It’s one of those things you don’t think about until someone specifically brings it up. You don’t think about it partly because it doesn’t seem to be the most urgent need, and partly because you just don’t want to have such an image in your head. It’s a mental picture that’s not easy to get rid of.
“There is nowhere to bury people in Aleppo anymore. The public gardens are all full of bodies.”
A Syrian doctor told my colleague and me this when we met him in Turkey a few weeks ago. He described his life in a Syrian village during the months before he fled. He stayed as long as he could to help with the enormous medical needs, but in the end, the targeting of hospitals, doctors, and patients finally forced him to leave.
More than 200,000 people have died in Syria since the conflict began. Of course, bodies have to be buried or otherwise dealt with. But the dilemma of how to get food to millions of people in need usually—and understandably—takes precedence over strict adherence to formal rituals for the deceased during wartime. People do what they can to provide a meaningful ceremony, as evidenced by our discussions with Syrians who mentioned the funerals they attended, or at least tried to attend. But many of the people who don’t survive simply cannot be attended to properly.
Another Syrian doctor recently told us about his work in a field hospital in Syria. Whenever a barrel bomb was dropped in the area, dozens of people crowded into the same hospital at the same time, all frantically demanding that a particular person be saved. He told us that the people with the very worst injuries would be sent to hospitals farther away from the attack site, where things would be calmer. But sometimes triage just didn’t work, and all he could do was hold the person’s hand for a minute or two as they died. Then he had to move on to the next patient.
We’ve all read news reports of what so many places in Syria look like after an attack: lingering fires, unexploded ordnance left behind, and all too often, body parts scattered among the rubble. We’ve seen the photos of bodies lined up on the ground at hospitals. In addition to the health, water, sanitation, and hygiene hazards posed by corpses lying out for long periods of time, it’s difficult to imagine the psychological effects on people who must live in such areas and see corpses in every direction. It’s an important consideration, but one that probably doesn’t come up unless you’re there in the middle of things.
The injustices Syrians have been facing over the past four years continue to pile up. Though it’s almost impossible to believe, there are probably more to come. In such conditions, it must be so hard to resign yourself to the inability to meet your own needs; it can be even harder to acknowledge that you are powerless to help others. Parents will go hungry so that their children can eat, neighbors share scarce water, and spouses may risk and lose their lives to save the other. But at some point, a meaningful farewell may be all anyone has left to offer. What does it mean when even that is finally taken away?
Photo: Residents expect damage from shelling by warplanes in Aleppo, April 2015. Reuters photo.