Signs of Life

On the surreal nature of secondary trauma.

June 28, 2022

Born in India and raised in Canada, Raksha Vasudevan is a writer, economist and former aid worker. Her work appears in Harper's Bazaar, Guernica, The...

“Beloved imagination, what I most like in you is your unsparing quality.” —Andre Breton, The Surrealist Manifesto

Hamade’s voice stayed warm and steady, even when he told us, “Four mortars last night. Thirty dead.” And later, “They will bomb the camp hospital today.”

I wondered how he did it, how his voice could soothe even as it shocked. Maybe if I understood that, I’d stop flinching when he spoke. Pauline and Matej must know; Pauline’s face stayed smooth, Matej’s voice brisk. “Where? How did you hear? Which groups?”

From our apartment in Turkey, Matej wanted to know everything happening across the border in Syria: Hamade’s sources, the exact locations of anticipated attacks, which groups were planning air strikes and which were retreating to the rubble of villages already destroyed by war. He—we—needed details if our teams were to keep working, keep trying to stem the country’s flood of losses.

Outside, the sun was rising, seeping through our lacy curtains. In Syria, forty-five kilometres to the east, it lit up the Great Mosque of Aleppo, its marbled prayer hall blackened by rocket-propelled grenades. Syrians kept praying there anyway, the crowns of their heads kissing daylight and ruined stone. Elsewhere in the country, it warmed the faces blinking awake in makeshift camps. Warmed, too, the hands of bakers, already at work kneading manakish bread.

Even in a war, signs of life. As the day went on, death tolls rising, I tried to hold onto this.


In the spring of 2014, I moved to Antakya, a border town in southern Turkey. In normal times, Antakya was only an hour from Syria, a smooth and lovely drive lined with cypress trees and small villages of stone. But that time was not normal. The war between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and rebel groups was stretching into its third year. I heard that road was still pretty to drive, but not exactly pleasant, and definitely not relaxing, surveilled as it was by drones, soldiers, and a dozen militias, all relentlessly watching and waiting for one wrong move.

One wrong move—in a sense, that’s what I was there to prevent. My employer, a French humanitarian agency, operated in Syria’s northern Idlib province, providing assisted walking devices and rehabilitation therapy to civilians who’d lost limbs in the fighting. Recently, they had also started a risk education program. Mortars, shells, and rockets that didn’t detonate on landing had become a sight so common, Syrians stopped avoiding them, believing them to be like all other debris of war: the rubble of collapsed buildings, the bullet-ridden walls, the downed power lines. Harmless—if hideous—relics. The damage, they believed, was already done.

They were wrong. In 2013, the UN gave up counting Syria’s casualties. But the number who escaped a bombing or airstrike only to later be killed or injured by an innocent-looking scrap of metal was in the thousands—maybe tens of thousands. Risk education helped civilians recognize the devices for what they still were: objects of war, to be avoided at all costs. It was public health in a war zone—and I was in charge of it.

But the closest I’d get to the war was this apartment in Antakya, full of frightening, eccentric details: blood-red ceilings, a statue of a snarling monkey in the entryway. In my room, a Barbie nightlamp, except Barbie’s face was stretched too wide, her smile taking on freakish proportions reminiscent of the Joker. And in the living room, a low-dangling rusted chandelier, its few remaining crystals gaudy and tinkering. Underneath, Matej and Pauline, my colleagues and housemates, usually hunched over their laptops, casting huge shadows on walls painted a dark, ominous purple.

I tried not to hate it. Not only did I have no choice but to live here, but from the ghoulish living room that doubled as an office, I also managed, remotely, a team of twelve Syrian risk educators. I’d had the same job in Mali, except there, in the desert town of Sévaré, I’d been up-close, traveling every week to the nearby camps of IDPs—internally displaced people—refugees in their own country. But that wasn’t possible here: foreigners were not allowed in Syria.

I had no idea how to do this—how to ensure others’ safety without ever putting mine on the line. How to manage a team I’d never meet. How to be the aid worker I’d always dreamed of—working to stanch the greatest humanitarian crisis our generation had seen—without ever encountering the crisis itself.

I was twenty-six. I’d never had to contend with the limits of my body, my dreams, my reality.


