“I have always known that a human being has only one life, never more. For me, I have 2, and I will share them with you.”
My first Life:
It was a day like any other. I woke up in the morning to start a new school day. I got ready to go to college. As I was leaving, I cast a farewell glance back, because there is a constant challenge residing inside us and which we confront daily as we go to our colleges: we knew that we may never return. After all, the Mustanseriya bombing, that preceded the events I am about to narrate, were not too long ago.
After we finished classes that day, it was time to go home. Me, a student at the Faculty of Science, and my friend Huda, 23, a student in 4th grade, Chemistry, Faculty of Science also, Baghdad University. We also had with us Mais, a 22 year old student from Biology, the Faculty of Science. When the clock struck 12.45, on Thursday the 15th of April 2007, just 10 minutes before the car that usually took us home arrived, we heard a horrific bang. We were lifted from our seats and thrown to the ground, away from where we initially were sitting.
I shut my eyes involuntarily, ground my teeth and clenched my fists to the extent of bleeding. The pressure was so strong I was trembling and quivering violently. My ears were buzzing.
At first I thought that the explosion was far from us, and that what had happened was a result of the impact of the blast that usually ensues.
Then I opened my eyes, and what a horrific scene it was.
Nothing and no one were in their place… scattered rubble and body parts were every where. I heard deafening, terrifying screams … screams of goodbyes mingled with screams for help. Gusts of dust was raised to the sky, and oh that infernal heat.
I had not yet grasped the situation. What happened to us? Am I all right? Where are Mais and Huda ? All these questions were twirling in my head.
In a terrifying moment, I started to feel myself, my hair was burned, both my face and chest were bleeding, and blood was everywhere. My hands… Where are Mais and Huda?
I did not see faces, what I was seeing were body parts and broken branches impaled in my chest. I tried with all my might to move, yet I was helpless.
And then I heard a familiar voice , it was Huda. She was screaming .. An Ambulance … An Ambulance… I could not speak. I saw her feet pointed towards me , I could not see her face, so I shook her feet and then I turned my face in agony in an attempt to see anyone. There was no one.
And when I turned my head I found that Huda had turned her whole body towards me and started to crawl in my direction. My good friend was all burned, her insides hanging out and sticking to the ground.
Then I mustered my courage as I saw her lay herself alongside me, as if she was saying ‘Come on let’ die together.’ The look of fear and farewell were fixed in her eyes.
I started to speak with great effort. I guided her to die, uttering ‘I witness that there is no God but God , and Muhammed is the messenger of God’. She only gave me a serene peaceful look, telling me that she was ready to leave.
Minutes ago she was brimming with hope and life, and now all that was gone. There she was brimming with death. That was the last I was to see of her. Later on, I heard that she bled to death.
As for Mais, she was divided in two halves , a half which remained sitting and the other half was thrown on the ground.
We were transferred to the hospital in trucks instead of ambulances, and we were covered with blankets .
The number of casualties was high, and most of the wounded died eventually of bleeding, lack of equipment and absence of medical care. I was the only survivor.
Today, and after all this time has passed, I still relive the disaster minute by minute. The echoes of our giggles preceding the screams are still resonating in my ears whenever I am immersed in my thoughts. Whenever I wake up I find my fist clenched in a bloody fist.
I had turned my face towards my friend, I heard other voices, different this time from the moaning and whining and pleadings for help. They were strong voices approaching us (God is greater than evil, there is no might or strength only by God’s will, God is great) … I realized that help had arrived but I was unable to turn, and suddenly the voice was behind me. I was comforting Huda then, but I heard him say “ Poor thing are you alright?” Yes he was talking to me. I raised my hand and replied “Yes, alright … Hospital…” . He yelled to his friend “lets carry her, she is still alive.’
I heard another voice say “ lets go away , the tank is going to explode.” I did not know what they were talking about at the first, but later I learned that a trailer loaded with petrol was among the cars damaged by the explosion, and there was smoke emanating from it. It was expected to explode at any moment, which is why help had not arrived sooner, causing most of the others to lose their lives.
