Last month, a small group of Syrian-Americans traveled to Syria’s northern region where rebels now control large parts of the country’s commercial capital, Aleppo. On that trip, the group got to see how a city functions and how people live – and die – in a state of war. The group also met with representatives of Aleppo’s newly-formed administrative councils and specifically assessed the conditions under which medical care is provided. We spoke to Mohammed Alaa Ghanem, a member of the group and political consultant for the Syrian-American Council in Washington, D.C.
As the Syrian government restricts independent reporting within the country, we traditionally invite Syrians on both sides of the conflict to tell the world how they cope with street violence, human tragedies, political chaos and existential challenges in their daily lives. This time, we chose to include an account by a Syrian expatriate. Syria Witness reports cannot be independently verified and, for personal safety reasons, some contributors in Syria do not use their real names. Also, names within reports are sometimes altered. Texts and transcripts are edited for reasons of clarity and style, but no changes to content are made.
SW: Among all of the responsibilities of these transitional administrations, what surprised you the most?
Ghanem: One of the things that they did that was amazing is that they started out with a small medical committee, then they expanded the medical committee into an elected council. That committee alone was operating eight underground hospitals.
The work was astounding. They were operating in abnormal circumstances – shelling was about 500 feet (170 meters) away from us. I would hear the shelling and then a person would be rushed to the underground hospital. For example, one of the people I saw had lost his left foot and his body was burned all over. They were trying to cater to that need because the conflict in Aleppo has not come to an end. The shelling and the bombardment rarely stopped. So that medical council was catering to that need in Aleppo.
SW: You’ve told me that the government has shelled one Aleppo hospital eight times and that, in addition to shortages of surgical equipment and medicines, snipers shot medical personnel and civilians trying to rescue the wounded soldiers and rebels in the streets. Are there other risks?
Ghanem: The other challenge they were facing was with the ambulances. For example, their ambulances needed not to be marked so they would not be identified by the Assad regime.
SW: You mean they did not want to identify any of the ambulances because they would be targeted by the Assad regime?
Ghanem: Absolutely… In fact, when I was in the hospital I wanted to take some videos, for example, in one of the rooms there was an Assad soldier that was captured by the Free Syrian Army. And he was in that room receiving medical treatment. They walked me to the room and introduced me to him and him to me. We wanted to take a video of that to show that they were treating everyone, not just the opposition injured. And they said, ‘No. Please. Because there are informants and the hospital would be bombed and shelled immediately.’
“… some of the doctors that I saw and chatted with - and we also had grapes together – I saw pictures of them when I got back to [Washington,] D.C, under the rubble, dead.” - Mohammed Ghanem
They also shared with me that three medical students were arrested at a checkpoint and executed just because they had medications on them. That was deemed as aiding the terrorists in Syria.
SW: I think you said there are eight hospitals.
Ghanem: Unfortunately, now they have been reduced to seven. Just after I came back to Washington, D.C., one of the hospitals in Hay al-Shaar that I had visited had been leveled by the regime. And some of the doctors that I saw and chatted with – and we also had grapes together - I saw pictures of them when I got back to [Washington,] D.C, under the rubble, dead.
But the hopeful thing for me was the report I saw… on Al Jazeera about the doctors that survived the shelling. They went somewhere else to a makeshift hospital and they are trying to start elsewhere.
SW NOTE: Two missiles reportedly struck the Dar al-Shifaa hospital in Hay al-Shaar on November 21. Among those killed was a young doctor by the name of Mohammed. Ghanem, who remembers chatting with him, sent Syria Witness a digital image purportedly showing Dr. Mohammed’s body buried in the debris of the bombed hospital (the image has been deemed too graphic for display). On the picture, only a portion of Dr. Mohammeds’s head can be seen sticking out from under the thick layer of ash and debris that covered the ground. A small amount of blood was on his short black hair and, above his head, part of his hand was visible, still covered with a surgical glove.
Ghanem recalled talking to Dr. Mohammed.
Ghanem: We chatted about the future of the country and what sort of future we wanted in Syria. I also expressed admiration because I must admit when I was there I was scared because you would be sitting in the hospital and you heard the shelling, and the shelling is all around you. I asked them how you are operating under these circumstances [and whether there was] any guarantee that this hospital would not be targeted, and they smiled and said ‘no.’ I asked what their plan was and they said they had no plan. We are here, they said, and we understand the risk and there is nothing we can do be because these people need our help. And there are scores of casualties a day and we have no options.
“[Dr. Mohammed] was young. I think he was in his late 20s. He would smile every time I would mention something about how crazy the circumstances were there.” – Mohammed Ghanem
SW: How would you describe Dr. Mohammed?
Ghanem: Dr. Mohammed was a soft-spoken person. He didn’t talk a lot. I would say something and he would calmly smile. The room we were in was small; we were cramped for space. We were sitting with Dr. Mohammed and the other doctors. I had a conversation with Dr. Mohammed. He was young. I think he was in his late 20s. He would smile every time I would mention something about how crazy the circumstances were there.
To become a Syria Witness and tell your own inside-Syria story, contact David Arnold, coordinator of our Syria Witness project at syriawitness(at)gmail.com. For safety reasons, we strongly urge you to use a browser-based e-mail (Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail) and be sure “https” appears in the URL. You can also invite Arnold to Skype at davidarnold70
David Arnold coordinates the Syria Witness project at Middle East Voices and reports on Middle East and North Africa affairs for both Voice of America and MEV. The Syria Witness project publishes on-the-ground citizen reporting, giving Syrians the opportunity to offer to a global audience their first-person narratives of life on the streets of their war-torn country.