Before the Syrian conflict, Abu Nidal, a 50-year-old Damascene, was a construction worker. Now he has become the first and only paramedic in the city of Zabadani, located just outside the capital, driving his pickup truck between piles of rubble to rescue the wounded. As violence outside of Damascus escalates, he says he’s come to know all the houses in this city.
Abu Nidal, a father of five, says he has grown accustomed to the artillery and aircraft bombardment. What scares him are barrel bombs, which he says are dropped regularly on the city despite the tenuous truce that was signed in February 2014, one of a series of such agreements enacted around Damascus at the beginning of the year.
“When the first barrel dropped over the city of Zabadani, I was shocked,” he says. “I said to myself that the barrels would stop me from doing my job, but then I realized that the city needed me more than ever.” Like others here, “I do not put much stock in the truce — I expect that it will be broken very soon.”
Mohammed, 25, says Abu Nidal saved his life last year after he was wounded by shrapnel. “I still remember Abu Nidal’s words when he was taking the shrapnel out of my chest: You won’t die today,” he said. “This was what he said to me. After I healed, we became friends and he asked me to join him in the medical unit.”
Every morning, Abu Nidal, walkie-talkie in hand, though he says he hates technology, arrives at Zabadani’s only functioning field hospital. The most difficult task every day, he says, is to get himself and the wounded safely from bomb sites to the hospital. When patients die en route, it’s difficult for Abu Nidal to erase the images of dead bodies from his memory. He says he often sees them during his “disturbed sleep.”
“I hate farewells, but now I am used to saying goodbye to my friends in the hospital and in the battlefields and in their graves,” he says. “A year ago, tens of people were killed in an aircraft bombardment. The smell of blood and burned flesh was all over the place. We had to bury each two bodies in a single grave, and the next day we realized that we had buried three people in a single grave.”
Like in other cities across Syria, the lack of medical supplies and medical aid here is the main cause of death. As violence drags on, the country’s medical system, once one of the best in the Arab world, has all but crumbled.
Um Nidal, his wife, rarely sees her husband, so great is the need for his services. She says her fear that he’ll die or be injured on the job has grown. Snowy days, she adds, were a “God-given break” because the bombing would be forced to stop and she would get to see her husband.
Since the truce was signed, the bombings have slowed, and he’s been more available to his family. But the aging couple are concerned about their 23-year-old daughter. Recently arrested at a government checkpoint, they haven’t heard anything about her since.
Like others here who stay despite the violence, Abu Nidal refuses to leave his hometown. “I love every stone in Zabadani,” he says. “If I had to wait for death, I would wait in the most beautiful place.”