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The Dying Girl

By J.C. Carlbom | Sweden and the Middle East Views

January 7, 2016

Syrian pro-government forces prepare their weapons in the northern Syrian province of Aleppo, on November 20, 2015. (Picture by: GEORGE OURFALIAN/AFP/Getty Images)
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I’m a seasoned humanitarian aid worker and it takes quite a lot to upset me. Even though I moved back to Sweden I work with refugees, most of them are from Syria, so I comfort people a lot in my daily work and I hear the most horrifying stories. I keep tissues in my bag for these reasons, because women have a tendency to collapse in my arms, crying over everything lost and the horrifying things they’ve been through.

Then recently a new friend showed me a clip on his cellphone, from the underground hospital in Homs where he had worked – without formal medical training – as a nurse. Underground hospitals in Syria are run by ICRC and other organisations that treat patients impartially; in Syria it means without reporting opposition members to the Syrian regime. They operate without proper equipment, and often with staff who have little medical training. My friend had recorded quite a lot of the work in the unit and brought the movies with him to Sweden.

The footage was of good quality. Could it be useful for Swedish media? Everyone knows that there’s a civil war in Syria but few knows what it actually looks like when you’re in the middle of it. And this kind of footage rarely makes it to the international media.

I watched the clip in a coffee shop where we met during Christmas in Sweden. It was rainy and damp outside and people around us rested from their shopping sprees. I used the headphones not to disturb the other guests. I’m used to misery but I do respect people who are not.

The sounds of airplanes and bombs outside were suddenly drenched in the voice of a medical doctor. He came running with a small girl, 3 or 4 years old, in his hands, that he placed on a small bunk. But the girl wasn’t bleeding, she had no bruises, her skin was smooth and perfect. She looked like my niece that I had spent the previous day with; chubby and with her curly hair framing rosy cheeks. She seemed to be half-asleep. The girl wasn’t crying, only wailing softly. Why was the doctor in such a hurry?

“Internal injuries”, my friend said.

Then I realized: she was dying from the inside and out. The girl was in such pain that she was beyond hurting. As the doctors inserted a hose through her mouth she half-heartedly raised her hand to try and prevent it, she looked like a child who doesn’t want to take their medicine, nothing else. The doctor put her hand back to her side. The small natural efforts of a child to escape discomfort slowly faded. I knew what was coming before the movie was finished. I unplugged the headphones so I didn’t have to listen to it all. Life was slipping out of her by the second, under the panicky ways of the staff with sometimes little medical training in a make-shift hospital in the basement of a shabby, abandoned building in the previously so beautiful city of Homs.

Only then it struck me that there was no other people in the hospital that were worrying about the little girl than the staff. No crying mother or a father.

“She was the only survivor of that attack,” my friend confirmed. “Her mother and father, her sister, they were all gone.”

Someone was crying at the table that day, despite me not being at work. It wasn’t my friend, despite all the traumatizing things he has been through. It wasn’t anyone of the women that usually collapse in my arms when I visit one of the refugee camps. To my surprise I realized it was myself.


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