Both Shocked And Awed

The worst part of working in a medical centre in a war zone is not seeing the men and women brought in with limbs missing, or the blinded screaming children, or the American soldiers screaming more for the blood of enemies than from pain, or indeed the worry that the so-called insurgents are as vociferous and terrifying in their own roars and determination. No, the absolute worst thing, for myself, as a nurse, is the fear that every day you will not be able to help these people because you too will become one of the victims of this needless, hopeless madness.

I forget the date I came so close to dying myself. I was born and raised in Baghdad, and I was a printer by trade. I had no medical training other than having read a Western book on first aid techniques after one of my colleagues fell and broke his arm so badly that the bone protruded through his flesh. He almost died that day, and I swore that as a foreman I would never let someone be so close to death. For a start he was a very young man, no more than sixteen, and I also feared that if I did nothing to protect the safety of government workers I may… I may disappear. Careless people did not last long if the government of the time was inconvenienced in any significant way.

That day… It was the most shocking day of my life. We knew the Americans were coming, and we knew Saddam would not be long for this world because the word on the street was that the Americans had sworn to feast on the flesh of him and all his kin, and that they had devils of fire that would seek him out. I didn’t believe that. I believed they would bomb Baghdad relentlessly until no building stood. It is small comfort to know this didn’t exactly happen, but at the time it seemed this was so.

The explosion was to my right as I walked to work. I had just taken my children to the school nearby and listened at my cousin’s house to the latest news of American casualties. It seemed we were winning, driving the infidels back into the sea where they were drowning in their thousands. I remembered thinking “Do we not know they have ships?” and I left while my relatives shouted and jeered, argued and cried.

I saw the building fall; felt the earth tremble under my feet as it seemed to collapse in on itself. I had no idea how this had happened. Of course, in later times I would come to know that “stealth” planes dropped bombs guided by laser beams onto it, killing with a precision that no sniper could ever match. My first instinct at that time was to run. I ran like the wind, and I ran to work, where I ordered everyone to shelter. I knew that the Americans would know we were a government building and I feared terribly that if my staff were bombed and I did nothing that I would suffer the consequences.

The explosions began to happen all over, but they seemed farther away. I ran into the print room and screamed for everyone to leave via the nearest exit, to get to the nearest shelter they could find, to pray to Allah that this was over quickly and that vengeance be swift. They did as they were told. They did so, frightened men and boys, scattering like frightened goats into the streets, the more diligent among them turning off their machines as they went.

My story really begins in the days after. Our building was indeed bombed. It was perhaps no more than two hours after the initial strike, but I am reminded to this day that it could have been one of the first to go. It changed my life that day. I had been 30 metres from a building destroyed in almost total silence, then just a small time from having my workplace utterly annihilated. But I didn’t have time to dwell on this because the first aid skills I had studied were needed immediately. I can’t even recall how many people I patched up that day, or how many I sent away with minor cuts and grazes. But I remember the dead. I remember each and every one of them. But most specifically I remember the boy, Aalim.

I had made my way to the medical centre, knowing my new skills would be useful there, and that there would likely be thousands needing help. I was not wrong. It was chaos. The centre was staffed by a variety of faiths, and there were a couple of Western doctors there who had endured terrible abuse. I screamed at people to think with the minds Allah blessed them with, to not react with hatred against men and women there to repair the damage done by The Great Satan. I was fighting a losing battle, being spat at for speaking up! Then some policemen came, and shots were fired, and the worst of the crowd began to disperse, leaving the injured, weeping, frightened, bleeding, dying.

In the first hours it was mostly people hit by glass and masonry. But as the day went on it was clear that the good people of Baghdad had been pulling the injured from under the rubble of their homes and businesses. People came in looking like ghosts, covered from head to toe in dirty grey, their expressions of shock and abject terror. Some had their eyes bandaged already, and some… well, some just didn’t have a lot left of them. There were people with missing arms, missing legs, even some with parts of their head or body missing; yet still alive if only by the will of Allah.

Aalim was brought in during the early evening. He had been freed from the rubble of his grandparents’ house when it had collapsed after a big bomb destroyed a TV station in the centre of the city. Unfortunately, to free him they had had to cut off one of his legs, but this was not the worst for Aalim. He had had one arm completely severed, or blown off, and the other arms ended in a bloody mess that had once been a hand. His face was cut and swollen, and his scalp was a mass of cuts and grazes. But through all of this, were his eyes: they were like shining diamonds lit from Heaven, darting this way and that, his mouth trying to form words he could not, his head held still by a neck brace as they brought him to me on a stretcher.

