Harsh sunlight filtered in through the ruins of the abandoned hospital, illuminating the dust that danced in the still air and landed gently on the cracked floor. Yasin stepped over the remains of an incubator, his stomach churning 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.”
“No it’s not, Yasin, you know that. In the four years of violence that we have endured in Aleppo, nothing has ever been truly lost.”
Yasin turned on his heels, making Zahra flinch. 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 forty-third attack on a medical facility in Syria this month! Our services will not last past next month if this keeps up. We will leave three hundred thousand innocent civilians to die.” Yasin glanced down at the floor. They stood in silence for a moment.
His head snapped 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 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, letting his question settle in the air between them. She began climbing over a pile of broken hospital beds, glancing back at Yasin expectantly.
“Yeah,” he muttered. “I just need a moment.”
“All right,” Zahra called back, her voice fading as she left the building’s ruins.
Once she was gone, Yasin leaned down to pick up a ragged blanket wedged between a piece of the ceiling and the baby’s body. His tugging dislodged the body, and it fell, heavily, at his feet. Yasin’s vision spun as he inhaled sharply. Four damn years and we haven’t lost anything? Right.
He leaned down, stifling a gag as the putrid stench of death flooded the roof of his mouth. “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.”
With a trembling hand, he pressed the baby’s eyelids shut.
“You are not forgotten.” But he bit his tongue; it was a lie. It seemed like no one cared about Aleppo. No one would remember this baby, this creation of Allah, whose future was taken before his life could even begin.
“Yasin!” Zahra’s voice sounded so far away, like a distant shout across the ocean. “We have to move on and save more lives!”
Yasin choked on the rising acidity in his throat. Releasing the blanket, he fought his way through the destruction toward the opening. 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 the other. Their feet carried them through the city, automatically stepping over the shards of glass and piles of limestone. 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.
“Are you trying to analyze me, Ms. PhD in psychology?”
“Maybe.” This time, a small smile flickered on her face. “Let’s get to work.”
Yasin turned away and saw a once-loved family home reduced to just one standing wall. To the army or rebels, it looked like every other building on the street. Nothing but dust, burn marks on the wall echoing the fate of those who once danced and sang in the home. Only the doctors and patients knew differently. 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, enclosing them in darkness. They could hear the faint cry of a child. Despite the smell of blood and other aromas 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 faint whispers next 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 suddenly flooded Yasin’s eyes.
“Dr. Yasin, I am so glad you are back! Hassan is coughing up blood, and I don’t know what to do!” The young attendant flew to Yasin’s side, a clipboard 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 pink from the compliment. He smiled grimly as he watched her closely, a brotherly protectiveness rearing its head. Doctors in Aleppo were being hunted down and tortured, and the government would not care if Samaira wasn’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 earlier, and she had found shelter in the basement. When Samaira’s wounds healed, she had wanted to help the doctors, and Yasin and Zahra had needed the help too much to say no.
He turned to the little boy, Hassan, who had dried blood crusted on his chin and fresh blood sparkling on his teeth. “All right, 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 fueling Yasin to work harder, pushing him past his breaking point. With only one clock working, he didn’t realize it was one in the morning until Zahra sided up to him as he was leaning against the wall. He had just completed 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 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, slipping past him to finish up her rounds.
Zahra found Yasin two hours later, his sleeping body leaning against the operating 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! 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 and gripped it tight.
“Too close. They are coming for us.”
Yasin’s eyes shot open as adrenaline flooded his system. “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 toward the door. “Air raid! Everybody out and head to the hospital run by Abd al Bari!”
He gathered various medical supplies and handed them to patients as they hobbled out of the basement and onto the darkened road, 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 overhead. Yasin glanced up and felt his blood run cold. 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 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 basement, suddenly remembering the unconscious teacher he had left on the operating table, afraid to move her after the surgery.
Zahra nodded in grim determination; she knew that Aleppo could not afford to lose two doctors; her staying would not only endanger the lives of the two babies but the fate of Aleppo 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. 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, then plunged the room in complete darkness. “Well, that’s just great,” he muttered as he slid his arms around the teacher.
Carrying the unconscious woman, Yasin stepped out of the OR and into the main room. Another bomb fell, this time closer to the hospital. The shock threw Yasin back, and he hit his head on a bed before slamming onto the ground. 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.
He heard another blast echo above, and pieces of the ceiling rained down on Yasin and the teacher. He covered the teacher’s unconscious body with his own as debris fell around them. Once the dust had settled, he glanced up at the sky through the new holes. Thousands of stars were pinpricks of light stabbing his eyes.
The sound of the next bomb fell on deaf ears. The stars above Yasin 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 didn’t keep my promise to Zahra. Please Allah, end this suffering soon.
A thousand emotions and memories set his body on fire until he disappeared into the falling ashes. The stars danced in the sky.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.