A Syrian doctor's work amid Aleppo's humanitarian crisis: interview

Syria's second city of Aleppo is under siege, with Russian and Syrian airpower pounding myriad targets, including hospitals. Dr. Zaher Sahloul of ARCS, last in Aleppo in July, shared his experience with the Monitor.

Courtesy of D5 Coalition
Dr. Zaher Sahloul, founder and chairman of the American Relief Coalition in Syria, and a critical care specialist at Christ Advocate Medical Center in Chicago, speaks in an interview on May 6, 2015.

For 15 years, Zaher Sahloul has been involved with the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), at one point as its president. Four years ago, he founded – and remains chairman of – the American Relief Coalition for Syria (ARCS), which brings together 13 organizations, including SAMS, working to assist Syria in arenas as diverse as humanitarian assistance, food aid, non-food aid, winterization, protection, and education.

Originally from the Syrian city of Homs, where his parents still live, Dr. Sahloul attended medical school in Damascus in 1988, and is now a critical care specialist based in Chicago. In the more than five years since his native country descended into civil war, he has served in numerous medical missions to the region, working with governments to boost cross-border aid, as well as helping train the local Syrian medical communities.

Attending the third annual symposium of SAMS in Boston, he spoke with The Christian Science Monitor about his views as the war drags on, the conflict having claimed the lives of more than 400,000 people, according to the United Nations special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura.

What is the situation in Aleppo?

When I was last there at the end of June, with two other physicians from Chicago, it was right before the road to Aleppo was completely blocked. At the time, the city was in a state of semi-siege. As the driver prepared to take us on the one road that was still open – Castello Road – he said, ‘You have to say your final prayer, because you might not make it.’

The hospital I spent most of my time in is the only trauma hospital in Aleppo, dealing mostly with victims of barrel bombs.

One patient, a 25-year-old called Fatima, was in her third month of pregnancy. Her husband, a tailor, had been working in his shop when he heard the first explosion. Then came the second.

This is the way the Syrian regime works, the double tap: helicopters deliver a barrel bomb, then a second one timed to coincide with the arrival of rescuers, or the White Helmets [a civilian search-and-rescue corps].

Rushing home, Fatima's husband was greeted by a third bomb. He passed out, and woke up in hospital. He and Fatima survived, as did their 4-year-old son, pulled from the rubble. Their two other children, along with the unborn child, did not. 

Every hospital I visited had been bombed. So, they are learning to move underground and build fortifications. Some are very nicely done, dug into the heart of the mountain, with ventilation and electricity. But even that doesn't provide much protection: They're just being hit with stronger missiles.

Abdalrhman Ismail/Reuters
People walk past damaged buses positioned atop a building as barricades in the rebel-held Bab al-Hadid neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria August 18, 2016. REUTERS/

What do people want?

I think people want to live. They want to support their families, for their children to go to school without being in danger, like anyone else.

They don’t have any other aspirations, frankly.

I ask some people the question, 'Why don’t you leave, why do you stay?' They reply, 'Where should we go?' They don’t want to be refugees or internally displaced.

People in eastern Aleppo definitely look at the regime and Russia as an enemy. These are the entities bombing them and their schools. They look at the international community with cynicism. They're very angry at America’s policy, seeing people being slaughtered in Syria for the past five years without challenging Assad’s regime, the Iranians, or the Russians.

Often they feel they’re pushed into the lap of extremism through our [the West's] apathy.

Do you feel the international community will become inured to the situation in Syria?

It will not be forgotten because this is not the Congo or Darfur or somewhere in Latin America; this is affecting us. So, even if you don’t care on a humanitarian level, you have to care about the effect on Europe and the US.

This is the worst humanitarian crisis in our lifetime.

It's important that this administration does everything it can to stop the genocide that’s happening in Syria. And it is genocide.

Our politicians have said ‘never again’ after the Bosnian war, after the Rwandan war, after the Holocaust.… If we let this unfold without challenging the culprits, we will regret it.

What might the future look like?

Any formula that includes Assad in the picture is a recipe for failure. He has a lot of blood on his hands; he failed as a leader at a critical test.

Yet if there was an election in Syria today, 99 percent of Syrians would vote for Assad. Because they have to.

I voted twice for his father, and he was just as brutal as his son. It’s not an anonymous ballot. There’s a photo and two boxes - yes or no. They watch you. They pricked my finger and made me cast my vote in blood.

But we are working to lay the groundwork for what comes next. We had a conference last March in Doha about post-crisis, about healthcare rebuilding. This way we can also bring hope to Syrians and the Syrian diaspora that there will be a day after.

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