To all those who will never come back

Introduction.

Over two hundred French women have landed in Syria over the last few years, drawn by the promise of living a life according to the precepts of Islam. They are between 13 and 23 years old, from the French middle classes. They hatch their plans in the midst of their families, between returning from school and the family dinner, glued to their computer screens. There on the web, skilful recruiters claiming to be from the “Ummah” (the community of Muslim believers) engage in brainwashing which ends up with an online conversion or a Skype marriage of no legal value. Spiriting new recruits away from the circle of their family and friends is now no more than child’s play, because minors can travel freely with their passports. And what is more, going on holiday in Turkey, with its prestigious seaside resorts, is completely normal. Except that now, in spite of building a wall 17 km long and trenches 145 km long, the over 800 km of border with Syria is a poisoned chalice. But these young women, who have no experience of anything else, do not realise that they have been ensnared right in the midst of a hyper-connected free world, with the Internet in their pockets, Orange stores and police stations every few yards. They don’t realise, until they enter the caliphate. Their telephones and papers are taken away; they are shut away on arrival, sometimes for several weeks on end, in the “maqab”, a concentration and selection camp with few sanitary facilities, where they are starved, and which they cannot leave unless they are married. Welcome to the heart of psychological terror and total dependence on Daesh.

Thérèse Fournier wrote this short story “on holiday in Greece” at the time that Mirza Publishing published her novel “2028” as an e-book.

To all those who will never come back

The shop assistant looks up at me and smiles:

– If it’s for the mountain, you’ll need one size bigger, because of thick socks.

I stand and look at the magnificent light beige walking boots on my feet.

– 38 will be fine.

– Off on a trip, she asks, taking the other enormous boot out of the box and nodding towards Mohammed my husband, who is wandering about engrossed in his chocolate coloured boots.

Kenza and Ayoub look at their parents intently:

– We want new boots too, says Kenza.

– I hope you have a good holiday!

*

* *

“Holiday!” the shop assistant’s words resounded in my ears for a long time. We have been preparing for several months. Officially we are going on holiday in Greece, on a budget package, in the Cyclades, our first holidays since Mohammed lost his job, just before starting a new IT maintenance job.

Greece then Delos to admire the marvels of classical antiquity. It does not feel like the usual lead up to a holiday, with the feeling of never returning, the lease on two rooms terminated, Kenza’s primary school notified. Kenza will supposedly spend a few months with her paternal grandmother in Tunisia – the old clothes, the old papers, all ditched, I feel a bit sentimental about my teacher training course – yes, I, Juliette-Marie, was awarded my teacher training qualification in language and literature in June 2014. So why don’t I go on to teach? Why in this 2014-2015 academic year am I not going to a normal school to stuff the heads of pre-adolescents with the poetry of Ronsard and the tales of Marguerite of Navarre, or the stories of Emma Bovary or Antigone? Because my twin, the other me, Sana el Jemaâ, my Muslim name, is not allowed in the courses. So I have to leave it, leave it at the college door, at the schoolroom door, on the doorstep of my life.

We talk about it with Mohammed and with the sisters who have experienced the same ordeal on the web. How wonderful it would be to live in harmony with ourselves, in a country in which God’s law would be the same as man’s law. It turns out, in fact, that this promised land actually exists. It is the blessed land of Sham in Syria to which we are going to emigrate, we and our children, to live according to our religion, devoting ourselves to the cause of oppressed Muslims worldwide and saving Bashar’s orphans.

*

* *

Although the decision is now taken, that doesn’t stop me from feeling very shaky on Friday, 15 May 2015, at terminal 3 of Charles de Gaulle airport, the charter flight terminal, sitting at the departure gate for Onur Air flight number 8Q266 to Antalya, changing planes in Istanbul. The children are happy to be going to “Greece”, each with their little pink Pocahontas backpacks, a cuddly toy, a pacifier, a little car, two “Tom-Tom and nana” picture books, and chocolate biscuits. I have five sandwiches in my bag – two for Mohammed who wolfs them down – fruit purée, a tube of chestnut purée and concentrated milk. Ayoub is sitting on my lap, Mohammed is writing messages on his iPhone6 with its silver metal casing, while I distractedly reply on WhatsApp on my pink iPhone6. Soon the air hostess, keying in our passport details, smiles at us (families always inspire trust!), asks when we are coming back. Mohammed says they will give us a return ticket at the hotel, in Antalya, another smile, and we are on the moving walkway.

– My backpack, Kenza suddenly whines, looking back.

We see it at the other end of the walkway, very small and very pink.

– It doesn’t matter, dear; I’ll buy you another ten in Sham to replace it.

That is how I started my transformation, imagining that Sham was an immense green and white Islamic supermarket – whereas in fact black is the colour that dominates it, the black of fear, of death and of suffering.

