We all like to believe that we control our destiny and that we create our futures with our choices, but there are some decisions in life that are made for you, some things you cannot be held accountable for, for instance where you are born and into which family. Will you be the child of a tyrant or the child of a future revolutionary? Will you be the son of the tortured or the daughter of the torturer? These matters are the luck of the draw, written in our books of fate long before we took our first breaths, while we were still cocooned in our mothers’ wombs. But sometimes you hear such an extraordinary account about fate that you wonder, does destiny taint us before birth to draw the trajectory of our future lives? The following is one of those accounts:
In 1965, I was a medical intern in the National Hospital in Damascus. One day in September, we received an order to empty a room in the pediatric department because a certain VIP baby was being transferred from the maternity ward. My superiors Dr. Suheil Baddoura and Dr. Rashad al-Anbari told us to prepare the room and ourselves for this special patient. The full-term infant who suffered from respiratory distress arrived in the hospital’s sole incubator, the only incubator in Damascus. My colleagues in the maternity ward had been ordered to take out the four premature babies who were already in the incubator to place this baby inside instead. The larger and more-worthy infant was to occupy the incubator alone. The babies died within a couple of hours. One doctor, Mahmoud Barmada, had resisted the outrageous request but was silenced by his superiors who were watched by several officers. We understood that the child’s father was an unnamed, high-ranking officer. Soon after the baby was transferred, he arrived in person, the Commander of the Air Force, Hafez al-Assad. At first his mother would come to breastfeed him and go back to the maternity ward. Then she was transferred over as well to sleep with her child. He stayed in the hospital for fifteen days. After he was discharged, the father donated ten oxygen tents to the maternity ward. At his request, baby Bashar’s medical file was destroyed.
The relationship between Baddoura and Hafez al-Assad grew stronger over the years as the Commander became Minister of Defense and then the president of Syria. Assad assigned Baddoura as the head of the new Children’s Hospital affiliated with the University of Damascus. Baddoura became the head of Assad University Hospital in 1992 and held the prestigious position until a few years before his death.
After I listened to the prominent doctor narrating this troubling story to me, I asked questions including: Why didn’t anyone else object to this inhuman act? Why are you remembering it now? He answered with the same word repeated over and over, al-khof, al-khof, al-khof. Fear, fear, fear. Why are you telling me this story? He said, “This man was born from the womb of murder. So what do you expect from him now?”
A neonatologist who verified the medical details of this account told me such choices are still forced onto Syrian doctors until today. Unethical favors that must be made for the ruling elite; forcing doctors to choose their children’s lives over those without wealth or influence. Because of fear.
Hafez Al-Assad famously said, “History is not moved by coincidence.” Did the tears of four mourning mothers curse the baby dictator, stealing his innocence? Did his father’s evil seep into him while he was in Anissa’s womb? No, because as his father said, there are no coincidences. These four premature babies’ deaths were Hafez’s crime alone, because he believed his son’s life was worth the life of four others. But the hundreds of innocent children who were slaughtered over the last sixteen months are now his son’s crimes. Because destiny eventually takes a back seat to accountability.
The neonatologist explained to me that an incubator is just a sophisticated box with controlled temperature and humidity that imitates the environment of the womb. Bashar grew up in an incubator of ultimate privilege, believing that his life is more important than all others. He was raised to take up more space than he needed at whatever cost. He made Syria his personal incubator.
Sometimes destiny has a way of marking who you will become. A doctor may become a murderer and a young political prisoner from Tadmor may go on to become a Harvard graduate; or four babies will die so one will live. And the one who lived will grow up to kill babies, just like his father.
While Syria’s ancient cities, Aleppo and Damascus, burn as the merciless tyrant shells them along with the rest of the country’s revolting cities, towns, and villages, I think about those four mothers who never knew why their premature infants did not survive. Who were they? Who would they have grown up to be? What would our country’s future had been if they had survived as well? If they had survived instead?
We will never know, because the four babies were born and killed on that fateful day when destinies — all our destinies — were written, on September 11, 1965.
Sometimes history is moved by luck, sometimes by callous strategies and cynical political interests, but sometimes, it is moved by the unbreakable will of a people who decide to free themselves from the collective womb of oppression and change their destiny. Not by coincidence, but by sheer determination.