For Freud and the surrealists of the post-war period, the line between reality and dreams was an artificial one, an arbitrary division carved by the forces of rationalism and convention undergirding Western society. To these intellectuals, dreams—including daydreams, dreams born in sleep, and nightmares—showed us our hidden desires and demons. It was up to us to listen, to reshape our reality towards what we really wanted, and to meet with grace and conviction what we most feared.

Ultimately, they saw dreams as a means for remaking the world.


The days in Antakya began with a security briefing, the three of us crowding around Matej’s phone, taking care not to brush against each other as we rubbed the sleep from our eyes. We might hear each other’s snores and farts through the thin walls at night but in the daytime, we were humanitarians. Professionals.

On the phone, Hamade, who spoke the best English of the Syrians, recounted the previous night’s fatalities: “Two families dead. A third is missing. They are still digging through the wreckage.” Then, calm as always, he forecasted the casualties of the day ahead. By that point, every town in the rebel-held province of Idlib had designated marasid, civilians who intercepted communications between government pilots and airbases. If an impending strike was discovered, the town’s mosques broadcast warnings on their loudspeakers.

Based on this intelligence, the Syrian team suggested an itinerary for the day, which camps they would visit, and which they would avoid. Within the camps, the men usually went to hospitals and rehabilitation centres, and the women to makeshift schools and homes, often built of tin sheets and empty grain sacks. Like street preachers, they sermonized to all who passed by, showing them picture after picture of deformed missiles and firearms, warning of their dangers, their potential for all types of death: painful and long, painful and quick, painful to the point where time lost all meaning, all sense. And of course, before letting their congregants go, they exhorted them to spread the word among their kith and kin.

At the end of each day, the Syrians sent photos from the camps, blurry images of dark eyes, water boiled over a fire of twigs, earthen floors turned muddy with rain. Sometimes, an unexploded grenade, casually sitting next to someone’s tent. Sometimes, a scarred face, a stump.

Though I knew they were coming, the images were still a shock after a day spent before my screen, coordinating with other humanitarian agencies in Idlib, completing expense reports and updating budgets, and nagging headquarters for the steel-toed boots and solar-powered printers our teams desperately needed. Sometimes, as I mechanically crossed things off my to-do list, I almost forgot about the war, about the fraught project of survival for every Syrian still inside Syria, a survival which was not at all guaranteed, but an hourly gamble.

When the photos came, I looked at each one for a long time. Next to me, my mug of Turkish coffee turned cold. From outside, I could hear the laughter of children released from school, could smell the Turkish pide they munched on their way home.

In those moments, looking at a life and landscape so alien from the one I inhabited, the distance to Syria felt enormous, almost too vast for my mind to grasp. The fact of physical proximity seemed absurd—not false per se, but something else, something in that grey zone between truth and fiction. It felt, perhaps, surreal.


According to Merriam-Webster, surreal is the term most often-looked up by Americans and Canadians after tragedies: 9/11, the Boston Marathon bombing, COVID-19.

The urge for clarity—for a logical articulation of what we’re experiencing, of a world suddenly beyond our understanding—is never stronger than in moments of tragedy.

Of course, by definition, tragedy refuses logic, living in a space beyond comprehension, beyond fairness, beyond reason.


 May 13, 2014

Subject: An unexpected day

Dear S,

Today, I walked Kurtuluş Caddesı, the city’s central avenue. It’s lined with palm trees that always seem out of place to me, tone-deaf in their presence. They belong in some tropical vacation destination, Miami or Cuba maybe, not on a busy commercial street, not in a city so close to war. Here, I hunt for supplies to be smuggled over the border: first aid kits, flashlights, steel-toed boots to protect the team from stray mortars blowing off their feet.

For the most part, I blend in: the war has made Antakya cosmopolitan, refugees and aid workers walking the same streets as diplomats and housewives. But today, for the first time, I encountered suspicion. I was trying to get flyers with pictures of ERW—explosive remnants of war—printed for the teams to distribute. The shop owner, beard henna-ed orange to mark a recent pilgrimage to Hajj, squinted at me. “You going over there to fight, my daughter?” he asked.

