One cold night in late February, strong gusts of wind and heavy snowfall blew against my windshield. I decided to turn on the radio and to make my long day even worse, my car’s screen displayed Nickelback’s “Lullaby.” But something was strikingly different in the beginning chords of the song as my body came to a standstill.
He never escapes my mind, whether I am studying, eating or sleeping. Several months ago my best friend Omar left this world. Childhood friends for more than 14 years, I still remember the excitement we both had when my family traveled to Syria every summer after schools in the United States closed their doors. I have not been home to see Omar or any of my extended family for more than three years, which brings sadness to my heart. Conditions in my home country worsen by the day, as what started as a peaceful revolution became a brutal war of a ruthless dictator and his barbaric regime against his own people. Omar and I were alike in so many ways, but I always envied him for his reckless bravery. His decision to become an activist for the revolution did not surprise me.
Every weekend, I tried my best to Skype with him to check on his safety. The last time I contacted him, telephone lines and internet were cut by the government, but somehow he always found a sneaky alternative. He told me of all the pictures and videos he took of the protests that were happening in our neighborhood. He had not seen his mom for three months since he was forced to relocate to a different home each night, running away from the hated government security thugs. He spoke little of himself and would always ask how my courses at college were going. Omar always encouraged me to do my best and wanted to see me come back home as a doctor to treat the fatal injuries he saw: sniper wounds, tank and mortar bomb shrapnel, land mines were just a few among many.
The last time I Skyped with Omar, I was halfway through finishing my sentence when the screen went pitch black, and I could not hear his voice anymore. Deep down, my instincts told me something terrible must have happened. After five minutes of staring hopelessly at my screen, I shut it down and prayed, prayed and prayed. Nightmares of vague faces of strangers gasping for help clouded my mind.
Next morning, I woke up to my daily routine of eating cereal and watching the news in Syria. As sad as it was, nothing seemed out of the ordinary as the news anchor relayed the stories: 200 plus people dead in different cities, armed conflicts in civilian neighborhoods and a massacre by the government here and there. I almost turned off the television but a change in the anchorman’s tone got my attention.
A massive raid by the government security forces took place in the Al-Mahatta neighborhood in Homs, the central city in Syria where I grew up where, and all of my maternal side of the family resides. Security forces infamously known as Shabiha, or “ghosts” in Arabic, received intelligence reports on the location of several activists. His apartment, along with many others, was shelled by 10 RPGs in a systematic manner. Names of the deceased were announced, and Omar’s name was mentioned last along with a picture of him filming a protest. I was in complete shock.
Questions started racing in my mind. Was it my fault? Why did they want Omar out of all others? Why is the world doing nothing about it as all the politicians in the world sit back and watch the suffering of the people in Syria? Does anyone care anymore, or is Omar just another number? What if destiny had placed me in Syria instead of going to college in Minnesota on the other side of the world?
Tears from my blood-shot eyes fell swiftly again as “Lullaby” played. Every time I hear that song, I imagine speaking to Omar casually and pretending everything is fine. Seven months later, I still think of Omar every day and ask myself, “What if?”
BY MAHMOUD TOUMEH