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What it’s like to bring up a baby in a war zone

What it’s like to bring up a baby in a war zone

When Waad al-Kateab decided to start a family with her husband, her friends told her she was crazy. It was 2015 and they were living in Aleppo

When Waad al-Kateab decided to start a family with her husband, her friends told her she was crazy. It was 2015 and they were living in Aleppo

October 14th 2019

Syria was at war, but I’d fallen in love with my friend, Hamza, and we wanted to get married. We’d met at Aleppo University during the protests in 2011 against Bashar al-Assad’s government and we were together through everything as things got worse. Hamza had just finished medical school and I’d done an economics degree, but I wanted to be a journalist and had started making short films. Our wedding was small but beautiful. A little group of us danced and sang so loudly that we couldn’t hear the bombs exploding outside. Happy as we were, Hamza and I decided that it wasn’t a great time to have a child. It was 2015, and though the siege of Aleppo wouldn’t start until the following year, the government had taken over the skies, shooting at the rebels who had taken control of part of the city. It seemed mad to get pregnant amid all the chaos.

Three months after the wedding, we had found a home with a little courtyard I adored, and despite everything that was going on around us, we started daydreaming about having a baby. Things were so dangerous, but I couldn’t stop wondering: what are we waiting for? We might be killed, we might be forced to leave the country – but I still wanted us to have our own family and start living the life we’d dreamed of in the city we loved so much. There was so much we could do to help Aleppo: Hamza being a doctor and me a journalist. We decided that bringing a child into the world would be a sign of resilience and strength. 

Within a month I was pregnant with Sama. Like women all around the world, I was overwhelmed. Should I breastfeed? Should I bottlefeed? What food do I need to eat? I was always googling things. The siege hadn’t started yet so I could still get a lot of the things I needed. In some ways I was like any woman in peacetime waiting for her first child. But in other ways life was entirely different. I would always make sure I had music on my phone. When the planes started swooping above, I’d play something and place it next to my tummy, and I’d try to think my way out of what was happening.

Scrubs up nicely The team at AlQuds hospital

I was so stressed and scared, but I also felt powerful. I’d be filming a massacre seeing the most horrible things anyone could ever imagine, and I’d feel Sama’s kicks in my belly and suddenly be filled with strength. I’d seen so many people die but I was still able to bring life into this world. Some of my friends told me I was crazy to have a baby but to me it felt right.

I was lucky, because by that time we were living in the hospital Hamza ran (we moved there when the siege started), so I could turn to everyone there for advice. We had such a strong community. Other mothers in particular gave me so much support. There’s a difference between men and women: when I’m scared or stressed or angry or happy, I want to share it and analyse it. Hamza, on the other hand, might feel all the same things, but he would just want to ignore it. Some of the mothers had older kids who asked them thousands of questions about everything, all the time. When they got scared they would reassure them by telling them that the White Helmets or the Civil Defence would come and rescue them. They were like the equivalent of Batman or Spider Man. 

Ray of sunshine Waad al-Kateab and Sama in Aleppo’s old town, 2016

Being a working mum was more controversial than it would be in lots of other places. People were used to seeing female journalists from other countries, but they didn’t expect to see a Syrian woman reporting, especially a pregnant one. They would be like, “Oh she’s playing with her camera” or “You’re pregnant and you’re doing this?” But once they started seeing that I was doing real news, on the TV, not just playing with my hair, they started to understand what I was trying to do. I had great access to other women – I could take my camera to places no men could go. 

When Sama was seven months old I found out I was pregnant with Taima, my other daughter. The siege was at its worst and we were still living in the hospital, while the bombs rained down outside. It was like living in a nightmare. I assumed I’d been feeling so tired and unwell because my body had shut down thanks to stress and malnutrition. We hadn’t planned to have another baby: it was a disaster. I remember sitting for four hours one afternoon, just staring at a white wall. I felt so desperate. But then something changed in me. I started to feel a sense of hope again.

We had put some nappies in storage so I had a good supply, but other mothers I knew had to use old cloths, which were completely impossible. There was no water to clean them. There was no food, nothing nutritious at all. It really felt like we were living through the apocalypse. One day a friend gave me a tomato, just one, and it gave me a moral dilemma. Do I give it to Sama? Or should I eat it, to help Taima grow in my womb? 