The men must have thought I was a doctor, perhaps because I had just patched up an old woman whose arm had been badly cut, or perhaps because I was clearly able-bodied yet almost completely drenched in blood. They placed Aalim down on the trolley in front of me, shooing away a woman who claimed she needed attention next. She had a few facial cuts and some severe bruising, but nothing more. The sight of Aalim almost made me vomit. I had seen horror this day, but I did not expect to see a friend of my eldest son lying so close to death before me. I felt the tears begin to come, and I thought of his mother, and his father, and of his identical twin brother whose name at that time I could not recall.

I knew I could not help this boy. His body was destroyed. But those eyes… so bright and searching. And I knew then that the words he was trying to say were “Where is Majeed? Where is my brother?” over and over again, in a low, weak, breathy voice. I called over the Canadian doctor, Carl Ambrose, who took one look at the poor boy and said “Do you know how to administer morphine?”

I did not, but within a few minutes I did. I did not know anything about morphine before then, and it was clear to me that what I was being asked to do was not help this wretched child get better, but to simply take away the pain of his horrific injuries. Only a few seconds after the needle broke his skin the fire in his eyes began to fade, but his breathing slowed to a more normal rate, and in some ways he seemed more content.

I enlisted the help of a young woman to clean Aalim up. She washed his face and dressed his scalp. She wept at the sight of his mangled hand and missing arm and leg, but she valiantly fought against the revulsion and made this boy look comfortable and at rest when I returned later. He seemed, with Doctor Ambrose’s immense knowledge and skill to improve, and it seemed he had not lost a lot of blood. He had been found quickly, and tourniquets that saved his life at the loss of the limbs. He was luckier still to be found a bed in the centre.

None of us slept that night. The Americans continued to bomb us, but they perhaps knew of the medical centres because it seemed to us that no explosions happened near us. People continued to be brought in, but it was also clear that there were funerals being prepared quite nearby. By four in the morning there was no more than a trickle of people, and we had enlisted even more makeshift nursing staff. I knew at that moment that my new role in life was not to print requisition slips, pamphlets and handbooks, but to save the lives of my countrymen.

I looked in on Aalim at dawn. I don’t know why, but the call to prayer alerted me to him. I went into the room where there were six beds of people with the most serious injuries to their limbs. All of these people were no more than thirty years of age, but Aalim was the youngest of all at just eight years of age. He looked so small, so fragile. I went over to him, and it was clear that he was asleep. That was a blessed relief, and I just stood and watched his chest rise and fall for a while, thinking how I should soon return home to see if my own wife and children were fine. Also, of course, to talk to Aalim’s family.

I did not go home. My Uncle Mahmood brought in an injured girl. After chastising me for missing morning prayers, he said he was proud of me for the duty I was performing and that he would speak with my wife and reassure her of my safety and duty. He also said he would return with women and food to help even more. It seemed our community had not been badly damaged, and for that I was very thankful, not least that I now knew my wife and children were alive and well.

That day was a blur. Two men died right in front of me, and I watched as a woman I knew to be the wife of a colleague at the printing factory saw her only child die in the arms of the Swiss doctor, Marie Aebischer. At that, I was forced by the permanent medical staff to take a break and change my clothes. Blood crusted my shirt and trousers, and I became aware of how bad I smelled. Yet the bathing did not seem to wash the blood from me, as though it were in my soul. I dressed in hospital pyjama trousers and a shirt loaned to me by Doctor Ambrose. I was then shown how to change dressings and to check blood pressure and also to stitch wounds. It seemed I was accepted as an equal in some ways, and my heart was lifted from the terror and pain I felt there.

It was lifted more when I looked in on Aalim later. Stood at the side of his bed was a sight to behold. Majeed was there, looking down at his brother. As I closed the door behind me he looked up and gave a weary smile that conveyed more in one movement of the face than any amount of words could ever had done. I looked at Aalim, and saw for the first time his mouth had stopped moving. Panicked for a moment, I soon saw his chest rise and fall, and knew he was very much still with us. I realised then that of course his mouth wasn’t moving: all he had done since being brought in was ask for his brother, and now his brother was here with him there was no need.

