Maryam; woman of courage

Ehsan, Elyas, and Yesna wait for their mother who left her house on a spring day and never came back. In the absence of their mother, their lives seem like a routine shuttered business. “Your mother is in heaven and she watches you all the time,” Muharram Ali, the father of three children, replies when his children ask about their mother.

On May 12, Maryam Noorzad, a nurse at Barchi maternity hospital, left her house for the hospital. Hours later on the same day, armed gunmen stormed into the hospital, opened fire at nurses, mothers, and new-born babies. 24 civilians along with Maryam Noorzad were killed in the attack.

Muharram Ali, Maryam’s husband, says that on March 21, Maryam celebrated her new achievement: getting hired at the maternity hospital in Dasht-e-Barchi in the western neighborhood of Kabul. Maryam, as now Ali describes, was a hardworking woman and a responsible mother. “She was workaholic and enthusiastic to work hard,” Ali says.

In 2005, Maryam married Muharram Ali. After marriage, she attended a nursing course funded and organized by the Sweden Committee for Afghanistan. She attended the nursing course for 18 months and became a certified midwife. Maryam began working as a trained midwife at a medical center in her hometown Behsud, a mountainous district in Maidan Wardak province. She worked for seven years in her home district.

“Losing the dearest member of the family is like losing part of our past, present, and future life. The loss can never be compensated.”

As her first child, Ehsanullah reached school age, Maryam Noorzad and her family faced a hard choice: there was not proper schooling for children in the remote Behsud district. She quit her job and moved to central Bamyan where she joined a private hospital. In Bamyan, Maryam found herself at odds with her boss. “Maryam was under pressure by the boss who demanded her to give unnecessary medical tests to patients to make more money,” Muharram says.

After 16 months of working in Bamyan, Maryam along with her family returned to Kabul.

With the city being hit by coronavirus and health workers fighting in the front line, Maryam Noorzad applied for a vacant post at the maternity hospital. She was hired. “Maryam was very talented and kind,” a colleague of hers said.

On the early morning of May 12, Muharram Ali, as usual, took his motorbike and dropped Maryam at the hospital. She reminded her husband to take the Eid cloth to a tailor master. On his way back home, Ali visited his sister. As he came out of his sister’s house, Ali saw many anxious people rushing towards the maternity hospital. “I asked a man if he knew why people were rushing towards the hospital,” Ali says “suicide bombers have broken into the hospital,” the man replied. “I dialed Maryam’s number but her cell phone was out of reach,” Ali recalled the day in an exclusive interview for this story.

Zakia Karimi (alias), the staff at the maternity hospital, who eye-witnessed the tragic scene on that day, says they rushed to the safe room as the alarm went off. “I called Maryam to follow us to the safe room. It was dark inside the room. Moments after we reached the safe room I realized Maryam was not there.”

Muharram Ali waited outside the hospital for several hours. He was allowed to enter the hospital after a gun battle between the Afghan elite forces and the assailants ended. “We searched her everywhere at the hospital but could not find her,” Ali told Kabul Now.

He went to the forensic medicine center, searching for Maryam. “We were directed to the basement. Three dead bodies were laying. One of them was burnt to an extent that was unidentifiable.”

The next day, a cousin of Ali, who is an army officer, contacts him. “Maryam’s dead body has been found,” he tells Ali on phone.

Maryam Noorzad, 35, was the only nurse who lost her life in the May attack at Barchi maternity hospital. She was killed while nursing three mothers at the delivery room. “Maryam made a great sacrifice,” Ms. Karimi said.

To honor Maryam’s courageous sacrifice, the Afghan Midwives Association, victims’ families, and Maryam’s colleagues call on the government to name the 100-bed Barchi maternity hospital after Maryam Noorzad. They have requested the Ministry of Public Health (MoPH) to name the hospital after Maryam Noorzad but the health authorities at MoPH say that they have not received such a statement.

The US Department of State honored her as a woman of courage beside six other Afghan women today, Monday, March 08.

In December last year, the victims’ families sent a six-point petition to the Afghan parliament, asking the lawmakers to follow up their demand.

International medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) closed its maternity ward in the 100-bed hospital after it came under attack. “Mothers, babies, and health staff were its deliberate target and similar attacks may repeat in the future,” MSF said in a statement.

Afghanistan Human Rights and Democracy Organization, a right organization in Kabul, says that the government is duty-bound to honor the victims of war.

Two months earlier than the first death anniversary of Maryam, her husband opened a small box in which he had kept earrings, broken glass, and a white piece of cloth. For his own consolation, he has kept Maryam’s belongings in that small box. “Her bravery and her humanity are worth remembering.”

“Losing the dearest member of the family is like losing part of our past, present, and future life. The loss can never be compensated,” Ali says.

Yesna, 2, says that she wants to be like her mother in the future. Ehsan, 14, and Elyas, 10, most often talk about their mother. A picture of Maryam, adorned in the wall of their room, is the only reminiscent of a mother who had a dream to raise her children and serve her nation.

Etilaatroz’s Aber Shayagan has contributed to this story.

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