The horror of the conflict in Syria, which began in March 2011, can be measured with statistics: over 400,000 people dead; half the population displaced; the life expectancy of a newborn child dropping from 76 years in 2011 to under 56 years in 2016. But the grotesque absurdity of this revolution turned civil war is perhaps best captured by the fact that today Syrians are forced to crowdsource money online to rebuild and fortify bombed hospitals.
“In our worst dreams — in our worst nightmares — we never thought we would have to fortify hospitals.”
“Now, thanks to this war, we are 10,000 years back and we dig hospitals in the mountains and in the ground,” Zaidoun al-Zoabi, head of the Union of Syrian Medical Relief Organizations (UOSSM), told me. “In our worst dreams — in our worst nightmares — we never thought we would have to fortify hospitals,” he said. “It’s not humane. It’s impossible to comprehend.”
Zoabi, a 42-year-old father of three daughters, spoke to me from Berlin, where he fled two years ago. Originally from Daraa, where the initially peaceful uprising against the government of Bashar al-Assad began, he fled when he “couldn’t stand anymore the brutality of the regime. Two times in jail was enough for me.” Now, like 4.8 million other Syrians, he witnesses the brutality from abroad.
Today, Syria lacks many things, including the democracy Zoabi and thousands of others were arrested and tortured for demanding, but there is no shortage of atrocities.
On April 27, airstrikes on the rebel-held eastern half of Aleppo struck Al Quds hospital for at least the third time, killing at least 55 people, including one of the last qualified pediatricians in a city of 300,000 people. Before the strike, two barrel bombs were dropped outside, according to Pablo Marco, Middle East operations manager for Doctors Without Borders, which supported the facility. The third strike came after the victims of those bombs were brought in for treatment, Marco told PBS, suggesting the attack was “staged to provoke the maximum number of citizens killed.”
Two days later, airstrikes hit Al-Marjah Primary Healthcare Center, which provided pediatric and gynecological care for residents of eastern Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and, before the war, its economic hub. It was the fifth UOSSM-run health care center to be destroyed by the Syrian regime and its allies.
“It was leveled to the ground,” Zoabi told me. “We lost two doctors that day. Two doctors means 4 percent of the doctors in eastern Aleppo. We only have 50 doctors inside Aleppo — and not all at the same time.”
I asked if he thought the destruction was on purpose or merely the product of an indiscriminate war where everyone and everything in territory controlled by the other side is fair game.
“There is nothing more systematic in Syria than bombing hospitals, at all, to cut the story short,” he said. “When you have two hospitals being targeted [in] Aleppo in the span of one week, this cannot be collateral damage, especially when the bombing is so precise and destructive.”
Rebuilding Is a Political Act
But Syrians have no choice: As the world watches from the sidelines — or, increasingly, from the sky above, with an expanding number of major powers bombing the country as part of an indefinite war on non-state terror — they must rebuild. But theirs is not the apolitical humanitarianism of an international nongovernmental organization: Building hospitals that are likely to be bombed again is as much an act of resistance as it is a humanitarian necessity, and an extension of the nonviolent activism with which the Syrian revolution began and which continues to exist despite a suffocating media obsession with the self-promoting butchers of ISIS (also known as Daesh).
That the money for such a project is being raised online is a commentary on the failures of our age and international system. It is striking that medical care for those suffering through the most devastating war of the 21st century is being funded by $5 donations from people on Twitter with far more empathy than politicians in Washington, Moscow or Brussels. Because of the time and red tape involved in applying for institutional sources of funding, Zoabi told me his organization had no choice but to turn to the internet. Waiting months for a grant would mean “many people will die.”
The inspiring thing is people are not their governments: Seeing a tragedy, they are inspired to act. In under a week UOSSM raised more than $95,000 to rebuild both Al Quds hospital and Al-Marjah Primary Healthcare Center. Zoabi said it would have cost about $65,000 to rebuild both, but that’s not an option anymore: If they are to be rebuilt, they must be fortified underground for the sake of those who will be working and treated there, raising the total cost to $100,000.
Abdulaziz Adel, a 50-year-old man from Aleppo, is one of the last surgeons who still works in the opposition-controlled part of the city. He told me the hospital where he spends most of his time has been attacked three times.
“When you have two hospitals being targeted [in] Aleppo in the span of one week, this cannot be collateral damage.”
“The hospitals are hit more than military targets,” he said, speaking from an airport in Turkey, where a child cried in the background. Ambulances are hit too. Indeed, whether it’s a vehicle or a building, anything that’s identifiable as providing medical care is ripe for an airstrike, so that staff have now taken to covering up any distinguishing characteristics. Even so, local residents are “always begging us to go away, take your hospital away from us or otherwise we’ll be a target.”
Adel thinks he knows why people like him are marked for death.
“Kill a doctor and you kill thousands,” he said. “We have in Aleppo two or three pediatricians. Imagine that you kill one of them, in a city of more than 300,000. How many babies or children are in the city? One doctor will now have to care for all [of] them. This is a really difficult job, so of course mistakes will be made and patients will lose their lives. It’s the same for all other specialties.”
Doctors are the target, but the goal is to kill those they treat while making life unlivable for those who are left, or at least that’s how the targeted see it.
“It’s very simple and easy,” Adel told me. “The Syrian people are paying the price of their freedom. This is a personal opinion, of course. Me, myself, I’m talking my own opinion. I’m not neutral anymore. I can’t be neutral anymore. I’m sorry.”
Like many medical professionals in opposition-controlled Aleppo, Adel goes to Turkey for a week or two each month for respite from the 15-hour workdays in a war zone, but Syria will always be his home.
“I’m very strange,” he said when I asked why he keeps going back. “I would like to live and die in my country because it is my country. I hope I will die in my country. It is my duty as a doctor,” he told me. “We hope that peace will come, but we will keep struggling until the last moment in time.”
No One Is Innocent
No party to Syria’s conflict has its hands clean when it comes to killing innocents, be it the Assad government, its Russian allies or the US-led coalition that has been bombing the country since September 2014. On May 3, for instance, three people at a maternity hospital in government-controlled western Aleppo were killed, according to the Guardian, when rebel mortars struck a military vehicle outside the hospital.
All hands are stained with blood, then — but some are drenched in it. Non-state armed groups have attacked a total of 22 medical facilities in Syria, killing at least 25 medical personnel, according to Physicians for Human Rights. But non-state actors cannot hope to compete with the ghastly firepower of a state backed by a member of the UN Security Council. The Syrian government and its Russian partners have attacked no less than 326 medical facilities during the course of the war, killing 668 medical personnel and counting.
“All too often, attacks on health facilities and medical workers are not just isolated or incidental battlefield fallout,” UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said earlier this month, “but rather the intended objective of the combatants. This is shameful and inexcusable.”
His remarks came after the UN Security Council passed a resolution reiterating that what four out of five of its permanent members and their allies have done — bomb hospitals, from Afghanistan to Syria to Yemen — is a war crime, though the council took care not to suggest any of those crimes be punished by any of the relevant international bodies.
“Well, that’s an achievement,” Zoabi told me. “Listen, next time you kill a child, I will really, really shout at you. Shame on the world. That we see such bloodshed, such an ongoing massacre, is a shame on the world.”
“It has to stop,” he added. “For God’s sake it has to stop or we will collapse.”