Of all the public institutions destroyed in Syria’s ongoing conflict — public schools, libraries, public transportation, parks, universities, museums, and the rest of it — the most destruction has been inflicted on public hospitals.
Public hospitals in Syria, but most particularly in that tormented city we call Aleppo, are now unsafe places where patients go not to heal but to die. They die in their beds from a barrel bomb dropped on their heads. They die from ill-equipped medical facilities. They die from improvised unhygienic conditions that often kill more people than combat does. Aleppo today epitomizes all that.
Last Thursday, the city’s last remaining doctors — all 15 of them, serving 300,000 people still living under siege in the rebel-controlled eastern part of the demolished metropolis — sent a letter to President Obama urging him to please, in the name of mercy, create a lifeline to bring in urgently needed medical supplies.
“We have seen no effort by the United States to lift the siege or even to use its influence to push the parties to protect civilians,” the letter said. Though earlier this week rebels appeared to have broken the siege imposed on the eastern part of Aleppo, held by them since 2012, they remain unable, because of relentless Russian airpower, to open supply routes.
More than 6,000 people have reportedly been killed or injured in the last 80 consecutive days of fighting!
“What pains us as doctors,” the letter to the American president continued plaintively, “is choosing who will live and who will die … young children are sometimes brought into our emergency rooms so badly injured that we have to prioritize those with better chances, or simply do not have the equipment to help them.” But despite these horrors, the doctors added: “We choose to be here, we took a pledge to help those in need.”
A White House official, acknowledging receipt of the letter, told reporters blandly, and perhaps a touch irrelevantly: “The US has repeatedly condemned indiscriminate bombing of medical facilities by the Assad regime in Aleppo and elsewhere in Syria. These attacks are appalling and must cease.”
Really? These attacks will not, sadly, cease by themselves. Someone must forcefully make them cease, by force of reason or by force of arms.
By the middle of the week, a 3-hour cease-fire to guarantee safety for humanitarian columns moving to the city was declared. That is laughable — if laughable is the appropriate term here — for clearly three hours are not anywhere near enough to deliver supplies to tens of thousands of people without electricity and with little water to sustain them through the scorching August heat. The UN wants a “fully-pledged cease-fire, or weekly 48-hour humanitarian pauses as a minimum.” But who is listening or paying heed?
The horrific part of all this is the impact all this having on children, as the 15 brave doctors’ letter to the White House seemed to imply. As we have learned over the last five years, since the conflict in Syria erupted, war exposes children to a host of risks, some of them unimaginably cruel. The most obvious ones include the risk of orphanage, displacement and separation from family (a child without adult care is helpless in the world).
There comes a time, in this kind of asymmetric war waged in Syria — rebels with relatively light weapons pummeled by fighter jets, barrel bombs, heavy artillery and chlorine gas attacks — when we, sitting in the comfort of our living rooms in a safe city, a safe country, somewhere, cease, after five years of reading about it almost daily, to evince revulsion and register shock. And what’s been happening in Syria since that time is beyond all rational understanding.
Extrapolating from one act of violence in the US recently, Nickolas Kristoff wrote in his column in the New York Times last Thursday: “A crazed gunman’s attack on an Orlando club in June killing 49 people, resulted in blanket news coverage and national trauma. Now imagine such a massacre unfolds more than five times a day, seven days a week, unceasingly for five years, totaling perhaps 470,000 deaths. That is Syria.”
When the powerful wage war, it’s the helpless who die, and at the end of it all, that war will not determine who was right, but who and what is left. In Syria, it will not be too many and not too much.