During both my pregnancies I had these crazy cravings for quince. It was torture. I remember when I was pregnant with Taima, posting on Facebook: “People of Aleppo, I’m dying for a quince!” I got so many responses, some of them from people I didn’t even know. Somehow, there must have been some quince trees left in the city. Some people had quince in the freezer – there’s a famous Aleppian meal made from quince. So many people arrived at the hospital with quinces that within three days I actually had more than I could ever have eaten. It’s these small things that really mean everything when you’re living in such hell.

I ran out of formula milk once when Sama was eight months old, which was terrifying. I had no idea whether it was best to let her eat solid foods or not. In the end I had to let her eat things which I know now she shouldn’t have eaten. But it was that or starve. Once I gave her some milk that had expired. I knew it was bad but I didn’t have any other choice. It made her sick for two weeks.

Clothes were also a big problem. It got so cold when Sama was six months old, but the only jacket I could find was for a two-year-old. She was so tiny and swimming in these huge clothes. I always felt so guilty. I wanted to give Sama the toys she wanted, the nice environment she deserved. I wanted to take her out to a playground. I just wanted her life to be nice, normal and safe.

 

We would sing rhymes to keep her calm when things got tense. Sometimes, after big days where I’d been out filming late, I’d be so overwhelmingly tired and Sama would be wide awake, ready to play. My group of friends was a big help. They would say, “Give me Sama. We’ll sit here, and you go sleep!” I miss them now that I live in east London. We fled Aleppo on the advice of the United Nations in December 2016, six days before Sama’s first birthday and when I was five months pregnant with Taima. In some ways, life can be quite lonely, because I don’t have that community any more. 

Living in a war zone makes everything more intense. Each time I looked at Sama, I’d wonder if I’d get to see her grow up. Every minute of my life felt like it could be the last one. I could never escape that thought. It was with me all the time. I would give her all the love, too much, more than any mother could have in one lifetime. I treated every single moment with her as precious. We might have been doing something very mundane, like changing a nappy or getting ready for bed, but everything felt extraordinary. But this also meant that when I was scared, it became too much to bear. I couldn’t stand that all the terrible things I was imagining were things that really could happen.

Part of me is sure that Sama knew what was going on, because she never reacted to things in the way that a baby normally would. There were so many times where she just kept sleeping while the whole world outside was a disaster. I’d start to worry that it meant that shelling and bombs were normal to her. But if I wanted to feel hope, I would think: “Oh, she doesn’t understand the danger: this is good.” And sometimes I just felt like my heart was breaking because it seemed like she was staying calm to help us cope.

Family values In a park, which later became a cemetery, in the Salahaldeen neighbourhood of Aleppo 

Sama is nearly four now and Taima is two. Because of the life we’ve lived, both my daughters are very accepting of change: they don’t make a fuss if there’s a new babysitter, for instance. Sama is an independent little lady. If she wants to eat, she won’t come to me and say, “Mamma, I’m hungry, can you get me some food.” She’ll go take a chair and pull it over to the fridge. We’ll say “Sama sweetheart, what are you up to?” and she’s already standing on the chair, nose in the fridge, sorting out what she wants to eat.

But there are also many bad ways that our life in Aleppo has affected her. Since we left she’s had nightmares and wakes up through the night. We see therapists and doctors and they’ve explained that a lot of the problems that are cropping up now are because she’s so young that she can’t actually express herself. They’ve given us a list of things to do to help build structure and routine – something we never had before. It’s helped a lot. All the specialists say that children who are under two years old who live through traumatic things will feel the repercussions later in life. We can’t really know what lies ahead.

Sama doesn’t remember Aleppo, but we’re trying to keep the city alive in her mind by talking with her about it. We tell her stories about what it was like before the war. If someone asks her where she is from, she always answers “Syria, Aleppo.”

Waad al-Kateab was talking to Imogen White

For Sama, a film Waad al-Kateab made about her experiences, is produced by Channel 4 News and ITN Productions. It is available in cinemas now and will be shown on Channel 4 on Saturday 26th October at 9pm