Ten Times Worse Than Hell: A Syrian Doctor on the Humanitarian Catastrophe in Aleppo

The New York Times reports this marks the first time since World War II that a foreign military has operated from a base on Iranian soil. The move comes as fighting has intensified around Aleppo, Syria’s largest city. Earlier this month, rebels fighting the Syrian government began a new offensive to break an ongoing government-backed siege of the city. The rebels have been led in part by an offshoot of the Nusra Front, which up until last month had been aligned with al-Qaeda. The International Committee of the Red Cross has described the fight for Aleppo as "beyond doubt one of the most devastating urban conflicts in modern times." The United Nations is warning of a dire humanitarian crisis as millions are left without water or electricity. For more on the humanitarian and medical crisis in Syria, we speak with Dr. Zaher Sahloul, founder of the American Relief Coalition for Syria and senior adviser and former president of the Syrian American Medical Society. He has visited Aleppo five times since the war began.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: In the latest escalation of the war in Syria, Russia has begun launching airstrikes from Iranian air bases—an air base. The New York Times reports this marks the first time since World War II that a foreign military has operated from a base on Iranian soil. The move comes as fighting has intensified around Aleppo, Syria’s largest city. Earlier this month, rebels fighting the Syrian government began a new offensive to break an ongoing government-backed siege of the city. The rebels have been led in part by an offshoot of the Nusra Front, which, up until last month, had been aligned with al-Qaeda. The International Committee of the Red Cross has described the fighting for Aleppo as, quote, "beyond doubt one of the most devastating urban conflicts in modern times." The United Nations is warning of a dire humanitarian crisis, as millions are left without water or electricity. This is U.N. spokeswoman Alessandra Vellucci.

ALESSANDRA VELLUCCI: The commission is gravely concerned for the safety of civilians, including a reported 100,000 children living in eastern Aleppo city, where violence has reached new heights in recent weeks as asymmetric warfare intensifies over control of armed group-held neighborhoods and their principal remaining supply lines.

AMY GOODMAN: On Tuesday, a British aid worker named Tauqir Sharif described the dire situation in Aleppo in this video he posted online.

TAUQIR SHARIF: I’ve just had to watch a woman lose three of her children, who were killed—OK?—and crying over their dead bodies. Thirty people just got killed not far from here in place called Shaar [inaudible]. We were just there yesterday. In a marketplace, 30 people just got killed. So, we’ve had so many dead bodies. You can hear what’s going on here. So, my dear brothers and sisters, please keep us in your duas. We need to get the message out right now. Hospitals are being targeted. People are being killed. OK? And war crimes are being committed. We need a no-fly zone in Syria. We need everybody to start voting for a no-fly zone. This is a massacre going on. This is a genocide.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Last week, 15 of the last 35 doctors in rebel-held eastern Aleppo wrote a letter to President Obama calling for help in getting humanitarian aid to 300,000 civilians trapped in the area and an end to Syrian and Russian bombardment of the besieged city. The letter said that there is an attack on medical facilities every 17 hours, and doctors were being forced to decide who will live and who will die.

AMY GOODMAN: According to the humanitarian group Physicians for Human Rights, there have been more than 370 attacks on 265 medical facilities during the five-year conflict, as well as the deaths of 750 medical personnel. Overall, the death toll in the five-year Syrian conflict has reached close to half a million people. The ongoing war has displaced about half the prewar population, with more than 6 million Syrians displaced inside Syria and nearly 5 million Syrian refugees outside Syria’s borders. To find about about more the humanitarian and medical crisis in Syria, we’re joined by Dr. Zaher Sahloul, founder of the American Relief Coalition for Syria and senior adviser and former president of the Syrian American Medical Society. He’s visited Aleppo five times since the war began. Last week, he addressed the U.N. Security Council on the humanitarian crisis in Syria. He was a classmate of Bashar al-Assad in medical school. Dr. Sahloul is a critical care specialist in Chicago. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Doctor.

DR. ZAHER SAHLOUL: Thank you for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: When you heard about the latest attack, even since you’ve just returned from Aleppo, Russia attacking from Iran, your thoughts? And then describe Aleppo to us.