I fled. Outside, the roundabout clogged with afternoon traffic. Beyond the city, the Nur Mountains rose, freshly green from spring showers. I thought of you—how you love the scent of air heavy with rain, that time we got caught in an afternoon thunderstorm coming back from hiking in the Juras, the way your hair curled in the damp.

That last part was a lie. Looking at the Nur Mountains, I’d thought not of S, but of how many people would die that day on the other side of those hills. I’d guessed fifteen. Later, I learned it was eighteen. Close, I thought, and felt strangely proud—until my mind caught up to my thoughts and I wretched, folding in half and heaving and nothing coming out, nothing at all.


The term surreal tends to evoke surrealism, a style often associated with European artists like Dali and Magritte. In his best-known work, “The Persistence of Memory,” Dali foregrounds melting clocks against the cliffs of his native Catalonia. Magritte, in his “Personal Values,” barely contains a giant comb, drinking glass, and matchstick within walls of sky. And Cuban-born Wifredo Lam’s “The Jungle” depicts monster-like creatures, part-human, part-animal, that simultaneously emerge from and merge with a dense wall of vegetation.

The power of surrealist art lies in how it renders the familiar bizarre—in the dissonance it exposes between the real and impossible. Such juxtapositions produce contradictory emotions in us: confusion, anger, desire, dread, each amplifying instead of nullifying the other, pushing us into new, uncanny territory. Not exactly real, but something more, or something beyond.


Just like in a dream, time was slippery in Antakya. There were no weekends: we worked every day, all the time. We wore pyjamas at all hours, the coffeemaker always dripping, the trash perpetually full, hummus-smeared plates piling in the sink. My butt was always numb from sitting, my brain tender and cottony. The purple walls were a permanent dusk.

Only Saturdays stood out. Every Saturday, I updated an Excel sheet tracking the numbers of Syrian men, women, and children our team had “educated” that week. Also, the number of men, women, and children reported hurt or killed by ERW, explosive remnants of war. The cells tallying injuries and death were cumulative, rising over the months I was there from hundreds to thousands. Once, after updating the cell for “children reported dead from ERW” and watching it clock in at an even 1000, I sat unmoving. My chest seemed to fill with concrete, heavy and irreversible. 

When I finally managed to get up, I walked to the kitchen, turned on the faucet to full blast and stuck my mouth under it, swallowing icy water until I thought I might choke. And still, I kept gulping.

Only when I raised my head did I see Pauline standing by the fridge, about to bite into a sandwich.

“Bad day?” she asked. I knew she didn’t expect an answer. We both knew there were no good days here. But I was learning some days were darker than others, dark enough to make you forget what the light looked like, its warmth on your skin.


Modern horror movies are profoundly influenced by surrealism. Hitchcock, for example, hired Dali to help design a dream sequence in his film Spellbound, scenes leaking with slashed eyeballs, rigged card games, and a cliffside morphing into a menacing face.

Without surrealism, art critic and writer Jonathon Jones argues, we wouldn’t have “that inexplicable vein of cinema in which the physical world is violent, erotic.” But to him, the essence of horror is not in flesh-eating monsters or the murderer with the bloody knife. It lies in the tension between those things and the oblivious protagonists, blithely going about their days. The best horror, in other words, is where the mundane meets the monstrous. And this collision disorients, altering our reality—maybe momentarily, maybe forever.


In my second month in Antakya, I spent most of my days toggling between BBC, Al Jazeera, Kanal D, back to BBC, a quick visit to CNN, Al Jazeera again. We’d realized these networks sometimes knew of planned attacks in Idlib before our team did, giving us a chance to warn them away before it was too late.

Sifting through news reports was the most useful thing to do in theory, and the most painful to carry out in reality. Imagine: day after day, looking at children’s faces twisted in fear, bodies unconscious in hospital beds, anonymous heads wrapped in bloody bandages. Other times, it was live footage of tanks rolling through deserted streets, the buildings Swiss-cheesed with bullet holes. Once in while, a picture of a family huddled in some dark corner appeared, their few belongings scattered around them—blankets, a yellow duck toy, a Quran.

I’d seen some variation of these images on the news throughout my life—but this hit differently, a fist to the throat. After just a month, I could understand some of the Arabic that Syrians used in interviews. Layl. Night. Qatala. Killed. Allah yusaeiduna. God help us. I came to recognize the look they wore, a terror that was at once heightened and dulled from years of carnage.

