Mother and Child from a War Zone

"Refugee camp" (Illustration: Irina Reshetnikova © Fremmed.no)

"Refugee camp" (Illustration: Irina Reshetnikova © Fremmed.no)


I was deep asleep when I felt someone touch my shoulder, waking me up.  Opening my eyes, I saw Doctor Rosie’s face, lit by the glow from a tiny flashlight which she used to look into people’s mouths.  She was kneeling beside me, wearing her blue scarf.  Her other hand was on her satchel of medical supplies.

“Rashida, please come,” she said, her voice soft, urgent.

I stood up from the mattress and slipped on my blue abaya (a woman in the camp had made it for me, from material as close to United Nations blue as we could find).  I tied a blue hijab over my hair, then followed Doctor Rosie out through the tent flaps.  

Lights had been strung on the poles along the streets, another blessing from the wind turbines. But brighter that night than the amber lamps was the moon, nearly full and high overhead, bone white.  The moon lit Doctor Rosie’s face as she told me, “Hala left with her family.  You are my translator now.  It seems we have a special problem in one of the tents.”

And then she led me across the ever growing camp, following a maze of streets through the moonlit tents—some with UNHCR on the roof, some with a Turkish Red Crescent—toward a new neighborhood where we would find, as Doctor Rosie told me, “tent number 1506.  The occupants arrived a couple of hours ago.”

Now in the last week of September, the nights were getting colder. Through my thin shoes, I could feel the cold ground.

 

We found the tent, with a cluster of people—women and children, as always, women and children, and one old man—milling about in the street in front of it.  The moon lit some of their faces as they watched us approach; other faces beneath the hijab were no more than sharp eyes lit by a streetlamp.  The eyes were anxious.  These people had fled from the war that night, had crossed the border somewhere in the moonlight, had found the camp, but they were still not settled.

A woman gestured with a hand reaching from her black abaya toward the tent.  “They are inside.”

The flap was untied.  Rosie led me into the tent.  In the glow of her tiny light, we saw a young woman crouching in a corner with a bundled infant in her arms.  The woman looked up at us and clutched the infant more tightly.  She was a year or two older than me, no more than that.  She was terrified, angry, ferocious; no one was going to take away her child.

Doctor Rosie and I both knelt in front of the woman.  I said softly to her, “Salaam Alaikum.” Peace be with you.

“Alaikum Salaam,” she whispered.

She stared at me, her young face dusty, her lips parched.

“Ask her,” said Doctor Rosie, “if we may see the face of her child.”

The child’s head was covered with a fold of the blanket that wrapped around its body.

I asked the woman if we might see the face of her child.  I explained that the person beside me was a doctor.

The woman stared at me, gave a fierce shake of her head.

“What is your child’s name?” I asked.

After a moment, she told me, proclaiming with a proud whisper, “Nawal.”

I said to Doctor Rosie, “The child’s name is Nawal.  A girl.”

The woman now looked at the fair skinned doctor beside me, her eyes only briefly on Doctor Rosie’s face before they fastened on the gold crucifix that Doctor Rosie wore in the open V of her blue shirt.  Doctor Rosie, as I knew, was an Irish Catholic.

And the woman, as I now guessed, was not Muslim but Christian, perhaps Chaldean, perhaps Assyrian.  I said to Doctor Rosie, “I think she may be Christian.”

“Ahh,” said the doctor, who had found her first clue.  Speaking softly, she told the woman, “Jesus loves your baby.”

The woman’s eyes stared with fresh understanding; she had caught the word “Jesus”.

I translated into Arabic the short sentence, “Jesus loves your baby,” and saw a softening, a reaching, the beginning of an acceptance, in the woman’s eyes.

Doctor Rosie said, “Jesus, the son of Mother Mary, loves all children.”

I translated.

“Jesus is with your child tonight.”

I translated.

Doctor Rosie reached out her pale white hands.  The woman loosened her grip slightly. Rosie slipped the fold of the blanket away from the child’s face.

The infant was dead, eyes closed, parched lips open.  

Doctor Rosie looked at the woman and spoke from her kind Irish heart, “Jesus wants to take your little girl home.”

I translated.

“We will wash your child.  We will wrap her in clean linen.  We will give her a Christian burial.  Jesus will take her home.”

Then Doctor Rosie held out her hands, palms up, ready to receive the child.

With enormous courage, and with a degree of peace in her eyes, the young woman slowly pulled the fold of the blanket back over her daughter’s face, then relinquished the child into the doctor’s hands.  

Doctor Rosie’s face, for the first time since I had known her, filled with an aching grief as she clutched the bundled child to her heart.  “Sweet Jesus, be with us tonight.”

Then she handed the child to me.  I, who had received so many freshly born infants into my hands from my mother, the midwife.  I, who washed those wailing infants, then bundled them in clean linen, while my mother attended to the medical needs of the exhausted mothers.  I, who had so many times felt the push of little hands, the kick of little feet, the flex of a living body.

I now received into my hands a child utterly limp, even a bit stiff, while Doctor Rosie touched the woman’s face (to feel for a fever), then took her pulse.  She opened her satchel, took out a plastic liter bottle of water enriched with electrolytes—such bottles came by the thousands from Sweden—and gave it to the woman with parched lips.

The woman unscrewed the blue cap and drank half the bottle before she paused.  

Now Doctor Rosie stood, and I stood with the child.  Doctor Rosie reached down, took the woman’s hand, raised her up.  She held the woman’s hand as she led her out through the tent flaps into the moonlight.  I followed.

