Conflict & Justice

Miracle of childbirth, especially in war


Syria's northern city of Aleppo at sunset on Oct. 12, 2012.


Zac Baillie

JABAL AL ZAWIA, Syria — Screams of pain overpowered the howl of a night storm.

Rain whipped against the plastic sheets that feebly blocked the windows of a one-room stone cottage in Frkir village. Inside, tears of fear and helplessness fell from every eye of the female relatives looking on as Tyrkia Raslan underwent a difficult labor.

At 3 a.m. Tuesday, by the light of a kerosene lamp, Yasmeen Raslan was born into a world of hardship, sorrow and loss.

As the Syrian war stretches on, nearing the end of its second year, death is all around. The United Nations estimates the overall toll at around 60,000, and President Bashar al-Assad's forces remain locked in conflict with various rebel factions.

The night Yasmeen was born, explosions could be heard in the distance as the nightly missiles fell. As she took her first breath, others would breathe their last, their lives cut short by the regime's relentless bombardment of the villages that form the rebel stronghold of Jabal al-Zawia.

Life in Syria is hard, but it does go on.

With no power, heating, running water or medical assistance newborn Yasmeen Raslan was born under the most trying condutions in Frkir, Syria. TRACEY SHELTON/GlobalPost.

In Frkir, the power lasts for an hour or two each day at best. Food and fuel are scarce and expensive. Cash supplies have dwindled and employment has all but ceased. A few olive and fig trees are all the Raslans have left to sustain this grueling existence.

The winter rains have replenished the critical water supply. A few months ago, water was for drinking and essential washing only. Showers were out of the question. But with one blessing comes yet another curse: the winter chill.

When the baby's soon-to-be-mother Tyrkia started having contractions, the entire family was huddled together, sleeping under a handful of blankets. Clearly this baby was not going to wait for the convenience of daylight.

Tyrkia’s sister-in-law searched the neighboring cottages for some form of light. Tyrkia's husband Mustafa tried to find help. First, he looked for a vehicle with enough fuel, then for anyone in the neighboring villages with experience in childbirth.

But he searched in vain.

“I felt like a man drowning, desperately grabbing for something, but there was nothing there,” Mustafa emotionally recalled later that morning.

“I had been dreading this moment for the past two weeks. I didn’t think there was any way they could both survive the birth in these conditions. I had prayed many times to God that if the baby must die, please just let my wife live so our other two children would not be left motherless.”

With no midwife, responsibility for the birth fell to Mustafa’s mother and aunt, neither of whom had ever assisted in a birth before.

Tyrkia’s own family had fled to Lebanon several months before, after shelling destroyed their home. They joined hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees who have traded daily bombardment and poverty for life in a tent amid the winter slush of the border camps.

“It was dark and so cold,” said Yasmeen's 60-year-old grandmother Nadeema Alyousef, still in tears as she described the scene shortly after the birth.

“We had no light, no power, no hot water, no doctor, no hospital, no fuel. We were all in tears because we were so afraid. Tyrkia kept crying and telling us she was going to die. We were so afraid we would lose them both.”

With only ice-cold rainwater, bathing the newborn was out of the question. Nadeema wiped Yasmeen down with a towel and quickly wrapped her in blankets.

“We couldn’t cut the umbilical cord because it was so dark and we couldn’t see where we were cutting,” Nadeema said.

In the corner of the room, Tyrkia lay shivering and exhausted but alive. Fear turned into relief and joy as each woman present held the newborn in turn.

Yasmeen slept peacefully, unaware of the emotional turmoil her arrival had caused.

The family was still mourning the death of Yasmeen’s grandfather, who at 75 had succumbed to the grueling conditions of daily village life. Shivering as he struggled for breath, he had died just that morning.

In an interview over tea in his home earlier that evening, Arafat Alhamood, the region's Free Syrian Army commander, remarked on the resilience of the Syrian people.

“We believe that a huge number of us will die in the course of this revolution,” he said, “but there will be some of us who remain.

“Governments will come and go, but the Syrian people cannot be defeated. The great history of this nation will continue long after Bashar’s killing has been stopped.”

When asked about Yasmeen’s future, Mustafa looked pained.

“Every Syrian does not think of the future,” he said as he held Yasmeen to his chest. “We can’t be sure we have one. All we can afford to think about is keeping our families alive.”