Last time out, I had a passage that will end up in some future book. Today I have something similar, though I know exactly the place I have in mind for it. I have been doing final polishes on Heaven & Hell, and one of the characters, a supporting character turning up in the latter stages of the book, struck me as needing a bit of expanding.
The events of the Arab Spring in general, and the situation in Syria in particular, have been an underlying influence throughout Heaven & Hell, given that much of the book takes place in the Middle East. Syria itself factors into the story, particularly its military and its leadership. Straight off, I knew that I could not use the current dictator in the story, even unnamed. President Bashar al-Assad is busy fighting a civil war against his own people these days, committing atrocity after atrocity. Where it all ends is anyone's guess, but for the purposes of my novel, the civil war in that country had to be over, and the Assad regime gone. The Syrian President in the novel has been unnamed (though I've changed that in the polishing), meant only as an interim leader, a caretaker. I wrote him as a man of principle (as much as you might get in a politician) who gets caught up in the wrong situation, and I wrote another character, a Syrian general, with much the same qualities. In the novel, I refer in passing to the civil war, to this general making the right choice at the right time, and thought of expanding that.
A few days ago I wrote the following, and I expect to incorporate it early on in Sword of the Faith, which will be the prequel to Heaven & Hell, set mostly a year earlier. It's from the point of view of this general, at a pivotal moment in his own life and that of his nation. At the moment, it's rough, with a share of backstory, and will no doubt be changed when I set it into the book. Let me know what you think!
He had been in danger before during his military career, though this was new even to him. The brigadier general was surrounded by soldiers from his First Corps, moving down the lavish hallway of a residence in central Damascus. They moved almost as one, careful and as quiet as a group of a dozen armed men could be. Outside, tanks and armoured vehicles of the First Corps had breached the property, taking up station, a final end to the civil war that had shattered the country. Troops had stormed into the presidential residence, and while some of the personal guards had fought back, others simply surrendered, understood that they were at the end of it all, outgunned and outmanned. The President’s wife and children were among those who had been taken into custody.
The general heard the distant sounds of people off in the city, through broken windows as they passed. In the last few months, the rebels had put more pressure on the President, bringing the civil war directly into the capital. They had been bolstered by his own forces, united under his command, when he had decided to take a side in the bloody conflict that had torn his country apart for years.
His name was Yassin Mazloum, a career officer in the Syrian Arab Army. A man in his early fifties, he had close cropped brown hair sprinkled with grey, and brown eyes. Like the soldiers accompanying him, he wore desert fatigues, and unlike them, was lightly armed, a handgun in a holster. Mazloum had been an officer in the First Corps for over a decade, one of the main wings of his nation’s armed forces. Much of that time had been spent in the south, covering the approaches to the Golan Heights down to the Jordanian border. His Corps had stayed out of the escalating conflict in the country, the efforts of the President to put down the growing unrest, the rebellion that had only built after each atrocity.
Mazloum had been privately appalled, out there in the south, watching his land tear itself apart, seeing the President use the Armed Forces against his people. Tens of thousands butchered by a man incapable of empathizing with his people, of accepting that they wanted something different for their lives, that they wanted him gone. Finally the general had reached his breaking point, a pivotal moment in his life. Mazloum had taken a stand, fully aware that if he ended up on the losing side of things, it would mean a bullet to the head in the best case scenario, and torture and an excrutiating, long drawn out death in the worst. He had addressed his subordinates first, reminding them that their duty was also to the people, to the country. The President, he argued, was slaughtering his own people, and that could not be allowed to continue.
To his surprise, there had been no dissent, no quiet defections. As one, the First Corps stood behind him as he made the formal announcement that he would support the rebel cause, that his forces would no longer serve at the behest of a tyrant. He pledged full military backing to the rebels, followed up by dispatching officers to seek out the connections, to coordinate efforts against the mad man in Damascus. Columns of refugees, fleeing the armed forces that stayed loyal to the president, found safety beyond his lines, south to the Jordanian border. There were engagements with forces still loyal to the regime, which Mazloum made efforts to minimize casualties. More often he convinced opposing commanders to stand down, to accept that they were fighting on the wrong side. Finally, his combined forces, and that of the loosely organized rebellion, put the stranglehold on Damascus itself. While the world had waited and watched, Mazloum had kept remaining opposing forces at bay with some of his forces, and worked with rebel commanders to put pressure on the remaining government presence in the capital. Swarms of civilians had left the city, given safe passage away from the fighting, and day after day, the insurgency had taken more and more of the momentum.
It had all led to this particular early autumn day. The remaining forces still loyal to the President had been routed in the city and beyond, and Mazloum himself had forced his way into the presidential residence with the strength of tanks and armoured vehicles. The last of the guards were down, though the troops with him would take no chances, moving with caution and precision through the halls, the debris strewn about from artillery blasts through the walls.
The group made their way around a corridor, and Mazloum remembered being here once, years ago, to give a briefing. The President’s study was directly ahead, though there was no presence in the hallway, no guard. It seemed likely that the man might be there... their information from one of the captured staff indicated he hadn’t been able to escape as the troops had breached the property, and to his knowledge, there was no secret escape route.
Mazloum gave a terse nod to one of his officers, a captain. The officer spoke up in Arabic, his voice echoing down the hall. “Come out immediately, and you will not be harmed. It is done. It’s over.” There was silence as a reply. Mazloum waited, thought back to his last meeting with rebel commanders and opposition political leaders in the night, barely nine hours earlier. They had all agreed that the dictator needed to be put on trial, that war crimes had been committed. The best way forward for the country was justice, and so Mazloum had every intention of taking the man alive.
Finally there was a voice, defiance in the tone, coming from that study. “It is only over when I decide it’s finished,” the man said, and Mazloum recognized the voice of the President, the tyrant who had torn his own land apart.
“It is finished, Bashar,” Mazloum replied, deliberately using the man’s name, thinking that it might unsettle him. “You will stand trial for what you have done to this country. Be a man. Take responsibility for what you’ve done.”
There was a long silence. Finally there came one last burst of defiance. “My fate is my own, General.” Mazloum shook his head, realized the bastard did recognize his voice. A moment later there was the sharp sound of a single gunshot from the study, and then silence. Mazloum nodded, and two of the men in the lead moved forward, down the hall, carefully stopping at the door, looking in. They looked back, and one shook his head. The group started forward, Mazloum at the centre.
They stopped at the doorway, and Mazloum looked into the study. The President was alone at his desk, a gun lying there before him, close to his hand, a bloody mark at his temple. His short dark hair, with the familiar widow’s peak, and the trim moustache, were familiar to the general’s eyes, as they had been familiar to much of the world through years of civil war in the country. There was no apparent exit wound that Mazloum could see from here. Suicide, he thought. He’d have to make sure- there would have to be a full investigation of the scene, and proper identification of the body...
The general sighed, thinking of the conversations he’d have with his rebel colleagues, with the political opposition that would have to step in and build some stability for the future of the country. More than anything, his people would need to heal from what this sociopath had done to the land. And so it ends, he thought. Not with a verdict, but with a coward’s way out. The war is over.