Somehow, I didn’t expect when I opened the door that the first thing that would hit me would be that burning rubber smell from bits of shredded inner tyre that is the secret ingredient in a Molotov cocktail — the thing that makes burning petrol stick to you and do its stuff real fast.
Nor did I expect that the first thing I would see would be a little girl stuck to the wall, unable to move, her lower body fused to the blackened adobe while she screamed for her mother who would never come.
Her scream wasn’t the first thing I heard though.
No, nothing had prepared me for the first thing I heard and that was a woman choking on her own lungs as she coughed them up so that they fell at my feet in a stream of black vomit.
There is no sound like that — I can’t describe it — if you ever hear it, you will know.
When I opened that door, I thought I was ready for the first thing I felt — the blistering heat of burning bodies.
But how could I be?
They were everywhere.
Only a few of them were lucky to be dead.
One tried to grab hold of me, but I pushed him away for fear of his flames touching me, and I cried as I did so.
We’re all hypocrites.
As I opened that door, I was already tasting my bile and my anger and disgust that this happened to people whose only crime was living in the wrong place, caught in a war that they didn’t want, caused by people with no right to be there in the first place.
And that will be the last thing I taste.
I was always bad at making mental pictures.
When I closed my eyes, it was always dark in there.
Not any more.
Now when I close my eyes, I see that little girl, melting like a plastic doll and sticking to the wall.
Now I wake in the night and I can smell burning, but nothing ever is.
I will never get rid of that smell of burning flesh.
When I got back from that village, I stood in my shower under scalding hot water, time after time, but I can’t remove that smell, it’s burned into my soul.
When I wake in the night, beating out the flames, it’s a long time ’til I realise it is just a dream.
And the bitter taste is always with me.
And the memory of opening that door never leaves me.
And the anger and disgust are always with me.
And so is the shame.
When I opened that door and jumped out, it was my first mission.
And I swear it will be my last.
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