In the Rubble of a West Beirut Hospital, a Valiant Physician Wonders Whether to Go on
Today Berbir Hospital is a battered wreck, left barely standing in a landscape of rubble and ripped metal. For the last eight days of the war, the hospital was under continual bombardment. Shells ripped window-size holes in the walls and sniper shots riddled the hospital's interior until bombs finally blasted away the main building's two floors almost entirely. The operating rooms were reduced to masses of mangled medical equipment and twisted bed frames, and the cacophony of gunfire was punctuated by the screams of bedridden patients lying exposed in their gutted rooms. After three days of the bombing, Dr. Shamma and her beleaguered staff carried the wounded to the relative safety of the hospital's cellar, where they huddled in darkness as bombs from land, sea and air ripped into the building above them. "It was like Dante's Inferno," Dr. Shamma recalls. "Just imagine sitting by candlelight with a wet mask over your face to keep from choking on cordite, with the shells constantly exploding overhead." Though she has no evidence, she claims the Israelis fired on the hospital because they believed it was treating Palestinian fighters.
After a subsequent bombing destroyed the hospital's generator, Dr. Shamma organized an emergency evacuation of her 65 remaining patients. "I simply put them in cars and trucks that passed by the hospital carrying wounded soldiers," she says, "and hoped they would get to a place that would take care of them."
On Aug. 11, after the final ceasefire ended the nine-week war, Dr. Shamma and her staff stepped into the street for the first time in two weeks. They felt numb, she recalls, "people who just happened to be alive and didn't really believe it." In stunned silence, they beheld the burnt-out ruin of a once cosmopolitan city. A quarter of West Beirut's buildings, city officials estimate, were either destroyed or seriously damaged. "I never imagined I would see what I did," says Dr. Shamma. "I don't think there is a single graceful old building left standing and undamaged in this city." Dr. Shamma's own mental state mirrored the carnage she saw before her: "After the shelling stopped, I had a terrible feeling of emptiness. I still have terrible nightmares that friends and members of my family are being brought into the hospital without their arms, legs or heads. It is horrible."
Despite the lingering nightmares and the destruction of her hospital, Dr. Shamma continues her work. One recent afternoon she drove through an obstacle course of felled lampposts and bomb craters to visit a pair of war-ravaged families she had met at Berbir. She stopped first in the home of Hussein Badi, a refugee camp called Bourj el Burajneh. Badi, 68, is the patriarch of a Palestinian family of 14, all of whom were severely burned when their temporary home was struck by Israeli phosphorus bombs. Badi's 28-year-old daughter, Zahra, lost three children—a 3-year-old boy and her 5-day-old twins. "The two babies were dead but still smoldering and could not be touched," recalls Dr. Shamma. "All I could do was put them in a pail of water to cool. After the first, the second, then the third child dies, these people can no longer cry. They're so dead inside themselves."
Shamma listens sympathetically as Badi discusses injuries to his scalp, eyes and feet. She reassures his daughter Zahra that her close-cropped hair—which was still smoking with phosphorus when it was shorn at Berbir Hospital—is stylish and beautiful. Zahra worries that her 13-month-old daughter is still in pain from her burns. "She will be fine," Shamma says, "but she is not too young to be traumatized like the rest of us." Later Dr. Shamma admits that she worries about the youth of Beirut. "People were dying right in front of children's eyes," she says. "That's too close for someone who is not mature enough to handle death. I wonder if these children will be able to react to anything in a normal way."
Next, Shamma called on the parents of a 28-year-old medical resident, Mahmoud Abou Ammo, who was killed when a shell struck Makassed Hospital in West Beirut. Mahmoud's death had a traumatizing effect upon many of Shamma's own staff. "I think that they naively thought that if they were in a hospital they could not be hurt," she says. "Afterwards they realized that if it could happen to Mahmoud, it could happen to them." Shamma passes block after block of total ruin as she drives to the Ammo home, arriving at last at a pile of rocks, plumbing and broken furniture—the charred remains of the stone apartment building where the Ammos and 12 other families once lived. Mahmoud's mother has neither seen nor talked to anyone since her son died. His aging father, a former taxi driver, who had depended on his son to support the family, has no idea what he will do. "Mahmoud was the repository of all his parents' dreams, and the house contained all their worldly possessions," Shamma remarks. "A few days, a few bombs and a lifetime is wiped away."
Dr. Shamma feels that her own life, too, has been shattered by the war. Her hospital, privately funded, needs an estimated $1 million in repairs and thus, she says, may never be reopened. Still, the medical staff is working to repair one wing. "Everybody has put on overalls," she says with a wry, bitter smile, "and has started laboring as a construction worker. With a thorough cleanup, the wing could be made accessible. But we would still be operating at one-fifth of capacity." Plainly battered by the brutality she has witnessed in the past three months, the once quixotically determined Dr. Shamma looks at her future today with a sense of futility. "I see the hospital now as a piece of concrete—easily destroyed," she says. "I used to think it was a place where I would spend a great deal of my life, but now I am not so sure. I feel so useless—and that is not a pleasant thing to feel."