For as long as I live, I will never forget the haunting scene.
Had it not been for the occasional limping child on the road, anyone would have defined this place as “ghost town”. Bombed buildings and rubble marked the evidence of a past civil war. No efforts were made to clean up the mess, simply because the government wanted it to be proof. Proof of what could be done if one dared disobey them.
Adjusting my lens, I took a photo of the ruins, and made my way into the remains of the town.
Like the rest of the people in my country, I did what I could to survive. I was a photographer, and naturally, I was more exposed to raw data, to what was truly happening around me than most people. I was aware that almost half the stories printed in newspapers were taken out of context. There were times when things happened, and I questioned the righteousness of the government. But I couldn’t afford to complain. The economy was good, and I was earning a rather generous salary every month.
And that was enough to keep my big mouth shut.
Surprisingly, one small building – now classified as an orphanage – still stood awkwardly amidst the chaos. My work environment changed constantly, and I had to be prepared. Today, I had to work with the light and climb over pieces of brick and stone in order to get a decent picture inside the wreckage. I wore a thick rubber mask indoors to prevent the inhalation of toxic fumes within, but the orphans weren’t so lucky.
Orphans constituted a massive portion of the town’s population. They were the forgotten ones, ostracized by society as the offspring of those who betrayed our land. Their parents and guardians had rebelled against the country… and had failed. Now their children were left to pay the price.
Well, not all children. Those who were healthy individuals and over the age of twelve had the privilege of being re-accepted as citizens of the country. They had to take an oath of devotion to the country, and sign a binding contract, allowing their memory – prior to taking the oath – to be erased. It may have seemed like a harsh procedure, but it was extremely effective in preventing another possible rebellion.
In the corner of the town, scoops of watery soup served in cardboard bowls and pieces of stale bread were being distributed to the long line of orphans and the sick. I attempted to capture faces of gratitude as they received their daily meals, but it was impossible. Skin caked with dirt, clothes hanging off their bony frames and eyes drowning in grief, it was obvious that they derived little to no comfort from their serving. Some even appeared to hesitate in taking their fill, as they looked silently in front of them like walking corpses on barren land.
At that moment, I caught sight of a child, no more than eight years old. He stared at me, right into the depths of my soul, and his face began to turn pale. His bottom lip quivered, as if he wanted to speak, but dared not to. Perhaps his features caught my attention because they were very similar to my own. His hair, his cheekbones, his dimples… even his eyes were just like mine! One was a beautiful hazel brown while the other was an emerald sinking into a pale, watery blue. They grew wider and wider, almost in a delightful recognition of me, as if he had spotted a light at the end of the tunnel.
I looked at this stranger before I started to realize… something wasn’t quite right. My breathing hastened, and my heart… Oh, my heart! It started beating loudly against my chest. I was beginning to understand. It was so obvious! Adrenaline pulsing through my veins like hot lava, my lips parted in joy as I raised my arms towards him.
I got it. I squealed with glee. I got the much-needed photo. The perfect story I could create to support the rule of the government and display the hope these orphans see in them. The child’s expression in the photo painted a thousand words. Undoubtedly, I could sell this to newspapers and companies all over the country. I could get promoted. I could earn so much. I could achieve so much fame and fortune!
And with that, I mouthed one last “thank you”, and turned away from the broken memories covered in ash.