In Syria, Underground Efforts To Train Doctors Amid Regime Attacks
KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
In March 2011, tens of thousands of protesters went out into the streets of Daraa, Syria. It was the beginning of the popular uprising against President Bashar al-Assad that eventually led to the Syrian civil war. Days after those first protests, government forces stormed the city hospital and positioned snipers on the roof. Snipers fired on people who were going into the hospital.
BEN TAUB: So one of the first victims of the revolution was a cardiologist who was shot in the head by these snipers on top of the hospital as he tried to reach the wounded protesters. And when people attended his funeral the next day, they too were shot with live ammunition. And for the next two years, those snipers stayed on the roof firing at people who attempted to approach the hospital.
MCEVERS: That's reporter Ben Taub, who writes in this week's New Yorker magazine about the Syrian regime's attack on doctors, medical personnel and civilians. We should warn listeners some parts of this interview might be tough to hear. I asked Ben Taub why the Syrian government is targeting these people.
TAUB: So the U.N. did a commission of inquiry into crimes happening in Syria, and they determined that the government forces deliberately target medical personnel to gain a military advantage. Specifically, denying treatment to wounded fighters and civilians. And they determined that this was a matter of policy. Essentially, by making it impossible for people to seek treatment when they were injured - even civilians and children and women who had nothing to do with the anti-government uprising but happened to live in areas that were under the control of opposition groups - they were being collectively punished. And, you know, it was a strategy to make life completely unbearable.
MCEVERS: A way to win the war.
MCEVERS: And so how are people in these opposition-controlled areas. I mean, we're talking about big swaths of Syria here. How are they getting health care? How is health care continuing?
TAUB: So a lot of doctors who wanted to treat patients but realized they couldn't do it in the hospitals started setting up an underground medical network, completely covertly. They were working in - you know, doing complex surgeries for gunshot wounds in people's kitchens.
And once the rebels took over large patches of territory those patches of territory included former government hospitals which then became rebel hospitals in many cases. And so then the challenge became getting the right number of supplies, the right kind of equipment into these places and then having simply a factor of having enough doctors who were qualified to carry out these surgeries.
And 95 percent of the doctors in Aleppo have left since the beginning of the war. And so you had for years basically medical students trying to cope with the worst kinds of war injuries having no idea how to treat them.
MCEVERS: Right, so you have this underground railroad of sorts of hospitals, right, this connected network of hospitals run basically by medical students inside Syria. And so international doctors get involved, international organizations like Medecins Sans Frontieres, Doctors Without Borders get involved. And you talked to one in particular. His name's David Nott.
MCEVERS: How did he get involved?
TAUB: So David Nott had been working in war zones for the last 20 years or so. He began with the Bosnian War. And ever since, he'd taken weeks or months out of each year to work in areas afflicted by conflict and natural disaster. And so he went into Syria and started running lecture courses inside the basements of the hospitals. And the medical students and the general surgeons who didn't know how to cut open a chest and do heart surgery, who didn't know how to operate on lungs that had been injured by shrapnel or bullets, they would all come to his evening lectures as the shooting relented when the sun went down. And they'd go through all the cases that day - who lived, who died and why they lived and why they died. And then as the evening went on, more airstrikes would rain down on the city and he'd get back to operating.
MCEVERS: There's one family that was victim to one of these barrel bomb attacks that you write about. And it's several siblings, right, who...
MCEVERS: ...Come into the hospital. It's just, you know, horrible to read. I wonder if you could just read the last paragraph.
MCEVERS: And this is, you know, Dr. David Nott describing to you what was happening in that.
TAUB: Yeah, and in fact he has this on video. But after these five siblings came into the ward and they had really truly horrific injuries, the stuff of nightmares. So this boy came into the ward, you know, in loosely-connected pieces. He had no pelvis, and he was still alive. He was looking around the room silently, unable to make a noise. So (reading) the boy was dying. There was no treatment. He had lost too much blood, and his lungs had filled with concrete particles. Nott held his hand for four agonizing minutes. All you can do is just comfort them, he told me. I asked him what that entailed since the hospital had exhausted its supply of morphine. He began to cry and said all you can hope is that they die quickly.
MCEVERS: Dr. Nott, it's - I'm sorry. OK. Let's take a minute.
TAUB: Yeah. The Syrians that are still there - David hasn't - David Nott hasn't been back for more than a year and a half. He was - you know, he had a close call with abduction on his last...
TAUB: ...His last visit. But the Syrians that are still working there - there's one in particular that he checks in with routinely, a young medical student who was in his fourth year of his residency in plastic surgery when the revolution began. And he can't continue his qualifications. He's just been dealing with trauma injuries ever since. I talked to this guy, his name is Abu Waseem. I talked to him last week and it was so hard because, you know, he - last week, in this month alone, four hospitals have been bombed in Aleppo.
And every time I had to call back and check with Abu Waseem to make sure that he was still alive because we weren't done fact-checking the piece.
MCEVERS: Oh God.
TAUB: And (crying).
MCEVERS: Take your time.
TAUB: ...And on the most recent one, he was fine. And in fact, all of the other doctors were also fine in the facility, even though it was completely destroyed. I asked - he doesn't leave. He could leave Aleppo, and he could go to Turkey. But it would be permanent because he doesn't have a passport. He has to get smuggled out. But he hasn't done that, and he's not going to.
There have been 700 medical personnel killed in Syria. And his friends keep dying around him. And I asked him, why don't you leave? Why are you staying? And he just replied, it's my duty. He knows - you know, he deals with hundreds of cases every month that are continuing to be the worst kinds of injuries, and he sees it as his duty to treat as many of them as he can before he gets killed.
MCEVERS: Ben Taub, thank you very much for being with us today and for your work.
TAUB: Thank you.
MCEVERS: Reporter Ben Taub of The New Yorker. His report in this week's magazine is called "The Shadow Doctors."
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.