Following the release of an Amnesty International report accusing Bashar al-Assad’s government of war crimes in Aleppo, the city’s few remaining doctors are appealing for more assistance to treat hundreds of wounded people.
The northern city has witnessed some of the most gruesome deaths and the worst destruction of the conflict. The government has systemically attacked the city’s civilian areas, notably with barrel bombs – filled with explosives and shrapnel and designed to kill and maim as many people as possible – leading Amnesty earlier this month to accuse the Assad government of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity in the commercial capital.
Notably, the government has repeatedly targeted field hospitals in its aerial campaigns, not only in Aleppo, but in other cities such as Raqqa. Overall, the Syrian Network for Human Rights has documented the destruction of 200 hospitals across the country by the government since July 2013.
Syria Deeply spoke exclusively with one of the few remaining doctors in Aleppo. Dr. Abo-Obaida al-Halabi, 34, used to work in al-Sakhour medical center in the eastern opposition-held side of the city, which was completely destroyed by barrel bombs in late April. Many of the doctors, nurses and other staff were wounded in the attacks.
Syria Deeply: What is the current situation at field hospitals in opposition-controlled areas?
Dr. al-Halabi: In the free part of Aleppo, there are no hospitals in the typical meaning of the word. They’re merely simple medical centers working 24 hours a day. We provide free medical services for patients in addition to free medicine if it’s available.
Overall, there are five medical centers in Aleppo; two of them are in the western areas, and the other three are in the eastern parts. Before the shelling campaign, we were at ease in our work and we were ready to receive most of the cases that came to us, but with all the bombing and constant shelling it became very difficult to work.
As for the number of doctors, it’s very limited. We don’t have doctors in all the specialties, and they’re not always around because they constantly move between hospitals in the city and hospitals in the countryside, or between hospitals in the city itself. At al-Sakhour medical center there were five doctors, an orthopedic surgeon, a urologist and three internists, most of whom had only recently graduated, so they lacked experience in dealing with critical cases. This shortage of doctors put a lot of pressure on the nurses and the volunteers.
Syria Deeply: Are the field hospitals in Aleppo capable of treating all the injured from the shelling?
Dr. al-Halabi: In the part under opposition control there are over 800,000 people who can’t afford to leave the area, and the number of hospitals in comparison to the number of people is very limited. Most of the time the medical staff are unable to deal with critical paramedical situations.
When we receive a great number of injuries, we’re forced to deal with the most serious cases first and we make the others with simpler injuries wait. We get cursed at and called names. When we have a very serious case that requires surgery we immediately send them in an ambulance to Turkey, which takes about 45 minutes. One of the injured had a fractured skull, which led to internal bleeding. If we’d had the required equipment and ability we could have stopped the bleeding, but we had to send him to one of the Turkish hospitals at night; it took longer to get him there because of how dangerous the road was, all of which led to the man’s death.
Syria Deeply: How have these field hospitals in Aleppo been able to survive?
Dr. al-Halabi: Unfortunately, we rely on funds to survive. The funding mechanism is through Syrian people outside Syria and some organizations such as the Free Medical Council and Doctors Without Borders, and through doctors across the continents, but the amount of money we receive is very little. I don’t have an approximate number, but I know it’s barely enough to pay for the staff’s salaries, in addition to the fuel required to activate the medical centers due to the constant absence of electricity. We need a lot of medical equipment that is already very expensive and which no one can afford, such as an MRI machine. Only traditional paramedical medicines come to us, and that’s not enough.
Syria Deeply: Why did you decide to stay in Aleppo, and have you thought about leaving for a safer place?
Dr. al-Halabi: I’ve decided to stay in Aleppo because most of the doctors have gone – who’s left for the patients and the injured? I never thought of leaving this place except to visit my parents, who live in Turkey. I visit them once every two months or so for two days.