The doctor covered in dust

A Syrian medic talks to Syria Notes.

This article is from the Autumn 2019 issue of Syria Notes.

In the photograph, he sits on the floor, his back to the wall, looking exhausted, his blue healthcare scrubs covered in dust and stained with blood. The picture was taken in July, in Arihah, a town in Idlib province, northwest Syria, an area under constant bombardment since April by the Russian air force and the Assad regime. He talked to Syria Notes about working under fire to provide medical care, and living as a target.

Syria Notes: Please tell us about yourself.

I was born in 1966 and I’m 53 years old. I’m from a small village in in the suburbs of Daraa, a village called Tasil. I lived and grew up in Damascus where I went to school. In 1986 I travelled to the Soviet Union, as it was then, to study dentistry. After graduation I went back to Syria and opened a private practice.

When the Syrian revolution started I worked as a paramedic during protests, and when the regime forces raided and besieged Daraa city and its suburbs.

Paramedics used to attend peaceful protests. When the regime forces violently broke up the protests using live bullets, we would attend to the injured and take them to hospitals in Daraa city, or to field hospitals in nearby areas.

The regime cracked down on the opposition and went after everyone who was connected to the revolution. No matter what role they played, even if all you did was humanitarian work or aid you were wanted by them. My work led to my arrest and detention in Daraa. I was detained by the military security branch along with other doctors. Some of these doctors were killed under torture, and some were let out and then assassinated, some were let out and then they fled the country, some are still in detention until today. Some of us got out of detention and went back to do our jobs.

After I got out of detention I went back to work, but I couldn’t do that in Daraa. So, I went to Damascus. In Damascus I was helping injured protesters on the streets or in local homes, and tending to them until I could transport them to a makeshift medical facility. While working in Damascus the security forces attempted to detain me again, so I fled to areas controlled by the opposition.

Syria Notes: You are originally a dentist, but now you are helping the injured in a general hospital. Tell us about the work you are doing in Idlib right now.

When I took refuge in areas controlled by the opposition I noticed how these areas suffered from a severe shortage of medical staff. In some places there was not a single medical worker. Because of this I was forced to take on more responsibilities outside my expertise. I worked very hard, and did my best to help the people there. I did good by people there, but sometimes I made a few mistakes, but I had no other choice.

I kept working like this for a while until a team of doctors arrived to the area. At that point my work became limited to working as paramedic and assisting surgeons in operations. The doctors gave the people working in the field hospital courses in advanced trauma life support.

Syria Notes: Why do you think hospitals are being targeted? When a hospital is attacked, how is the local community affected?

Targeting hospitals and medical facilities and is systematic, and it aims to eliminate medical staff. So civilians will be left with no help. It also aims to destroy infrastructure. Hospital targeting terrorises civilians living in the area. The attack on medical staff leads to the spread of diseases, and for the general health of the population to decline. People with long term illness suffer a lot.

Syria Notes: Have you witnessed a direct attack while working in a hospital? Can you describe it?

Throughout my work I was an eyewitness to attacks on medical facilities and hospitals in Daraa and Damascus. Many times hospitals were targeted, without any warning and deliberately. In 2018, we were displaced from the suburbs of Damascus to the north of Syria, and specifically to Idlib city.

At the beginning, it was a calm and safe area, but three months ago the vicious military campaign started targeting the north of Syria, in Idlib and its suburbs, and the provinces of Hama and Aleppo. During the last three months several medical facilities were targeted, such as hospitals in Ma’arat al-Nu’man, Kafranbel, Hass, and other areas.

When I was displaced to Idlib, I continued my work providing medical care to civilians. On Sunday the 29th of July the regime targeted the hospital where I work with air bombardment which caused massive destruction. They destroyed a hospital providing medical care to women and children and those who are most vulnerable.

One time I was working in a field hospital. On that day we were in the middle of responding to a recent bombardment in the area, and to the stream of victims that were coming to the hospital. Then the hospital was bombed, part of hospital collapsed, and some of our patients lost their lives, and some sustained new life-threatening injuries.

When the bombs fell, a state of panic came over everyone there. As staff, we had a massive job of attending to the injured and evacuating everyone to safety, as well as trying to save as much of the precious medical equipment and supplies as we could. The hospital was out of service after the bombing.

Most of the medical facilities targeted with bombardments are forced to go out of service. The attack is intended to render the targeted medical facility helpless. It will be targeted repeatedly to stop it completely. Targeting hospitals is issuing a death sentence to civilians, those who are already injured and those who will be injured in future bombardment, especially those with advanced truma. Targeting hospitals also kills medical staff, or injures them, so they are not able to provide help to others. In all cases, the goal is to eliminate any medical help providers.

Syria Notes: Do hospitals get warning of attacks? How much warning? What do they do if they get warning?

There is a very basic system. There are observatories in every area. They tell us via radio or the internet. They issue warnings about incoming attacks. For example, they say, ‘Aeroplanes have taken off from Hama, they are flying toward the north and have passed Ma’arat al-Nu’man, the likely target seems to be Arihah city, civilians there should take cover.’ The warning is issued for a whole city. It’s difficult to say where in the city the bombs will fall. So, when a warning is issued, we take precautions like everyone else.

Video images from the 28 July 2019 airstrike on Arihah. Via Facebook and Storyful.

Syria Notes: Tell us about the day that photo was taken.

On the 28th of July, I was working in my dental clinic. I heard a loud explosion coming from somewhere very close to the clinic. I rushed to the place of the explosion, and I found out it was an airstrike that had destroyed many of the civilians’ homes.

I was one of the first who arrived on the scene. The situation was dire, massive destruction of buildings, and bodies of those who had died everywhere. I saw pieces of children scattered around the area.

We helped injured civilians on the streets, and then we tried to rescue those who were trapped under collapsed buildings.

I was working with the White Helmets to to rescue five trapped children. All of the trapped children were under ten years old. When we pulled out the first child I noticed that half of his head was missing. Next to him lay his two sisters, one we managed to save and the other had already passed away.

The situation was unbearable, men, women, and children were crying, and blood was everywhere. It hit me really hard, and I felt powerless and grief-stricken. I was helpless in front of the harm that fell on these children. After the rescue effort was over, I took a small break, and that is when someone took that photo of me.

Syria Notes: What name would you like for us to use in reference to you?

Just call me the doctor who was covered in dust.

Syria Notes: Is there anything else you would like to add?

As a doctor, I never in my life held a weapon. My life mission is to help those who need my help. Help those who are injured and those who are ill. My work has cost me a lot, I was detained, the medical facilities I worked in were bombed and targeted.

I want to address those who take upon themselves to defend human rights in the world. Those who have the power to act. Protecting the Syrian people is far overdue, stop the bloodshed in Syria, stop the Russian and Assad killing machine. As Syrians we are still hopeful of a better future and we will strive every day to reach freedom. After the night, the morning will come for sure.

Next: Investigating hospital attacks — Can a new UN inquiry achieve results?