I am a newly graduated medical doctor. I’m serving at a remote hospital as a sole doctor in the emergency room. We are in Iran, about a half a mile from the border, staring at the walls at the end of the hospital’s yard, a little farther behind it, the border between Iran and Afghanistan, and a little farther, the war. It’s August 2021, the latest fall of the Afghanistan government.
Mr. Sarani, our hospital’s 70-ishold security guard, is pulling out strands of details of the sounds we are hearing from his wriggled memory threads over the years of living at the borderline: “This is the sound of a sniper,” he says. “This one is the sound of a mortar bomb, this one is a machine gun.” I’m mixing them with scenes I have collected from the news and movies
There is a surprisingly strong instinct to learn the war rules quickly. The rockets vibrate under your feet, and the mortar bombs rumble from a further distance than they really are. The sniper shots echo around your head, making it hard to say where it’s coming from.
We have all gathered in the hospital’s yard, and I stay as close as possible to Mr. Sarani as if he has a transcendent understanding of what is happening. “Nothing’s going to happen to us, doctor!” He says. I immediately accept this as fact. I keep making excuses, asking the same questions over and over again, so that he repeats the same sentence over again and again: “Nothing’s going to happen to us”.
It’s 1:30 am. We are standing closer than usual to each other, the guards, nurses, doctors, and all the hospital’s crew. We are listening, a new kind of listening, as if every fragment of information might save your life. We watch the trace of the rockets in the dark sky, turn away from the wall to the stars, and look back again with the next rocket’s light.
“Every sound you hear might be people dying,”I repeat in my head.
“Hush,” I respond to myself.
The moon is an orange, narrow, delicate crescent. “The night of the new moon is the best time to attack,” my colleague whispers. Her father told her that once. He had fought in the Iran-Iraq war. “No eye can see another.”
I didn’t know there were guns when the sounds started and kept me awake between my two-night shifts hours ago. Now I know, and everything has changed. I had called my colleague at the hospital when the weird sounds shaking the windows were not calming down.
“Grab your stuff and come out of the building now! We are coming for you,” she screamed between sobbing out loud.
Before I could ask anything else, she hung up. I spontaneously thought to grab some food but then started packing my books and notebooks without understanding what I am doing. “You are not even in the war; this is just the sound; you are not in the war,” I kept telling myself. But my mind was playing tricks on me, patching every piece of movie, song, and story, in a sloppy way, it all came to the same conclusion: something horrible is happening soon.
We’ve lost track of the time. It’s another hour and then two and three, huddling together, the guards, nurses, doctors, and all the hospital’s crew. The sounds are turning down and less frequent. “They must have taken over the Afghan’s guard tower right there,” Mr. Sarani says, pointing his finger to a part of darkness I can’t tell from the darkness around it. He meant Taliban by “they.” We had heard rumors that they were moving to the south days ago.
-What will happen next?
-Don’t worry, doctor! Nothing will happen to us!
I accept it immediately. It’s 4 am. My next shift starts at 7. The dawn is near, and the shootings are scattered. Mr. Sarani walks me to where I was sleeping between shifts on the other side of the hospital’s yard. My head touches the pillow, and I fall asleep.
My shift starts the next morning. It’s chaos.
Wars have a reported narration, the ones we see in the news outlets, the story II knew of war till that day. And wars have a local narration, pieces of news, rumors, guesses, memories, and unconscious history floating from chest to chest. Like pieces of a giant puzzle scattered around. Pieces each person carries at an extended radius from the war. Shrapnel shells, who walk and talk: An old man leaning on his cane and saying: “Our house is farther than the hospital, but we didn’t sleep till morning too, it was bad…the worst in the past ten years that I can remember…now, listen doctor, I came to you for this tingling feeling in my throat; we call it Khar-Khar; I don’t know what you call it at home.”
The local narration of the war is the status in which nobody can talk about anything else but the fall of Afghanistan. I am pulling a small piece of chopped wood from one of the soldiers’ foot sole: “Did this happen last night? Were you there?”
War is the urgent need to ask every person crossing the hospital’s corridors, militant or not: “Will it happen again?” And it’s the irresistible need to answer: “Of course not! I mean…probably not.”
War is this feeling of not ever really knowing anything and an obsessive desire to act as if life is going on as usual, as if you know everything. One of the higher-ranked commanders has been watching me asking the same questions from all his soldiers. He giggles and pulls me to a side: “Hey, doc! We can’t really tell, but regardless, you’ll soon get used to it.” I feel nauseated from the words “getting used to.” A sizzling flow of words crosses my mind: “People are dead! They say 25; I know it’s much more, with the sounds we listened to last night! How are you not ashamed of getting used to it? How can you laugh? Where is your shame?” Instead, I just mumble: “Should we be worried too?” – “Not at all! The war is on their side. You’ll just hear the shootings.” I go silent. He’s right. I will get used to it. And every time the sizzling flow of words passes through me, I will ask: What about us? And I will feel calmer when I am sure we will stay safe. A pathetic shameful relief covering everything else.
In a recorded interview with a farmer in Poland in 1943, close to a Nazi concentration camp. They asked him: “How did you work while hearing all those screams and horrible cries?” – “At first, it was unbearable, but you’ll get used to it,” he replied.
