In stark contrast to the ancient city that once flourished with ideas and commerce, today there is only the exchange of small arms fire and artillery shells within the city center, as the soldiers check their weapons. Reloading clips, stocking grenades, adjusting helmets and armor becomes ambient noise; a sort of requiem for the tight chests, clenched teeth and apprehension. In the basement of an unkempt house of old bricks, a single bulb above a large dinner table sheds light on a map and a meager squad of eight, including myself. The moldy space has offered us sanctuary from the relentless shelling and was at first cramped when we were a healthy squad of 15 a fortnight ago.
The barrage continues but unlike the others, this one is close, very close. The floor jolts, the table rattles and items fall off as the light swings from the cord. The men glance at their wrists incessantly because it’s nearly time to leave. Those who aren’t standing do so and with the crack and clank of old Russian-made rifles, rounds are sent to their chambers. Like the attire, the radios are dark. One final check. “It’s time,” we’re told. It’s midnight.
Downtown is only strategically important, an area where everyone is working security and the people are filthy from fighting in the humidity. The shells continue to fall around them as they climb the stairs and evacuate the house. Outside many of the buildings have toppled and sloshed in the streets as we dart into an alley and make our move toward the objective. An anthropomorphic symphony of our boots on the cobble stone, the cadence of our breath and the dull thud of explosions accompany us as we run past doorways and debris along a sewage canal infested with rats.
A dozen or so green flares are suddenly shot up throughout the area exposing us as a vulnerable squad and part of a force attempting to occupy another Mediterranean stronghold. The iridescent light shimmers, illuminating the course of the alley as it becomes narrower. We slow down, this is a bottleneck, and the man on point signals us to halt as he proceeds cautiously with eyes scanning. He takes a step forward; there is a sharp click. We all hear it. A heartbeat later, the device ignites. A whirlwind of fire engulfs him, and there is a wall of flames blocking the path as though looking in a furnace with his form crumbling inside. Seven. We are horrified by the spectacle and stunned by the intense heat.
This ambush was well thought out. Rifles open up behind us with shouts in a foreign language filling the breaks in between. A heavy caliber bullet goes through the helmet of the man next to me as the rest of our six hearts beat frantically with adrenaline and fear. Through the chaos of trying to find a target in order to return fire, our stomachs twist to knots when we hear what sounds like bricks being dropped from the rooftops, but we know they are grenades. The shadows blink out of existence and the earth churns and turns over on itself disintegrating back to nothing with each burst. The senses grapple with reality, trying to tear away from a cubist’s perspective. “Cover! Fall back!” commands are echoed.
I wake up with an unsuppressed scream. The veins in my neck are constricted and I feel my pulse trying to escape through my temples. I look to my side and see an empty bottle of liquor staring back at me, and that’s when I remember she left. She left months ago, months after I returned. I was going to apologize for waking her up, again.