And on a map taped to one of the purple walls, I could pick out the towns under attack—Al-Fu'ah, Kafriya, Saraqib—names that had meant nothing to me just weeks ago. But now, I walked around with those names spilling from my tongue, hoping they still pointed to a place.

At night, I heard sounds from that other world. It happened gradually. One night, the metallic pings of gunfire. Another night, a mortar crashing through a roof. I knew it was bad when I heard helicopter wings chopping the air, just moments before the rockets dropped. Whooshh.

In the daytime, with sunlight filtering through lace-edged curtains, I could rationalize: Antakya was too far for the noise to travel. My brain was simply recreating the sounds from news footage. But in the dark, I lay very still, the sheets soaked with sweat. I was paralyzed, not by the idea of war coming closer—if that happened, I could run or hide or fight, do something. No, what frightened me was knowing that the horrors I was imagining, and worse, were happening just an hour away. Rubble burying, bombs incinerating. Everywhere, endings. And there was nothing I could do about it.

I was far from war, physically. But still, it wormed into my consciousness, refusing to be brushed away into the realm of things abstract and distant and therefore ignorable.


Andre Breton, widely regarded as the founder of surrealism as a cultural movement, quotes French poet Pierre Reverdy: “The more the relationship between . . . juxtaposed realities is distant and true, the stronger the image will be—the greater its emotional power and poetic reality.” The greater the poetic reality, the closer it feels—and maybe is—to truth.


In the camps, our teams in Syria sought out children, easily lured by the glitter and unfamiliar shapes of shazaya. Shrapnel. They played a game with the kids: whoever could pick out the most objects in pictures that were not safe to play with got damak, Turkish chocolate studded with pistachios.

I bought those chocolates. I’d volunteered to do it. Making kids happy would make me happy, I’d thought. Obviously saving their lives should make a person happy—shouldn’t it?

But at the supermarket, standing before stacks of candy, trying to decide which one was tempting enough to stand between a child’s life and early death, my brain melted.

I couldn’t face it. At the store, I drifted away from my body. That’s the only way I know to say it. From a few feet away, I watched someone who looked like me carefully stack the bars of damak in her basket. I watched her smile at the cashier eyeing her strangely, this customer buying five pounds of chocolate and nothing else. I trailed a few steps behind as she walked home, calling Hakan, the fixer who smuggled things across the border, crossing ruined fields of cucumber and olive groves by moonlight, his bag heavy with damak and ball point pens.

Back at the apartment, my doppelganger smoothed her fingers across the chocolate, their wrappers smooth and cool to the touch. I watched her look around to make sure her housemates weren’t watching before grabbing a bar and rushing to my room, bolting the door behind her. Then, I stared as she devoured the whole king size bar—nearly a pound—in a single sitting, not tasting any of it.

Later, if not for my churning guts and the wrapper sitting guiltily in the garbage can, I would not know what she’d done.


The old thought experiment: if a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? What about the inverse: what if you hear the tree fall but you’re not in the forest? What if you see loss of life, clearly and viscerally, but death is nowhere close to you?

“I believe in the future resolution of these two states, dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality,writes André Breton. The cultural movement emerging in the aftermath of World War I was built on Breton’s training in psychiatry, including his work with shell-shocked soldiers in a neurological hospital. To him, distinguishing the “real” from the imagined or misremembered was both impossible and unnecessary. Our imaginings—no matter how bizarre or implausible—were as much a part of our selves and the world as what our brains categorized as “real.”

Breton would be adamant that the tree falling made a sound, regardless of who did or did not witness it. He’d argue, too, that death at a distance was as real as death close up. Not in usual terms, but absolute terms—surreal terms. That is to say, imagined events are rendered real by our reaction to them, whether that reaction is just a sigh, a flinch, or something more permanent: an altering of our neural pathways, a shift in our body’s rhythms. A break in how we experience the world.


