Excerpts below from a first person account by the resident veterinarian at Ernesto’s Sanctuary for Cats* in Syria. I’ve linked to the blog where it appeared — so you can read it there, because I’m leaving out important parts, and, besides, I’m sure they can use the clicks. I’ve followed Ernesto’s cat sanctuary since it was bombed out of Aleppo in 2016 and wrote about it on a predecessor to this blog, under a headline quoting Mr. Rogers — “Looking for the helpers — in social media, a story about the Prophet Muhammad and a cat sanctuary in Syria’s civil war.” This account continues the story.
*And lots of other animals
Mohammed Youssef, “Mightier Than the Sword,” ed. Safiyya Bintali and Kristen Petronio, Our Life Logs, Nov. 2, 2020 https://www.ourlifelogs.com/post/mightier-than-the-sword?fbclid=IwAR3jgtwB5EFIHx-rzfVIFumoInQ0Ef6fNEBO2_F1blxJh1YCRbf84fDiI_I.
In 1976, I was born in Madaya, a rural town about 45 kilometers from the capital, Damascus, to a family of farmers. … Because I grew up on a farm, I was surrounded by animals from the day I was born. Beneath my palm was always the softness of fur or feathers, and on my heels was always a cat or dog, following me as I ran across the town.
[diploma in veterinary medicine from Al-Baath University … practice in home town till civil war reached Madaya in 2015]
… It was as if there was a brilliant flash of lightning—the place I loved, where I had memorized every street and shop, was suddenly up in flames. In one flash of light, the entire world I’d come to know changed before my eyes.
Many stayed in the besieged town, including me. I couldn’t leave the animals behind. Since the war had come to our city, instead of treating mild injuries, I was extracting bullets from fragile, furry bodies, removing shrapnel, and busily ensuring that no animals caught near a bombing would get their wounds infected. Blood found itself onto my operating table more often than not. Still, I had a desire to help more. When there were no animals to be seen, I would help at the field hospital and treat my wounded countrymen. I was an animal doctor, yes, but I was still a doctor, and I helped the best I could in the circumstances forced upon my once calm home.
For two years, I remained in my town. Then, at the beginning of 2017, all the residents of the town were displaced to the Idlib region, which was near the city of Aleppo. As we migrated, I felt so helpless. The place I held so dearly in my heart was washed under a rain of bullets and warfare; the places I had run in so freely and joyfully … rubble crushed them until they were unrecognizable. And as for the animals, I feared for them—what would happen to the ones we couldn’t take? I was here to help, yet, even with my skills and experience, I could do nothing. It was as if I had failed my only purpose.
Yet in this torrent of emptiness, I was extended the most unexpected invitation. In rural Aleppo, I met Mohammad Alaa Aljaleel. Alaa headed a group of animal rescuers. They had founded a nonprofit and purchased land for Ernesto’s Sanctuary. The sanctuary made it their goal to save the animals who suffered from the horrors of abandonment during the war. Alaa’s group just so happened to need a veterinarian. Seeing a new purpose spring before my eyes, I eagerly joined their team.
In Ernesto’s Sanctuary, I not only had my job back, but I had found something greater than I had ever imagined. Amid so much loss, I had managed to gain a family. Though not related by blood, the workers at Ernesto’s Sanctuary and I were bound by the soul we put into our mission of rescuing. Together, we watched as the skies exploded, as shelling burst so near that our hearts themselves shook. We cried together whenever a creature breathed its last breath in our arms and collapsed in thanks to God when an animal woke after surgery and took its first shaky steps into a new life. In these times of the biggest extremes, all we had was one another.
Animals of all kinds poured into our sanctuary. From simple pets and farm animals to exotic creatures like tigers, we put every effort into helping save their lives. With the everyday struggles like the lingering fear of having to pick up and move, the constant worrying over whether or not we’d have enough food for the animals, let alone ourselves, a pandemic, something unbelievable like that, was not even in our thoughts.
This year, when the global COVIC-19 pandemic reached Idlib province, Dr. Youssef and the staff at Ernesto’s adapted again to harsh circumstances …
I glanced out at the sanctuary, the countless cats milling about, the dogs who were settling down for a nap…the stables just beyond, where the farm animals lay. They had all endured the nightmares of the war, as I had. They were left behind, forgotten. Some were blind, deaf, or missing limbs. They were right in the line of fire, in some cases. They were no human—they couldn’t defend themselves against artillery and weapons made for the sole purpose of spreading death…and yet, here they were, away from that world, enclosed in Ernesto’s. They had survived. My thoughts then wandered to my human friends—no, my family—here at Ernesto’s. We had worked together to make this place. We were maintaining something almost utterly impossible, a true safe haven within a war. We had to do everything we could to maintain it.
I glimpsed the animals once more and mustered up a shaky resolve. They had made it this far. We at Ernesto’s had made it this far. Everything was against us, and now, with coronavirus, it was even more so.
But, I thought, I will make it worthwhile. For those animals, it is my duty to serve—and my duty to survive.
As the months passed, I regained some of the hope that drained from my body the day I learned of the virus. The sanctuary, though not accepting visitors and field-tripping schoolchildren as it used to, continued strongly into every coming day. The animals fought to live; they would not give up. Alaa and the others still fervently believed in their goal—to become a model of animal rescuing internationally. And I maintained mine—to save those forgotten creatures in warzones.
Despite the pandemic raging on, I find myself thinking of these past months with a smile on my face, though it’s a tired one. The fear—it’s certainly still there. Yet, every time that frozenness of lost hope comes over me, all I must do is open my eyes to the side that fights the war, both this pandemic and the Syrian war—the side that fights with no weapon but love. I will continue to stay alive and fight to continue fulfilling my purpose in helping animals. It is the side that fights with the burning will, the relentless hope to live, the passion of heart mightier than any sword.