazeera could arrange for him to be picked up. He was shipped back home to Glasgow to recuperate.
This was the first time he had spent any amount of time in his home city for nearly a decade. He had no place of his own. At thirty-seven years old he found himself back in his old bedroom being fussed over by his mother and sisters.
After six weeks of this incarceration, his feet were itching like they had never itched before. When the phone rang he was out in the garden soaking up what would probably be the last sunshine of the summer. His mother emerged from the house carrying the phone. She passed it to him with a shrug.
“It's for you Davie. Sorry, I couldn't catch the name.”
The line was scratchy and the voice rang no bells.
“Is this Mr David? Mr David from Scotland?”
“Aye. That's me right enough.”
“It is Omar. Omar from Kabul. I don't think you will remember me.”
“Bloody hell! Omar. Course I bloody well remember you. The boy with the magic in his fingers. How could I forget? Christ, this is amazing. How are you? Where are you?"
“I am very fine thank you. I am in Calais. In the place they call the Jungle. I hope you can maybe give me some help...”
There was no need to ask twice. Davie erupted from his lethargy and half an hour later he had talked his bemused mother out of the keys to her car and set the Satnav to Folkestone. He dozed through the Eurotunnel and by the time a watery sun was lighting up the world, he was parked up and making his way into the Jungle.
He hooked up with Omar and his fellow travellers and they spent the day making plans around the fire. The next day he collected them and they drove to Dunkirk to get their photos taken.
A few hours later found him in an East London pub where he hooked up with an old mate from the Regiment who had set himself up in the murkier corners of the world of private security. He asked for a favour which was duly granted. The next few days saw him passed from shady contact to shady contact until he found himself in a flat on the tenth floor of a block in Islington with a large Lebanese man who didn't care to give his name. Two young men with gym fit bodies and expressionless eyes kept a watching brief whilst Davie negotiated a price for five ready to use EU identities. He had $30,000 of Akram Kebir's fighting fund in an envelope in his jacket pocket and once the haggling was done he parted with $12,500 and a promise of a further $12,500 on delivery of five sets of paperwork.
It took the man from the tenth floor a week to create five newly minted human beings to match the photos from Dunkirk. The final exchange went down without drama and Davie headed south and back under the Channel. He loaded up Omar and his crew into his mother's Volvo estate and drove them to Brussels where he had booked them a flight to Glasgow.
They cleared customs and immigration without a problem and took a taxi to the Fisher family home in the West End where a greeting party was waiting for them. Davie's parents and sisters had lost the ability to be surprised by him many years earlier, so when he called to say five of his friends would arriving from Brussels they took it in their stride. By the time Davie completed the long drive north from Folkstone he found everyone happily gathered around the dining table. His dad was fast asleep.
Over the next few months, Davie successfully helped his new charges to establish themselves in Scotland. Faisal, Tariq and Moses made a start with Fisher Haulage and one by one they passed their HGV tests and became drivers. Omar and Nazir took a stall on the Barrowlands market selling and fixing all things electrical. At first, all five of the newcomers shared a house in the south of the city. As the years drifted by they met partners, married and started families in homes of their own. Only Moses remained single.
Once everyone was settled, Davie flew out to Syria. He continued to live out of a suitcase for the next fifteen years before finally heading home to Scotland in 2028. He took up residence in the family home which he had inherited when his mother died in 2024. He told everyone he was going write a book but he never got very far with it. By the time the summer of 2030 arrived, he was spending his days rattling around the house and making a half-hearted attempt to do the garden. He was 54 years old, single and suffering from a long familiar itch in his feet.
He couldn't think of what on earth he could find to do to scratch the itch. It seemed like his days of itch scratching were probably done. And in a way he was OK with it. He had travelled many thousands of hard miles. Maybe kicking back wasn't the worst idea. He had been around the block more times than he could remember. Was there really a need to go round again? Probably not. Maybe it was finally time to find something less hectic to fill his days.
And maybe it might have been just like that. But he never got the chance to find out because the world went crazy.
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