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In ravaged Aleppo, the fight for survival can begin before birth

August 18, 2016 at 6:20 PM EDT
In Aleppo, Syria's largest city and a stronghold of the Islamic State, warfare usually means an end to life, not its beginning. Recently, a woman nearing labor and walking to the hospital was seriously injured in a bombing. But after an emergency cesarean section and a long struggle to help the infant breathe, a cry was heard. Filmmaker Waad Al-Kateab documents this dual fight for life.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: But first, the fight for life in Aleppo, Syria, for a badly injured young woman and her unborn baby boy. This story comes from filmmaker Waad al-Kateab, who tracked the quiet and relentless efforts to save both mother and child. It is narrated by Matt Frei of Independent Television News. A warning, this story contains graphic images and may upset some viewers.

MATT FREI, Independent Television News: Everything you are about to see happened over 48 hours in July in Aleppo.

On the streets outside the sound and fury of war. the toll that day 45 dead, dozens wounded.

But inside the reverential concentration of a make shift theater.  The faint pulse on the operating table belongs to Mayissa. She is nine months pregnant and she was caught up in one of the bombings when she was on her way to hospital by foot close to labor.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Examine her hand and see if there’s shrapnel.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: There isn’t any

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Give me the scalpel.

In the explosion she broke her right arm and leg. What the doctors are concerned about is the shrapnel in her belly. Did it kill the baby?  They want to perform an emergency Caesarian. What you’re witnessing is the fight to save one new life in a city  that is more used to dealing with untimely death.

On the street the few living are pulled out of the rubble.  In the operating theater the fight for life appears victorious.  But there appears to be a problem.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Is his heart beating?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No. No, I’m sorry.

 MATT FREI: The doctors fight on. They are now in danger of losing both child and mother. But the doctors fight on. They’re now in danger of loosing both child and mother. The struggle to save new life is visceral, instinctive.

Perhaps because outside death is unavoidable.  Oblivious to events on the street the existential battle inside the theatre soldiers on.

The doctor clears the baby’s airwaves. The child hovers between life and death, much like Aleppo itself. Then the umbilical cord twiches. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Is the heart working?

 MATT FREI: Proof of life. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What’s his name?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He’s getting a rosy color now.

MATT FREI: And then the most elemental sound of all. More powerful for a brief moment than Aleppo’s daily cry of death.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He just needs oxygen.

UNIDENIFIED MALE: After 20 minutes of resuscitation we have recovery.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: That’s it! Cry! Cry!

MATT FREI: Doctor Ahmad who brought him into the world — and saved his mother’s life, is exhausted.

The war almost ended his life before it had a chance to start. But the war will continue to be his companion and shape the world he has entered.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I’m an old man now.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: May God keep you safe. You’re still young.

DOCTOR AHMAD, Syria: Believe me. I’ve got so much pain in my legs now. I hide my screams so the guys don’t hear me.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The baby’s fine now. Thank God. Wrap him.

MATT FREI: The war almost ended his life before it had a chance to start. But the war will continue to be his companion and shape the world he has entered.

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