I asked Majeed if his parents knew they were both here, and he just looked at me with a baleful, penetrating stare. I saw his eyes water and I dared not ask further. He looked back down at his unfortunate brother, and laid a hand gently on the bandages bound around the boy’s crushed hand. He bit his lower lip and gently shook his head. I wanted to hug him at that moment and tell him it was all going to be okay, but I felt I could not lie to this child. Instead I just said “I will do what I can to make your brother’s life comfortable. If there is anything I can do for you, Majeed?”

Without looking up, he said “You are already doing it for me. He is my brother. He is my twin.”

I understood. I have no siblings and have never had a true fraternity, but I have heard many stories of the way things are for twins, especially identical ones. Some feel the pain of the other, and it is said some can hear the thoughts too. I supposed that what Aalim was feeling, so Majeed must feel too, the poor child. I left the boys to their private pain, and tended the needs of the others in the room, quietly making note of the fact that one had passed away since I had last checked.

That note was true of Aalim when I checked on him just after midnight. He lay there in his bed, his sweet face staring beyond the realms of mortality, a serene smile on his lips. For a moment I could not believe he had died, but in that same moment thought also what Blessed relief it must have been. Caught between emotions I at once checked for a pulse in his neck, and then in no time closed the little boy’s eyes.

I sat for some time with him, praying for him. I knew it wasn’t necessary. His family were good people and he had been brought up right, and I knew that his twin had been praying for him, would be praying for him now. I wondered at what grief Majeed would feel. Would he know? Would that twin kinship alert him to Aalim’s passing? I felt obliged to go and see them or perhaps simply Majeed personally, to announce the sad news of the boy’s passing. I knew it would be hard, but I had to get out and let whoever was left know. They had that right.

The doctors had now a lot of volunteers and more or less pushed me out of the medical centre. Doctors from a hospital that had been damaging in the raids had now come with supplies to assist with the sick and injured, and as I left the centre in a daze I did not even feel like I would be missed. I walked slowly, all the energy drained from my tired and overworked body. I saw vehicles burning, and many buildings with their windows broken. The streets were littered with belongings from people who had clearly fled, but who knew to where? I got home, and I have no idea what time it was or how long it took. I just knelt at my children’s beds, kissed them gently, then joined my wife outside in the yard. She held me as I wept. I wept like a child.

I was awoken to bright sunlight and the rat-a-tat-tat of machine gun fire. I jolted upright on my bed, and was quickly urged to rest by my wife. Of course, I could not. I was angry with myself for missing morning prayers once again, but in my heart I asked myself if I could be forgiven in light of what I had been doing? I reconciled my guilt, said prayers asking forgiveness, and then ate a good breakfast for what seemed like the first time in a lifetime. I knew then what I had to do.

I didn’t know what to expect of the twins’ family home. I knew it was their grandparents’ house that had been destroyed, but I had forgotten how far apart they lived. I was then surprised to find that their home stood quite intact as I was led there by my eldest son. I presumed that the grandparents lived in a more industrial area of the city as it was clear now that the Americans were concentrating their efforts on such places, and not randomly destroying everything, as many were saying.

I was greeted with dignity by Aalim and Majeed’s father. I told him at once that despite our efforts to keep him alive poor Aalim had not had the strength to survive his injuries, and that he should come when he could bring his son home. I told him how he had called and called for his brother before he had come to him.

And that was when I was taken with a chill like none I had ever felt in my life. For that was when the man told me that Majeed had been pulled from the destroyed house shortly before Aalim. He was dead when they found him, his lifeless body crushed beyond repair. I could not believe what he was telling me, for I had met Majeed. I had stood with him as he sat with his dying brother.

But it was not so. Majeed’s body had been prepared for the funeral already, and I stood and looked down at his serene smile. I was in no doubt it was Majeed, and the smile that he wore soon drew the chill from me for I saw it to be precisely the same smile Aalim had worn on his passing in the medical centre.

It would appear that twins are indeed connected in ways we cannot imagine. I knew right then that when I left those two boys in that room at the medical centre, they both went off to play together, just as they had done for all of their short lives.

© Ian "Ed" Henderson, 2007