DR. ZAHER SAHLOUL: I mean, my thoughts and my colleagues’ thoughts from Aleppo, which I keep contacts every minute with them, is the same, that everyone is bombing Syrians, and no one cares about ending the crisis. So it looks like the Russians are having fun bombing Syria from different parts, now added Iran to this, Iran bases. The coalition are bombing parts of Syria. They are bombing ISIS and also civilians. The Assad regime is bombing, you know, cities and historic sites and civilians, with barrel bombings and all kind of weapons. The Iranians are bombing Syrians. So everyone is bombing Syrians. And this is really the story that is not being told in the media. I mean, when people know about Syria or hear about Syria, they think it’s something related to ISIS or that it’s something that is complicated. But what’s happening, that civilians are suffering every day. Children are being mutilated and killed with barrel bombs and air missile bombs. Hospitals are targeted. Schools are targeted. Fruit markets are targeted. And historic sites, like the Old City of Aleppo, are being destroyed. So this is the tragedy that we are living in. We had half a million people killed in Syria so far, half of the population displaced. And so far, we don’t have a light at the end of the tunnel.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And in terms—you mentioned barrel bombs. What exactly are those, and who is dropping them?

DR. ZAHER SAHLOUL: Barrel bombs are an invention of the Syrian regime. It’s a very cheap way to manufacture weapons of mass destruction. I’ve seen it, in my eyes, and the victims also of barrel bombs in my several missions to Syria, especially to the city of Aleppo. So these are barrels that—big barrels stuffed with TNT, half a ton of TNT, and shrapnels, metal shrapnels. And they come in all kind of sizes and shapes. And they’re thrown from helicopters on urban areas, on hospitals, on blocks, on civilian neighborhoods, on fruit markets, on schools. And it can cause a lot of destruction. I’ve seen them. I took pictures of the victims. I took pictures of the buildings that have been destroyed with barrel bombs. It’s a weapon of mass destruction. It’s a dumb bomb; it’s not a smart bomb. And it can kill a lot of people. And the only thing I’ve seen—you know, when you go to Aleppo, and this is something that, you know, if you go there—and you will see children pointing to the sky, and then you see this dot, which is the helicopter, and you hear the sound, the chop-chop-chop of the helicopter. And then this dot will throw another dot, which is the barrel, and then you have 30 to 40 seconds to run and hide from the barrel, or you can pray, because you don’t know where this barrel will hit. And it’s happening day after day for the past three years. It caused a lot of displacement. Let’s not forget that 2 million of the people of Aleppo are displaced, either inside Syria or became refugees, because of the barrel bombing. And it’s done by the Assad regime, of course. No one else has helicopters.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And how are the medical facilities and hospitals able to function on a day-to-day basis, if you could talk about that? I mean, what’s the relationship between the various rebel groups and the hospitals? Do they interfere with your work? And is the government paying for the salaries of these doctors? Or—talk about the system, how it’s operating.

DR. ZAHER SAHLOUL: So, right now what we have in Syria is we have different areas in Syria that are out of the control of the government. These are areas that are controlled by the different rebel factions. And also, of course, you have areas in Syria that are controlled by the Kurdish troops and areas in Syria that are controlled by ISIS. But we operate mostly in rebel-controlled areas, because there are million of people who are in need for medical and humanitarian aid in these areas, and the United Nations are unable to reach them from Damascus, from government-controlled areas. And we reach them from Turkey, from Jordan. And you have hospitals that already established in cities like Aleppo and Idlib and Marat al-Numaan and Saraqib and Hama and other places, Daraa. And these hospitals need support. The government do not pay salaries. I mean, this is false. They don’t pay salaries for areas that are outside of their control. So doctors and nurses depend on NGOs to support them, pay for their salaries. And many of these hospitals have been targeted multiple times. It looks like there is systematic targeting by the Syrian government, by the Russians lately, to hospitals, because these hospitals treat everyone, of course, including the people who are injured by the fighting and snipers and the shelling. But what I’ve seen in Aleppo is mostly civilians who are the victims of barrel bombings and shelling. I’ve seen children. I mean, I’ve seen, in the last mission, a child, Ahmad, his name, is five years old. He was a victim of barrel bombing. He has a spinal cord injury. He had a lung contusion. He was on life support. And during my stay, he was between life and death. Unfortunately, one day after I left, he died. He had cardiac arrest. I’ve seen a woman, Fatima, 25 years old, who was pregnant in her third month. Two barrels fell on her house. Her older son, Abdo, nine years old, was killed; youngest daughter, Eilaf, was killed. And she was brought to the hospital. She had internal bleeding. She was on life support. Her fetus, unborn child, was also dead. And she was survived only by one son, Mahmoud, seven years old son. I took his picture as he was in the emergency room. I tried to talk with him. He could not smile. He was very traumatized. And you see this over and over in Aleppo. The doctors over there are overwhelmed by the number of casualties and victims. They cannot do enough surgeries to save everyone, especially that they are also, themselves, targeted. One of the doctors told me that he was working for 72 hours and that he does not mind working for a long time, but the worst thing that—the worst nightmare that he figured, that if he goes to his home and discovered that his wife and children are also killed or the target of barrel bombing.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the children? You have said that they eat cat food and grass?

