The Loneliness of War

 "Never-ending war" (Illustration:  Irina Reshetnikova  © )

"Never-ending war" (Illustration: Irina Reshetnikova ©

I awoke one night, after about two weeks in the refugee camp, with the deepest, most searing loneliness that I had ever felt.  While the roof of the tent shook in the night wind, and while the incessant voices called and worried and wailed outside (many refugees arrived during the nights, when they were safer from snipers), I felt a loneliness that was greater than any love I had ever felt, greater than any joy I had ever felt. Greater, even, than my rage at this horrid war.

Was I lonely because I missed my brother and father?  Yes.

Was I lonely because I missed my homeland, my modern city, my normal way of life?  Yes.

Was I lonely because I missed my friends at school . . . which, in years past, had begun in the month of September, less than a week from now?  Yes.

But it was far more than that.  I felt as if all the blackness of the night sky, without the stars, had poured into my heart.

My brother, my mother and I lay on mattresses along three sides of our tent; only I was awake.  The flaps of the fourth side of the tent were tied to keep the dust out, or at least some of the dust.  The flaps shook and occasionally rumbled in the night wind.

The tent was dark, save for the faintest glow of light: the moon shone through the canvas.  Earlier that evening, as I stood in line at the sanitary station, I had watched the moon rising over the hills of Turkey; it was pale apricot, almost full.

The loneliness that I felt . . . I wanted to weep, I wanted to sob.  

It was not for something that I missed.  It was for something . . . beyond the war, beyond this time of fear and worry and rage.  It was for the life that I had not yet lived, and might never live, for war brought death at any moment.  

The government planes—the Russian MiG’s—that had bombed Aleppo and Idleb and Azaz—might they not bomb a refugee camp as well?  

We could sometimes hear artillery to the south.  What was a bit of canvas against an artillery shell?

Could a girl feel such loneliness for the life she had not yet lived?

I stood at the edge of my own grave, peering down into the blackness, while the ground slowly crumbled beneath my feet.


The following day, I searched for Doctor Rosie, the doctor from Ireland, because she was energetic, and capable, and from a world outside of Syria at war.  I went with my mother to the medical tent, where my mother was immediately immersed in her work with several infants born during the past few days.  But Doctor Rose Flanagan, an English nurse told me, was already out on her rounds.

Walking up and down the “streets” of the camp and asking along the way, I found Doctor Rosie in a tent crowded with a large family and their sacks of potatoes.  Doctor Rosie’s interpreter was telling her that the family was from a farming village north of Aleppo, not far from the Turkish border, where they grew wheat and potatoes, and harvested olives from their trees.  No one was sick, no one was hurt.  The children were all well, though thirsty.  Their village had suddenly been bombed by a lone warplane, and so they had fled.


Doctor Rosie asked questions, speaking not only to the two men but to the four women as well.  Her interpreter, a young woman from the University of Aleppo, spoke to the men in Arabic, spoke to the women, then translated their answers into English for Doctor Rosie.  Standing just inside the tent, I could understand only a portion of the English.

Doctor Rosie took notes on a clipboard.  In her blue shirt and trousers, and blue scarf over her red hair, she brought the authority—and hope—of the United Nations to people who had left their ancient well and clean water and olive trees.  Suddenly, I felt enormously heartened to be standing exactly here, in this tent with an Irish doctor, at this moment; the loneliness was gone.

When the interview was over, I stepped quickly out of the tent, then greeted Doctor Rosie in English as she too emerged from the tent flaps.  “Doctor Rosie, I am Rashida, daughter of Zainab, who is helping you as a midwife.  I want to help you too.”

She recognized me and smiled faintly while her eyes squinted against the bright morning sun.  “Can you take notes?  Hala,” she nodded toward her translator, “is giving me the gist of what they say, but I fear I am losing a part of even that in my own notes.”

I offered, “As they speak, I shall take notes in Arabic.  Then, afterwards, if you have questions, I could explain more fully to you what they have said.”

“Then,” she held out her pale white hand, the first hand of a Westerner which I ever shook, “I believe you may become as indispensible as your mother.”


And so I began my career as a doctor’s assistant, visiting two or three dozen tents every day, with my own clipboard and pads and multiple pens, writing the tent numbers and the names of the occupants, circling the names of those who needed medical care. Sicknesses, injuries, particular worries: my Arabic filled page after page.  

Then at the medical tent, after a lunch of whatever the Turkish authorities were providing that day, Doctor Rosie would announce, “All right, team!”, and the three of us would go to work. Rosie would go through her notes, tent by tent, often asking questions; Hala would translate into Arabic for me; I would respond, sometimes in Arabic through Hala (who often added her own information), and sometimes in English, if I knew the words.
In that manner, Doctor Rosie developed a deeper understanding of each family’s needs, and thus wrote a new set of notes, far more detailed and professional.

And I, much to my delight, was learning English much more rapidly than I had ever learned it in school.


The loneliness still haunted me at night.  But never again did I feel it as severely as that night when I had wanted to sob, to wail, for so much in life that I would never know, never do.

Because as I took my notes in Arabic, I listened to what the vicious war, the hideous war, had done to so many shattered families.  

One morning, I took notes while in a tent with a dozen new arrivals: “unaccompanied children” who had lost their parents, lost their families, in the chaos when war had suddenly blasted into their villages.  Someone had tossed them into the back of a truck, into a Chinese van, into a horse-drawn cart, and then they had ridden further from home than they had ever been before, to a border crossing, or to a hole in a barbed-wire fence.  

Terrified, hungry, some of them sick, the unaccompanied children (now accompanied by two women—strangers—who stayed with them in the tent) barely whispered as they answered the doctor’s questions. Some of them cried; some of them stared at us, unable to speak.

They wore simple shirts and dresses made by a village grandmother . . . as well as brightly colored T-shirts with pictures of Batman and Cinderella, and words of unintelligible English.  Some of the girls wore scarves; some of the boys wore baseball caps, backwards.


I was becoming more than a doctor’s assistant.  I was becoming a journalist,  taking notes as I listened to the voices, and witnessed the faces, of the victims of somebody else’s war.


To be continued (on

Did you miss the previous part? Read "Notes from a Refugee Camp" here (link).

"The Loneliness of Waris 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

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