In brief moments, he felt grief, but in all that followed he felt nothing. More accurately, he felt so much that he was incapable of feeling anything at all.
“صبي,” a middle-aged woman calls out to him, extending her arms and gesturing for him to come towards her. “Come here.”
He walks towards her, staggering slightly in his attempt to get past the rubble. She leads him into a building. There are 3 beds in one of the rooms and a few children around his age, 6 or older. In a corner, there are a few small buckets filled with water. The sight of this overjoyed him, but he knew he would probably have to work to afford such a luxury.
“What is your name? Where are your parents?” she asks, handing him a small cup of water. It tastes more like salt than water, but he drinks it and enjoys it all the same.
“Adnan,” he says. “My الآب is dead.”
“إِنَّا للهِ وَإِنَّـا إِلَيْهِ رَاجِعونَ” she says, smiling slightly but pitifully and grabbing his hands in comfort. “And your mother?”
“I’ve lost her.”
She nods and walks into the next room. He hears attempted whispers and curses on a name that’s become all too familiar. “فقير, poor child, فقير.” He’s so young. For minutes, he sits there, observing the room. It’s noticeably disheveled, but beautiful in comparison to the other homes he’s resided in and much better than sleeping on the streets.
After 30 minutes of the two women speaking, she returned to the room and faced Adnan. She spoke to him gently, so gently that he was reminded of his own mother. Her words were smooth like hers, her hands just as tough. He remembers that he misses her. Then, he forgets.
He stays there for the next few days under the care of the two women, Uri and Sana. He’s also made acquaintance with the other four children there. The youngest, Sami, is only 18 months old. He watches after him when the elder of the group leave to get water. He’s not necessarily interesting to play with; he just stares and pulls and throws things. When they’re alone together, Adnan often entertains himself by eavesdropping on the conversations between Uri and Sana. They’re usually very serious. Recently, their conversations have been concerning fleeing the country. For the most part, this excites him, but a part of him breaks at the idea that he may never see his mother again. What if she’s still here, in Aleppo, when he leaves? What if she stayed here, in this war-ridden country, based solely on the assumption that he did too? His heart breaks 137 times but he doesn’t notice. How could he notice?
The next day, they rose before the sun. Uri rushed all the children out of bed, urging them to get their things as fast as they could. Soon enough, they were rushing out the front door, the little belongings they did have carried in old school backpacks and large pieces of cloth.
“Where are we going?” the children asked.
“Somewhere better,” Sana said. “Don’t worry. It’ll be fine.”
Adnan wondered if anywhere could be better than his home. If he would’ve been asked that question a year ago, the naïve 5-year-old would say no; that there’s no place in the world better than his country. But now, separated from his mother and terrified that at any moment an explosive could fall from the sky and end his life, he wasn’t so sure.
They walked for about an hour, and eventually see many people headed in the same direction. Adnan felt closer and farther from his mother with every step. Eventually, he saw what seemed like hundreds of buses lined up and thousands of people surrounding them. He continued to walk, excited for what’s to come, yet terrified of what he could be leaving behind. In the following second, three things happened. There was a loud bang, the remnants of a building crushed every part of Adnan’s body, and sure that he would die, Adnan felt a great deal of sorrow and longed for his mother.
He couldn’t hear anything, but if he could, he surely wouldn’t want to. People were screaming and crying and mourning over the bodies of their loved ones. He couldn’t move, but he wasn’t trying to. His consciousness wasn’t with him most of the time. It came and went and so did the pain. When he finally awoke, the pain was so awful that he wondered if death would be better. He tried to scream but couldn’t. Eventually, he gave up and just lay there. He’d seen people who’ve survived this and heard stories of those who couldn’t, but in that moment he thought of neither. He didn’t feel anything, didn’t think anything. Perhaps he died mentally instead of physically. He lay there, living but lifeless, for what seemed to be hours.
He eventually gathered the motivation to attempt an escape. He had little strength, however, and felt useless in all his attempts. His hands and arms were bloody and his legs had been crushed by a large rock. He first pushed off the rubble above him; a task that was both painful and difficult, but immediately rewarded by sunlight.
All around him was chaos. People were running and screaming and crying over the dead bodies of their loved ones. A few of the American doctors ran to attend to the injuries, but almost everyone else ran away. Adnan could move, but to do so, he would have to sacrifice his comfort and welcome excruciating pain.
A fair-skinned blonde woman with a red kit in hand rushed over and kneeled beside him. She tried to speak to him in Arabic, but had a thick English accent. She tried lifting the rock that was on his chest, but following just the slightest movement, he screamed with such intensity that she feared for his life.
“I’ll be right back,” she says, running to the buses he saw before the explosion.
When she came back, she was accompanied by 4 large men wearing protective gear. They first lifted the large rock on his chest, just like the woman did. Then, they noticed the amount of pain it brought him and left it there. They moved to his legs, then his arms, and kept going until all parts of his body were free except for his chest. They examined him and conferred to each other in English. Every part of his body ached; he was certain it was the worst pain he would ever feel. Adnan lay there, hoping that it would subside; quiet, but in his head sending prayers to الله and praying that he hears them.
“صبي,” one of the men says, crouching directly beside him. “We’re going to lift that rock now.” He points to his chest. Adnan shakes his head. “We have to.” He shakes his head again. The man talks to the others in English then turns back to him. “I know it hurts, but I need you to be strong. I promise, you will be fine.” Adnan is still. “Don’t do it for me, do it for the people that love you. The people that you love. Your mother—your father. Do it for them. Be strong for them.” Adnan remains still, doesn’t say anything, doesn’t do anything. The doctors look to each other, expecting a response, but they receive none. And then he nods.
It was the worst pain he ever felt and the worst pain he ever would feel. When it was over, the man carried him towards the buses. He placed him on a bed in a car with one other victim and multiple doctors.
“I’m proud of you, صبي,” he said, crouching down to look him in the eye. “السلام عليكم و رحمة الله و بركاته”
And with that he left. Adnan sat there, alone with nothing but his sorrow to keep him company. He felt the hands of his mother in his own and the arms of his father around him but neither were there. All that was there was an emptiness much larger than himself, larger than his parents, and larger than his country. Adnan had no strength besides his love, and all the love he once had was taken away him.