By the summer, the cost of living there was impossible for the family to afford. They gathered their belongings again to travel to Tabqa, a city recently reclaimed from ISIS. There, Fatima’s father was waiting for them. Though the streets were still littered with rubble, bodies buried beneath, it was close to the place they considered home.
In May, after months of silence, a WhatsApp message came from Sabah, who was back home in Tartus. ‘‘Shahd died,’’ the message read. Shahd would have turned 10 in two weeks. She died on the ward at Al-Bayrouni, her mother at her side.
They had made the journey back to the hospital three times over those months. After each chemo session, Shahd would lose her appetite completely, her body weakening. As she lost strength, the tumors in her body made gains. ‘‘The cancer reached all the way to her brain,’’ Sabah said. In the final weeks, Shahd slipped into a coma. The Alawites believe that each person is born from a star and will return again to the sky, after taking many forms here on Earth. Though her daughter’s departure left a hollow pit inside her, Sabah took strength from her belief that she would be reborn. ‘‘I wish for that,’’ she said. ‘‘I’m waiting for her return.’’
Shahd’s body was taken to a plot of land owned by her father’s family in a rural area far from their home, surrounded by mountainous forests, near the sea. Shahd was buried on the edge of a field that lay in the shade of tall oaks and the delicate boughs of walnut trees. There is no threat of violence on the road there, and Sabah and her surviving daughters can visit her without fear.
Not every parent who lost a child to cancer at the hospital had the chance to take that child home to be buried. Samar, who had sometimes shared Fatima’s room, died on the last day of January. She was buried just south of Damascus. When I visited Faiza and Ahmad in Aleppo, empty fields and even the stretch of a salt lake were dotted with the angular skeletons of buildings and the twisted frames of burned-out cars, punctuated by tanks or military bunkers. Less than three months earlier, after a brutal siege, east Aleppo was reclaimed by the Syrian Army, and when I arrived, families were picking their way through the streets, returning to collapsing buildings that used to be homes.
Ahmad met me outside the doorway of a lightless building downtown. A grassy verge opposite the house was a crooked skyline of scattered…