DR. ZAHER SAHLOUL: Well, I mean, that happened in Madaya. That happened in Darayya and other places in Syria under siege. Let’s not forget that, according to the United Nations, there are 850,000 people under siege, barbaric siege, by their own government in places like East al-Ghouta, Darayya, Madaya, Moadamiya, Alwa and Homs and other places in Syria. And in Aleppo now, which became under siege, eastern Aleppo, you have 300,000 people, among them 85,000 children, who are under siege. When I was there, I visited an orphanage, that is also underground for protection. And the children over there had a play for the doctors who are coming from Chicago. We were three physicians who came from Chicago. And during that play, they were talking about that they are scared that they will have to eat grass and tree leaves and cat meat, the same way that the children of Madaya have done. And as you know, in Madaya, we had children who died because of starvation. Unfortunately, their fear became a reality right now. We have this whole area, 300,000 people in eastern Aleppo, that is under complete siege.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, you called for the international community to provide some kind of safe passage for medical personnel and for victims of the bombing. How would that work in practice, given, as you mentioned, all the various groups that have different control of different areas of a city like Aleppo?

DR. ZAHER SAHLOUL: I mean, before the siege happened, this—that’s been going on for more than five weeks, the road to Turkey and to other places in Syria was open—the Castello Road. That’s the same road that I went to Aleppo through and left Aleppo through. And it’s right now blocked by the Syrian regime, and also assisted by the Russians and the Iranian paramilitias. So, if the United Nations oversaw this road, to keep it open, so we can have patients evacuated to Turkey. You have now all ICU beds in Aleppo are full with patients. And they are overwhelmed, so they need to evacuate patients. Children, who right now waiting for death, can be saved in Turkey and other places in Syria. And also let the humanitarian aid into Aleppo. What the Russians have suggested a couple weeks ago is to have a humanitarian corridor where families are allowed to go to western Aleppo. Western Aleppo is controlled by the government. Of course, no one trusts the Russians in Aleppo. No one trusts the government that is bombing their children and bombing their hospitals. And no one took the Russians on their offer. What we are asking for is a humanitarian corridor that—with the oversight of the United Nations.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to another video by British aid worker Tauqir Sharif in Aleppo. On Tuesday, he posted online this interview with Malika, the head nurse of the Children’s Hospital in Aleppo. MILAKA: [translated] It was Sunday, and the hospital was targeted from a plane. We got hit three times in a row. At around 1:20, we began moving all children from the second floor down to the first floor to save their lives. So the second strike was at 11:20, and again the hospital was hit. At this time, I was in the ICU, and we had a child who was two days old. His name was Ali Shibli. The room was hit, and I was injured. And, unfortunately, the air was also cut to Ali’s incubator. We tried a lot to resuscitate him, but in the end he sadly passed away. When we gave the baby back to his father, he was very upset, and he cried a lot. And so did I. We will stay here. We are not afraid. We will continue to work. If we leave these children, who will be here to help them? We will never leave our country. We will never stop our work.

