Inside Aleppo: after you hear the drones, you can sense death

"Four separate airstrikes blasted the area around us. . . we’re used to the bombs but this was something we’d never seen before."

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It’s easy now to tell the difference between the drone that assesses the area to be bombed and the warplane that carries out the bombing. What’s more difficult to tell is how long we have between each. Sometimes they’re hours apart, sometimes it’s immediate. Yesterday, there was only an hour between them. 

A normal day doesn’t exist in Syria anymore but I suppose yesterday started as normally as any other. I got up at 6:30am and went to work in the clinic. It’s just myself and one doctor in the primary health care clinic so, even on quieter days, we’re always overwhelmed with patients.

At 10am we heard a drone circling overhead. We knew that meant a strike was coming soon. But we couldn’t stop what we were doing as more patients kept coming in. After you hear the sound of the drones, there is a feeling of death everywhere. You get used to the concept: you know that the strike is definitely going to happen so your actions and even your feelings become routine. But, still, you can’t help feeling that you’re going to die.

Even though we’d heard the drone, we kept doing what we were doing; my role is to take care of heart patients, those with diabetes, and I carry out emergency first aid like cleaning wounds and treating burns. Between us, the doctor and I see on average about 45 patients a day. 

At around 11am four separate airstrikes blasted the area around us. It was utterly terrifying. We’re used to the bombs but this was something we’d never seen before. All the windows were blown out. We couldn’t run from the building because we didn’t know how many more strikes were coming and we couldn’t hide because we couldn’t leave the patients. We were paralysed. 

I couldn’t see anything as there was so much smoke and dust from the explosions but I know we all did the same thing (our reactions now are second nature), which was throw ourselves on the ground and cover our heads. It’s a delusion: if an airstrike hits us directly, this protection won’t save us but it’s a reflex and it’s all we have. 

The next thing I do is to check all over my body to see whether I’ve been injured, especially to see if any shards of glass have embedded in me. Apparently you can’t tell right away if you’ve been hit as the glass is the same temperature as your body. After that we go straight to the patients and carry out emergency treatment. Then we try to repair the damage done to the building and equipment.

My fear isn’t dying. My fear is to suffer like some of the patients who are brought into the clinic who I see every single day — those who have traumatic injuries such as losing a limb or who are paralysed and can no longer live a real life. I try to make it easier for them but deep inside I know how bad it is. Death is easier than that.

I try to call home as soon as I can to let my family know I’m ok and to check that they are. It’s very difficult to make contact with people after an attack. So you’re left worrying about what happened to them for a long time. I lost my brother a year ago while he and some others were trying to protect our village when it was being attacked by the regime. I don’t know exactly what happened. I’m just filled with dread every time an attack happens and I can’t get hold of my family. Two of my brothers and sisters live abroad but the other two are still here. 

I was targeted because I took part in the student demonstrations at the beginning of the revolution — asking for freedom, dignity and peace. I was lucky but it meant I had to drop out of university where I’d been studying dentistry. I’ve been working as a nurse since 2013, and I also train new health workers and nurses. Now I don’t go to demonstrations, I just work and I’m going to train to become a doctor. 

Time was blurry yesterday; I don’t remember what time I got home. As soon as they knew everyone was safe, they sent us all back to our families. I do remember it was still light. They wanted us to get home in the light so that we felt some sense of safety. 

On my way, thoughts were flying all over the place. I knew that a nursing facility had just been directly hit that same afternoon so when will it be my turn? It’s like I’m in a queue waiting for my time to come. I was so exhausted I just prayed and went to bed without eating. But then, as usual, everyone wakes up the next day as if nothing happened. You just reset and continue. You have to. We still have determination and hope. That’s the one thing we haven’t lost. 

Hima Madani works as an emergency response nurse for Syria, Relief and Development, one of CARE International’s partners in Syria.