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I stood still
Imran Sarihasan & Navjotpal Kaur

Nicola Mazzuia

As the sun began its ascent, casting its warm golden rays across the land, the clouds gathered in sombre formations, as if foretelling the darkness that was to come. It was a day unlike any other, one that would etch itself into the annals of history, and leave a mark that would endure for years to come. 

It was 20 March 2003. Baghdad stood on the precipice of an abyss.

However, the room in our home where I and my three brothers slept was still filled with a sense of familiarity, as if time itself had woven a tapestry of routine where our day commenced, like the countless others that had come before. The room was cloaked in shadows, the remnants of sleep clinging to our weary bodies. As we slowly emerged from slumber, the world around us began to take shape. 

And then the door to our room swung open. The air grew heavy, as if carrying an unspoken truth. My mother’s countenance, usually warm and comforting, was haunted.

‘Adil! Mustafa! Hussein! Ahmed! Wake up! We have an unexpected situation in town right now. There are some soldiers out there. No need to feel scared, they will just check a few things around and will leave in a couple of days. Until they leave, I want you to stay indoors.’ She turned to me, the eldest. ‘Adil, I want you to take care of your brothers here until I come back from your auntie and buy enough groceries for some days.’

Stay indoors. My mother’s voice echoed in my young ears. Like a cascade of recklessly thrown bricks, every word constructed an ethereal invisible boundary separating the outside world from the sanctuary of the indoors, the boundary between the familiar and the unfamiliar, the dangerous and the safe. 

There is a perception among people that education is not valued in our region. That is not true. We understood the importance of education for both boys and girls, and eagerly anticipated our school days. Unbeknownst to us, yesterday was to be our last day in school. 


I was 15 years old when the war in Iraq started. Three years earlier I had lost my dear father and memories of him flooded my mind, like a bittersweet symphony playing on repeat. He was gentle and tender, a true embodiment of kindness and sweetness. He used to tell us, ‘In the world, there is beauty in everything; if we want to see it, we will see it in the differences in culture, belief, ethnicities and religions. That’s the richness on this Earth. We have to respect those differences to get respect. Because everything is reciprocal.’

Now, we found ourselves in a world apart from the idyllic picture he had painted. We did not do anything wrong or harm anyone. We were respectful, educated and kind people. But who were those people coming from a million miles away? What did they want? 

Seven long months had passed since war descended upon our Baghdad. Once-serene streets, now marred by relentless destruction, bore witness to the horrors that had befallen us. The voices of the bombs, once distant and foreign, had become all too familiar, a constant reminder of the fragility of our existence. The war became ordinary, seamlessly woven into the fabric of our daily routines. The halls of our school were eerily silent. Once filled with eager students and passionate teachers, the classrooms now stood empty and abandoned. The stench of death was everywhere, permeating every crevice. It seemed as though the very essence of hope and faith was slowly fading away, slipping into an abyss with each passing day.


At the tender age of seventeen, they deemed me fit to serve as a soldier, a pawn in their grand game of strategy and power. With tears streaming down her face, my mother pleaded with them. Her voice filled with anguish and desperation, she begged them and begged them to reconsider their decision, but all in vain. During my time as a soldier, many thoughts consumed me: what or whom are we fighting? Why can’t we live like other people? Why is the idea of a normal life too much to ask? The weight of these profound questions burdened my mind, leaving me in a state of constant contemplation. Yet, just as I struggled to find solace amidst the chaos of my thoughts, fate dealt me another blow.

One day, the commander summoned me and delivered the news in a sombre tone. ‘Adil, I regret to inform you that, last night, a bomb struck your house while your mother and siblings were inside. Unfortunately, none of them survived.’

His words hung in the air. My heart skipped a beat and my breath caught in my throat, as the gravity of his message sank deep into my consciousness. The world around me seemed to fade away, leaving only deafening silence. Images of my childhood home flashed before my eyes, memories of laughter and love intertwined with the walls that must now lie in ruins. The warmth of my mother’s embrace, the playful banter with my siblings, all reduced to fragments of a past forever lost. In that moment, a whirlwind of emotions engulfed me, threatening to consume my very essence.

…and I stood still.

The sensation defies description, an intense pain that words alone cannot capture. The agony was so profound, so all-encompassing, that it rendered me speechless. For several days, I went without eating and barely slept. I found myself repeatedly uttering the names of my mother and my brothers. They perceived it as a sign that I had lost my sanity, and I was banished from military service. I felt utterly lost and found no meaning in anything. Yet the war persisted, with unwavering intensity, leading the world to perceive all of us as terrorists. Isn’t it ironic?

As my spirit teetered on the edge of hopelessness, a glimmer of light emerged in the depths of my despair. It arrived in the form of my dear friend Kazem. He proposed a daring plan. ‘Let us escape to Syria,’ he suggested, his voice laden with determination and desperation. He spoke confidently, his eyes gleaming: ‘there is an opportunity for it,’ he said. 

