The following is an extract from ‘Butterfly’ by Yusra Mardini. Available now, Bluebird, RRP $32.99.
Life goes on. Training, school, training. I try to keep my head down, get through my last two years of high school, but the war is always there to disrupt and distract me. Some nights, electricity outages plunge whole swathes of the city into long hours of darkness. In places, power is rationed to just four to six hours a day. Some Damascenes get around the blackouts using big car batteries, or, if they can afford to run it, a diesel generator. We adjust until the outages, too, become a part of daily life.
Death is random and ever present. It falls from the sky in the street, in midday traffic, without warning, then we dust ourselves off and carry on. In the spring, the attacks in Baramkeh around the Tishreen stadium start up again. The area is full of targets. The university, the state news agency, hospitals, schools, the stadium itself. Mum is beside herself with worry. A few nights every week, she calls me on my way to the pool. The conversation is always the same.
“Come back home,” she says.
“Why?” I say. “I’m going to swim.”
“Just shut up and come back,” she says. “Right now.”
I hurry home to find Mum waiting for me with news of more mortar or rocket attacks. I know she wants to protect me, but deep down we both know I’m no longer safe anywhere in the city. I could just as easily be killed in the pool as outside on the street or at home in my bed. We know a lot of people who die at home. A fire, a bomb, or just a stray bit of shrapnel.
Often I hear the mortars falling around Tishreen once I’m already training. One evening I’m in the pool, pushing myself as hard as I can. My face is burning against the cool water. I battle the urge to stop and rest. Another length, another whirl and scoop, just a few more metres. I reach out and grab the end of the pool, rest for a few seconds. My shoulders jerk up towards my ears in alarm as a splitting crash thunders around the pool. There’s a moment of silence. Then the swimmers spring into action, screaming and shouting as they splash over each other to reach the sides.
“Out! Everybody out,” shouts the coach, urgently waving his arms towards the exit.
There’s no time to register what’s happening. My mind is blank as I haul myself out of the water. Crowds of swimmers push past me, shivering with shock and panic as they hurry towards the doors. I reach the exit and turn back. I look up to the ceiling and spot a ragged hole in the roof showing a tiny speck of open sky. I look down at the water below. There, shimmering on the bottom of the pool, is a metre-long, thin, green object with a conical bulb thinning down to a point at one end. It’s an unexploded RPG. A rocket-propelled grenade. I stare at the bomb, unable to tear my eyes away. Somehow, it had ploughed through the roof and landed in the water without exploding. A few metres in either direction and it would have hit the tiles, killing everyone within a ten-metre radius. It takes a few seconds to sink in. I’m lucky to be alive. Again.
I turn and rush down the corridor to catch up with the other swimmers. We file down into the underground gym as more explosions resound around the streets outside. We wait. The coach paces, looking worried. The attack sounds muffled from down here. I tell myself we’re safe. My hands trembling, I text Mum and tell her what happened. She’s distraught. She waits until the attack has stopped and then comes to pick me up from the stadium.
"Please, Yusra, it’s too dangerous," says Mum as we wind back home through the now-quiet streets. "Just stop swimming. You’ll be much safer away from the pool."
I shake my head. There’s no way I’m giving up swimming. There’s only one way I can carry on training. I’ll have to go somewhere bombs don’t drop into the pool.
"I’m not stopping," I say. "Swimming is my life. I’ll have to go to Europe."
Mum sighs and stares out of the window for a few minutes. Then she grips the steering wheel tighter and sits up, as if she’s made a decision.
"I’ll speak to your father again," she says.
[My sister] Sara now has a fixed plan in her head. She dreams of travelling to Hanover to find her friend Hala. She’ll study there, start a new life, work for a new future. Dad is still hesitating. Some days, he says the journey isn’t safe. Other times, he says he’ll arrange for us to come to him in Jordan. Now and then, he says we can go to Europe. But the money doesn’t materialize. The plan is on hold.
One night in early summer, Sara and I are on our way to Leen’s. She tells me another group of her friends is leaving the following week. Each time a group leaves, they tell her to come with them, say they’ll look after her on the way. It’s tempting for her, but it’s clear, without Dad’s support, she’s going nowhere.
"All my friends are messing with my brain, telling me to come with them," says Sara. "I mean, well, you don’t want to go anyway, so…"
I look at her, stunned.
"What are you talking about?" I say. "Of course I want to go. If we go to Europe I can keep swimming. All the swimmers are leaving. To Sweden, Russia, Germany."
Sara frowns. "You’d go too?"
I’m surprised myself by my answer. Yes, I would go. To get away from the death falling from the sky. To have a future again. A place where I can swim in peace, or simply a place where someone like me can keep swimming. I don’t see the point of sitting around, cleaning, cooking, and raising children. I’m a swimmer. I’m going to show them. And I can only do that if I leave Syria.
"OK," says Sara. "So you can help me persuade Dad. He’ll be happier if we go together."
My mind works quickly. Convincing Dad is the toughest part. Not being here in Damascus, Dad doesn’t know how many kids are leaving. We need to make him understand how bad things have got. The best way is to find someone he trusts who is leaving and persuade him to let us tag along with them. I’m shocked at how determined I suddenly am. Leaving Damascus, leaving Syria, leaving my home. How did it get this far? The whole four years of the war flit before my eyes. The tanks, the bombs, the mortars, the gunfire. I’d stay if it stopped tomorrow. If only it would all stop.
"Tell me if you hear of anyone else going. Someone I know and trust. I’ll send you with them."
One thing I know. If I’m leaving, I’m going to prove myself in swimming first. I have to show them all it isn’t a waste of time. My friends at the pool are thinning out as the swimmers melt away. We rarely say goodbye. I just see on Facebook that they’re in Turkey, or France, or Germany. One day in mid-June, just before the start of Ramadan, I get a message from a swimmer friend, Rose. She tells me she’s in Turkey. She got out with her cousin, leaving her mother behind in Damascus. I’m stunned. Rose’s mother dotes on her. She’s her only daughter, she’s all she has. Rose is only fifteen years old. There’s no way her mother would send her to Turkey unless she felt the situation was truly desperate. Maybe if I tell Dad about Rose he’ll understand what’s going on here. I call Dad and tell him Rose’s mum sent her away to Turkey. There’s a silence on the other end of the phone.
"Rose?" he says at last. "Really? Her mother let her go alone?"
"Yes," I say. "With her cousin."
"Why didn’t she tell us?" he says. "You could have gone with her."
"What?" I say. "You would have let me go with Rose?"
"Yes," he says. "Tell me if you hear of anyone else going. Someone I know and trust. I’ll send you with them."
My heart is beating hard.
"Sara too?" I say, struggling to keep the wild excitement out of my voice.
"Yes," he says. "If she wants to go."
I hang up and take a deep breath. My chest fills with a sense of endless possibility and adventure. I’ve no idea what the journey entails. All I’ve heard is vague tales of boats and borders. I don’t think about it. I envisage swimming in Germany. Without bombs. With a future.
Yusra Mardini is a Goodwill Ambassador for the UN Refugee Agency. To help other families like hers, please donate to the Australia for UNHCR Syria appeal.