Harry found Polly in the midst of a call, he carefully signalled to let her know he was there and not prying, it didn’t seem to concern her, no more than she already clearly was. “I understand the risks you are taking” she spoke softly into her phone “We are really stretched, now the local militias have already made life difficult for everyone, now bombs are dropping and we are severely stretched, we need to work together”. After a pause she continued “We won’t let anything happen to you” these were the last words of the phone conversation, the reply was inaudible and Polly ended the call. Turning to Harry she said “Bit of a long journey, we really need you to join us, can you grab whatever you need and meet us back here in the morning?”, “Yes” Harry replied, “About 9am then, I’ll brief you in the van” said Polly, her face wrought with the burden of a huge task ahead and the thoughts of all the men, women and children she had come to care about.
It was 9am and Harry stood by a dusty 7 seater van feeling fatigued and lethargic from the few hours of nightmare riddled sleep he had if you could call it that. Paul and Tom were joining Polly for the journey, Tom was the quiet contemplative type whereas Paul was gregarious and always cracking jokes, he kept up the morale of the team during the bombing campaign of the previous week. A law student from Camberwell, London, Paul followed the Palestinian struggle closely throughout the late 80s during the first intifada and remains a staunch Pro Palestinian to this day, his journey to Syrian Hands came via volunteering as a legal advisor for Palestinians who were being ousted from their homes by violent Israeli settlers, he was a fearless man and on countless occasions he stood with the home owners, if you can picture the scene of a drunken New Yorker getting a bit of London schooling you will realise Paul was as tough as they come. He could also do the most hilarious impression of a Nigerian businessman, phoning up random numbers and pretending to sell something with said accent, one of his favourite pranks.
“All right Son” said a beaming Paul slapping Harry on the back, “Hello Simon” chimed in a reserved looking Tom. “Right then team” Polly interjected “We can blather in the van but we need tae get going”, “Aye then, lets be aff” joked Paul aping Polly’s accent “Ya wannae watch yersel ya numpty” Polly snapped back playfully. The journey took about 2 hours and we were regaled with some back and forth comedy banter, you haven’t lived until you have heard Pollys attempt at a ‘Laandaan” accent. Like many people who have been traumatised, the team were masking their inner fears and anxietys. Harry was really beginning to warm to them, ‘this must be the hardest part of what we do’ he thought to himself ‘they’re good people, they have made huge sacrifices to be out here, for no personal gain, just out of the kindness of their hearts’. The van stopped at Qattinah Lake on the outskirts of the Woojeh Al Hajr village in Homs. They sat down to eat and wait while Polly briefed them “Tom and Paul, you know who we are here to see but Simon, you don’t but we need to trust you 100% on this” “100%” repeated Harry, he couldn’t quite bring himself to promise. He was aware that Paul would not take kindly to treachery, he pictured in his mind being caught out and how his new friends and colleagues would react and felt that nervous sensation in his stomach again. Out of the blue, Tom took over the conversation “You will have heard a lot of things about the person we are going to meet, most of them bad and most of them lies, the truth is he is no different than us, he wants the same things” “He’s pretty nervous about this meeting mate” added a now very serious sounding Paul. “We need to pool all our resources and work in tandem” said Polly “We don’t do politics here, this is the real world, we have people depending on us, they need food, medicine, they need protection” That last word triggered an earworm in Harry’s head, he could hear Tracey Thorn singing the words “Ill stand in front of you, I’ll take the force of the blow, protection….” the calming sounds of Massive Attack were interrupted by Polly telling everyone that it might be a while before their rendezvous takes place. The time was spent skyping home and talking to loved ones, Harry got a call from ‘Mum’ which he covered by quickly rejecting the call then holding the phone up to his ear and repeating ‘Hello? Hello?’ as if there was a bad signal. Thankfully ‘Mum’ didn’t try to call a second time.
Then it happened, a man in his mid 20s with a flock of Lion like jet black hair, a medium sized beard that just covered his neck and and a sombre gentle face walked up to and greeted the team including Harry albeit somewhat awkwardly, he was evidently on edge but his conversation was formal and friendly, he was the CEO of infamous Islamic Aid organisation ‘Al Fikr’ the arrangement going forward was to be that Syrian Hands and Al Fikr would work together sharing resources and manpower, the aid workers of Al Fikr could secure safe passage of vital items for the displaced and homeless Damascenes as they were skilled in negotiating with the various factions of militias. Syrian Hands would funnel money into Al Fikr and provide skilled workers to assist their efforts. This would all be conducted in secret as Al Fikr’s name had been dragged through the mud by news corporations and politicians regardless of the facts, this too would be the fate of Syrian Hands should the word get out, their accounts would be frozen and the ensuing mandatory witch hunt would finish the organisation off completely. Harry was in close proximity of ‘the target’ for the first time but it was too soon to strike up a friendship, he needed to wait for the opportunity to get close to Muhsin, the pieces were falling into place and as the day drew to a close, a very large piece fell in place, it transpired that Paul and Muhsin knew each other and were good friends.
Harry sat at a distance going through some inventory carefully listening to a conversation between Paul and Muhsin. They knew each other from time spent in Gaza during a heavy escalation of Israeli military exercises, both risked their lives providing relief for the Gazans during a hellishly hot summer in the occupied territories a few years back, they forged a strong bond and kept in contact. It was Paul that initially introduced Muhsin to Polly. They shared jokes and asked about family “My kids are entrapped in the ‘yoot’ culture at the moment’ Paul lamented “All the one upmanship, things have changed so much Muhsin, when I was in my teens we were fighting with the NF skinheads, we had a cause, a real struggle, now kids just fight to prove they’re a ‘banger’, these so called ‘bangers’ fight like spineless cowards too, here I am in Syria and my kids are in peril back at home consumed by the chaviness all around, they’re good kids but when you’re in the furnace, you come out smelling of the smoke as they say” “So how about you mate?” he asked “No contact at all mate, you know why” replied Muhsin with a heavy sigh, “I hear you mate” Paul empathised. Harry sensed that Muhsin was aware of his presence and was being guarded, his close relationship with Paul was a boost to the mission and a worry at the same time. Harry’s brief experience with Krav Maga and BJJ wouldn’t match a swift right from an angry street savvy Paul, if they really wanted to they could drop Harry off to the militia men although even in the worst case scenario, Harry doubted they would go that far. It was time to go home but activities between the two aid organisations would accelerate rapidly mere days after the meeting providing plenty more chances to get close to Muhsin.