On Sundays, I Skyped with S. So I wouldn’t be overheard, I went to a café in the old town known for its kunefe, a local dessert made from semolina and sweet cheese, warm and heavy enough to make me drowsy. S’s face, when it appeared on my laptop, jolted me awake. As the war took up more space in my mind, thoughts of him got pushed out. Until, in the middle of the night, listening for barrel bombs or god-knows-what-else, I’d remember him, the calluses on his hand or the curve of his neck, and just for a moment, I’d relax. My jaw unclenched, my shoulders melted away from my ears. Sometimes, I wondered if I’d made him up, a sweet distraction for my darkest moments. But on Saturdays, there he was on my screen, his beard longer than last time, his hair falling into his eyes.

With him, I tried to keep it light, upbeat. “What you do for work is amazing,” he’d said when we first met. “Not many people would do that.” And then he’d kissed me.

Would he still kiss me if he knew I was walking around half-alive, flinching away from my work, sometimes departing my body? I didn’t think so.

Instead, I told S about my favourite person here, Jwan, the finance assistant. He and his mother had crossed over from Syria two years ago. He hated Turkey, hated the language and the cramped apartment he and his mother shared with a Turkish family. He came to our place every few days, mostly to escape his packed home, to struggle with me through budgets and procurement orders.

“What should I put as the ‘reason for expense’ for your phone bill?” he asked once, smirking. “Um, you have to coordinate the teams? Like, that’s literally your job?”

We laughed, rolling our eyes. This bureaucratic administrative crap had no place in a war zone, we huffed. But secretly, I enjoyed these tasks. They were the only times I felt to be real. In our ugly purple living room, filling out spreadsheets and giggling with Jwan, life felt like something I could hold in my palm.

Another time, I told S how most nights, Matej, Pauline, and I watched The Penguins of Madagascar, a cartoon about four penguins carrying out bizarre commando missions to protect their home in the Central Park Zoo. Over three seasons, they battled a lemur with a foot fetish, a stoned alligator, a shamanic baboon—the list went on. We laughed so hard at Penguins that we cried, snot streaking our faces. It was such a release—maybe because it was the only one we had. The three of us never talked about our feelings—or anything, really, aside from work. I was glad for our silences, the places we didn’t go. I was afraid I’d either scream primally or sob hysterically if we ever discussed how it really felt to work and eat and sleep and shit in this garish apartment, far from everyone we loved, acting as glorified personal assistants to the people doing the real work on the ground, just an hour—an impossible hour—away, in one of the most brutal conflicts of the century.

No, we couldn’t talk about those things. So, instead, we watched Penguins.

When S spoke, I watched his eyebrows, remembering how they felt under my fingers, and his teeth, white and slightly turned out like a chipmunk. I had to be careful with how much of him I took in. It was too easy to want his life, plump with ease and impulse. I wanted to stop for hot jalebi on the way home for work. I wanted to go to dinner at Mumbai’s hottest new restaurant. I wanted to take the train across fields of rice and sugarcane. I wanted to be with him, doing those things together.

But I couldn’t. I was here, doing the job I’d always dreamed of, even if it was also undoing me.

After our Skypes, I meandered back to the apartment, trying to hold onto the memory of S’s face, his baritone still reverberating in my chest. Suddenly, the cobbled streets of the old town looked romantic. Even the Orontes river bisecting the city, dry and foul-smelling, appeared alluring in its promise to return.

But joy couldn’t survive back at the apartment, where the hideous purple walls, the latest news of attacks and my morbid spreadsheet all awaited. As usual, when I entered, Matej and Pauline didn’t look up. I sank into a chair, fighting the urge to bury my head in my hands.

What kind of life was this, I wondered? I worried relentlessly for my Syrian team, none of whom I’d met but all of whom I spoke to everyday, who lived close by and forever out of reach. The only two people physically in my life were Matej and Pauline, around whom I spent all my waking hours—but how much did I know of them, and they of me? They knew nothing of S or my life before Antakya. They didn’t know my mother’s name or that my father left us when I was in high school. They didn’t know my favourite smell was sandalwood or my favourite bird, the kingfisher. I didn’t know anything about their lives or families. We never hugged. I hadn’t touched another person in two months. It must have been even longer for them.

Our real selves, it seemed, were reserved for our “real” lives—wherever those were.