I have written reports on the Afghan soldiers seeking help at our border in the morning. They brought them behind a truck. I note that a bullet has entered one side of the flank and passed through the other. I don’t know how to describe this more professionally. I have never seen bullets in bodies. We send them to the nearest city where they have operating rooms and surgeons. We don’t have them. In the evening, one nurse says one of them stayed alive. The night shift nurse says he didn’t make it. He is not counted among the 25 deaths from last night. Dozens and dozens are not counted among the 25.
I guess the case is a histrionic patient from the sounds before seeing her. I can barely tolerate her screams. It’s been almost 36 hours without sleep, and I’m exhausted. My ears are sharpened to any similar sound to shooting from sunset. I go by the bed. It’s an Afghan mother and son. The mother is staring somewhere in the blank, crying out loud, screaming, passing out, waking, and crying again. The boy keeps mumbling: “Mother, Mother Jaan (dear mother),” and nothing more. He’s also confused and absentminded.
– What happened?
– We escaped through the border.
– From last night?
– Yes, Taliban came.
The nurse and I exchange looks. The mother tries to get up from the bed, as if trying to warn everyone around her, she screams: “It’s war, oh dear god, it’s war!”
There is fire, blood, guns, and everything in her eyes, the black sky and the war, all evil of the world which a room can’t hold. A whole world can’t hold. The boy repeatedly regurgitates the exact words while keeping her on the bed. Her legs are still struggling to move, to run, to escape. I order some sedatives. She suddenly starts shouting a name: “Mojtaba. ” And from that point, she keeps screaming: “Mojtaba.” as if she has suddenly remembered something. I ask the boy:
– Are you Mojtaba?
– No, he’s my brother; we lost him while running.
– How old is he?
– Do you know if he crossed the border?
– No, we lost our sister too.
The nurse compulsively murmurs: “Is she a virgin?” I turn my look on her with a scowl, and she looks back apologetically. She’s thinking of the Taliban raping women and children upon entering every village. They say they are the worst with the young girls.
– Yes, she is.
By now, we are all around the boy and the mother, the guards, nurses, all the crew, and the other patients’ companions, like last night. The war doesn’t need rockets to continue. Other patients have forgotten why they had come there themselves, and they are following the boy and the mother, leaning forward on their beds. I order more sedatives.
She sits on the bed and sobs. I sob, too, struggling to stay soundless. So does the nurse. I turn to the boy:
– Is there a phone you might call and find Mojataba?
– I don’t know, maybe, I don’t have one.
– Let’s try.
I give him my phone. His hands are shaking when dialing. It’s like his brain has suddenly started working; he walks back and forth and calls from one number to another. We’re all following him, except for the mother, who seems to be somewhere else, detached from all conversations. At last, the boy cries, “Mojtaba.” We hold our breaths. He says something quickly and hangs up with tears on his face.
– Did you find Mojtaba?
– Yes, he has crossed the border; he’s with some relatives.
The nurse runs to the other side of the hospital to tell everyone else. Patients congratulate him. It’s just Mojtaba’s mother who doesn’t believe this, still crying and warning us that the war has come. Until she falls asleep under the sedatives.
War is also the patient who leaves his bed and tells the boy: “Brother, do you want to stay with us tonight?” One patient’s companion approaches: “I can bring food from home for you and your mother.” Another one tries to comfort the boy: “Maybe they won’t harm ordinary people? “
“No, they kill. ” And points his finger to his neck.
I wake up to my phone ringing in the morning. It’s a girl.
– Hello, are my mother and brother there?
– Are you the sister? Are you ok?
– Yes, I crossed the border too. I’m in Iran. Are they healthy?
– Yes, they are both healthy. We found Mojtaba, but they left the hospital earlier.
– Oh, you found Mojtaba?
– Yes, he’s safe.
– Will you call me if they come back to the hospital?
– I promise.
War is humans torn into pieces, pieces of their own bodies or their loved ones’ bodies. It’s particles of life and soul, scattered with bombs whether they hit the bodies or not. If they are too lucky, parts of them may one day come together again, or get closer. War is dirt, pus, money, and politics. And evil, the evil of all the world in seconds. So much of it, I can’t understand how it can be contained by one soul, by all human souls together.
– Could you tell us what does these actions mean?
– Well…I can tell it’s pretty horrible!
-Let’s first watch the video our colleagues have just received.
Men sit around big red circle tables in a room under bright white lights, breaking the red blood circles on the screen into more comprehensive pieces for their audience: “breaking news”. They look excited, almost proud, to be the first ones to show a new pile of dead people: We hadn’t seen bodies under rubbles from this angle of view. They blur the blood puddles on the gray asphalts. It doesn’t make it go away, it just magnifies it.
Every minute of this gathering around the red table in the studio, around all tables in the world, the high level policy making tables behind closed doors and low level coffee tables in front of open ones, lights are leaving eyes and lives are leaving bodies. Living bodies are left with the coldest shivering sense, if any sense left, if remained among the living in the following hours, or days. These are not written drama, it’s the statistics in the news ticker in words.
As I write today, the flames of war in Gaza are raging. There is a sudden realization of how several things can be true simultaneously and how civilians don’t deserve this torrent of media reports. I remember the same sentences about many other conflicts on news broadcasts, still ongoing, almost forgotten.
As I am writing today, 32 countries are in conflict, ranging from civil wars, terrorist insurgency, ethnic violence, and official wars. I am no expert, but I no longer need numbers of dead and injured to hear the cracking sound of souls crushing and remember eyes I don’t dare to look at and children’s faces. I don’t need to read the details of brutalities to feel the expansion of pain possessing the souls, the lands, and the skies.