Over the past five years in Syria, attacks on health care infrastructure and personnel have been a stark part of the civil war. PHR (Physicians for Human Rights) has documented 373 attacks on 265 medical facilities, as well as the deaths of 750 medical personnel. Aleppo has been one of the hardest hit regions with hundreds of attacks on its medical facilities since 2012.
The Story of Aleppo
Once upon a time there was a city, which had stood for more than five thousand years. Aleppo was Syria’s largest, with a population of about 2.3 million. The old city was a Unesco World Heritage site, famous for its 13th Century citadel, 12th Century Great Mosque and souks. Its modern population was made up mainly of Sunni Muslims, some of whom are Kurds and Turkomans. It also has the largest population of Christians in Syria, including many Armenians, as well as Shia and Alawite communities.
Aleppo became a battleground in July 2012 when rebel fighters launched an offensive to gain control of northern Syria. The city ended up divided with the opposition controlling the east, and the government the west. At the start of 2016, eastern Aleppo was still linked to the border with Turkey via rebel-held territory, and supplies could get through. That supply route is long since gone. In July UN deliveries of food and medicine to eastern Aleppo stopped. About 275,000 people found themselves under siege.
By September 2016 things had really turned nasty, as the people of East Aleppo were subjected, by Russia and Assad’s forces, to an aerial bombardment of unprecedented scale and intensity. It’s estimated that around half the casualties were children. This bombardment appeared indiscriminate, and included bunker-busting, incendiary and cluster munitions, and chemical weapons. Not too indiscriminate, though, to target hospitals and first responders. One of the hospitals destroyed was the last remaining children’s hospital, bombed whilst treating the victims of a chlorine gas attack. Despite the attacks medics are managing to regroup, to keep working, operating by the light of cellphones, using rudimentary equipment.
Hundreds of thousands have evacuated, but occasional offers of amnesty-surrender have failed. Neither side trusts the other, and the rebels are not ready to give up. The UN Envoy accused them of holding the civilian population hostage, but the civilian population also fear Assad.
Since mid November the government has been pushing into the rebel controlled areas. Desperate tweets and social media messages show a population besieged and starving, with nowhere safe to go, asking the world to stand with Aleppo. Infrastructure failed long ago, there is no power, there are no properly functioning medical facilities, and food and fuel are running out. A Radio four programme in mid-November nevertheless featured students still attending lectures at the University, and a brave lecturer telling the world that they had to carry on as one day they would need to rebuild.
Such battles for territory and power show no pity for the lives of those who are the city, who are its pulse and its lifeblood, those without whom the city could not be. So called ordinary people, who are not ordinary at all, have no part to play in the great board games of power. Their voices, heard by other equally unordinary people, stop no bombs. Whilst the liberal and humanitarian ears of the world listen, spread the word and shout impotently, the war machine is deaf to their pleas.
The propaganda war is huge. Both sides post material online that may or may not be true. Civilians tweet their fears and thoughts in real time, expressing fear of what the advancing Syrian and Russian forces will do to them, reminding us of the cruelty and barbarism of Assad’s regime. Others tweet tales of Russia saving the day, showing images of charming soldiers carrying children. The longstanding blog of a child from Eastern Aleppo attracted huge attention, her plight and clear thoughts painting the personal picture that draws the frustrations of the world at the pointlessness of all this. A significant part of online chat then suggested she was not real despite her appearance with her mother on BBC camera footage – or that if she was real, the blog was nevertheless propaganda. People argue online about this, as if its importance registers, compared to the story of siege, desperation, fear and distress it merely highlights.
The UN, meanwhile, an organisation founded on cooperation and mutually shared goals and aspirations, has had at best limited influence in a situation in which those mutually shared goals have been massively overshadowed by the brutal determination to dominate, suppress, and win that appears to characterise all sides.
What can we do for Aleppo now?
Support the aid agencies trying to take in relief.
Support the human rights organisations trying to record and influence what’s happening.
Most of all support Syrian NGOs leading delivery of aid and medical support inside Syria:
IDA is an independent humanitarian organisation working for health and social well-being in Northern Syria. It coordinates health work with other humanitarian and medical bodies, and it detects violations of human rights and advocates for an increased protection of medical professionals and facilities .
Visit their website. Support them. They are trying to help the people that matter. The not so ordinary ones. http://ida-org.com/