‘I’m sure that the camp must be somewhere around here,’ I said scrutinising the map that we’d been given.
‘You said that ten minutes ago,’ Prez sounding little exasperated, ‘I thought you were in the boy scouts. Can’t you read a map?’
‘It’s not as easy as that Prez,’ I replied, ‘they don’t actually mark these places on the OS maps’
Truth was, this area wasn’t one I was used to. The map was a bit old and some of the places had changed. A whole new industrial estate had grown up since the map had been produced. I scanned the horizon for some detail that I could refer to on the map. Spotting the church I finally managed to pinpoint our location. From what we were told it appeared that the camp was somewhere in the woods towards the east.
‘It’s down this track to the left, about a mile further on,’ I said and then added, ‘I think’
‘If it isn’t Squonk, I’ll put you top of my hit list in front of the Govians,’ Prez mumbled, under her breath, but loud enough for us all to hear.
We wandered down the track. Ancient Trees lined one side of the track, their twisted trunks providing a windbreak from the slightly cool wind that had been blowing. To the right was an open vista of green fields stretching up the valley side. Alternating colours of yellow and green were dotted in places by black cows. Between the fields stretched dry stone walling made from Yorkshire stone. Shadows, caused by the moving clouds, skittered across the fields creating a pallet of ever changing colours. It was a beautiful day to walk, not too hot to make it too sapping of strength and not too cold that we needed to wear loads of layers of clothing.
It was amazing how uplifting the exercise was. Gone was last nights gloom and self pity. It was as though a veil had been lifted off our minds and the sunlight was streaming in. The jokes were soon flowing freely between us. Anyone who met us, and thankfully there was no-one, would have thought we'd known each other for years. It was amazing the strength of our relationships. I felt sorry for Sinead though, in spite of having 'talked' with some of them, as she was obviously the outsider in our little gang. She didn't quite have this instant rapport that we all had.
The joking and laughing seemed to go away as we neared the area of the author camp. Prez and Ahlaam were getting ready with their hidden cameras. The idea was that we'd take as much footage of the camp as we could whilst also noting anything the cameras might not pick up. I don't know what we thought these places might be like. We'd seen pictures of some of them. They ranged from old army camps to industrial estate type buildings. All of them appeared to have really tight security
The GS must now be one of the biggest employers in the country now. Their black uniforms and logos were reminiscent of the SS uniforms from World War Two, drawing direct comparisons with the two organisations, however they were more popular with the general public than the police. Critics say this was because they were ruthless and weren't bound by the normal laws in the country. If the GS arrived at your doorstep, they acted first and then asked questions. This usually meant a lot of broken bones.
The path opened curved towards the right and entered the woodland. About a hundred yards in front of us was a GS check point. We approached it with trepidation. I sensed that my heart was pounding so fast that it must be audible to everyone else. All of us would be on the GS wanted list, photographs available for anyone to view at any police station. The resistance had given us all new identities along with forged identity cards.
Whoever had put together the names obviously had a great sense of humour. We'd all been given names relating to book characters. I had been particularly proud to be given the name Peter Pevensie, a character from one of my favourite book series, The Chronicles of Narnia. EH was Hermione Grainger, Lily was Lucy Pevensie, Prez was Scarlet O'Hara, Ahlaam was Kamala Khan, Zee was Lyra Belacqua whilst Sinead had been given Lizzie Bennett. hopefully the GS wouldn't have read many books and wouldn't realise the significance behind the names, although looking at the thugs ahead, I doubt reading was one of the hobbies they’d list on their CV, if indeed they could have written one in the first place. A lot of the GS had been recruited from the Nationalist parties, hardly a breeding ground for enlightened minds.
The two black uniformed men were leaning casually on the side of their vehicle. Smoke curled up from the cigarettes that hung from their lips. They were thick set, with the obligatory semi shaven hair cut, if they weren't in uniform, you'd imagine them hanging around on street corners terrorising the local populace. They seemed bored by their job and half heartily turned towards us. Prez led the way towards the men, Ahlaam staying near to the rear.
'What are you lot doing here?' one of them sneered as we came closer.
