Part 1: From Under the Rubble of Death

On June 14, 2016, Hadi Alabdullah and photographer Khaled al-Eissa rushed to the scene of a barrel bomb attack. As they were reporting from the scene, a second barrel bomb hit the same location—a tactic known as the “double-tap.” They survived. Just two days later, an assassination attempt was made on Hadi’s life. An IED was planted in the residential building in which they had been staying during his time reporting in Aleppo. After being buried under the rubble for approximately 40 minutes, Hadi had sustained extensive injuries to his legs, stomach, and head, and underwent many surgeries over the course of several weeks. His best friend and photographer, Khaled, did not make it. Khaled died from the injuries, shrapnel to the head, after a week of being in critical condition.  

Perhaps now, I will be able to speak—able to describe some of what happened. I’m beginning to be sure that I am still alive and did not die.

I never imagined that one day, the roles would switch. I, the one who captured tens of videos of Syrians being pulled from under the rubble, suddenly became the event instead of the reporter.

At around a quarter before midnight, I arrived with Khaled, my dear friend—may God rest his soul—to our residence in the al-Sha’ar neighborhood in Aleppo.

We stopped to talk to some of the neighbors sitting on the balconies of their homes, then I told Khaled that I would head back to the apartment. I walked ahead of him; soon after, he began to walk behind me by about four or five meters, as far as I can remember.

I entered the corridor of the building where we lived. It was dark and narrow with various water and electricity meters for the residents.

I never imagined what was waiting for me. I didn’t hear an explosion or any other sound. I was aware only of being suddenly and completely surrounded from all sides with rocks, metal, and dirt—unable to move at all.

There was a very small opening for air near my nose and mouth, through which I tried to keep breathing. I could feel water leaking around me, then began to feel unbearable waves of pain through most of my body, especially my head. The pain intensified. I tried to yell from under the rubble.

No one crossed my mind other than my dear friend. No one crossed my mind other than the one who would be willing to sacrifice his life for mine, the one for whom I feared more than I did for myself and my family.

I yelled, “Khaled, Khaled, I’m here Khaled! Tell them to turn off the electricity.”

Khaled had been behind me by several meters and hadn’t even entered the building. That’s why I hadn’t expected Khaled to fly several meters from the blast of the explosion—knocked unconscious by the shrapnel that had penetrated his head.

I continued to yell, “Khaled, Khaled can you hear me?! I’m here! Tell them to turn off the electricity!”

The electricity wires that ripped and scattered from the explosion continued to run electric currents through my body, still buried under the wreckage.  

I yelled again, my voice fading, “Whoever can hear me, turn off the electricity…”

When I began to lose hope, a voice sounding like Khaled’s came to me. “Okay, we are turning it off.”

The electric shocks slowly began to diminish until they stopped entirely. At this point, I felt some relief. When my body began to relax, I tried to yell once again. I couldn’t. I had completely lost all of my strength. I said the shahada—the Islamic testimony of faith to God, said to reaffirm one’s faith before dying—twice and began to wait for the moment I would leave this world.

I slept—or maybe I blacked out, I’m not sure. I could no longer feel what was going on around me.  I woke up shortly to the sound of Syria Civil Defense members digging away the rubble from around me.

Minutes passed, one after the other, as if they were years. I began to feel the weight being lifted off of my body, piece by piece.

Rocks were removed from my shoulders, one by one, then from my feet, stomach, and chest. Here, I realized that my head was stuck between two sheets of metal or hard rocks—I can’t remember exactly.

After a short while, I felt my whole body get very hot. I tried to open my eyes; with effort, I was able to open them to see that I was being carried on a stretcher. I looked around at the faces surrounding me, but I did not see Khaled. I blacked out. I woke up the next day after several surgeries to my legs and stomach.  

I looked at the people around me—the doctors and nurses that had saved my life like angels. As soon as I caught their eye, I asked them, “Where’s Khaled? Is he okay?!”

Hadi Alabdullah is an independent media activist and journalist in Syria. In 2011, he left nursing school to participate in the peaceful protests of Homs and began his new career—reporting stories from the front lines in Syria. Hadi is prominent peaceful activist and has become an icon with his persistent ideas of hope and unity. He is the winner of the Reporters Without Borders 2016 Press Freedom Award.

First published in Arabic on August 7. Translation provided by Nada Hashem.

Image: Photo: Civil defense members sit amid the rubble of damaged buildings after an airstrike in the rebel held Bab al-Nairab neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria, August 25, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail