An ode to fallen friends

A thought that has often troubled me has to do with the loss of friends, often social workers, to an untimely demise because of their involvement with some facet of a conflict. It is strange, how the lives lost are often consigned to a statistic. For posterity, all they amount to is another casualty to a horrendous war or conflict. In Pakistan, a hotbed for extremism, ethnic conflict and terrorist attacks, we often measure the severity of an incident by the number of individuals who lose their lives. To put it simply; an attack doesn’t register if the number of deceased is not significant.  It is absurd though to the think that as a society, there is a collective thought process which completely removes the human being from the equation. Perhaps this applies to how a conflict in general is viewed as well. It was true for me, when in 2013, I lost a friend from the Hazara community, to a bomb blast claiming 82 lives. Since I knew Irfan Ali, the incident registered deeply with me because I had spent time getting to know this kind and gentle person. When the attack claimed his life, I instantly realized this. The same feelings of loss and the utter absurdity of war revisited me when I lost another friend recently.

Irfan Ali during a protest against sectarian violence in Islamabad, September 2012

Irfan Ali

Two weeks ago, I received a Facebook message from friend, relaying news that Mohammad, our friend from Libya, had died. I couldn’t believe it so I started searching the internet for any news to confirm this. Finally, I located a blog post that confirmed Mohammad was the victim of a stray bullet, which caught him while he was heading home from the hospital where he worked as a doctor. It seemed unreal because, we were commenting on a Facebook post together a few days ago. There was heavy fighting going on in Benghazi that day and Mohammad just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. News of his death affected me deeply so decided to write this eulogy to keep his memory alive.

Dr. Mohammad Al Swei was not just a health worker from Libya, he was my friend. We met for the first time in Berlin where I got to know about his humanitarian work and medical relief activities during the Syrian uprising against the government. The week after that we found ourselves on a train to Stuttgart to attend a Cross Culture Workshop. The same night as the one we arrived was Mohammad’s birthday and I remember singing his birthday song in Urdu. I vividly recall his surprise when we told him not to offer the loose change to the lady at the register in Netto Market when picking up groceries for his birthday. We’re like “Dude, she probably makes more than you”. Over the course of workshop, I got to know him more personally. Mohammad would find a way to make light of some of the most serious of moments; a common joke that ran amongst us friends was over how much Mohammad loved to fish.  He would tell us about his fishing adventures every time he got a chance, so much so that we had to beg him to stop.  We even planned on going fishing together in the U.S. because by this time, I had learnt that I was going to be an Atlas Corps Fellow over the next year.

Mohammad & I presented what a perfect group house would be for us.

CCP Workshop

Mohammad and I decided to leave Stuttgart for Berlin earlier than the others. We missed our connecting trains and were stranded till we got another line back home. During this time, I learnt about his time serving the refugees that were displaced during the war in Libya. For some reason, he liked boasting about how everyone in Libya owns guns. I had to tell him that it wasn’t something to be proud of and shared Pakistan’s issues with violence. We exchanged many stories about life in Pakistan and Libya. He always carried a hard drive on his person that had all his photo albums. From the albums, I got a glimpse into what life was like on the frontlines of the battle, his family’s get together, his trips with his cousins and his birthday party in Sharm Al-Sheikh.  I learnt about his plans on continuing his studies and becoming an orthopedic surgeon so he can serve his community. His electric personality kept that long and painful trip back to Berlin very entertaining. We met off and on after that trip  for a night out in the city. He even made chicken roast for my farewell party. That was the last time I saw Mohammad.

Mohammad at my apartment  on my last night in the Berlin

I still can’t believe that he’s gone. My heart goes out to his family. I hope that our remembrance will keep him and his legacy alive. For losses such as this that add to a larger statistic, the best we can do is to share the memories of the fallen with the rest of the world so that they remain alive through us and their message for the human race goes on.

The writer tweets at @younaschowdhry

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