By the end of my second month, I was constantly imagining the staff I was closest to—Hamade, Jwan, Nivin—dying. Not just dying, but dying violently. Shot down in Idlib’s streets or bombed in their homes or obliterated by ERW or, or, or . . . No one was safe, no matter how much they knew or how careful they were. My hands were always cold. Soon, I stopped sleeping altogether. All night long, I looked at Barbie and she looked back.

Every night, as the sky lightened to dawn, I hurtled between confusion—how could I be haunted by things I’d never experienced?—and shame—was I appropriating others’ tragedies, taking their grief for myself? It was not normal, I thought. I was not normal. Matej and Pauline seemed fine. Even the Syrians had adapted. As journalist Rania Abouzeid writes, “The shelling, once unpredictable, was now as regimented as a television viewing guide. Syrians called it ‘the nightly schedule.’ It began a little after 11:30 p.m. . . . A second, then a third strike, each louder and closer, amplified in a night black because of the lack of electricity and otherwise nearly silent in a neighbourhood emptied of families.”

Hamade often told us the fighting had its own logic, a rhythm invisible to outsiders. So, I kept hoping I’d adapt, become used to the cadence of attacks I wasn’t directly exposed to, but that still shaped my days and nights. I just had to wait, be patient. Let time normalize the unthinkable.


The unthinkable: Hamade casually announcing a hospital being wiped off the earth. Turkish chocolate and (un)dead kids. Turkish coffee in hand and satellite imagery of chemical attacks on screen. Soft tapping of keyboards during the day and detonations rippling through the nights.

Forty-five kilometers close, a world away.


In S’s latest email, he’d signed off with “love.” I’d stared at the screen, my fists curling with joy. A minute later, an email arrived from Hamade. Nivin, one of the Syrian staff, wouldn’t be working that day, he wrote. The building next to hers had been barrel bombed last night. She and her family hadn’t been harmed, Alhamdulillah, but the explosion—the incredible noise and quaking earth and the sheer terror—had caused her to bleed. She was seven months pregnant.

I sat, numb and unmoving for I’m not sure how long—maybe five minutes, maybe fifteen. When I clicked back to S’s email, I stared again at the word “love.” Now, I felt nothing, not even a basic recognition. I felt like I was reading a language I didn’t know.


One day, leaving the old town, I saw children lying motionless on the cobblestone. A moment later, they disappeared. On the way back, I passed a car and it exploded. I blinked, and there it was, intact.

Back within the purple walls, I imagined a mortar crashing through the ceiling. I shut my eyes and prayed for respite. 


On surrealist images, Breton quoted Baudelaire, “Man does not evoke them; rather they ‘come to him spontaneously, despotically. He cannot chase them away; for the will is powerless now and no longer controls the faculties.’” To Breton, this was high art, a pure production of the subconscious bypassing the rational mind’s tendency to filter and dilute. But the same helplessness over images that one does not wish to see—the tyrannical or “despotic” way they appear—also characterizes acute PTSD.

Psychologists agree that repeated exposure to trauma stories, even if that exposure is only second-hand, leads to a “disrupted world view,” one wherein the world no longer appears benign. Now, when I saw people from or on their way to Syria—a woman in full niqab, children spilling out of the Arabic-Turkish language school, men with long beards—I sped up. Not because I was afraid of them but because I was starting to grasp that, in addition to the physical distance imposed by law, my sanity hinged on maintaining a mental separation from Syria. Before, I’d wanted to get as close as possible—or at least that’s what I’d told myself: a “good” aid worker would try to be as close to crisis as she could, all the better to help alleviate it. Now, though I was physically removed from tragedy, I suffered like I was at ground zero.

“At any given moment we have only a distinct notion of [separate] realities, the coordination of which is a question of will,” writes Breton. I no longer willed to hold all these different realities in my mind. Now, I just wanted to be in the future, with S.


When I didn’t extend my contract, Matej was furious. “What are you going to do that’s more important?” he yelled. Later, he apologized, but I told him it wasn’t necessary. I had asked myself the same question, with no answer.

