March 17, 2017

Like many Syrians displaced by the ongoing crisis, SAMS medic Abu Rajab dreams of one day returning to his hometown of Aleppo.

Before the eruption of the Syrian crisis, Abu Rajab worked as radiologist technician. At the time, he could not anticipate how dramatically his life would change as years of conflict wore on, or how the medical infrastructure of his hometown would be systematically targeted and decimated by airstrikes, cluster munitions, barrel bombs, and more.

With every passing year of the Syrian conflict, irrefutable evidence of the targeting of health workers and civilians has surfaced. Today, Physicians for Human Rights estimates that 814 health workers have been killed since the beginning of the crisis – this number represents only the deaths they were able to verify. On March 15, at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the war’s sixth anniversary, Abu Rajab joined his colleagues Drs. Farida and Abdulkhalek to share stories from his time as the administrator of M10, the largest trauma hospital in the eastern part of Aleppo until it was bombed out of service in October 2016. The stories he shared represent just a snippet of daily life in one of the most dangerous places in the world: a hospital in Syria.

M10 hospital was established by the Syrian American Medical Society, SAMS, in February of 2013. Because of the many attacks on the the hospital, SAMS moved it to an underground, fortified structure to protect its patients and medical workers in 2014.  The hospital had four operating rooms, which made it the largest surgical center in eastern Aleppo. It was then that Abu Rajab started working at the hospital as an administrator. But as attacks on healthcare in Syria intensified, numbers of physicians began to dwindle. Abu Rajab is one of a handful of Syrian medics who stayed in the besieged city until the last moment.

From the opening of the hospital in 2013 until it was bombed out of service, M10 was hit by airstrikes 22 times. In October 2016, the hospital was targeted five times in one week, removing it from service. Abu Rajab was himself a victim of aerial attacks – shrapnel from a barrel bomb penetrated his body, and pieces remain till this day. But still, he refused to leave and join his family in Turkey.   

“We moved from one hospital to another, as each was targeted and taken out of service. We struggled to eat, to sleep, and to protect our families. We were convinced that we were going to die. We lost many of our friends, colleagues, and family members.”

In July 2016, as the aerial bombardment campaign over eastern Aleppo City intensified and hospitals were overwhelmed with the wounded, Abu Rajab recalls the impossible decisions that he had to make, “When we received a number of wounded and severely injured people and had to choose who to save and who not to save.”

Despite the destruction wrought, Abu Rajab and his team found moments of levity. One of Abu Rajab’s proudest moments was in March of 2015, when he and his team installed a CAT scanner at M10 – it was the first and only one in eastern Aleppo. He also remembers fondly when he handed out new clothes and toys to injured children to alleviate their suffering and put a smile on their faces.

At the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, Abu Rajab also recalled the final days of the siege, when he and his colleagues were forced to evacuate with their families.  The evacuations happened in an atmosphere of  horrifying uncertainty. When he boarded the green evacuation buses, he did not know what would happen.

“Many people were locked in the buses for up to 20 hours without food, water, or bathrooms. Some of the militias forced people to remove all their clothes and wait in the buses in nothing more than their underwear.”

Now, living in Turkey with his family, Abu Rajab is far from his hometown and his hospital. At the hearing, he urged policy makers and legislators to protect hospitals and health workers, and to ensure that civilians can remain in their homes, and not be forced to evacuate.

Abu Rajab ended his testimony with a tribute to his beloved Aleppo: “I love Aleppo. It is my home. It is a part of me. I dream of one day returning to my home with my family and living in peace. But I need your help.”

To read Abo Rajab’s full remarks from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Hearing, please click here.