We made it to what they called “The Independent Zone” by early evening next day. Once we’d passed through a dark and desolate neighbourhood on a hill, retail activity began to pick up once more and there were people sitting out in the street with their boom-boxes, folding chairs and barbeques, chatting and smoking and sometimes even dancing. We were observed with suspicion but not hostility. Further on, van-loads of all sorts of products were being hauled out, checked over, money changing hands. Small shops and stalls in hastily erected mobile malls were arranged seemingly at random over a huge area that looked like it might have been a vast car-park, or possibly an industrial complex, where the buildings had been razed but the concrete footings and roads left in place. We wandered around, looking at the goods. Nicky of course had to try something on. Shamim and her mother were also tempted and I heard them laugh for the first time since they were reunited at the hotel.
By nightfall we were concealed in the shell of a building near the border. We hadn’t previously known there would be a border, and we didn’t know what would be involved in crossing it. The cops were armed, but that didn’t mean anything – they were always armed. We decided to take a walk along the perimeter in the morning to see if there was a better place to get across.
We spent all day wandering about. Nowhere seemed promising. There was no fence as such, but cops with guns and dogs patrolled everywhere. Nicky, in her girliest voice and curviest demeanour went up and said she was new around here and what was going on? We watched whilst loitering by a fast food van, hoping we’d not have to use our weapons. We watched the men eye her up and begin to make lewd suggestions. I hoped she didn’t think we needed a “special favour” too much. This heroic streak she seemed to have developed lately could get her in trouble. I watched her push her boobs at them and one of them grabbed a handful. I was ready to leap out but Shamim caught me and glared at me. ‘Give her a chance to work’ she hissed at me through her teeth.
Nicky came back thoroughly groped but said she’d had worse. ‘Wanted to know if they were real, cheeky bastards. Anyway, there’s some sort of embargo going on – traders trying to get in, dump cheap goods here. They’re not letting anyone through in either direction.’
‘Any idea what’s on the other side?’ I asked, looking across the border. From where we were sitting the buildings belonging to the competition were not more than a quarter of a mile away.
‘Warehouses and shops as far as I can tell. They’re not going to stop us getting in. They want our money.’
Then Muriel comes back with some useful information – she’s been chatting to men in bars apparently. We look at her disapprovingly but listen to what she’s got to say. Apparently there are occasional break-outs and it can get very nasty. The one good thing is that the cops in each sector would rather go to hospital than call for reinforcements because apparently it comes out of their wages. ‘It may pay them to let us through if fighting looks like it’s getting expensive’ she says.
We try to think – the tension from the anticipation of getting out of this place making us impatient and jittery. In short we can’t stand the suspense. We had realised, looking at the prices of things that we actually had a lot of money on us, and the temptation to just go shopping was immense, even for me, but we thought we might need it on the other side so we restrained ourselves. Even so, Nicky got herself a very nice scarf and I found Shamim a necklace.
Night came and half the patrol went for their break and we decided the only thing for it was to shoot our way through. There was little in the way of flood-lights, and we could maybe shoot those out, or Nicky thought she could anyway. We were all feeling fit enough to run, and all but Amireh had a weapon. Nobody else seemed to be trying to get through so they wouldn’t be expecting it. The only tactic we came up with was ‘Don’t lose anyone’.
We crept forward among the buildings closest to the line. The remaining cops were about ten feet away. Nicky was the only one with a silencer and any real experience with a gun. She shot the light out with her second shot, but the first ricocheted around, alerting the cops that something was up. She aimed and felled one of them but then all hell broke loose and we just got up and ran.
Looking at it before hand it hadn’t seemed all that far. Now it seemed miles, and our hope for keeping together fell apart completely. I had Nicky on my left and Muriel somewhere behind me but the others could have been anywhere. True, the cops could hardly see us dressed as we were, but we couldn’t see each other either. More cops were coming and setting up another light. There was nothing for it but to run again and hope the others would be able to keep up. A hostage situation was unthinkable.
There were bullets ringing all around us on the concrete when we found cover behind a mound of earth. I crawled up and watched as they got the light working and three cops were set in sharp contrast for us. We waited a moment for them to get closer and then shot all three between us, and then the light. It felt absolutely amazing.
Of course I’d never shot anyone before. It was like a drug. I wanted to dance and cheer and snog the girls, Muriel too. Then they started firing back and I remembered what it was like to get shot and that made things seem a lot more businesslike suddenly. We fired back but couldn’t really see anything. Then there was more firing from the left and we just kept our heads down.
There was a lull. We saw them moving about, but nothing conclusive. I heard Enayat shout were we alright from a wall a little to our right and behind. We said yes and how were they. He told me Amireh shot two of them. ‘She has better eyes than me’ he added cheerfully.
Apart from a few random shots we stayed like that for the remainder of the night. Every time we tried to move we got shot at. Morning came and all that had changed was the huge crowd of on-lookers watching from both in front and behind, careless apparently of their own safety.
Midday came and we heard one of the cops yell ‘This is getting boring’ and I shouted back ‘How do you think we feel?’ and they sent a couple of bullets our way to liven things up.
A little later they used a megaphone. ‘Look, you don’t want this. We don’t want this. If you come quietly this can all be over and you can go about your business.’
‘Come and get us copper...’ shouted Muriel. More shots.
Silence. I look blankly at Nicky. She just looks pissed off.
‘How are we for ammo?’ says Muriel.
‘Short’ says Nicky.
Next I hear Shamim’s voice shout ‘Can we make a deal?’
‘What have you got?’ shouts the cop.
‘Nine hundred and fifty dollars’ she replies.
‘It’s a deal’ says the copper without hesitation.
‘Have we got that much?’ I ask Nicky.
‘More’ she says.
The copper shouts ‘Are you going to bring it out or what?’
‘No’ says Shamim. ‘I don’t trust you. I’ll leave half here and the other half when we get to the other side. Ok? I’ll hold it up, see?’ And we watch her tear the notes in two and place half on the ground under a brick in front of their refuge. The cops all begin to emerge from cover and we do likewise. It’s a horrible moment. I can almost feel the bullet whistling through my brain. Everybody’s standing up with their weapons held to the side. The crowd stands with their mouths open. We back slowly away, crossing the no-man’s land, stumbling occasionally on a brick or exposed cable. It seems an incredibly long way and it’s not until I feel people behind me that I know I’ve made it. I quickly duck in amongst them but, sensibly, they all move away from me. I watch Shamim carefully place the other bundle of half notes on a low wall and then we all make a break for it through the crowd and don’t stop until we’re sure the cops aren’t following us. We hear no shooting behind us, just a thousand people cheering. We sit together and look around and grin. There’s a lemon tree, a real, fruiting, flowering lemon tree. It’s a scruffy thing but it’s a real live plant. I cry with relief.
Afterwards it occurred to me that my relief might have been premature, but it was not. The landscape was not exactly verdant here – it was a wasteland of half derelict tin farm buildings and polluted ditches and ragged fences, but it was open and the sky was white and there were weeds and insects. Several people from the crowd walked with us for a while but most just watched us go.
At the edge of the cultivated land we followed the fence along until we met a road heading up into the hills and we left the weapons and the rest of the money there in a little cairn and started walking.