'Sponsored walk for the scouts' Prez replied brightly, 'we're trying to build a new scout hut. The last one's nearly fallen into the stream.'
The guard looked at her quizzically.
'You American?' he grunted.
'No,' she replied, 'I'm from Michigan'
'Oh you sound American though,' he said failing to see what she meant, 'have you all got your ID'
We all handed over our ID cards. The guards gave them a cursory glance before handing them back, except Ahlaams. They looked at it and then at her. Their faces changed, you could see the loathing on appear on their faces as they took in this slight girl wearing a hijab. I closed my eyes momentarily gearing myself up for the verbal onslaught that I knew would follow.
For the past few years, I had been embarrassed at the attitude that had been adopted by my fellow English citizens. Their loathing of foreigners, which had existed under the surface for years, had come to the fore with the new nationalistic parties. Everything from unemployment to global warming was blamed on immigrants coming into the country. It was as if our tolerance setting had broken and what was once great about the country had been forgotten. I hated my fellow countrymen who thought in this destructive vein. It was horrible how racist and xenophobic our country had got. England and Britain had been once hailed around the world as tolerant and welcoming to everyone. The sacrifices that the soldiers in World War Two had made to stop rampant fascism and racism spreading seemed to have been forgot, a footnote in history. I knew by looking at these two thugs that they were gearing themselves up for a tirade against Ahlaam. I just hoped that Prez wasn’t going to react too much.
'Haven't they shipped you back to where you came from,' the taller of the two sneered, 'you Muslim's aren't normal, you don't deserve to be live in this country.'
'You pakies are the scum of the earth, you'll be back in your own countries soon, us Govians will make sure of that' the other one joined in.
I saw Prez tense up and start to reach for the knife I knew would be concealed on her side. Lily reached across and put her hand over hers to stop her. The guards however never noticed, so intend on baiting Ahlaam were they.
'You f…ing pakies smell, you shouldn't be allowed to leave your ghettos.'
The tirade against her continued, words I wouldn’t use to describe anything were being thrown from the thugs mouths at defenceless Ahlaam. The ferocity of the verbal attack made me gasp at times. We were all shifting uncomfortably around, aware we didn't want to draw attention to ourselves and equally aware that we should be intervening. I felt terrible that I wasn’t saying anything. Ahlaam stood head down with tears in her eyes shaking.
'Cut it out you, can't you see she's upset,' Prez said bitterly, her accent coming through even more, at least one of us dared to speak.
The guards had obviously achieved their objective in making Ahlaam cry and stood aside to allow us to pass. We walked on feeling the glare from the GS behind us. One of them spit on the ground just in front of Ahlaam. I saw her hesitate before moving on, the other laughed and spit after her, his phlegm hitting her hijab. I felt disgusted by their actions. The path rounded another corner and we were then outside of the GS glare.
'Those bastards will pay for that,' Prez said, looking back, 'how can they treat another human being in this way'
'It's OK', Ahlamm said brushing away the tears, 'that was pretty mild compared with some of the things that people have said. They're just looking for a reaction, sometimes it better to give them one and they move on. If you react they might start getting violent or looking into what we're really doing. It's the easier way out. At least they didn’t try anything on, I’ve heard awful tales of girls my age being raped by these GS thugs for fun.'
I marvelled at this girl who had suffered mentally at the hands of people who weren’t fit to lick her shoes. I saw the steely determination in her eyes as she looked back, Ahlaam was in this for the long haul.
We wandered on the track. Silver birches sprung freely from the forest floor. I always think that they're the most beautiful of trees, their silvery bark creating a lightness to the gloomier parts of the wood. The mood lightened slightly but what had just happened wasn’t easily forgotten. We walked on for about a mile wandering through the woods, the sun shining at times through the leaves highlighting flowers and ferns.
Then rounding a corner, everything seemed to change suddenly. It was almost as if we were entering a bad place, the bird song and insect noise that had been so loud a few minutes ago was vanishing. An unpleasant smell hung in the air and got stronger as we got went further down the track. It was a mix of human excrement and body odour. It set your nostrils twitching and at times was so strong it made you feel like gagging. Through the trees I could start to make out the first signs of a man made structure.
