When I entered the infirmary, mournful sounds and helpless stares of the injured shocked me. Men with torn limbs, bloody wounds, and patches on their shattered bodies rested on worn litters or mattresses scattered on the floor. The room was large enough for me to lose count of the men assisted by tired and frustrated nurses in a rush. My eyes wandered from one corner to another in search of my husband, wondering if I'd recognize his face. I walked beside the litters and examined the soldier’s gaunt silhouettes. Some of them turned their backs to me, but I didn't mind. I just wanted to find my Mustafa.
I caught a nurse by the arm and begged her to help me find my husband. Her lips tightened in a thin line, and though her brows furrowed, her eyes couldn't hide a sympathetic look. She shook her head at once. "Ana asifa, sayida. I'm sorry, but I can't help you. I'm busy―"
I interrupted her, "Please, just tell me if there's another place where I can find him…"
She smiled weakly and said, "Go to the second floor. You might find him among the recovering cases."
I thanked her and hurried upstairs to enter another large room. Stretchers spread on both sides of the area, but their conditions were better than those on the ground floor. Grief and misery lingered in the air as I thrusted ahead, looking for Mustafa. I was losing hope of finding him when I finally saw the shadow of whom used to be my husband.
Weak limbs laid on the gray mattress, hair that looked like trampled straw, and a bearded face that highlighted his high cheekbones and the dark circles under his swollen eyes, his left one covered with a patch, stunned me.
Mustafa was sleeping, or I thought he was. When I came closer, he let out a rough cough and turned on his right side, leaning on his elbow and with his back to me. He stretched his left arm to the nightstand of cracked wood beside his litter and reached for a bottle of water. I watched as he tried to drink and keep the water inside his mouth, but it seemed to be a challenging job for him.
I walked to my husband and took the bottle in my hand, holding it close to his mouth. With my other hand, I lifted his chin to help him drink. However, Mustafa remained still, astonished by my presence as if I were a ghost materialized from thin air. I left the bottle on the nightstand, went to the dark curtain beside his litter, and pulled it between us and the rest of the room to give us some privacy. Then, I carried a chair that was nearby and brought it to sit next to him. I didn't know what to say and just rubbed my hands against my thighs, maybe to wipe away my fatigue and tension.
Mustafa watched me with a deep frown, so typical of him when he wanted to disguise his vulnerability. He straightened his torso up with difficulty and asked, turning away from me, "What are you doing here? It's too dangerous for you."
I blinked, puzzled by his impersonal question. "I was worried. We didn't receive any notice from you…"
He shook his head.
"Mustafa, I came because...because..." I stammered before I could regret it. "I'm sorry for being such a fool!"
He watched me in silence, his frown softened. "Don't you think it's too late for regrets? Your reasons for leaving me were never enough, Dalia."
"I couldn't stand all the obligations and your demands. You were suffocating our children and me!" I tried to sound hurt, but my voice betrayed me.
"You think I didn't know how you were feeling? I didn't want that kind of life for our family either. I realized how wrong I was, but I was waiting for the opportunity to tell my parents of my decision to move out," he muttered. Then, he added with a choked voice, "Weren't my trust and love for you enough?"
"I received no trust since we moved in with your parents, and you ignored my desire to work. How could I trust you?" I scoffed.
Mustafa let out a long sigh. "What do you want, Dalia? Why did you trouble yourself in coming here?" His expression was blank, but I could see his lower lip trembling.
"Why didn't you tell me what you planned to do?" I asked.
"You were so distant. I was afraid of losing you," he replied, again without looking at me and lowering his voice in the last sentence.
"Please, Mustafa, forgive me!"
"There's no need; it was my fault, too. I think you and the kids will be better off without me."
"Look at me, Dalia! I can barely walk and see my way. I'm a useless man!"
"We'll never be better without you. It's my fault you're here!" I reached out for his hand, but he pulled it away.
"If you're saying this out of pity or guilt, please don't. I told my parents before I left that if anything happens to me, the children will remain with you."
I covered my ears with my hands. "No, I won't leave you!"
"Wasn't this what you wanted?"
He looked so vulnerable it broke my heart. I whispered, "If you leave me, Mustafa, I'll die."
His creased forehead told me I was crashing down his defenses. He shifted in his place with an effort to look straight at me.
Words couldn't express our feelings; only our loving stares filled the void between us. I lifted my hand to caress his face; Mustafa rested his cheek in my palm and kissed it. Then, his hand reached my face and pulled me closer to him. He gently kissed my eyelids and brushed his lips against my cheek, resting finally on my lips. Sweet, distant memories ignited the flame in my heart for my soul mate as my own came back to life.
