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Repeatedly targeted by airstrikes, Syrian doctors feel abandoned

August 15, 2016 at 6:15 PM EDT
In Syria’s ongoing war, doctors are under attack in the very places they expect to be safe: their hospitals. Last week, pro-government forces bombed a maternity hospital in the northwestern city of Idlib -- just one of the more than 375 strikes on medical facilities since the revolution began, according to Physicians for Human Rights. Special Correspondent Marcia Biggs reports.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, first: The years-long fight to control Syria’s largest city, Aleppo, grinds on, with civilians stuck between rebel and government forces.

Last week, more than two dozen Syrian physicians there wrote a letter to President Obama urging him to take action to end the carnage. Only 35 physicians remain to serve more than 300,000 people. They wrote, in part, because they themselves are under attack, the people whose mission it is to help the civilians caught in the crossfire. And they are hit in the places that should be safest, hospitals and other medical facilities.

Special correspondent Marcia Biggs reports now from Southern Turkey near the Syrian border.

And a warning: This story contains images that may upset some viewers.

MARCIA BIGGS: It is a war crime to target medical facilities, but, in Syria, bombs rain down on hospitals, doctors and patients.

Just in the last few weeks, pro-government forces bombed a maternity hospital in Idlib, supported by Save the Children. And airstrikes hit six hospitals around Aleppo. Nurses gathered babies from their incubators, the strike narrowly missing their ward.

Rami Kalazi is no stranger to airstrikes like these.

DR. RAMI KALAZI, Aleppo Neurosurgeon: I was sleeping here, and my colleague is here. And the attack happened. We came out alive. I don’t know how.

MARCIA BIGGS: Kalazi was one of Aleppo’s last remaining doctors. We caught up with him in Turkey. He said he believes these hospitals were targeted.

DR. RAMI KALAZI: They are the artery of life in the city. Can you imagine a life in city without hospitals? Who will treat your kids? Who will make the surgeries for the injured people? So, they are targeting these hospitals because they know, if these hospitals were completely destroyed, the life will be completely destroyed.

MARCIA BIGGS: Eastern Aleppo had already suffered a massive blow in April, when Al Quds Hospital, supported by Doctors Without Borders, and the city’s main pediatric hospital, was destroyed by two consecutive airstrikes.

DR. RAMI KALAZI: It was a very hard night. Every one or two hour, we had an airstrike, and we had to treat some injured people.

MARCIA BIGGS: Soon he realized the full extent of the damage, more than 50 people dead, including six members of hospital staff.

DR. RAMI KALAZI: They were all friends. So, it was emotionally so hard, because you are treating your friend. You know how hard is that. And you see that he is in danger, he may not live, he may not survive. It was a horrible night.

MARCIA BIGGS: One of them, 35-year-old Waseem Maaz, seen here on that fateful night, was a beloved pediatrician, one of only two in the entire city. He was just beginning his shift. Moments later, disaster.

What has Syria lost there?

DR. RAMI KALAZI: Can you imagine, when you have more than 300,000 people in your city, and you have only two pediatricians, and you have lost one? Can you imagine how much the loss is big?

MARCIA BIGGS: According to Physicians for Human Rights, there have been over 375 strikes against medical facilities and doctors in Syria since the revolution began.

Their report stipulates that over 90 percent of those came at the hands of the Syrian regime and its allies.

See larger version of this map here.

WIDNEY BROWN, Director of Programs, Physicians for Human Rights: Syria had a very sophisticated health care infrastructure, hospitals that are multistoried, very well-equipped, very large, very well-marked. You don’t make a mistake of just hitting that hospital, and you certainly don’t do it multiple times. This is absolutely a deliberate strategy by the Syrian government.

MARCIA BIGGS: Widney Brown is director of programs for the Physicians for Human Rights, which maintains that the destruction of hospitals by President Assad is being used as a weapon of war.

WIDNEY BROWN: When you target a hospital, you don’t just destroy that brick-and-mortar structure. You destroy actually a safe place that people can go for lifesaving aid.

When you kill a doctor, you don’t just kill that one individual. You actually kill all the people he or she would have saved.

MARCIA BIGGS: Brown says medical professionals are specifically targeted for detention, torture, and even murder by the Syrian regime; 750 have been killed in the last five years, like 46-year-old cardiologist Hasan al-Araj, whose car was hit by an airstrike.

WIDNEY BROWN: We believe that they are being persecuted because they can actually give eyewitness testimony about all of the crimes being committed by the Syrian government. When they say a chemical weapon was used, they are incredibly credible.

MARCIA BIGGS: Hospitals are often hit multiple times as part of what is called a double-tap strategy. Planes will circle back after hitting a target, once first-responders have arrived on scene, as shown on this video, to target those delivering aid to the wounded.

Despite the risks, hospitals still continue to run.

Here, Dr. Kalazi sweeps up after one of the more than 20 strikes his hospital suffered, creating a new normal for an already ravaged community.

DR. RAMI KALAZI: All the hospitals in Aleppo City have been bombed, all of them. There’s no exceptions.

The first thing you will think in is looking for your colleagues. Are they still alive or dead? Will I see, for example, of an arm for my colleague or a leg, or I will see a body, or half of a body, or will I see him alive? You don’t know.

