February 20, 2015

Hospital_Erbin_destroyed_no logoSAMS President, Dr. Zaher Sahloul, recently returned from a trip inside of Syria to visit a SAMS facility in Aleppo. This hospital has been hit by aerial bombardment several times, and now operates in a covert underground location to avoid targeting. Barrel bombs, a crude and indiscriminate bomb that causes mass devastation, have been used repeatedly in government aerial attacks on civilian areas. Dr. Sahloul joins WBEZ Worldview to discuss the ongoing violence in Syria and the impact on doctors and civilians on the ground.

WBEZ Worldview: So, Dr. Sahloul, you were in Aleppo. You were working in an hospital while you were there. Did you see the use of barrel bombs?

Dr. Sahloul: Yes. It was still falling from helicopters when I was in the hospital just last week. I was in a hospital called M10 in an eastern neighborhood of Aleppo. And during the day we were hearing the impact of barrel bombs and we were seeing the victims brought to the hospitals- many of them, unfortunately, children and civilians. I saw a child who is 12 years old whose name is Ja’ma and was brought after a barrel bomb was dropped on his family’s house. Both of his parents and two sisters, 3 and 4, were killed instantly. They brought actually the sisters but they were dead in the emergency room. He had a huge injury in his belly and his intestines were outside his belly. I’m sorry for the graphic description but this is what I have witnessed. Our surgical team spent three hours trying to resuscitate him and he was saved. But he is one of thousands of victims of barrel bombs in Aleppo. Doctors do not lie, these victims do not lie, the children of Aleppo do not lie. I mean I saw a picture draw by a child in Aleppo. He is in second grade. In that picture, I tweeted about it, he’s drawing helicopters throwing barrels and then you have children who are bleeding and some of them have amputated legs because of the impact of barrel bombs. Yes, unfortunately, it is going on and it is killing civilians and children in spite of the affirmation of Mr. Assad.

WBEZ Worldview: Is there any way people can protect themselves from these sorts of weapons? Are you all doing anything to try and minimize the damage?

Dr. Sahloul: In the hospitals we are supporting, because they were targeted many times by barrel bombs- the hospital that I went to was bombed three times, last time was in June of last year and it was partially destroyed. So we built it actually underground. So it’s four meters underground because we wanted to protect the medical staff and the patients (we don’t want patients to be killed inside the hospital). Hospitals are places for healing and cure not places for murder. Unfortunately, the Syrian regime has been targeting hospitals and healthcare professionals. But, I mean, if you live in an apartment in the city of Aleppo or [another city] like what was happening last week and you are targeted by barrel bombs, the only thing you can really do is to pray that it will miss you. Usually it takes 20-30 seconds for the barrel bomb to be dropped from the helicopter until the ground and if it happens that you are there and you are witnessing this then it is a surreal experience. I’ve seen it myself. Children pointing to the sky, you see this small dot which is the helicopter just dropping another dot, which is the barrel bomb, then it takes 30 seconds for that to reach the ground and explode. It can explode in hospital, a school, or bakery or apartment building and the only thing you can do is to pray and run.

WBEZ Worldview: The conflict has been going on for four years now and you have described some pretty horrific scenes that you witnessed that are the result of these bombing campaigns. What is life like at the moment- daily life in Aleppo?

Dr. Sahloul: It’s amazing that we still have life in Aleppo despite this systematic campaign to empty the city from its civilians which, many believe, was the purpose of the barrel bombing campaign. Human Rights Watch documented in pictures and maps and satellite maps the impact of barrel bombs on the city of Aleppo and how is the regime targeting civilian areas that are away from the front lines. These civilian areas I visited this last visit and they are like ghost towns. Ghost towns you know, you travel in the streets and you don’t see anyone. But, in spite of that, you will have pockets of life. You have areas like usual with vendors that are selling fruit and vegetables and diesel fuel. Actually, in comparison to last visit in May of last year, we have many more civilians return to Aleppo because it is much cheaper to live in Aleppo than it is to live in refugee camps or in Turkey. So many civilians are coming back, taking the risk on their lives, preferring to die in their house in Aleppo than to live in a refugee camp.

WBEZ Worldview: I want to talk to you about this interview that President Assad gave to the BBC. Apart from denying the use of barrel bombs, he talked about- he answered a slew of questions about conditions in Syria and the conflict and the war. I’m curious why you think- now he did this interview with the BBC and he’s also given one to Foreign Affairs- I’m curious to know why you think he’s doing these interviews now.

Dr. Sahloul: I think, the observers think he is on a charmer campaign because he wants to reassert himself as a credible leader of the country. I think you know maybe his advisors are telling him that there are people who are questioning our policy toward him and maybe he will be accepted as an alternative to ISIS and maybe that is why he is trying to float himself again. But the problem is that the more that he speaks the more it appears that he is a psychopath, frankly. If you listen to him closely denying that his army is using barrel bombs against civilians, again the thousands of witnesses and against the children–the children do not lie, artists do not lie, human rights organizations do not lie- then you will know that this person is not saying the truth and he is not a credible leader. And the fact that these media outlets frankly are making interviews with him and are calling him “Mr. President” is something, that is in my view, unethical. I don’t think we should call our criminal president or Mr. Assad.

WBEZ Worldview: You know one of the other things he talked about, was asked about, are moderate forces in Syria and he quoted President Obama and said there are no moderate forces in Syria. What do you make of that answer and sort of what the potential way forward is in this conflict.

Dr. Sahloul: I think Syrians are generally moderate. When I go to Aleppo and I meet with Syrian civil society leaders, with physicians, nurses, all of them are against ISIS, all of them are against extremist groups. All of them are against extremism and terrorism. But all of them are also against Mr. Assad because I think that after 4 years of the crisis, after the deaths of 200,000 Syrians, after the displacement of 10 million Syrians inside and outside Syria, no one really imagines that he will continue to be a leader of the country and keep it united. We have 22 million Syrians, 99.9% of them are moderate, who lived together for centuries and who would like to have a Syria that is united and moderate. That is democratic. That was the origin of this crisis- it started with demonstrations looking for democratic reforms for freedom. Unfortunately, the Assad regime responded with extreme brutality and people carried arms to initially protect themselves during the demonstrations. Then you had a vacuum related to the fact that you had a lot of atrocities and extremist groups exploited that. That vacuum of power. If the international community is serious to protect the moderate Syrians who are the majority then they will find an alternative to Mr. Assad or to ISIS. But it is not really fair to ask the Syrians to choose between two extremes- ISIS or Assad. Both of them are criminals. Both of them do not deserve to lead the country.

WBEZ Worldview: President Obama this morning went to Congress with draft legislation asking for the authorization to fight a campaign against ISIS- specifically ISIS. And he said that potentially this could include limited ground forces. That would not be long combat missions. How do you see this as impacting potentially the situation in Syria?

Dr. Sahloul: I’m happy, and many are happy, that the administration is putting Syria as a priority. First, I think it’s very important to look at the crisis in a holistic view and do not only focus on one symptom of the crisis. ISIS is one symptom of the crisis in Syria but the main problem is the regime that has responded with extreme brutality to the demonstrations asking for, what we practice here in this country, freedom and democratic reform. And if our administration put as a goal for their policy is to end the political crisis that led to the emergence of ISIS- I think that would be helpful. We definitely are in need, in Syria, of safe zones for civilians to come back, for refugees to come, for civil society to focus on development not only on relief, for NGOs to help the local population whether they are in Aleppo or in [another city] in Syria. So some type of protection for civilians, whether it is armed groups or UN monitors is needed to end the stalemate we have now in Syria.