"Forgive me, habibti," he whispered between tears and kisses.
"Hush, habibi. Let's forget the past and start all over. You'll come back home with me, and everything will be just fine, you'll see," I murmured, caressing his hair.
He held my jaw with his firm grip and kissed me deeply as if it were the first time we kissed. I knew, then, I could have never belonged to anyone but Mustafa.
"We are free souls, Dalia. Yes, we'll rebuild our life together," he said.
Suddenly, a loud sound rumbled around us, and commotion broke out. The floor was trembling under my feet, and I hurried to the window where I saw the men running in despair. I turned to Mustafa. His features hardened; he looked terrified.
"Don't worry, my love, nothing will happen to you!" He was trying to sound brave and comfort me, but I knew better. "Come, help me up," he ordered.
I hurried to him. He leaned his arm on my shoulders as I put one of my arms around his waist to support his body. Just then, I realized how much weight he had lost. Mustafa beckoned toward a table in a corner, and we hid under it.
"Dalia, if something happens to us, I want you to know I've always loved you and that I want you now more than ever," he said.
The bombing continued more fiercely as the screams grew closer. Walls and ceilings shuddered more with each blast, and dusty clouds plumed through the darkness. All we could do was hold to each other and pray for survival.
I lost track of time, but when I opened my eyes again, the dust and burned gunpowder choked me while the metallic smell of spilled blood filled my lungs. My limbs were stiff, and I had to force my arms to stretch. I touched my throbbing head, and with my other hand, I searched desperately for Mustafa until I felt his body beside me. I called him, but no answer came. I shouted his name again, pulling at his shirt.
Finally, his hand caught mine, and relief took hold of my numb body. The table had partly fallen on him, so I pushed the debris away, and with all my strength, lifted it off him as much as I could. With the dim light of dawn filtered from the ruined wall, I forced
Mustafa to open his eyes and focus on me.
"Habibi, stay awake. We need to get out before they find us! Please, help me!"
Mustafa reacted when we heard the radicals' shouts getting closer. He knew if they found us, they'd kill us instantly.
"I can't protect you. Go out…hide!" Mustafa stammered.
"I won't leave you here," I replied with determination.
Mustafa swallowed hard and winced when he tried to stretch his torso upright.
"I’ll help you, habibi, but don’t tell me to leave you.” I stood up and tried to hold him up, wrapping my arm around his waist.
We met the devastating sight of the room. Some men had fallen to the floor; their hopeless moans were heartbreaking as I realized we couldn’t help anyone but merely ourselves.
“We must get out of here,” I heard Mustafa murmuring. “Another explosion and this whole place will come down.”
He dragged his legs forward, still leaning on my shoulder and pulling me along with him. On our way to the staircase, Mustafa told his companions to brace themselves and get out. But Allah was granting us another opportunity, because when we stepped on the ground floor, a soldier, who seemed to know Mustafa well, stopped us.
“Good, I found you. The radicals are going to abduct us if we stay here. If it weren’t for the Red Cross flag, they would have killed us a while ago!” the soldier explained breathlessly. “Come on. Follow me!”
He guided us toward a back door with a secret passage among bushes which led to the woods, away from the village.
“I must stay to help others. But if you follow this path, it’ll be easier for you to hide in the woods,” the soldier continued. “Be careful, and may Allah protect you and your wife.”
He and Mustafa hugged, patting each other’s shoulders reassuringly.
“Thank you, brother. I wish you to be safe.”
We walked with great effort and stealth until we arrived at a dense part of the forest. Mustafa knew the place well because he took me through the woods in a particular way. When we were far enough from the camp and at the borders of another poor village, the sun was already high in the sky. We were lucky to find help there and a driver who took us to a station to get back to our hometown.
I’m sure we were protected by angels, for that day was the last for many in that camp. Mustafa felt guilty for leaving his compatriots behind, but he knew he couldn’t help them in his weak condition and hoped they could escape.
We thanked Allah a thousand times when we were back home safe. My soul rejoiced at seeing my children in the arms of the man I most love: their father. Our parents were surprised but happy to see us back together, though I couldn’t tell if his family was, too.
Though it hurt us to leave our country, we decided to seek new and more neutral horizons to raise our family once Mustafa had recovered fully. We held the love for our nation in our hearts and promised to enhance it with our good acts wherever we go. Countries can waste so easily the will and courage of loyal, talented citizens to benefit a few selfish interests.
After that bitter experience, Mustafa and I value each moment together more. We understand that true love might not be born at first sight but is nourished every day with respect, compassion, #sacrifice, and admiration. True love overcomes harsh tests and obstacles in life because the beloved’s mere presence is enough to provide courage and the feeling of peace and safety.
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