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
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 didnt believe that. I believed they would bomb
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 cousins
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
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 didnt have time to dwell on this because
the first aid skills I had studied were needed immediately. I cant 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
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 Ambroses 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 dont 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 Aalims 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
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 wasnt 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 boys 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
brothers 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 boys eyes.
I sat for some time with him, praying for him. I knew
it wasnt 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 Aalims passing? I felt obliged to go and see them or
perhaps simply Majeed personally, to announce the sad news of the boys
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 childrens 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 didnt 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 Majeeds
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. Majeeds 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.