The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Stories of birth in wartime are hopeful and heartbreaking

How do we talk about renewal when destruction is all around?

A volunteer works inside a maternity hospital damaged by shelling in Mariupol, Ukraine. (Evgeniy Maloletka/AP)
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During the evacuation of Afghanistan last summer, I remember reading a story — a lot of us probably remember reading the story — of a baby born on an airplane. The mother was fleeing Afghanistan and went into labor on a C-17 military aircraft somewhere en route to the Ramstein Air Base in Germany. Military personnel delivered the infant in the cargobay. In honor of the plane’s call sign, the parents named their new daughter “Reach.”

This is what passes for an uplifting story in wartime. At least the baby lived. At least the mother lived. At least the circle of life continued despite the upheaval. The airplane’s call sign, thankfully, was appropriately inspirational; it could have been “Bacon” or “Anvil.” The outcome of this story was so happy it was easy to overlook the preamble: the fact that the woman’s blood pressure dropped severely, causing labor complications. The fact that giving birth in the cargo bay of a military aircraft while fleeing the country is the most horrible way imaginable to give birth.

That story was, in fact, a terrible one. It was terrible in the same way that “schoolchildren raise money for impoverished bus driver’s cancer treatment” is a terrible story. To get to the uplifting part, you must disregard the tragic, shameful premise — the circumstances that made it so this woman was fleeing on an airplane while heavily pregnant. You must begin a sentence with “At least,” when really the sentence should begin with “At most.”

I’ve been thinking of this Afghan woman. I’ve been thinking of her because I’ve been thinking about the way we tell stories of birth and hope in war.

There are surrogate babies trapped in Ukraine. It is one of the few countries that allows for overseas surrogacy, apparently, for women carrying babies for couples who live abroad. Now these babies are being born at a time when the biological parents — the sperm and egg who created the infant — are unable to reach them. The babies are being cared for by nannies and caseworkers. Every few days one of the babies will make it across the border in the arms of a caregiver, and this is written in headlines as silver-lining news.

“A rescue team evacuates premature American twins from Kyiv in a daring mission,” read one headline, about two infant boys who were evacuated to Poland.

Thank God for this. Thank God for the medical professionals who cared for the twins, and the volunteer organization that managed to save them.

But the circumstances are still terrible. The woman who birthed the twins had gone into early labor. She had to spend hours fighting military traffic to get to the hospital. The boys were born prematurely, precariously, at four pounds apiece in a hospital that didn’t have food for them. A three-car convoy had to dodge checkpoints on a 14-hour trip to safety.

At least the babies survived.

At most the babies survived. Their survival was a silver lining because Ukraine is engulfed in gray: rubble, dust, abandoned lives.

We desperately need stories of births in war because we need hope and hope is human. We need stories of renewal and possibility. But the births aren’t mitigating factors to a terrible chaos; they’re not a Chicken Soup for the Wartime Soul where there are always lessons to be learned and silver linings to be found, and where at least pieces of the story turn out okay. Sometimes no pieces turn out okay.

Maybe last week you saw a photograph of another pregnant woman. Her hospital was bombed as she prepared to deliver. She was evacuated on a stretcher against a backdrop of smoldering rubble. In the photograph this woman lay with a bloodied and mangled hip on a piece of fabric that looked like a blanket with a design that looked like a strawberry, and she clutched her round belly.

In the middle of this hell, she still clutched her belly. Can you imagine? Of course you can. The desire to believe that the circle of life will continue — is continuing, despite it all — is so powerful.

Except in this case it wouldn’t. The Associated Press reported on Monday that the woman in this photograph had died, and her baby died, too. When she’d learned that her baby wouldn’t survive, she’d reportedly told medics, “Kill me now,” but they still tried to save her for more than 30 minutes before it was clear they couldn’t.

No silver lining. No uplift. Just a dead woman with a broken body and a heart that she seems to have hoped would stop beating before she had to live with it being broken.