The Syrians were more understanding. “Your parents will be happy to see you,” Hamade said. He was shorter than I’d expected and his eyes were blue, not brown as I’d imagined. He’d crossed the day before I left to pick up the colour printer that headquarters, after almost three months of my pestering, finally approved. Now, the Syrians could print their own materials instead of having them smuggled from Antakya. I was glad to see Hamade in person, to situate all of him, beyond just his steady voice, in my world. But some distances remained. I did not tell him, for example, that I was leaving not to see my family but to meet a man I’d only known for a few weeks in “real” life.

In the taxi to the airport, my phone pinged with Facebook notifications. Friend requests from the Syrians. I accepted them immediately, clicking hungrily through their photos. A close-up of someone’s grandmother biting into an apricot, its juices running down her chin. Jwan standing in an olive grove, hands in his pockets, looking vaguely uncomfortable. (“City boy!” I thought, smiling.) Here was Nivin’s newborn, wrinkled pink. And Hamade standing on a rooftop, collapsed roofs behind him and his two young daughters, porcelain-skinned and smiling beside him.

Relief came first, then shame. The Syrians’ realities—at least, as represented on Facebook—were vastly more varied than I’d pictured. Until then, some part of me had felt morally obligated to imagine their lives under war, shellings and dead children and all, even when those images and sounds went rogue, appearing randomly, not just when I allowed them in. I’d become trapped in the purest surreality as Breton defined it: “psychic automatism,” my imagination sputtering haphazardly, in every direction. All just to get it wrong anyway.


Experts agree the best solution to secondary trauma is minimizing exposure. In other words, limiting work hours, leaving your work at work. Obviously, living in our office, every waking hour consumed by the war, I never stood a chance.

Now, I wonder why Matej and Pauline weren’t similarly affected. Some experts believe prior trauma, especially in childhood, heightens the risk of secondary trauma later in life. Now, I can see that I’d been burned out from Mali even before getting to Antakya. And growing up, I’d had a father who was violent, always at war with us, himself, the world. Maybe that history primed me in ways that Matej and Pauline weren’t. Or maybe they were affected and just hid it, the way we were always hiding our selves from each other. I’d never know. After I left, we didn’t stay in touch. I felt too guilty for leaving to reach out and they were probably too busy, too focused, too dedicated to their work to bother. They were the type of “good” humanitarian I was not: professional in contexts where professionalism seemed almost inhumane.

I still imagine them now, slaving away within those purple walls.


It would be months before my nightmares abated, before I could talk about Syria or watch news from the Middle East without shrinking. Seeing S again helped.

We met in Geneva. One part bliss: S in the flesh, his hands, his mouth. Geneva in summer, the sunset blush of Lac Leman. But another part was agony: I saw the Alps and thought of the Nur Mountains, which is to say, I thought of death. S and I ate Swiss chocolate, dark and bitter, but all I could think of was milky-sweet damak, which is to say, all I could think of was death.

In Antakya, I’d tried so hard to push against the horror creeping into my consciousness. But this time, the sensations weren’t as unbearable, maybe because I actually allowed myself to feel them. Guilty, exhausted, ruined, and glad to be there, with S. A juxtaposition, I was learning, was not always a contradiction.

But after three weeks, S had to return to India. Perhaps I could go with him, I ventured. I had no job lined up and enough savings to last me at least a half year. He touched my face and smiled. Then, gently, he told me he didn’t think that was a good idea. And just like that, it was over.


“The absolute rationalism that is still in vogue allows us to consider only facts relating directly to our experience,” Breton wrote, nearly 100 years ago. This still rings true today. If that’s the case, then Antakya was the closest I came to absolute irrationalism, months coloured by events and people outside my physical reach.

As time went by, I expected my memories of those months, already swaddled in a sort of surreal gauze, to fade. But, instead, the opposite has happened: six years later, my memories of that time have sharpened, skin and skies and walls intensifying into technicolor. Across the years and continents, I can feel the weight of my boredom, my horror, my laughter in Antakya. I can feel the tenderness I was growing for S, its precarity and promise.

In fact, I feel closer to all those things now than when I experienced them. A juxtaposition is not a contradiction; the surreal can be truer than reality.

Born in India and raised in Canada, Raksha Vasudevan is a writer, economist and former aid worker. Her work appears in Harper's Bazaar, Guernica, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and more. She lives in Denver, where she's writing a memoir about family and the long shadow of colonialism.