*

* *

I’ve always preferred Turkey to Greece. I say it laughingly. We all have the right to joke, surely? But it is true that plenty of women in Turkey wear head scarves, and I feel more at home. To celebrate leaving France, we treat ourselves to a stay at the Akra Barut Hotel, on the fifteenth floor, with a stunning view of Antalya Bay and the Taurus Mountains, full board, for the weekend. Mohammed spends his two days in the family suite emptying the little fridge, he adores the television, he adores channel hopping, he adores the American television series. I spend my time on the beach. The water is not all that warm, but my holidays in Normandy have toughened me up and my children inherited that from me, sand castles and dips in cold water. I buy them all the stuff for the beach, bucket and spade, watering can and rake. I feel a wonderful sense of freedom and happiness, with the prospect of no longer facing the shame of being a Muslim, of believing in God, of wanting to live with the headscarf, unlike Katia, Farida, Chloé and all the others. In my suitcases, I am carrying presents for my new companions, Fatima, Rachida, Houria, from Roubaix, Besançon, Lyon, Marseille, who went out to Sham before me. We chat over the Internet, and they want perfumes from Lancôme and coloured sitars. They fill my bag.

*

* *

We leave our luxury hotel and go to Alanya two hundred kilometres further east, the marine blue of the Mediterranean with us all the way. This is the end of the holiday; I put on a djellaba and a headscarf. Mohammed receives an encrypted message to move to the meeting point at Gaziantep, 600 km further still to the east. We get on board an old coach, it is hot and the road is full of potholes. In Alanya, Kenza has to part with her red bucket and sulks. I stuff the Pocahontas backpacks with Turkish biscuits and four litres of water until it weighs a ton. Mohammed makes a scene because of my suitcase, which is too heavy. He wants me to empty half of it out, but I refuse because it is for my friends. The countryside becomes more and more desert-like, the rail of the seat digs into the small of my back, the sun disappears over the horizon and my iPhone6 reception starts to fail, a truly lousy connection and I tell my sister Chloé about my holiday in Greece.

It is midday when the dusty coach starts to move through the crowded outskirts of Gaziantep and deposits us at a bus station in a bustling crowd of passengers in enormous djellabas and plastic bags. I am aching all over, and my pocket mirror shows me the reflection of a weary woman. A little bit of kohl under the eyes makes me look more presentable. Kenza and Ayoub are hopping about with excitement. They point out a giant green owl with red metal wings – the entrance to the zoo, I always said that children had a fifth sense. Let’s go to the zoo, then meet up at the taxi stand, Mohammed is waiting for a message. We have our fill of popcorn, kangaroos, emus, ice cream, giraffes, and parrots. When we leave the zoo, Mohammed points to the door of a taxi. I run towards him:

– I called you!

I look at my mobile, no reception.

– A problem with my worldwide subscription.

I dial 700 for Orange, 3 minutes wait, no time for that says Mohammed.

*

* *

Gaziantep, the sixth biggest city in Turkey, stretches over kilometre after kilometre of small three-storey apartment blocks, interspersed here and there with parks containing jacarandas, cypresses and parasol pines. The taxi crosses the crowded city and stops before the garage on a deserted road. A van reverses out, an enormous bloke gets out of it and asks us the “kounia” – the alias – of our contact. Abou Omar, says Mohammed. He goes off, makes a phone call to check, and then tells us to climb aboard. No friendliness, no attempt to treat us well. We are not tourists who need to be kept happy. Thirty minutes in the van heading south, towards Sanliurfa, Urfa the Glorious, in Anatolia where, according to legend, Adam and Eve spent some time. We keep quiet, overcome by a sort of worry about the unknown. Even the children don’t dare say anything. We look at each other questioningly, particularly Kenza, very loving towards me, with the red bucket forgotten. Five days have passed since we left. Up to that point everything has gone well, but unmistakably, in step with the failing telephone reception, the uncomfortable vehicles in which we travel, the increasingly arid countryside, and the hard faces that surround us, we begin to understand that an irreversible episode in our fate is playing out. We are a few kilometres from the Syrian border. The driver pulls up in front of a barely completed house in an estate of detached houses and takes our baggage in. It is now Wednesday 20 March 2015.