The eyes of the clustered refugees watched us; they glanced at the child, stared at the woman.  She must have been a stranger to them, someone who in the chaos of war became a part of their group as they fled toward the border.

As Doctor Rosie led the woman along the otherwise deserted street, the cluster of refugees, murmuring, disappeared into their tent.

I walked beside the woman so that she could see her daughter.  She did not ask to hold her child again, though she looked often at the bundle in my arms.  She had relinquished her little girl to Jesus.

 

Doctor Rosie began to sing softly, sending up to the moon the verses of what I guessed must be an Irish hymn.  Her voice was filled with an aching strength, as we followed the empty lamp-lit streets toward a special tent, located near the medical tent, where bodies were taken to be washed before burial.

While Doctor Rosie and the woman waited outside, I entered the unmarked tent, where two men were wrapping the body of an adult laid on a table.  I was not surprised that people were working at this late hour; some of the refugees who staggered into the camp were barely alive.  A few died within hours of arriving.  Bodies were promptly prepared for burial.

One of the men nodded toward another table: I was to put the child there.

As I placed the bundle on a wooden table built by camp carpenters, I told myself that this was better than buried alive beneath a collapsed apartment building hit by a bomb; better than burned alive in a targeted church; better than shot, child and mother together, by a sniper.  Better than torn apart by shrapnel from an artillery shell, while waiting in a long line in the street for bread.

At least, here in the refugee camp, there was some degree of order.  Some dignity.  Some vestige of human decency.

I asked the men, “When should I return?”

One of them looked up from his work.  “Come back in an hour.  The grave will be ready as well.”

“Shukran,” I said.  Thank you.

 

When I entered the medical tent, I saw that Doctor Rosie was examining a new arrival . . . while the young mother, seated at a table nearby, ate a meal of bread, apricots and tea.  I sat at the table with her, poured a cup of tea for myself, then told her, “I am Rashida.”

She looked at me; she had washed her face and hands.  “I am Yaara.”

“Your daughter will be ready in an hour.  The cemetery is just outside the camp fence.  The moonlight, I think, will be very nice.”

She looked at me with gratitude.  “Na’m.”  Yes.

She offered me a piece of bread, then we drank our tea and watched Rosie as she listened with her stethoscope to an elderly woman’s heart.

When Yaara had finished her meal, I suggested, “Perhaps you would like a hot shower?  The water is heated by the sun.”

“By the sun?”

“The water is stored in black plastic barrels on the roof of the shower.  The sun shines on the barrels during the day.  Even at night, the water is still warm.  Sometimes, after working late with Doctor Rosie, I take a shower before I go to bed.”

Had she ever bathed with anything other than buckets of water from a well?  I did not ask, but led her out of the medical tent to the nearby shower for women.  (The men’s shower was at the opposite end of the camp.)  I showed her the faucet, made sure she had a bar of soap.

“Take your time,” I said.  “I will come back with a towel and fresh clothes.”

I would give her a choice: she could put on her old clothes, worn while she fled the war and while her child had died . . . or she could put on a new abaya from an aid organization in Turkey.  She could choose what she wanted to wear to the funeral of her child.

 

And so, less than an hour later, the three of us, Yaara, Doctor Rosie and myself—and the little girl which I carried, wrapped in fresh white linen—entered a growing cemetery outside the camp fence.  In the same manner that streets formed a grid among the tents, paths formed a grid among mounds of fresh earth.  A boy who had just finished digging the grave led us in the moonlight to a short hole in the ground, a child’s grave.  Yaara drew back with a cry, her hands covering her face.

“Yaara,” said Doctor Rosie, “take your daughter in your arms one last time.”

The young mother—far braver than I could ever be—lowered her hands from her face; tears gleaming in the moonlight trailed down her cheeks.  She held out her hands toward me.  I gave her the infant, wrapped in pale white, a tiny creature in a cocoon.  

Yaara hugged her child and wailed, and I thought of the loneliness that had filled my heart like all the darkness of the night.  

Doctor Rosie said a prayer, her fervent words mixing with Yaara’s shrieks of grief as she called upon Jesus to take this child of war . . . home to a place of peace.

And then Doctor Rosie lifted her crucifix—a gold cross on a chain—over her head and, while Yaara watched, tucked it into the linen wrapped around the little girl.

“Shukran,” said Yaara.

“Alaikum Salaam,” said Doctor Rosie, patting her hand on the child.

She turned to the boy, who took the child from Yaara, placed it in a linen sling and lowered the pale white cocoon into the dark shadow at the bottom of the grave.

The loneliness . . . something in me raged against the loneliness.  Against the bleak emptiness.  And against the cruel, ugly stupidness of war.

The boy stood with his shovel beside a mound of earth, looking at Doctor Rosie.  Should he wait, or should he begin to fill the grave?

“We go now,” said Doctor Rosie, taking Yaara’s hand.  

We walked in silence through the cemetery, past graves with markers, past graves with nothing on the raw earth.  Perhaps, when Yaara was ready, we would return to the grave with a cross, or a toy, or a desert flower, for her little girl.


•••


At the medical tent, I said to Yaara, “You come home with me to my tent.  You are my sister now.”

She looked at me, too devastated to speak.

Doctor Rosie said, “Yes, I will have a mattress and blankets sent over.”   

And so the two of us walked together to tent 827, while artillery rumbled to the south.


"Mother and Child from a War Zoneis an excerpt from John Slades new book Melting at One End, Bleeding at the Other - now avaliable in Norwegian (link).


John Slade is a Norwegian-American author born in Buffalo, New York. He has a doctorate in literature from Stanford University, and is a certified speaker for Climate Reality. You can find his books at JohnSladeBoker.no



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