Wednesday, 14 December 2016
Aleppo heartbreak: a devoted doctor shames us
This article first appeared in September. I felt it was vital to put it up again in the thick of the hellish endgame with the so far encouraging news that Dr al Khatib is still alive and doing what he can, or was when he posted again on Change.org two days ago. And here's a link to The Huffington Post's helpful piece on how and where to give. For a shocking, nuanced report on the impossible dilemmas and compromises around the Aleppo nightmare, read Robert Fisk's article in The Independent online - just about the only thing I've read there recently to suggest that once fine broadsheet has anything left to offer.
It should come as no surprise that an American politician, albeit one even dumber if possible than Trump, should yesterday have asked 'what's Aleppo'? The answer is, perhaps the most pressing catastrophe of many facing us at the moment. Dr Hamza al Khatib (pictured below) started up a Change.Org petition several weeks ago with a simple message: 'I am one of the very last doctors serving the remaining 300,000 citizens of eastern Aleppo. Atrocities are being committed every day. The Syrian regime and Russian aircraft are systematically targeting civilians and hospitals across the city. In the last week, I have written to both President Obama and Chancellor Merkel calling for their help'.
I circulated the petition; some of my acquaintances wrote back to say, what on earth do you think Obama and Merkel can do? Setting aside the complexities of the issue, it seems to me absolutely essential that I post Dr al Khatib's latest message. Nothing has made me feel more desperate about the untenable situation, or clarified it so ruthlessly. Chlorine attacks? Still? I mourn for this city, so racy and wild when we visited in the 1990s. Those souks and monuments, all destroyed; but now we have to save as many civilians as possible. Thus our noble doctor:
I have been overwhelmed by your outpouring of support. It is heartening to see that so many people across the world have joined my call, and the call of my fellow physicians, to Obama and Merkel to do more to ensure the people of Aleppo are no longer subject to vicious bombings and brutal sieges.
But it is with a heavy heart that I now write to you, as a Syrian Government offensive, supported by Russian airstrikes, has left eastern Aleppo re-encircled and cut off from desperately needed medical and humanitarian aid.
It is hard to describe the anxiety of impending starvation. The knowledge that each meal will be smaller than the last, that each patient will have less anaesthesia than the one before him or her. It is like carrying a weight that grows heavier by the day, dragging you towards the ground.
This is the reality for the 300,000 civilians trapped in Eastern Aleppo - my family, friends and patients who now all face an uncertain fate. As we face a debilitating siege, relentless bombardment and now chemical weapons, our suffering is as much psychological as it is physical. As deadly as these chemical attacks are, their real impact is making our homes feel unlivable, as though even the air we breathe can take our lives from us.
Just this week government planes dropped canisters filled with chlorine, sending dozens to our hospitals, gasping for air. This is another in a series of chemical attacks by the Syrian government, who have shown no regard for Obama's 'red line' on the use of these internationally banned weapons. President Obama, too, seems insufficiently concerned about these violations.
As I rushed to treat the victims of this attack I was shocked to see children as young as 5 and 6 knowing how to hold the oxygen masks to their faces without the help of doctors or parents. What does it say when these attacks have become so routine that even children have learned to treat themselves amidst the chaos? What does it say about what this war is doing to our children when holding a gas mask to their faces comes as easy as holding a coloured pencil to paper?
But I have made a pledge to remain by the people of this city and my commitment to that is unwavering, even in the face of relentless bombardment. Frustrated, angry and exhausted as I am, I have not lost hope. The heroic people of this city give me hope, as does the knowledge that across the world people like you are taking a stand for Aleppo. With your voice, you can assure that the people of this city do not suffer in silence. I'll be in touch with more updates from Aleppo as soon as I can, but in the meantime please share this campaign as widely as you can and help us let the world know what is happening to Aleppo.
Please sign the petition and tell everyone you know.
Update (23/9): after the targeted bombings of, inter alia, major aid convoys, Dr al Khatib has put up another post on change.org on the results of what Khofi Annan called 'new depths of depravity' from the Russians and the Syrian government.