*

* *

We spend three days in the top floor of this house. It smells of paint, the sockets are hanging out of the walls, and there are five bedrooms, two bathrooms with baths, a kitchen with hob and oven, and mattresses on the ground. At least there is electricity and water, but not hot water. The ill-assorted group accompanying us has no other aim but making it to Sham; there is an Irishman with a logger’s head and his wife, a couple of Tunisians and their son, two Egyptians, a couple of Indians, an Omani, and a 10-year-old Moroccan boy. That makes four women, seven men, four children, fifteen people to feed in the morning, midday and evening, with a total ban on going out. Life revolves around mobile phones and computers – no Wi-Fi – and cooking, we even have music. Each morning, someone brings us four bags of food, some ten loaves of bread, and we women, while the men are speaking a mixture of English, French and Arabic in the “living room”, prepare vegetables, cook rice, dough and potatoes. We wash, put things away, rinse, and even take “turns” in doing the washing up by hand. We can hang out washing on the line on the terrace. A very odd atmosphere reigns. We all have a sinking feeling in the pits of our stomachs, because we have no idea what is going on at the other end. We know only that one evening someone will come to tell us we will be crossing by night. There is no time to say “phew”, too much work to change things. During the few moments of relaxation, we show each other photos of what we naturally call “home”. For Hina, the Indian woman, it is Bombay, for Katia, Glasgow, for Rajah, Tunis, and for me, Nanterre. The children go and play on the terrace, or on the roof. In spite of unspoken worry, we enjoy a little happiness and harmony. Perhaps we are wrong to worry. I still have not resolved my problem with the Orange worldwide subscription. Finally, on Sunday 24 May at 4 pm, we are told to be ready for three in the morning. While saying this, the man throws a package into the middle of the living room saying “for women” – these are our niqabs.

*

* *

The night is bright and cool, without a breath of wind and there is a magnificent waning crescent moon. From now on, everything I tell you about is seen from under a niqab, reality bounded by a rectangular frame. From inside it, I can always see its limits. Two vans await us in front of the house, we go quickly and quietly, Mohammed and I have put on our walking boots, the case is heavy, it is an escape. Kenza and Ayoub cling to me. For several days Kenza has been wanting to go home, she wants to see Françoise, her teacher. I move towards Mohammed, but one of the drivers stops me, “this car for women, this for men”.

We drive at breakneck speed on an unsurfaced road in a hideous screech of metal, thrown around in all directions, with the children whimpering. This takes all of one hour, and my iPhone, which was slipped into the front pocket of the niqab, says it is four in the morning. There is no reception anymore, and when we suddenly stop on some wasteland, we all get out. Day is beginning to break in the East, a narrow band of bluish light on the horizon that gradually encroaches on the vault of the heavens spangled with stars. The driver points to the south-east and shouts at us, “Run! Run!” It is chaos. Dragging our suitcases, stumbling on stony ground, with the children wailing, thorns tearing at our niqabs, we run well over 1 km, crossing deep trenches, dodging barbed wire. Hina falls into a ditch and breaks her leg. At last, our group, gasping for breath and thirsty, gathers together before a thicket of thorns into which a path disappears. At the end, high above the rising sun looms the black flag with white lettering of the Islamic State. It is 6 am on 25 May 2015.

*

* *

Exhausted and aching, Mohammed and I each climb into our vans, I with the suitcase and the children, he with the men, not knowing whether this is the last time we will see each other. The driver is armed. Peering round the edge of the vehicle’s drawn curtains; I see that the road crosses fields with peasants working. Black-clad guards armed with machine guns are on duty everywhere. After an hour, we come into a ruined town with deserted streets, men, dustbins ripped open, rubble in the gutters, a roundabout with blood-encrusted heads on spikes. I hide Kenza’s eyes.

*

* *

The noise! At first my ears are assailed by an incredible cacophony of women’s and children’s voices in front of what looks like an enormous gymnasium with barred windows. Katia, Rajah and I get out, and Hina is taken straight to hospital. In the vestibule with flaking paint, four niqabs sitting behind a formica table bid us welcome. It is strange. Much as I felt relaxed when getting together with my companions in their niqabs, which I found stimulating and exciting, soon recognising their heads, the black shapes speaking to me unsettle me. We have only our eyes to connect to each other, but eyes are truly powerful. We have to put our passports and our electronic valuables – our iPhones, computers and tablets into bins. Kenza has stopped asking for Françoise, but now she looks at me with an unbearable look of reproach. And then we go through into the maqab and the smell hits me in the nose, a mixture of urine and sweat. It feels like a railway station during a strike, but with women in black niqabs and children, all squashed together, sitting on suitcases, chattering, voices speaking, shouting, yelling, children playing in the midst of it all and at prayer time indescribable uproar. I sit wherever I can. At regular intervals, a name is called and a girl leaves with her suitcase with encouragement from the others. I learn that new recruits are arriving in the maqab and will leave only after makeshift marriages to fighters. I spend fifteen days in this hell hole with no water or air, in which queues form in the early morning for the two Turkish toilets. We share a biscuit at ten and survive by reassuring each other that things couldn’t be any worse.

Fifteen days later, I am called in turn. I have lost ten kg, I feel ill, Kenza and Ayoub are dirty and have gaunt faces. The committee of niqabs tell me that my husband is in a training camp. He is on the list of future martyrs and will soon be going to carry out a terrorist attack in France – and it’s urgent, because his passport expires in two months. I will certainly be the wife of a martyr in September, which will entitle me to a state pension and to the status of black widow. The pension will have to be shared with my husband’s second wife – Mohammed has had a second wife since yesterday. But my pension will be of no use to me. As of now, my children will be cared for in orphanage no. 7. I now have to receive intensive training to carry out a terrorist attack in France in 2016.

Thérèse Fournier

March 2016.