The young man who aided me was a chivalrous policeman. He ordered his friend to carry me. One of them headed towards my legs and the other towards my head. As they carried me I screamed from the excruciating pain in my legs.
The policeman then said “let go it’s broken.” For a moment I thought that they are just going to leave me. I closed my eyes. I really could not see them clearly because my face and eyes were all covered with blood.
The brave policeman carried me up against his chest and ran with me as fast as he could, and the other one was opening the way for him. They placed me in the police car (but as I mentioned the police had only the pickup trucks or police cars if lucky) which were not equipped to provide any medical care. The car drove at top speed. I pressed my wounds in attempt to lessen the bleeding from my head, chest, hands and legs. Blood was pouring everywhere.
I heard them talk to the driver: “Is she dead? Has she entered a coma?” Yet I did not speak so as not to exhaust myself. There was also a furtive voice ordering me to remain silent , and press on my wounds, I felt calm and brave.
I will not digress more, but the road was becoming longer and longer, due to suffocating traffic congestion and the many road bumps. The car stopped, so I realized that we are already there. The cleaners and janitors came to assist us, no paramedics were there to receive us in the hospital. They put me on a stretcher and took me to the emergency room .
There was not a scene that could be more disturbing as the ones I saw on that fateful day. There were several concurrent explosions that shook our beloved capital on that day, and there was a huge number of casualties, and no intervals between the explosions. The emergency room was bursting with patients and the wounded, most of whom were dying.
The doctor arrived and he took a look at me. At first glance he assumed that I would not be able to talk since I was so severely injured, so he asked the workers where my injury was. I answered him stoically “My chest and legs” for those were the areas injured most.
I was unable to see, so the cleaning woman came with a sterilizing substance and wiped the blood from my wounds and my legs. I turned my head to check out the place. I recall that all the people who were aiding us were the janitors, employees, workers, and nurses and doctors. They were placing bandages and tons of cotton on the wounds attempting to stop the flow of blood. The patients were falling one by one, they were all bold, good and… equal.
After that I started seeing familiar faces. Yes, faces with me. The first one was a young man, who was in the engineering faculty, I recognized him because he was wearing a white shirt. He was shouting at the top of his voice “I don’t want to die.” Seconds later they covered his face. He died.
They also brought in Huda, screaming. The doctors were perplexed. All her intestines were out. They were unable to treat them and put them back in place, because her wounds were filled with dirt, shards of concrete form the street, tree leaves and branches.
They asked me for my address and phone number. I gave them my address, but I could not remember the phone number. Everything was so blurry. When I saw little children and young people dying one by one , I felt that I will not be here for long , so I started begging them to bring me my family. I was afraid would never see them again. I wanted my mother so badly.
I was taken to the X-ray room and then they took me to the second floor on a hospital bed. They left me there. At that moment all hope faded away. I thought they gave up on me, my eyes were fixed on the door waiting for anyone to save me or say farewell to me.
My leg was bleeding profusely and incessantly. I was covered with a blanket. I started to tremble because I felt very cold. I remained like that for about an hour, all alone.
I was preparing to shut my eyes quietly, because I was feeling awfully weak and weary. That is when I saw ghosts entering through the door. I thought I was dreaming but it was no dream. They were actually my mother and father crying and screaming in tears.
I regained consciousness when I saw them, and in spite of my extreme weakness I held my mother’s head which was on my chest , and I told her “ Don’t worry , don’t cry, mum I am all right”.
Do you know why I was kept alone? The reason was that there were too many wounded, and there was no blood available. The doctors and the medical staff, after bandaging the wounds were leaving the patients till their families arrived so they may donate blood. The patients for whom no one came, either died slowly, or someone from the hospital’s staff donated their own blood. Of course, there was not enough blood, and the wounded were many, therefore they just mainly died.
