The indescribable hell that is Aleppo is becoming a memory which will never fade for some. 6 weeks of relentless barrel bombs devastated the east of the city. These bombs were mixed with chlorine forcing children out of cellars into the open where they were shredded by mortars and artillery fire. We will probably never know the full human cost.
The eminent war surgeon Dr David Nott, along with myself and the team at Doctors Under Fire have been negotiating for the last 4 weeks to get a group of 500 children out of Aleppo. We spoke to Russian diplomats pleading for their safe passage. David spoke to Russian Ambassadors and even rang Assad’s office over 100 times to get safe passage. We spoke to MPs and Ministers in the British Parliament to use their very considerable diplomacy skills to enable the ceasefire.
Eventually two weeks ago the much-publicised ceasefire began and our sister charity UOSSM loaded the children into buses and ambulances and took them through the cross over point at Kan al Assal and into Idlib Province. From there they travelled the 20 kms to the UOSSM main hospital at Bab Al Hawa near the Syrian border about 10kms from the Turkish crossing point at Ryhanli.
These first evacuees included the 500 children and also 47 orphans who had pleaded via the media to be rescued. Their faces, in the main were gaunt, haunted with the 1,000 yard stare of those who have seen too much. The head psychiatrist at UOSSM recently told me that 75% of children in Syria have PTSD and in 50% of cases it manifests itself in them being incontinent.
The evacuations then stopped until Monday leaving thousands to sleep outside in freezing temperatures and snow. Heartbreakingly, 4 babies succumbed to the temperatures and died in the night.
Many hundreds of injured civilians have now reached Bab Al Hawa hospital. Most are in a shocking state, malnourished, anemic, some with horrendous blast injuries. But our doctors are getting to work and patching them up as best they can. Many thousands of civilians have also been evacuated, and are being taken to refugee camps near the Syrian border or to Idlib city.
The international community has hitherto failed these people and the children in particular. We must press to extend the ceasefire and create safe havens in NW Syria for those who have survived the Armageddon which has been Aleppo this winter and the other towns now under attack.
Notwithstanding this depressing narrative, there are a glimmers of hope, with the UN monitors now on the ground in Aleppo, to hopefully stop the atrocities which have undoubtedly happening there, and also now 500 children who for 14 nights have slept without the fear of never seeing the next dawn, and with their bellies full for the first time in many months.
Britain with its massive humanitarian budget and skill in this area, should now get more involved.
Hamish de Bretton-Gordon
Director Doctors Under Fire