The smell of death

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On August 23, two bombs exploded in Tripoli, in the north of Lebanon. 45 people were killed and over 500 wounded in two explosions: the first hit the area around Taqwa Mosque and killed at least 14 people, the second hit the surroundings of Al-Salam Mosque and killed around 31. This is the testimony of one of those who were inside Al-Salam Mosque.

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“There’s no place to park the car!” my cousin yelled. I got out of the car in front of the emergency entrance of the Nini Hospital and told him to park it far away. I ran, yelling “Wassim! Wassim!” I had blood on my shirt but didn’t know where it came from. Wassim was nowhere to be found.

Before entering the first room, I stopped. The hallway, which used to be a waiting room for concerned loved ones, was now filled with corpses. Not even whole corpses — a leg in one place, a head in another. There was no blood, only black residue from the explosion. Nurses, crying and shaking, were closing up the body bags.

In the corner was an old man, just sitting there. He had a huge opening in his forehead. It felt as though we were a few inches away from seeing his brain. Yet he was just sitting there, waiting for a nurse or doctor to get to him.

A man stopped me and said, “Please, stitch me up.” I told him I was not a doctor. “Call my brother, please,” he pleaded. I asked for the number. He didn’t know it. I looked at him and saw on his face desperation and confusion. How could I blame him for such a request? He asked me, “Where am I? Who did this? Wasn’t I praying in the mosque? Where am I?” Someone had draped white bandages around his head. But I couldn’t linger any longer. I had to look for my best friend and his family.

“Wassim! Wassim!”

I started calling out his family name, to no answer.

A nurse, eyes filled with tears, asked me, “Are you looking for Wassim?”

“Yes, yes, where is he?”

“Are you ok?”

“Yes, yes, I’m fine. Tell me where he is.”

How could I complain after seeing the severity of the other injuries?

She pointed towards the end of the hallway. Assured that he was not among those in the white body bags, I ran as fast as I could until I see his uncle, dripping blood onto the ground. Drops rushed from his face, and trickled down on his back. He looked at me and smiled.

He said, “Moustafa. I can’t find Moustafa. He is badly hurt.”

I told him, “Don’t worry. I will find your grandson.”

It felt as though all of my friend’s family was here, hurt.

I ran through the hospital, calling his name, asking if anyone had seen an injured 5-year-old.

“Are you looking for a kid wounded in the neck?” one man asked me.

“Yes! Please, where is he?”

He told me to go to the first floor. I ran up with my cousin, who was right behind me. When we got there, we saw Moustafa lying on a bed. On the bed next to him lay a man whose face was so covered in red he couldn’t be identified.

I asked my cousin to take a photo of the kid so that we could reassure his grandfather, show him that his grandson was alive.

I stayed with Moustafa. There were no nurses, no doctors, just this kid with the left side of his neck half open and me, a man with no medical knowledge. I told him to grab my hand and squeeze. He couldn’t. He just wanted to close his eyes.

“No! No! Moustafa! Moustafa!” I yelled and pinched his legs until he opened his eyes. “You’re a strong boy! You’re strong! Yalla! You can do this!”

He wasn’t screaming from the pain anymore. He had no voice to do that with. He wasn’t crying because he had run out of tears. He was trying to give up, to give in to the bitter reality that he was about to die. Other people might’ve fought, but for a 5-year-old it was like simply falling asleep.

I kept shaking him while holding his head so as to not aggravate the wound on his neck. I screamed for help over and over again, until a nurse came. As soon as she arrived, Moustafa closed his eyes. The nurse yelled, “No! No! Don’t let him give up! Don’t let him go there! There’s a doctor downstairs that can save him.”

It was as if she was asking me to save his life. It was as though whether he lived or died was my choice.

We both made him open his eyes. We carried him downstairs, one holding his head and the other carrying him. How we managed to run down stairs so fast, I will never know. We took him to the doctor and found his mother there. She was crying.

I told her, “He will be okay. He’s getting fixed up now.”

We took his blood type to ask for donations.

But I couldn’t stop thinking about Wassim. There was still no sign of him. I turned back to the hallway and yelled out his name again. A man covered in blood turned to me. It was him. I hugged him. I couldn’t let go. I was so happy to see him alive.

I smelled his clothes, kissed his forehead. I didn’t know how to reach out to a man I had thought was dead.

I told him that his nephew was being treated, that his uncle was fine. But he couldn’t stop crying. I tried to calm him down, but I couldn’t.

“Abdel Hadi. He is gone, man. He died.”

I didn’t know that my other friend was at the same mosque.

I had two options. I could freak out in a room full of unstable people or stay calm and continue to help other people. I chose the latter because I knew that I would have all the time in the world to freak out later.

The walls and floors were repainted with the colour red. The familiar hospital smell of rubbing alcohol was buried by the stench of burned flesh. There were nurses tearing up; doctors trying to attend to everyone but feeling helpless; babies crying from pain, and fear; mothers looking for their children and hoping they were not under white cloth; sounds of people screaming drowned for a few moments by the sound of ambulances, only to resurface a few moments later; names being called left and right. I smelled the smell of death.

What it smelled like, I’ll never know how to explain with words. It was a smell you don’t ever smell, a smell you never forget, a smell that never leaves you.

The smell of death.

What did these people do? Is praying a sin now? Are those who return to God supposed to go to God? Are those who did this trying to turn us all into killers? Are they trying to build up the hatred inside of us? Should we retaliate? If I send a letter of peace to them, will the smell of death go away? If I grab a weapon and fight them, will the look of Moustafa’s eyes as he tried to rest, as he tried to die, be erased from my memory?

Perhaps the biggest pain they caused wasn’t the death, nor was it the injury. The injured will heal, the dead will be martyrs. The biggest pain they have caused is the feeling of helplessness and confusion, wondering if we can do anything to make things better only to realize that we never can.

First published on Hummus for Thought, edited by Stephanie Watt.

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