Middle East

Aleppo doctor speaks of horror of barrel bombs

A Syrian man receives medical treatment follwing a reported air strike attack bu government forces on the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on February 18, 2014. (AFP PHOTO / ALEPPO MEDIA CENTRE / ZEIN AL-RIFAI)

BEIRUT: An unprecedented aerial bombardment of Aleppo by the Syrian government has sent thousands of people fleeing in recent weeks and exacerbated an already dire humanitarian situation in the city.

Some of the most intense bombing came during the Geneva II peace talks between the Assad regime and the opposition-in-exile which began in late January, with 800 people dying in the first week of the discussions alone.Doctors in the northern city have reported high civilian casualties, with women and children bearing the brunt of the bombardment.

A doctor working in Aleppo, who asked not to be named for security reasons, said the majority of wounds he sees are among women and children, and the elderly.

“So many amputations, head injuries and abdomen injuries,” he said. “It is random shelling: They’re not attacking the fronts, they are attacking the city, where there are no fighters.”

The doctor, who spoke to The Daily Star via Skype, is not an Aleppo native – he moved to the city over a year ago from next-door Idlib province when a call for extra doctors was put out.

“I realized that they needed me: There is a huge number of injured civilians here, because of the barrel bombs,” he said.

While the casualty figures are staggering, the number of doctors who remain in the city presents an equally grim statistic. There are only 65 in total now, he said, where once there were 3,700.

The population has fallen, from around 5 million to 1.5 million, but not enough to justify the shortage in medical staff. Across the entire governorate, there are now 250 doctors, when once there were 6,000, according to the global NGO Physicians for Human Rights.

“We face a huge problem with this lack of doctors and the limited amount of supplies,” he said, adding that “donors are becoming poorer after three years of war.”

Only nine hospitals are still functioning in the city – five trauma clinics, and four primary health care centers. In each center staff have been treating over 35 serious cases each day while across the city, the casualty toll has sometimes topped 100 people after the barrel bomb campaign began in earnest in mid-December.

The stepped-up aerial assault began a few days after the doctor returned from a medical conference in Europe, he recalled.

“The shelling on Aleppo started Dec. 12. In the first three days of the shelling more than 48 children were killed and more than 84 women were killed. In the first three days.”

The regime’s weapon of choice during this current battle for the northern city is the barrel bomb, a crude device typically constructed of an oil drum filled with explosives and shrapnel, and rolled out of a helicopter once the fuse is lit.

The wounded are injured in the collapse of buildings hit by the barrel bombs, with many graphic images emerging of young children being pulled out of the rubble of homes.

Opposition allies in the U.N. Security Council in December drafted a resolution specifically condemning the use of barrel bombs in Syria, but it was blocked by Russia.

Speaking to the British Parliament in January, Foreign Secretary William Hague called the use of such weapons a “war crime.”

“The use of this deliberately indiscriminate weapon is yet another war crime and is clearly designed to sow terror and weaken the will of the civilian population. Assad and those around him should be in no doubt that the world will hold them to account,” he said.

And the hospitals themselves are not immune to attack. Last week a hospital in the Sakhour area in the east of the city was bombed.

“One of the hospitals was targeted by a missile from an aircraft. Two patients were killed and 15 of my staff were injured. So we had to stop working there. We need to think of spare locations now,” the doctor said.

A recent report by Physicians for Human Rights documented the attacks on medical centers across the country, by both the regime and opposition forces, and said that, “These crimes against the principle of medical neutrality ... have compounded the suffering of civilians and hastened the devastation of an already fragile health care system.”

In July 2012, the report states, the city’s blood bank was bombed. “Since then, the 2.5 million people living in the city of Aleppo have been without blood supply or blood bags.”

Across the country, “92 percent of ambulances had been damaged and 52 percent were out of service.”

While the Aleppo doctor said it has become difficult to wake up every day, “when you see the civilians injured in airstrikes, the huge number of women, children and old men who have been affected,” he has no plans to leave the city.

His family understands why he has to be there, and he has moved them out of the country.

“I have to be in Aleppo. And I will not leave until everyone stops shelling each other.”

The doctor has only one hope, when he thinks about the future. “My dream is to stop the bleeding of Syrian people. This is my only dream.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 21, 2014, on page 8.




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