The airport roof is a no man’s land. I sort the papers for the evening news. There’s nowhere to hide from the heat or the hypocrisy.
To my left a village of tarpaulin skirts the runway. There, grey bird-beaked planes line up along the buckled tarmac. Trestle tables are pregnant under provisions. Men in fatigues rest on canvas chairs, sheltered from the sun by monster marquees. They smoke, play cards, throw dice and dark humour, staving off the boredom of waiting and the trauma of witnessing.
A man wearing a crew cut and combats walks by, a can of Dr Pepper in one hand, a satellite phone in the other. I interviewed him earlier, when he reeled responses to the camera that said nothing and told me everything. Now he’s smiling – talking to his kids perhaps – hearing about their school day, their softball game, their weekend plans.
“Pop misses you,” I imagine him crooning, when the wind whips his words across the wasted land.
He no longer seems to notice the boxes by the runway. They have been there since I arrived three days ago, growing higher, going nowhere. The ground shimmers like an oasis. I wish the boxes were a mirage.
But still the planes keep landing. And when they do, in marches an army of uniformed ants to pull out the packages and pile them here and there, wherever there’s space. Anywhere but where it’s really needed, I think, raising my head above the partition before I’m knocked back by the power of another plane. Adrenalin surges through my body and it feels like an aftershock.
I force myself further into the concrete, tighten my grip on the papers that hold my words to the world.
When I raise my head again it’s to look to the right, where a high stone fence skirts a factory long fallen into disrepair.
I’d pleaded with the peacekeepers to let me inside. But once past its rusted gates, it was hard to tell where the walls of the broken building began and were they ended, what was the result of disrepair or disaster, what collapsed in years and what collapsed in seconds. Empty cans and broken bottles, piles of rubbish, shreds of material stained in blood, all were thrown into stinking, shining relief by the unseasonal winter sun.
Even the trees were skeletal, but on their fragile limbs, people clung to life. A bag of saline hung from a branch over a small girl, her left leg twice the size of her right. It was splinted by a chair leg and she lay on a wooden door balanced on two metal drums.
In the shade cast by the tree and the doors, sat a young woman. On her lap lay a tiny bundle: a baby delivered in the dust.
The saline was running low in the bag above her. Some had spilt onto the good leg of the older child, a path in the pale skin.
Salt water tears streaked the grey mask of the woman’s face. She didn’t move when one plane flew overhead, or the next. I followed its arc as it disappeared, but the promise of its aid reaching her was as elusive as a rainbow’s pot of gold.
Back on the tarmac, the men play at dice like gods, deciding who lives and dies.
I write and rewrite my script on the scraps of paper I’ll use to tell of the baby born in the dust as her older sister lay dying.
It’s just minutes before I go on air, before the lights of London send me live. There’s another noise, a clang of metal and toll of heavy voices and three pairs of boots marching across no man’s land.
“I’m afraid we can go longer guarantee your safety, Ma’am. We need to ask you to leave,” says Dr Pepper. I nod, knowing his polite entreaties are political excuses. I pick up my papers, swallow my words. I’ll obey his orders, though I don’t believe them.
And I’ll leave the airport, but it won’t ever leave me.
Hannah Storm is a journalist and media consultant, specialising in gender and safety. Although she’s been writing since she was a young girl, she’s recently discovered a passion for short stories and flash fiction, thanks to an Arvon course with Vanessa Gebbie and Cynan Jones. Her Twitter handle is @hannahstorm6.