The harsh sunlight filtered in through the ruins of the abandoned hospital, the dust dancing in the stilled air and gently landing on the cracked flooring and jagged cement. Yasin stepped over the remains of an incubator, his stomach rolling as the body of an innocent baby came into view beneath pieces of the ceiling.
“Everything.” His whisper barely reached the ears of Dr. Zahra, who was following in his wake. “Everything is lost.”
“It is not, Yasin, you know that. In all the four years of violence that we have been succumbed to, nothing has ever been truly lost.”
“How many?” Yasin turned on his heels, making Zahra flinch as she saw the anger radiating in his eyes. “How many patients did we lose? What about the doctor who was on stand in this hospital? Where is he, Zahra? This is the 43rd attack on a medical facility in Syria this month! Our services will not last past next month if this keeps up. We will leave 300,000 innocent civilians to die!” Yasin glanced down at the floor beneath him.
“Yasin.” He snapped his head up at the sound of her mellifluous voice. “The doctor who was on stand managed to get ten patients out of the hospital before the bomb hit. Ten patients who, right now at this moment, are waiting for a surgeon like you in the basement.” She whispered the last part, her eyes glancing around in fear for prying ears that might be lurking amidst the debris.
Yasin laughed dryly, “Since when did the words surgeon and basement go in the same sentence?”
“We need to go,” Zahra smiled weakly, leaving his question to settle in the air in between them. She started to climb over the pile of broken hospital beds, and glanced back at Yasin expectedly.
“Yeah,” Yasin muttered. “I just need a moment.”
“Alright,” Zahra called back, her voice fading away as she stepped out of the skeleton of the building.
Once she was gone, Yasin leaned down and tried to pick up a ragged blanket that was wedged in between a piece of the ceiling and the baby’s frail body. As he tugged on the blanket, the body was dislodged from the rock, and fell at his feet. Yasin’s vision spun around as he in took a sharp breath, the body the only thing he could focus on. Yeah, four damn years and we haven’t lost anything.
He leaned down, the putrid stench of death flooding the roof of his mouth and he stifled back a gag. “I am so sorry, little one, you were taken from this world before you could even live, all because the people of Syria have decided that President Bashar al-Assad is not fit for his country, and more importantly, that the people have decided to fight here, in Aleppo.”
With a shaking hand, he pressed the baby’s eyelids shut and dusted off the dried blood. “You are not forgotten.” He bit his tongue; it was a lie. It seemed like no one cared about Aleppo, and no one would remember that this baby, this creation of Allah, even existed for a second before being ripped away from his future.
“Yasin!” Zahra’s voice sounded so far away, like a distant shout across the ocean, “We have to move on and save more lives!”
“Don’t we just,” Yasin choked on the rising acidity in his throat and tightened his grip on the ripped blanket before fighting his way through the destruction towards the opening in which they came. The sunlight blinded him as he stepped out onto the narrow road, the limestone buildings that once stood tall with pride of Aleppo’s strength and history, now as decimated and abandoned as the city itself.
They walked the empty streets in silence, each doctor too preoccupied with their own thoughts to offer any words to one another. Their feet carried them through the city, automatically stepping over the shards of glass and piles of limestone in their path. The city was quiet, too quiet. The deafening silence pressed into Yasin’s ears until he felt like his eardrums would burst from the pressure.
“Hey.” Zahra’s voice shattered in his ears, and startled by the sudden outburst, he stumbled over a protruding tile in the road.
Her eyes lit up with laughter as his face turned bright red from embarrassment; yet, her mouth remained tight and sullen. “About the hospital, I’m sorry-”
“Don’t.” Yasin snapped, the unfairness of the incident outweighing his usual calm demeanor.
“Fine, but you need to talk about it, it’s not healthy to keep it all in.” Zahra turned back to look at the road in front of her.
“Are you trying to analyze me, Dr. PhD in psychology?”
“Maybe.” This time, a small smile ghosted on her face. “Let’s get to work.”
Yasin turned away from studying her face and saw the familiar silhouette of a once-loved family home reduced to just one standing wall. To the army or rebels, it looked just like every other building on the street. Reduced to nothing but dust, burn marks on the wall echoing the fate of those who once danced and sang in the home, but now, were empty bodies thrown into the street. Only the doctors and patients knew different. Hidden in the shadow of the remaining wall, was a door leading down into a basement, a basement that sheltered the dying and nursed them back to health.
Zahra glanced around in suspicion before throwing the door open and stepping into the darkness below. Yasin followed, shutting the door and enclosing them in pitch-black darkness. A faint cry of a child was heard in front of their party as they walked, on sure-feet once again even with the darkness pressing against their eyes. Despite the smell of blood and other smells that he’d rather not identify, Yasin felt comfortable, the unease he felt just a couple minutes before fading away in the back of his subconscious as each step brought him closer to the makeshift hospital. He was needed here. He could make a difference. The screaming sounds of bombs and rockets were just faint whispers to the sound of old heart monitors and the single oxygen machine they were able to hook up. The blinding light of the sterile one-room hospital flooded Yasin’s eyes as he stepped into the basement, and he bit back a surprised shout when a high-pitch voice call out his name, ripping him away from his thoughts.
“Dr. Yasin, I am so glad you are back, little Hassan here is coughing up blood and I don’t know what to do!” A young attendant flew to his side, a clipboard with all of the patients’ information clutched in her trembling hands.
