Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

My Wheelchair and I

Overcoming disability to help others.
By Fatima Bakkur
  • An elderly woman is examined in the internal medicine clinic at the Hospital of Jerusalem in Aleppo. (Photo: Abu Mujahid Abu al-Jud)
    An elderly woman is examined in the internal medicine clinic at the Hospital of Jerusalem in Aleppo. (Photo: Abu Mujahid Abu al-Jud)

On May 29, 2012 I took my four-month old baby in my arms and went to visit my family as usual. I was 28 years old.

But that evening was different. Regime forces and rebels had clashed in the neighbouring village, and many people had fled to take refuge with us.

Suddenly, we heard a noise, a noise we heard for the first time. It was a helicopter hovering over my village. But we were not yet used to the presence of military aircraft or helicopters in the skies above our village and so we weren’t afraid of them.

As I sat discussing politics with the displaced people outside my parents’ home, we heard a new and more terrifying noise. It was a helicopter shooting, targeting my parents’ house. Did the pilot think that the displaced people were armed?

Everyone panicked, so we all ran inside. I was unlucky, I didn’t run fast enough, and I was shot and fell to the ground.

I felt like the fires of hell was flaming inside me, as if my limbs had been cut off, as if someone was tearing me apart.

Blood was flowing around me, but I couldn’t move. My brother and my mum were a metre or less away from me but I couldn’t reach them. My brother managed to drag me inside the house with the helicopter still shooting above us.

I could hear everything and I was aware of what was happening to me. I heard the ambulance arriving and a young man with a Homs accent said to me, “Get well soon sister.” It was the paramedic. They put me in the ambulance and rushed me to a nearby hospital.

I saw the concerned faces of the doctor and the nurse. I heard them saying to my father, who was crying and screaming in grief, “It would be better if you took her immediately to Turkey, this seems to be a difficult injury.”

The ambulance took me again but this time to deliver me to a Turkish ambulance near a village on the border. My husband came with me, he looked sad, but my daughter stayed in Syria. I couldn’t stop thinking about her; it was time to breastfeed her and put her to bed.

I arrived at the hospital in the Turkish city of al-Rihaniyya and stayed there for one night. But the next morning they took me to the Antakya hospital because I was in such a bad condition.

Everyone in the hospital spoke Turkish which I didn’t understand, but I knew from their faces that I was not in a good state. I still remember every detail.

I entered a white room, it was the operating room. I could only see the ceiling above me. I couldn’t move so I looked at the faces of the doctor and nurses standing around me. They took off my ornaments and accessories. I felt the nurse’s cold hands as she took off my earrings.  

I slept in the operating room and woke up feeling weightless. Dr. Ali said hello to me in Turkish. I smiled and tried to get up but I couldn’t.

Then a man came to translate.

They asked me, “Are you hungry?”

I said, “Yes, I am hungry”

The doctor, the translator and I ate together. 

Then the doctor began talking via the translator. He told me I had to be patient. Then he told me that I was semi-paralysed. 

That was the start of my huge suffering. I settled with my aunt and her family in the Turkish city of al-Rihaniyya to begin my rehabilitation. 

I only saw my daughter again eight months later. My husband brought her from Syria. I couldn’t keep her with me while I was in this condition. How could I breastfeed? What could I do with her? How could I take care of her? 

My daughter was now a year and two months.  The first meeting with her was the hardest. She didn’t react; she didn’t recognize me. 

After a year-and-a-half of treatment, I was finally able to sit in a wheelchair. It felt like my first encounter with the outside world. It had changed so much. I was looking at faces and buildings as if seeing them for the first time. 

I knew that nothing would prevent me from getting well enough to be with my daughter again, not even the fact that my husband decided to abandon both of us. He left and a while later divorced me.

I was still determined to get back to my daughter, to get used to me again after our separation and make her proud of me. 

In 2015, three years after my injury, I was well enough to go back to Syria. 

Everything had changed. My encounters with people were harder than I had expected. They showed me a kind of sympathy I did not want. 

But I was strong enough to overcome that situation. In Syria, I worked with other friends who had also been injured towards opening a physical therapy centre. Today, we practice our job at the centre and are very proud to be disabled and yet still to be able offer even a fraction of assistance to other injured people.

The wheelchair didn’t change me. The wheelchair showed many people’s true colours and made me stronger. 

Fatima Bakkur, 23, is from Idlib’s western countryside. She works with the Badael organisation.