When my mother removed the blanket to check me out, she screamed, the bleeding was so heavy. I was sleeping in a swamp of blood that was streaming on the bed, and was gathering in a huge spot under me. No one noticed because I was covered, which was a sign of danger. My father hurried to the doctor to tell him. The doctor ordered my father to bring 11 bottles of blood. It was a lot but I was in a very bad condition.
My father was unable to get more than 8 bottles. There was no blood in the bank , taking into consideration that the mere attempt to go to the blood bank was a suicide attempt in itself. Ethnic assassinations was dominant in that area at the time. Men used to send their women in fear of going to Baba al Muathem.
But, how did my parents know about the explosion? I later learned that when the explosion took place. my friend called me to make sure I was safe because she knew that I usually waited for the car over there. One of the guards answered the call, and told her that this belonged to a girl who was taken to Ibn Al Nafees hospital . When they arrived at the hospital, the receptionist told them that they do not have any patient by my name, and that they transferred the wounded to Al Kindi hospital. When they went to Al Kindy hospital they were told that there was no patient with such a name, and the girl they are looking for may be in the morgue or still at the place of explosion.
My father came out and my mother was screaming and they returned in a desperate attempt to Ib Al Nafees to find me in the family hospital.
The doctor came and examined the pulse in my leg, there was no pulse, which was a bad sign. He told my father that he will wait tonight, and if there was still no pulse in the morning, he would have to amputate my leg.
The pulse returned at one o’clock after midnight. I was admitted immediately to the operations room. My operation took about four hours. I woke up at the morning, the wound in my chest and hands had been cleaned and stitched. The wounds in my legs had been cleaned.
Several surgeries were preformed on me without anesthesia. I remember from them the following:
- A bone cleaning and straitening operation.
- Pulling the bone back to place. A metal pipe was entered from one side and pulled out from the other side, near my right leg , cords were attached to the pipe with weights hanged on them , 7 kg. And since I had become so emaciated, when I fell asleep , I would wake up to find myself dragged by the weights to the edge of my bed, so I used to call for someone to come and untie the cords and pull me by the arms , and then retie the weights back to my feet.
I remember once I was screaming “The weights are pulling me down.” My mother woke up , it was after midnight , she forgot to untie the cords, and she pulled me from one side and the weights were pulling from the other side. I did not scream from pain, but I lost consciousness. I lost track of time, I was just exhausted, I seized to feel sadness, joy, or pain. All these feelings at a time did not make any difference or meaning. I remained under theses weights for a whole month.
3- The removal of the weights, cleaning the wound and re stitching it.
4- Operations to try and bend the knee, due to the, stiffening of the joint. Yet, in a weeks time the joint would harden once again and my leg would set straight.
5- Removing all the slivers from my right arm, and passing the nerve through.
When I went to do a PolyGram for the nerve, the specialized doctor confirmed that the cut was 85%. He could not specify the location of the cut exactly, due to the absence of the required apparatus. I took the report to my doctor, and he told me that he would have to cut my arm open from the wrist to the elbow in order to determine the exact location of the cut. I agreed immediately without any hesitation, although the chances of success were only 15%. I was ready to do anything to regain my ability to write, and continue my studies. There are many successful disabled people who cannot walk, but without my hand, I would not be able to go on. The operation went well and I thank God for that.
I remained in the hospital for a long, 18 interminable months, and 3 months with intervals. I became a member of the medical staff. Every single one of the nurses, paramedics, doctors, anesthesiologists and janitors knew me. They were like a family to me, not to mention Dr. Muzahim Ahmmed Abbas, who performed all these operation. We had never met each other before, yet he was doing his duty like no one else.
During this period the nurses used to clean my wounds daily. And when I was at home, a male nurse used to come to our house every morning to clean and medicate the wounds. He used to insert cotton wads in my wounds, for they were so deep.