We announce among the patients that it’s now risky to stay in the hospital, so please find safe places or go as fast as you can to your homes.

MARCIA BIGGS: What about the critical patients?

DR. RAMI KALAZI: They stay in the hospital. And some of them died during these attacks.

MARCIA BIGGS: So there’s just really nowhere to go?


MARCIA BIGGS: You would think that the hospital would be the safe place, the safe zone.

DR. RAMI KALAZI: But, in Syria, there is nothing safe.

MARCIA BIGGS: Kalazi told us the memory that haunts him the most is of a family of seven pulled from under the rubble.

WIDNEY BROWN: Only one survived, only one child. He was 3 years old. I was completely freezed. I just cried. When I see a child, it’s so hard, because he’s a child. He’s innocent. He’s made nothing to be punished for.

MARCIA BIGGS: Amidst so much despair, Dr. Kalazi’s wife gave birth to a baby boy just over a year ago.

DR. RAMI KALAZI: We decided to have a baby, because it’s like a new hope, you know? But we decided to stay in Aleppo, because we have a mission to complete. We are physicians. We are humans. And this is our city.

MARCIA BIGGS: A few months ago, his hospital and his home were hit on the same day. Here he is in this video with his wife and infant son surveying the damage.

Kalazi was on R&R outside the city last month when government forces blocked the last road to Aleppo, making it not only impossible for him to return, but for the people to get desperately needed food and medical aid.

WIDNEY BROWN: What we have in Syria are two stories. It’s quick deaths by being bombed when you’re a civilian, and it’s the slow death of starvation.

And they are facing this as the U.N. Security Council does nothing.

MARCIA BIGGS: Do you ever feel abandoned?

DR. RAMI KALAZI: From the world, yes. From the international community, yes, because they can do, but they don’t want to. No one wants to help us from the governments. We don’t know why.

MARCIA BIGGS: But halfway around the world, these American doctors do want to help.

DR. ZAHER SAHLOUL, Critical Care Specialist, Syrian American Medical Society: So, you have doctors who send, for example, X-rays.

MARCIA BIGGS: Drs. Zaher Sahloul and Samer Attar represent the Syrian American Medical Society, which connects doctors in the U.S. with Kalazi’s hospital and others all over Syria.

DR. ZAHER SAHLOUL: They can move the camera from a patient to patient, and describe the patient to me. They can look at — put the camera on the monitor, so I can see the vital signs. I can communicate with the doctor also, and they will tell me what’s happening.

So, that way, you are there, but through this very simple technology.

DR. RAMI KALAZI: You are not alone in treating your person — your patients. And you have this emotional support.

MARCIA BIGGS: Sahloul and Attar traveled last month to Aleppo to show solidarity with their Syrian colleagues.

DR. SAMER ATTAR, Orthopedic Surgeon, Syrian American Medical Society: You definitely feel targeted. Everyone feels targeted. A missile lands somewhere within the vicinity of the hospital, and you feel the foundations of the hospital shake.

There was one moment I was knocked off my feet, and your ears are ringing, but people just get back up and go back to work. They’re staying out of a sense of obligation and duty to help the helpless. They are heroically and selflessly risking their lives.

MARCIA BIGGS: They say some hospitals have even moved their emergency rooms underground to protect the patients, who come in droves.

DR. SAMER ATTAR: There were just so many people. It was just child after child after child after child. And you just keep saying to yourself, just, please, God, when will this trail of injured end?

MARCIA BIGGS: Are you angry by the lack of response?

DR. SAMER ATTAR: Well, of course you’re angry. It’s five years on, close to half-a-million killed and 12 million displaced. And those numbers are still rising. And now we have a city of 300,000 people that are being sieged and starved and bombed to death, with the international community sitting idly by.

And you have children who are burning tires to create their own no-fly zone. That’s embarrassing. That’s shameful.

MARCIA BIGGS: The doctors testified last week at a U.N. special session on Aleppo, where they conveyed messages from their Syrian colleagues, treating babies exposed to chlorine gas and toddlers with spines shredded decimated by shrapnel, wrapping tiny bodies in white shrouds.

After five long years, one 21-year-old nurse knows now not to ask for too much.

DR. SAMER ATTAR: I expected her to talk about no-fly zone, or peace, or all of these things.

And she said: I have a patient. Her name is Shahed. She is 10 years old. Is there any way that they can intervene to evacuate the patient, so her life can be saved? Because her mom comes every day, and she tells her, and she tells her, I would like to take you home, so you can ride your bicycle.

And this is what she wanted from the Security Council.

MARCIA BIGGS: While the siege on Aleppo was partially broken by rebel soldiers just over a week ago, the last road in and out of the city is still far too dangerous to travel.

So, Rami Kalazi remains on the outside looking in, desperate to get back to his beloved hometown.

DR. RAMI KALAZI: And any time Aleppo is not besieged, I will go back to Aleppo, even for a visit. It’s my lovely place.

MARCIA BIGGS: It’s still your lovely place.

DR. RAMI KALAZI: Yes, it’s my lovely place, because I feel that I’m born to be here to help these people.

MARCIA BIGGS: A place where no one is safe and saving lives can get you killed.

For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Marcia Biggs in Gaziantep, southern Turkey.