All of a sudden we exited from the wood into a vast clearing recently hewn from the centre of this ancient woodland. It was like we'd stepped back in time, the scene in front of wouldn't have been out of place in Germany in the 1940's. Tall fences rose from the floor, razor wire menacingly glinting in the sunshine. Wooden buildings were arranged in rows in the middle of the compound. At each corner were these structures rising high into the blue sky, these were instantly recognisable as guard towers. Inside we could see people wandering around. They were wearing grey tops and trousers. A breeze blew across occasionally picking up dust from the floor and blowing it into our faces. When it did the stench of decay hit us robustly, making us turn our heads out of its putrid path.
If a film maker was trying to recreate the squalor of the prisoner of war camp, they couldn't have done a better job. It made my mental mp3 player start to play the theme tune to The Great Escape. We stood and gawped at the scene in front of us. The ground was loose earth, dusty by the way we saw young people shuffle through around. The only adults visible were the guards, every where else were young people, some looked only about six years old. It was like a playground at a school, although it was missing that energy and happiness. The grey uniform that they were wearing added to this drab scene, a black and white feel to the whole area, no colour visible.
There was suddenly a commotion and we saw GS bullies running. Batons raised, they charged a person, I gasped when I saw it was a girl of no more than eight years old. She fell to the ground as the first baton hit he, trying to protect her slim, slight body against the relentless pulverising that the goons seem to be inflicting. Four huge guys stood over her, their boots connecting with her tiny frame. I clenched my eyes together not wanting to witness this brutal beating, but at the same time unable to draw my eyes away from it. A moment later one of the goons boots hit the girls head with force. I saw her head arc in the air before falling back to the ground, even at this distance you could see the crimson red blood spurt out of her head, staining the ground with vivid colour as it fell. The girls body twitched for a while uncontrollably before it went limp and lifeless. One of the goons laughed and prodded the girls body with his foot making her fall onto her back, her head lolling.
'You f..... bastards,' Ahlaam yelled moving towards the fence.
Everyone turned, Ahlaam’s voice resonating around the camp. The Goons attention was suddenly on us and a group of guards came running out of the compound towards us, their guns in their hands. Lily held Ahlaam back from advancing towards them. The anger from the goons verbal attack still obviously in her mind, the assault on the small girl proving a catalyst to vent her emotions. Instinctively we all came between Ahlaam and the guards, not wanting her to have too much attention drawn towards her. Seeing what had happened just now, we didn't want them to now start on her. It wasn’t above the bounds of reason for them to drag her into the camp and she would suffer the same as the girl.
'What the hell are you lot doing here?' The largest one GS said.
Looking at them I saw the look in their eyes, instantly I thought how the girl had been treated. I saw the black barrels of their weapons being waved in our direction, sensing their fingers on the triggers. The look of menace on their face frightened me so much that I started to seriously question if we'd ever get out of here alive.
'We’re on a sponsored walk for scouts,' Lily said giving the cover story. She bravely stood in front of Ahlaam although I doubted they would give a second thought to shooting her before Ahlaam.
There was a hesitation from them.
'Well get a move on, you're not supposed to be here. Didn't the guards redirect you? Those lazy muggers will have night duty after this.'
'Is that girl alright?' Prez asked
'She'll be fine, now get moving or we'll lock you up with these other terrorists'
‘Are you sure, she looks pretty bad to me’ Prez pressed.
‘Get a move on, she’s OK, she just tripped over’
‘But …’ Ahlaam raised her voice before Lily stood on her foot to quieten her.
We walked along the track past the entrance, each of us afraid that we'd end up in that hell hole. I looked behind briefly to see a couple of GS pulling the girls lifeless body towards a hut. The way the head bounced on the ground as they dragged her like a rag doll, that the girl wasn’t with us in this world anymore, we'd just witnessed a cold blooded murder.
The guards tracked us until we reached the main road. All the time we worried that we would end up being taken prisoner, or just executed. We were quiet, each in our own emotions. They stood at the side of the main road and watched us get into the car and drive off. I saw one of them talk into his wristband. We needed to ditch this car as soon as possible.