I used to take three injections in the vein, 1 gm type, the total of my injection of that period was 530 injections. Eventually I had no veins left, and inserting the needle for blood bottles was becoming a problem.
During this period, there was bloody abscess oozing out of my leg’s wound. The doctors assumed that they were tissue secretions. But the truth was, as I learned later, that my bones were bleeding so was the bone marrow and no one knew that fact.
What aggravated the situation even more was the delay in extracting the slivers from my leg’s joint, because there was only one apparatus in AL Kindi Hospital for extracting slivers and this apparatus had been out of work for 3 months.
During this period the toxic substances in the slivers were doing their good work, and thus I lost a great deal of my bone and eventually the knee lost its function and was chronically and seriously infected.
I went to my doctor and told him that my leg moved only left and right, but it won’t move forward or backwards , and that the school year was going to start soon, and I wanted to continue my studies, but I could not walk . I told him that when I pressed my leg more abscess came out. I was even unable to put a bandage on it, because it was instantly soaked in blood. The doctor explained that the ties were all cut, and that first we must extract the slivers so we may be able to carry out an MRI scan. But as it is well known if an MRI Scan is carried out with the slivers still in my leg and body , the MRI Scan will pull out the slivers, which will simply penetrate all the intestines above them, and that was very risky.
Therefore, the slivers must be extracted before the MRI scan, which is essential for locating the snapped ties accurately.
I was using crutches then, I was unable to sit on a wheel chair, because my leg was in a semi straight position/
After stitching the leg’s ties , the doctor reassured me that the operation will be a simple one . When I entered the operation room, the staff welcomed me, since all of them already knew me. I entered there so confidant that I will be able to finish my studies that year.
Yet, when the doctor opened my wound, he found that the problem had worsened and that my condition was grave. He left me under anesthesia and rushed to my parents and told them that the infection is so bad, that if not controlled, we will have to amputate.
However, my doctor was perplexed. He was able to clean the infection somewhat (meaning it was still there but he managed to lessen it) by pulling out a part of the infected bone and amputating it.
When I regained my consciousness, I could not tell what had happened, but the eyes of my mother and father were full of tears. I did not know why the doctor came and asked me when college was going to start. When I told him in two weeks’ time, his expression changed and he told me that regrettably, I would not be able to return back to college. He said that the clinic would provide me with permission. He said “Your leg is like an open room”, and that a puncture and an opening would be made so they may continue to clean, the average of one operation under anesthesia every week, and two operations without anesthesia for two weeks. And he said that if I ever tried to walk, my leg bone would collapse, meaning, I would then have loos any hope whatsoever to ever walk again.
The disappointment was devastating for me. I started to cry violently, pitying myself and lamenting my future, in a way that made all the people in the lobby cry with me . There was no treatment for me in Iraq.
The doctor took my papers and went in person to the hospital’s administration. Maybe he could manage to include me in the agreement for granting patients treatment abroad. But the number of patients on the list before me was so high, and I had to wait, and time was not on our side at all.
All the doctor could afford was to keep on cleaning. He supervised the process himself. He created a 3*5 cm puncture inside the bone, besides my bone deep 7 cm previous wound. The doctor would take me inside the operation room without anesthesia, on the same bed, that I used to lie on in the patient’s lobby. No sedatives could be given to me too, because my heart had become so weak , and its beats were irregular, that sometimes I used to feel that it used to stop for an instant and then resume beating so strongly that it would shake both me and my bed.
I was seized by seizures from the fever. My temperature used to rise to reach 41 C, where I would shake during these seizures so strongly and rapidly, that it would hurt my leg. My father and brothers used to lie on top of me, in an attempt hold me down. And oh how often these seizures happened!
During these operations, without anesthesia, the doctor used to enter his fingers and pieces of gauze inside the bone , and he used to circulate and graze it from bellow. Sometimes he used to extract pieces of bone with his hands , then he would enter scissors to the deepest place in the bone and apply oxygen ( hydrogen peroxide) , which would start to boil bringing out with it the residue of the infection.
