The Syrian regime is systematically targeting hospitals
by NORMA COSTELLO
The last OB/GYN in besieged East Aleppo was forced to work underground after her hospital was targeted by air strikes.
“They bombed our hospital two times in three days,” Dr. Farida told Al Jazeera from her ad hoc hospital in a secret location. “Now we are working in a basement and somehow it’s safe. Unless they hit us with bunker-busters — those bombs can destroy anything.”
One of only 28 medics still working in Aleppo, Farida is part of a small community that claims it is being deliberately targeted for helping civilians in rebel-held areas. Farida said the targeting of medical facilities has made locals afraid to access life saving treatment.
“People know it’s a basement, but they are afraid to come here because they know any health facility is deliberately targeted by the regime. For women, they are afraid to come — but they don’t have any other option. When they don’t have a car or fuel to come here, they have to give birth at home. Women are bleeding at home and babies are born dehydrated without oxygen.”
On the other side of the world in Chicago, Syrian doctor Zaher Sahloul remains on standby. Sahloul is part of a network of foreign doctors offering support to their counterparts in Syria via the Whatsapp and Viber messaging services. He said foreign doctors are increasingly of little use to those in the basements.
“We operate on the mindset that they have basic things we take for granted,” Sahloul said. “The reality is, they don’t have 90 percent of the things we think they have. They know better what they have and what they can do with it. These people are facing decisions we will never face in our lives. If you have 10 patients dying, who will you see first? Do you use spoiled gauze and dirty tubes at the risk of infection? It’s Hell for them.”
For several weeks, medical supplies have made their way into besieged neighborhoods, but sporadic electricity means the supplies cannot be stored properly. Overwhelmed with causalities and running low on supplies, Farida and her colleagues make difficult choices every minute.
“We have some supplies because we were expecting this siege, but how long will they last?” Farida explained. “Well, no one knows. Sometimes we use local anesthetic in cases where we would have used general. We are running out of sterilized gauze and cotton pads. If the massacres continue those supplies could run out in the next week or two.”
More than 30 separate air raids have struck East Aleppo’s hospitals since the current siege started in July 2016. Doctors Without Borders, which supports medical facilities in East Aleppo, described the recent attack on a children’s hospital as a “dark day.”
As winter approaches, those working in the basements do so without any heating. Even blankets are in short supply.
“All medical work is concentrated in one small place now,” Sahloul said. “It’s chaos. People are dying for simple reasons. Doctors are forced to open bellies in emergency room floors. Surgeons are sleeping for one hour, they are living and eating in the operating room.
“Recently a child died because there wasn’t enough blood to perform a blood transfusion. The doctor did everything they could, but he died. His father lost his wife and his son. That child could easily have been saved. That boy didn’t need to die.”
Civilians in East Aleppo are now afraid to have medical facilities near their homes. Locals protested the reopening of a damaged hospital, fearing it will attract air strikes by the Syrian regime and its allies.
In a region where medical facilities are attacked every 17 hours, many are afraid to access vital treatment. A diesel shortage means those who do dare to seek medical help face a perilous journey on bicycles and wagons pulled by donkeys. Craters in the road make traveling by night extremely dangerous.
Arriving at the besieged hospitals, many patients discover the doctors lack medicine to treat chronic conditions.
For doctors such as Farida, the future is bleak. With no heating, limited anesthetic and a mere two-week supply of gauze, every day means more desperate improvisations. The safety of her new basement is illusory. A bunker-buster bomb could strike it at any moment.
“They kill us with every weapon you can imagine exists in this world,” Farida said. “Rockets, bunker-busters … maybe they will test their nuclear weapons on Aleppo. Women and children are dying. My relatives are dying. My house is destroyed. Imagine Hell? Well, it’s Aleppo and it’s right now.”