“Thank you, Samaira,” Yasin smiled down at the nervous girl, “I don’t know what I would do without you to keep me straight.” Yes, he thought, this is where I find my confidence.
Samaira nodded as her cheeks became rosey from the compliment. She spotted Zahra, who had managed to sneak past the girl and was instead trying to calm down a grieving mother, and promptly left Yasin’s side. He smiled grimly as he watched her closely, a brotherly protectiveness rearing a head in his mind. Doctors in Aleppo were being hunted down and tortured, and the government would not care if Samaira weren’t a real doctor, she would be tortured just the same as Yasin if she were found. Her entire family had been killed in an air raid two months ago, and she had found shelter in the basement. When Samaira was strong enough, she wanted to help out the doctors, and frankly, Yasin and Zahra needed the help too much to say no.
He quickly shook those thoughts from his head and turned back to the little boy, Hassan, who had with dried blood crusted on his chin and fresh blood sparkling on his teeth. “Alright, my son.” Yasin leaned down to the terrified boy’s eye level, “Let’s get you fixed up the best we can.”
The rest of the day was a blur, the sounds of pain and sorrow fuelling Yasin to work harder, pushing him past his breaking point. With only one clock working, he didn’t even notice that it was one in the morning until Zahra sided up to him as he was leaning up against the wall after completing a surgery to remove shrapnel from a mother’s shoulder.
“Take a break, Yasin.” Zahra placed her hand gently on his aching back, “It’s okay to take a break.”
“I will, I promise, I just have one more patient- a teacher who sustained a bullet to the back of the leg, then I will be done.” Yasin pushed himself off the wall, pretending not to notice the blood left behind from where he was just standing.
“That’s what you always say,” Zahra retorted back under her breath, slipping past him to finish up her rounds.
Zahra found Yasin two hours later, his sleeping body leaning against the operation table, mouth slightly agape. With all the patients stable and relatively quiet, Zahra let her legs give up as she slid down next to Yasin and leaned against his strong frame, shutting her eyes to the violent world that had become the norm.
“Dr. Zahra! Dr. Yasin! Please, wake up!” A shrill voice jolted both doctors awake. “Samaira?” Yasin grumbled, his eyes heavy with sleep.
“Doctor! Please the air raids are coming, they are bombing again!” Samaira sank to the ground and wrapped her skinny arms around her body.
“How close to the hospital?” Zahra grabbed Yasin’s hand violently and gripped it tight.
“Too close. They are coming for us.”
Yasin’s eyes shot open as adrenaline flooded his system. “Go, Zahra, start gathering the patients. We must move those who are able to walk to the nearest medical center.” His panicked eyes betrayed his confident voice as he launched himself towards the door. “Air raid! Everybody out and head to the hospital run by Abd al Bari!” He gathered various medical supplies and handed it out to the patients as they hoppled out of the basement and onto the darkened road with roaring fires from the raid lighting their way. He turned on his heels and found Hassan’s unconscious body huddled on a blanket on the floor. “I’m not leaving you.” He clenched his jaw in determination. “Someone please, take him!”
The ceiling shuddered as the air raid continued on over their heads. Yasin glanced up and felt his blood run cold. He knew. He knew that the sound of the plane flying overhead would lead to his demise. It was a foreshadowing that he could not deny. He knew in his heart and in his mind that he was about to die. He needed to minimize the damage. Zahra appeared behind him, holding two babies in her arms.
“Run! Run, Zahra, run! I’ll meet you at the hospital!” He cried out as he dashed back into the depths of the basement, suddenly remembering the unconscious teacher he had left on the table, afraid to move her after the surgery in case she bled out. He was out of blood bags to give.
Zahra nodded in grim determination; she knew that Aleppo could not afford to lose two doctors and her staying would not only endanger the lives of the two babies but of Aleppo’s fate itself.
“Come back to me, Yasin, you need to save more lives.”
“Of course.” Yasin smiled a genuine smile and watched her figure run into the firelight until she was too far away to be seen. He dashed back into the operating room and saw the teacher sleeping peacefully on the table. A loud boom echoed above him, and the lights flickered until he was plunged into complete darkness. “Well, that’s just great,” he muttered as he slid his arms around the unconscious body in front of him.
Once balanced with the woman’s weight, Yasin stepped out of the OR and into the main room. Another bomb was dropped, this one closer to the hospital, and the shock sent Yasin falling back, hitting his head on a bed before slamming into the ground with the patient’s weight crushing him. His vision faded in and out, his head spiking in pain. Groaning, he moved his trembling hand to the back of his head and felt slick blood coat the tips of his fingers. “Perfect.”
He heard another blast echo above him, this time sending pieces of the ceiling raining down around the teacher and him. He flipped over and covered the teacher’s sleeping body with his own as dust and rocks were sprinkled around them. Once the dust had settled, he glanced up at the sky through the new holes. Thousands and thousands of stars were painted in the sky, pinpricks of light stabbing into his eyes. The sound of another bomb being dropped fell on deaf ears, and all the stars in the sky above him caught on fire and grew into one brilliant flash that seemed to last an eternity. In that moment, Yasin realized one thing and prayed for another.
I guess I didn’t keep my promise to Zahra.
Please Allah, end this suffering soon.
A thousand different emotions and a thousand different memories set his body on fire until he disappeared with ashes falling and the stars dancing in the sky.