In my weary mind, a notion began to take root. It whispered of escape from my own home, my city, of leaving behind my burdens. As I stood on the precipice of my old life, gazing at the familiar landscape that had once held so much promise, I saw nothing but emptiness. There was nothing left for me there. It was as if the hands of the clock, once steady and measured, had gained a newfound swiftness, propelling the world and my life forward. 


We finalized our meticulously prepared documents, ensuring that every detail was in order. It was a scholarship, a golden opportunity that presented itself, offering me a chance to complete my high-school education in Syria. The scholarship was a beacon of possibility, beckoning me towards a realm of knowledge and growth that seemed unattainable in Iraq, amidst the chaos of war. 

We embarked on this new chapter of our lives with a mixture of trepidation and excitement. We were acutely aware that, the moment we crossed the border, there would be no going back. And, soon enough, the worst of our fears came true: they had failed to provide us with the documents to validate our stay in Syria. 

Now we had no home. We couldn’t stay in Syria, we couldn’t go back. 


Five of us made a desperate decision. With trembling hands, we handed over our savings to human traffickers, hoping they would be our ticket to Europe. And, one night, a man emerged from the shadows and beckoned us to follow. 

As the first light of dawn began to break the night sky, the man halted, his hand raised. He commanded us to wait. We found ourselves standing in the midst of nowhere, surrounded by wilderness that stretched endlessly in every direction. 

Suddenly, a faint murmur broke the stillness. We strained our ears, trying to decipher the mysterious sounds. We exchanged bewildered glances, all of us scared to death. 

A distant wail pierced the air: the unmistakable sound of police sirens slicing through the confusion. In that moment a realization washed over us. The smuggler, whom we had trusted with our lives, had not only abandoned us, he must have divulged our whereabouts to the authorities. With hearts pounding and fear coursing through our veins, we were taken to a prison in Ukraine.  


Have you ever experienced the crushing ache that accompanies the realization that others view you as less than human? The feeling of being utterly disregarded, as if you are an inconsequential speck in the vast expanse of existence? It is a feeling that lingers in the depths of the soul, whispering incessantly that you no longer belong to any land. The notion of a place to call home becomes a mirage. It teases and taunts, forever out of your reach, leaving you standing still in a desert of desolation. 

Let me tell you about ‘life’ in prison: As the days pass, a peculiar sensation begins to settle, like a thin veil slowly descending upon your senses. It is as if each passing moment chips away at the reminders of your humanity, leaving you detached from the world around you. Just as you begin to immerse yourself in the comforting embrace of nostalgia, a sudden blow of realization strikes you in the face. Stark reality stands before you, unyielding and unapologetic. The past is forever lost, forever beyond your grasp.

After what seemed an eternity, they set us free. Two months had passed, each day dragging by with agonizing slowness. They released us from that prison but we were left grappling with the question that haunted our thoughts: what had we done to deserve this fate? Was it our fear, the instinct for self-preservation, that compelled us to flee war? Our yearning for safety? Our desire for a life that was ordinary? 

Another trial awaited me, a refugee camp in Hungary. Its memories are so dreadful, so utterly abhorrent, that I shudder even at the thought of recalling them. The dilapidated tents were teeming with weary souls seeking solace from the storms that had ravaged their lives. The faces I encountered bore the weight of countless stories. ‘Refugee camp’. The words struck me as odd. What is it that we seek refuge from? Is it the chaos of the unforgiving outside world, ravaged with hate, destruction, war? Or is it the storms that rage within our own hearts, the emotions that threaten to consume us whole?

I somehow managed to find a job but I am acutely aware of my entrapment in this country. I have made several futile attempts to obtain citizenship. The weight of my statelessness hangs heavily upon me, shackling my every movement and confining me to the boundaries they have imposed. 

Baghdad, the city of memories and emotions, remains nestled deep within my heart. It resides there, like a cherished secret, alongside the beautiful memories of my parents and brothers. Longing, that elusive and intangible emotion, weighs heavily upon my soul. It is the greatest price I must pay in this life. Oh, how it consumes me, this yearning that knows no bounds. It is a constant reminder of what I desire, yet cannot possess. 


I am standing still. My body remains frozen, rooted to the ground, held by invisible chains. Time stretches on, mocking my desire for motion, and I stand still.

Imran is a social scientist who loves to listen to humans' experiences and their journeys in life. Her research covers various topics, including international and labour migration in Europe and the Middle East. She also finds solace and inspiration in the harmonious melodies of music, the captivating narratives of books, and the boundless exploration of cultures worldwide.

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Nav is a social scientist passionate about storytelling. Her extensive research covers various topics, including masculinities, the environment, and transnationalism, across three continents: Asia, North America and Europe.  

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Meet the authors: Imran Sarihasan & Navjotpal Kaur

an interview conducted by Otherwise creative non-fiction and memoir editor, Laura Moran

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