AMY GOODMAN: That is the head nurse of the Children’s Hospital in Aleppo. Dr. Zaher Sahloul, you also have just returned from there. You were a medical school classmate of Bashar al-Assad? Do you know him? Have you spoken to him?

DR. ZAHER SAHLOUL: Yes, I mean, we were in medical school for six years. We graduated together in 1988. We took together the oath, the Hippocratic oath, that every physician should do no harm and should save lives, even the lives of their enemies. I met with him after he became a president, three times. And my organization, Syrian American Medical Society, we used to do medical conferences in Syria and do medical missions before the crisis, so I met with him as the president. And I remember one time I asked him—you know, I was naive. I came from the United States, and I told him, "Are you planning to do—to have democratic reform in Syria?" And he had this very long, triangulated answer; then he told me, "Syrians are not ready for democracy." And, you know, two months before the Arab Spring started in Syria, he was asked the same question by, I think, The Wall Street Journal, and he had the same answer. So—but, you know, when we talk with him, he’s very personable. I mean, he’s a humble person, especially when he was in medical school. No one expected him to be that brutal. No one expected him to oversee the destruction of half of his country and displacement of half of the population, killing half a million people. And, you know, this is a puzzle to us. But definitely, he has changed since he became—he took power in Syria.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And you’ve said that the crisis in Syria is contributing to the rise of the Islamic State. Could you explain how you see that happening?

DR. ZAHER SAHLOUL: I mean, definitely. The same pictures that you are showing and the same pictures that I’ve seen of children who are mutilated, who are killed, the women who are killed, the elderly who are killed—I mean, I’ve seen a disabled child who was deaf and mute, who was the victim of barrel bomb. I mentioned during my testimony to the Security Council the story of a child, Shahd, 10 years old, who was a victim of barrel bomb, and she was on life support, waiting for evacuation. The Security Council was not able to evacuate her, and she died, next day after my testimony. So these pictures and stories are circulated in the social media. They are used by ISIS and other extremist groups to recruit potential extremists, not only in Syria and the Middle East, but also in Europe and United States. There is a direct connection between what’s happening in Aleppo and what happened in Orlando, what happened in San Bernardino, what happened in Nice, what happened in Belgium. And unless we stop this crisis, unless we stop this gushing wound in Syria, we will continue to have terrorism and chaos. We are suffering because of the implication of the refugee crisis in Europe and throughout the world. One out of four refugees in the world—we have 20 million refugees. One out of four of them is from Syria. In order to stop this crisis, in order to stop the Islamophobia and the xenophobia that is associating this crisis, we have to stop people from being displaced in Syria. And people are fearful from barrel bomb. I’ve went into medical mission to Jordan and Lebanon and Greece. And when I talk with people, "Why are you leaving Syria? Why did you leave Syria?" they mention the barrel bomb. They mention the Russian attacks. They mention the Assad regime brutality. So, in order to stop the refugee crisis, we have to stop the Assad regime brutality and the Russian attacks.

AMY GOODMAN: You met with President Obama a few years ago. You’re from his city; you’re from Chicago. You gave him a letter. What did you ask of him?

DR. ZAHER SAHLOUL: I met with him in July 2013. There was a reception in the White House, and I had 30 seconds to talk with him. I delivered a letter on behalf of the Syrian American Medical Society and Syrian physicians, asking him to protect hospitals and protect civilians, the same way that we provided protection to Bosnia during the conflict. I told him that his legacy will be determined by what he does and what he does not do in Syria. He laughed, and he said that, "But my legacy will be determined by other things." I told him, "Mr. President, your legacy will be determined—the most important factor will be Syria." I still believe that Syria will determine his legacy. And the fact that President Obama did not follow on his pledges when he had these red lines and did not enforce it, I think this is what is causing the chaos and the extremism and the refugee crisis that we are facing right now.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Zaher Sahloul, thank you very much for being with us, founder of the American Relief Coalition for Syria, senior adviser and former president of the Syrian American Medical Society, has visited Aleppo five times since the war began. Last week, he addressed the U.N. Security Council on the humanitarian crisis in Syria. This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we go to Denver, Colorado, to look at Hillary Clinton’s transition team. If she is elected president, who would be in charge? Stay with us.


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