I will not tell you how agonizing it felt. Imagine if you were to cut you finger, and if a bit of water got into your little cut, how painful that would be . How do you think I felt with oxygen in a 50 ml injection entering, and then sterilized water would enter to wash the wound, and so on,
And when he preformed this regular operations, all the other patients and visitors would hurry out, escaping the ghastly sight of the operation and my pitiful sight.
I could not scream or move, I used to suppress my pain. In fact I befriended the pain, for I did not know anything besides that pain.
And because the doctor used to clean the wound himself, and since there is no doctor who would like to see his patient in pain, and nevertheless continue in the same stride, I used to help him to help myself.
The total operations I had without anesthesia were 5 operations, and another one to stitch the wounds in my chest, my shoulder and my upper arm. And because the wounds were so deep, whenever they wanted to remove the stitches after 14 days, the wound would burst open again and the bleeding would start anew.
I remained in the hospital for a period which coincided with Ramadan and the Eid. I was there alone. And believe me it was terrifying; there was no safety even behind hospital walls.
When the night fell, we used to lock the lobby doors. We would not allow anyone but the doctors and specialists to come in.
I remember that we woke up one morning to a ruckus. We were told that on the previous night, men in police uniform came to the gynecology ward, and they took all the mobile phones, claiming that it was for security reasons, and that they may all receive their phones next morning from the reception. Next morning of course there was no police and no phones. Thank God it was only the phones they were after.
My second Life, with AlAmal/Hope:
- After my last operation I was in a wheelchair, you can not imagine how hard that was for me I used to see everything to big and high, because I was used now to sitting down and lying down all the time.
- I went on my wheelchair to college to extend my sickness leave. And I went to the Ministry of health to apply for going abroad for treatment. I also went to many humanitarian organizations.
- All I got out of that was unanswered demands, and promises which could not alleviate my pain or heal my wounds.
- Until Ms Hana Adwar , Iraqi Al – Amal Association secretary , the mother and the human being embraced me. She exerted great efforts in order to get my case to those who could help.
- From her to the Red Crescent Association, to the international relief and World Development organization. I traveled to Amman and there, an operation that took four hours was performed on my knee joint. A four cm sliver was removed from my right eye.
At the beginning they were unable to remove the enlarged and painful surgical scars, which restricted my movement and sleep, because they were like flesh folds.
And after visiting Mr. John the manager of The War Victims Fund in The Relief and Development organization, and explaining my case to him, he agreed to complete the whole Chart of my treatment as they call it. He dubbed me The Brave Fighter.
They preformed another plastic operation, to remove the scars; it took four hours and a half.
Both the operations were successful. I stayed in Amman for 28 days, I returned to Baghdad the next day after removing the stitches. I was pushing in front of me the wheelchair, I had arrived here in.
It was a tough, cruel and painful experience. I thank God I emerged from it strong. But I still had to rearrange lots of details and return to my life and reality, and go on. But where do I start and from? How do I start? I was frustrated. Then I resumed contact with Iraqi Al – Amal Association, and IAA continued its endless support to me, they offered me free seat in the Women In Technology classes, for computer programs and professional skills, where I regained my interaction with others, feeling people around me. I gained my self-confidence is back gradually, after I finished my training in the WIT class, the WIT program offered to hire me as a part time training assistant in the following WIT classes that began in mid September, in addition to my voluntary work with Iftar distribution project of IAA,
I intend to pursue my voluntary work, even through part time commitment, with civil society, it is where I found myself, where I had my reward of sharing my experience and learning at the same time,
I have applied to University again, and am awaiting the start of a new studying year, with more hope and aspiration than ever.
Update on Rana’s story:
Rana currently works at the University of Baghadad, College of Education for Pure Sciences. She is completing her Masters degree in Zoology. She is married and has two children, a son and a daughter.